Death and a Red Mask
As I have mentioned before, this seems to be a landmark year for the superhero movie – not necessarily because they are coming out in record numbers (although this year has already seen the release of The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern, with Captain America still to appear) but because they're now such a part of the cultural landscape that their makers seem more willing to experiment, in terms of both tone and setting.
All of the foregoing, however, are quite big studio pictures aimed fairly and squarely at a mainstream audience. Boldly going where virtually no superhero film has gone before (note the qualifier; we shall return to this) is James Gunn's Super, which is surely the stuff that cults are made of.
Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a rather nondescript short-order cook who has not had the happiest of lives. What happy memories he has revolve around his being a law-abiding citizen and his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). However, Sarah's own personal problems result in her leaving him for the clutches of slimy local gangster Jacques (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Utterly distraught and bereft, Frank is at a complete loss, and...
Well, here the movie gives you a choice of options. Either, a) God appears to Frank in a vision, embodied by Christian network figurehead the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion, as his fans have never seen him before), and tells him he's been chosen to be an evil-battling superhero, or, b) Frank has a mental breakdown and imagines that God appears to him in a vision, etc etc.
Needless to say, Frank is a singularly inept and rubbish superhero. He has a rubbish costume (spandex not favouring his fuller figure). He has a rubbish gimmick (his signature move is to whack people about the head with a pipe wrench). He has a rubbish battlecry ('Shut up, crime!'). Even his kid sidekick, when he eventually acquires one, is rubbish: she is the girl from the local comic-book shop (played by Ellen Page), who is strong on enthusiasm but even shorter on sanity than Frank himself. Nevertheless, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie begin to make a name for themselves as crime-fighters, and their ultimate showdown with Jacques and his thugs draws closer...
I only really know James Gunn from his comedy-horror movie Slither (which I enjoyed very much when not actually fighting the urge to gag), and in many ways Super is clearly the work of the same creator. There are the same deft shifts in tone between absurd comedy, splatter, and genuine emotion, and the same strong content. This is a very graphic movie in nearly every department. Calling it extreme isn't quite enough – then again, calling it extremely extreme just sounds stupid. Suffice to say there is a scene where someone sees a vision in a pool of vomit, and this is not the most twisted moment in the movie by a long way.
Most of the publicity material I've seen for Super describes it as an out-and-out comedy, which I think does the film a disservice. If you turn up expecting wall-to-wall laughs, as I did, you'll probably be very disappointed. The film isn't afraid to explore the emotions of the main characters in some detail and with great sympathy, and Wilson gives a terrifically well-rounded performance as a man who suspects he's gone off the deep end but doesn't know how to stop himself. It's probably a coincidence that of the other main players, Page and Bacon have both been in X-Men movies and Liv Tyler was in one of the Hulks: the film itself never winks to the audience.
The obvious comparison to make here would be with Kick-Ass, but, readers, I have a confession to make: haven't seen it. On its own terms Super is very accomplished, and manages something of some significance within the genre. Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novel made the point very strongly that any real-life superhero would not be cool. Anyone driven to dress up in that sort of outfit and beat up small-time crooks must obviously have profound mental problems. Even those movies which have addressed this point (including the Watchmen movie itself, along with The Dark Knight) have still implicitly gone on to imply '...but they're still cool, though, right?' In Super, the Crimson Bolt is sometimes a clown and sometimes an alarming psycho, but he never approaches coolness.
I laughed a lot during Super, but I also found myself genuinely caring about the main characters even during their most psychotic moments. I suppose it could be argued that at the very end the film slides into out-and-out sentimentality, but by this point I was prepared to cut it some slack. Gunn's movie contains some very strong stuff, but on the whole it's very good stuff too.