SXSW 2011 Review: SUPER
Frank D’Arbo is not just a “regular guy,” he’s a class-A schlub who has only known two perfect moments in his entire life. One moment was the day he married Sarah, the other was the time he helped (in the loosest sense of the word possible) a cop capture a robber. Even with the love of Sarah (Liv Tyler), Frank (Rainn Wilson) knows his life is a failure, which is why he clings to those two moments with dear life. It’s also why, when recovering addict Sarah leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Frank turns to the non-Sarah moment as ballast and support. Frank will fight crime. Frank will win back the girl.
Did I mention Frank is a “regular guy”? When he decides to take up the mantle of “The Crimson Bolt,” it’s because he’s been touched by the finger of God, convinced by his vision that he’s meant for greatness. The trajectory of Frank’s transformation is fast and furious – in no time at all, he’s got a suit, he’s got a name, and he’s got a weapon. Now, he just needs to find some crime to fight while waiting for the perfect moment to win (or kidnap) Sarah back. The film will undoubtedly draw comparisons to KICK-ASS, so many comparisons, to be sure, that the line “will undoubtedly draw comparisons to KICK-ASS” will also undoubtedly appear in just about every SUPER review written. Fair enough. But SUPER is not KICK-ASS, because it’s devoid of even the slightest touch of happiness that might have endeared viewers to KICK-ASS. In fact, SUPER is one of the most joyless films ever conceived of in its wide genre.
The problem with the particular subgenre of superhero films is that it all but guarantees horrific violence and terrible consequences – regular people are not kicked into superhero duty and all that it entails by something good happening to them, these things are born of violence and hate and misunderstanding. It is a nearly impossible cycle to break. SUPER is much darker and grimmer than it’s been marketed to be. Though the first few spats of violence in the film are passably funny, hinting that maybe writer and director James Gunn is going to give us giggles through gratuitous gore, the film almost immediately steamrolls right over any possibility of humor as the Crimson Bolt gets down to business. If Gunn wants his audience to feel as if they too have been cracked over the skull with a crescent wrench, he’s certainly done that well. Like any proper concussion, SUPER made me feel nauseous, dizzy, and confused. I pray for a similarly-induced amnesia to help me forget a film that left me, in the shortest amount of words, deeply unhappy.
Frank goes on to forms a shaky alliance with Libby (Ellen Page), neighborhood comic book store employee, who may also be the only person unhinged enough to take on such a role with nothing short of glee. It’s clear from their first meeting that Libby has taken a shine to Frank, and her giddy puppy act is overshadowed by her wholly inappropriate crush and what it’s about to make her do. Strangely enough, though, despite the undercurrent of bad romance that could make the film even more suffocatingly uncomfortable, some of the best moments in all of SUPER happen when Wilson and Page interact with and riff on each other. As self-appointed kid sidekick Boltie, Page is nothing less than deranged, delusional, and demented. She’s fascinating to observe, even as she turns psychotic in her personally appropriated quest.
But though this may all sound fun and entertaining, SUPER is frequently almost impossible to watch. Deeply dark, unnervingly violent, and patently unsatisfying, SUPER is feel-bad cinema at its lowest points. Frank is a broken man who, in trying to fight crime and evil, becomes just as bad and irrational than those he’s battling. There is no reason here, and the film become increasingly unsettling by the minute, an emotional endurance challenge.
But what renders SUPER most impossible to stomach is its weak (to the point of being downright despicable) attempt to end it all on a happy note. For a film that is, love it or hate it, extremely bold, the ending lacks any sort of punch, devoid of both the brains and brawn that have eluded Frank for so long. It’s the cheapest of the cheap – a pre-packaged “feel-good” finale for a film that has felt nothing but bad for its preceding runtime. A more organic and honest ending would have at least rendered SUPER respectable, but going gutless in its final five minutes seals its fate – not super, not heroic, simply sad.