Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): ****
In last year's Kick-Ass, an ordinary comic book nerd dons a costume and becomes a superhero. Despite his lack of superpowers, he eventually finds himself on a super adventure, with a big, spectacular showdown. James Gunn's Super starts out much the same way, except that this hero (played by Rainn Wilson) doesn't know much about comic books and he's a little less of a role model. In fact, comparisons to Travis Bickle are appropriate.
Frank D'Arbo (Wilson) is the ultimate in schlubby. His clothes and hair are schlubby, he lives in a schlubby town (actually Shreveport, Louisiana), and works as a cook in a schlubby little diner. He has somehow lucked into a beautiful wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), though she is on the verge of leaving him; she's a recovering addict and is falling off the wagon. When she finally does, it's for a slick, sleazy club owner/drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank feels a terrible sense of injustice; he wants to get his wife back, but he also wants to rescue her from that bad influence.
A first attempt to do something fails miserably, but Frank receives a sign from above and begins researching superheroes at the local comic book shop. A friendly clerk, Libby (Ellen Page), helps him. He embarks upon his new career as "The Crimson Bolt", and we get the funny, nervous crimefighter's public debut in which some crime must actually be located. Eventually Libby also dons a costume and becomes Frank's sidekick "Boltie".
Super tackles many themes. When in costume, and despite his lack of powers, Frank eventually comes to be decisive and commanding; there's something here about the power of masks, wiping the slate clean and giving someone an entirely new identity. Boltie, likewise, begins to show a very raw, violent, carnal edge. She begins to delight in beating up bad guys and gives in to an irresistible urge to have sex with Frank while they're both in costume. (When she tries on her suit, she strokes her curves and limbs as if she had never noticed them before.)
The movie even dives into religion and spirituality, with images of Frank being "touched by the finger of God," and by a TV show starring Nathan Fillion as "The Holy Avenger", a do-gooder that serves the will of God by defeating bad guys. These images are as fascinatingly mixed-up as Frank is.
Frank's exploits begin as seemingly innocent and heroic, but they eventually turn violent as the heroes collect more and bigger weapons, wreaking more and more destruction with no consequences. The violence here is deliberately sour and brutal, and when Frank himself takes a bullet, he must hide out and limp around for several days before springing back into action. But I think the thing I like best about Super is that Frank's ultimate battle is with himself. No matter how many comic books you've read, you won't be able to guess how this battle ends.
All this is a way of saying that Super digs under the superhero myth more than many other movies. The motivations of superheroes are not exactly pure. Batman, for example, became Batman out of an almost psychotic need for revenge. In donning his costume, Frank finds his strength and his manhood, but he also finds an outlet for some of his most repressed, demented violent tendencies. And Libby demonstrates the sexualized nature of a superhero costume, tights that show off muscles and curves.
Super is a disturbing, amazing experience; it's almost as if the movie itself were an ordinary movie freed from moral conventions by wearing a mask. And in doing so, finds its true self.
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