The past few years have seen an influx of the “every day man turned superhero” picture. This wasn’t even a genre, or sub-genre, prior to recent times. Call it post 9/11 heroic fantasy (as some have) or perhaps it is merely a response to the abundance of legitimate super hero films hitting multiplexes on a seemingly monthly basis ever since SPIDER-MAN made bank. Regardless of the reason, these films seem here to stay and, for the most part, offer a refreshingly dark alternative to the CG enhanced, spectacle laden comic-book adaptations typically playing at your local theater.
SUPER plays out much like similar films that have come before it – KICK-ASS, DEFENDOR, SPECIAL – yet it is something rather different than all of those. This is not as excitingly chaotic as KICK-ASS, as silly as DEFENDOR or as pedestrian as SPECIAL. Actually, aside from the concept at large, this film really has nothing in common with the others. This isn’t an action movie and calling it a comedy would be selling it short and falsely advertising it as well. SUPER is dark. It is a drama, for lack of a better classification, and it is surprisingly uncompromising. Don’t let the innocent looking poster fool you, this is rough material and James Gunn wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yes, as you may have surmised (or known, previously), this is a James Gunn film. Also known as the man who brought you SLITHER and penned some Troma scripts as well as the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. SLITHER was proof that Gunn has what it takes to be behind the camera and his script for TROMEO AND JULIET showed what a sick fuck he truly is. This film takes both his directing abilities and his warped sense of humor and runs wild with them. I said before that this is not a comedy but what I meant is that this is not a “traditional” comedy. This is a comedy for people who find Todd Solondz films to be hilarious. Basically, if the idea of seeing a woman being beaten on the head with a wrench makes you laugh, than look no further, SUPER is the movie for you.
SUPER essentially operates as a character study. An increasingly dark one, at that. You can immediately think TAXI DRIVER (and you wouldn’t be far off) but I would personally compare this to the more recent, and sadly underseen, BIG FAN (which you really should see if you have not). The lead here is played by Rainn Wilson, who is known primarily for comedy work, and his casting here is perfect. I honestly cannot picture anyone else pulling this off. Wilson is able to come off as sympathetic while evoking disgust. This character’s actions are not pleasant to witness and Wilson seems to revel in carrying them out. As much as Gunn deserves credit for his script and for keeping the tone of this resoundingly dark, none of this would matter without Wilson’s performance which would be career making if it had the possibility of actually being seen by most of the movie-going public.
As much as I want to and, to an extent, do admire Gunn’s film, it has its problems. As dark as the film is, there are times where it crosses the line a bit too much. I’m not talking in objectionable content or something as obvious as that (though it does have plenty of that), but rather in how hard he tries to force emotion upon the viewer. Towards the end, Gunn’s intentions seem obvious and forced. Perhaps this is due to the length of the film (which is short at close to 90 minutes) considering many have stated that it would have worked better as a short film rather than a feature. Rather, I don’t think it has problems as a feature, but in how safe Gunn plays it in the last act. The first two thirds of this film are golden. This all somehow, and rather unfortunately, unravels in the final act. Gone are the inspired touches of dark humor and Wilson’s sympathy evoking performance. Instead, we are given a message. What that message is, I’ll leave to the viewer(s) to decide, but it has all the subtlety of a Michael Bay filmed camera tilt up a super model’s dress.
SUPER has the makings of a great film. Not just a great genre film, but a piece of inspired, unique cinema. Gunn almost achieves this but falls under the weight of his material and, perhaps, his own ideals. This is rather unfortunate as the quality material far outweighs the mediocre but it leaves the viewer wondering what could have been and I’m sure the answer is something better than what we currently have.