Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sad, Funny, And Gory/Violent, Super Has A Lot Going For It!

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of character, Acting
The Bad: Plot is essentially Kick-Ass, Disturbing levels of gore.
The Basics: Super is surprisingly smart, amazingly well-acted and very funny when it is not bathing the viewer in violence and gore.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I got Peep World (reviewed here!) and before that movie began, we saw a preview that actually made us want to hunt down the advertised film. That film was Super. In many ways, Super looked like it would be a comedic version of Kick-Ass (reviewed here!), so I was thoroughly prepared to love it. After watching the film tonight, I am glad I did, though it had a somewhat erratic quality that made it difficult to recommend as enthusiastically as I might have hoped to.

There has been a disturbing trend in genre movies of late where violence and humor are combined. Before Super, the only film I had truly enjoyed that combined the two was Zombieland (reviewed here!). Tonight, I came to understand exactly why the blending of excessive violence with humor upsets me so much. With the pleasure centers of the brain open from laughter, the viewer is bombarded with violent or gory images. This causes the viewer to associate violence and/or gore with pleasure on some level and that is a trend that is beyond disturbing, it is outright sick.

This actually has special relevance to Super in that Ellen Page's character, Libby, begins to explicitly derive pleasure from causing pain and the line she crosses is never satisfactorily confronted in the film. Libby becomes something of a maniac and while it is easy to see the protagonist, Frank, loathe her actions, he does not effectively stop her rampage under the guise of virtue.

That said, viewers who are comic book readers and those who like dark, ambiguous stories are bound to love Super and it is easy to see why it is already drawing a cult following. I was actually surprised to discover there is not already a line of Super action figures.

Super follows Frank Darbo, who has two shining memories in his life: the day he married Sarah and the day he pointed out the direction a fleeing criminal went in to a pursuing cop. When Sarah, once again off the wagon, leaves Frank for Jacques, Frank becomes despondent and goes to the police. There he finds no recourse, so he prays. After receiving a vision from god, Frank visits the local comic book shop to learn about becoming a super hero. There he meets Libby, the clerk who seems to like the unassuming Frank.

Frank creates his costume and outfits himself with a pipe wrench and the catch phrase "Shut up crime!" Out on the streets, he begins violently assaulting those who rob, sell drugs and molest children. When he decides to take on Jacques and his goons, the Crimson Bolt finds himself outmatched and shot. With no other refuge, because his assailants know he is Frank, the Crimson Bolt takes refuge with Libby. Libby is thrilled to learn that Frank is the vigilante from the news and she joins forces with him as Boltie. After a disastrous training mission, the pair arm themselves and make an assault on Jacques' compound in the middle of a very dangerous drug deal.

Super has been criticized by some as "not knowing what it wants," but I found the film to be one of the pleasant rare ones that actually develops. As a result, it is heartwrenchingly sad, then laugh-out-loud funny. The humor turns dangerous, but the weight of the transformation is not lost on the characters involved. In other words, when Super gets dark and gritty, the characters seem to understand that the world they are in is troubling and dramatic. At that point, the jokes stop.

Frank Darbo is an exceptionally depressing and realistic character, mired as he is in a love that has no further use for him. He is agonizing to watch and his character's arc is an interesting one. Anyone who has been through a traumatic divorce will understand how Frank can cling to his hopeless love for Sarah even when she shows no compassion to him getting beaten up by a trio of goons.

Frank is played with amazing dramatic gravitas by Rainn Wilson. Wilson starts the movie with a sense of his character being lost that is unlike any role I have ever seen Wilson take before. In the middle, he is given the opportunity to deliver his trademark dry humor and wit. Those hoping to see a great Rainn Wilson comedic performance will get exactly what they hope for. But what those who have seen other works Wilson has been in might not expect is the dramatic force Wilson exhibits at the film's climax. The Crimson Bolt's final declaration could be cheesy if delivered improperly, but Wilson lands it with a spittle-flying vehemence that makes the character of Frank compelling and the Crimson Bolt seem like the coolest vigilante since Rorschach in Watchmen (reviewed here!). Wilson rocks in Super!

Ellen Page gives a decent supporting performance as Libby. I've seen plenty of films she has been in where terrible things happen to her characters, but in Super, Libby gleefully pummels a guy who may or may not have keyed her friend's car. Ellen Page lands it with Libby's maniacal laugh and her role is arguably the most disturbing of the film.

The homogeneously good acting continues from Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon. Tyler seems an unlikely choice to play Sarah in that it is hard to see the connection between her and Rainn Wilson, though the connection between Sarah and Frank is adequately explored. Kevin Bacon foreshadows his X-Men: First Class role as Jacques and he makes the character delightfully bastardly.

Writer and director James Gunn does a decent job with Super in that most of the special effects are actually special. Some of the direction, though, is a little questionable, notably the use of handheld cameras at some moments when static shots might have worked better. When Frank first becomes the Crimson Bolt and goes out to wait for crime to happen, the shaking camera seems more sloppy than stylish. Fortunately, that is the exception to the rule in Super.

In the end, Super lives up to its name, though it is a little more mellow than entertaining at some points. On DVD, it features a commentary track, deleted scene and three featurettes on aspects of production. It is enough to keep viewer's happy and entertained outside the primary programming.

For other works with Ellen Page, please visit my reviews of:
Whip It
X-Men III: The Last Stand


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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