Rob Dean examines the overlooked, unappreciated or unfairly maligned movies. Sometimes these films haven't been seen by anyone, and sometimes they've been seen by everyone - who loathed them. This is Missing Reels.
Sometimes it's easiest to tell the most personal stories - the ones that really lay bare your feelings - by disguising it behind something truly bizarre. If something is seen as weird or ridiculous, then it's easy to dismiss and thus easy for the storyteller to not be hurt by the criticisms. By dressing an intimate truth in the costume of the outrageous, it offers some shelter to the fragile psyche of the creator. After all, critics will go after the garish or surreal before addressing anything deeper or more profound in a work. It's easier, for critics, to deal with the superficial and the shallow, to tackle the obvious and overt, than it is to peer deeper into a work. To be fair to critics, deeper readings of films usually reveal a lack of depth and not a hidden profundity. Sometimes a tentacle is just a tentacle, or a headshot is just a headshot.
And so the time honored tradition of Trojan Horsing other layers in populist work. Take whatever is popular in mainstream entertainment and hit all the same notes, adhere to the formulas, while subtly slipping in breadcrumbs of your ulterior motive. Sometimes this technique is used for political purposes, other times it's a deconstruction of the entire genre. But, occasionally, it's a way for the artist to reveal something that would leave him ultimately vulnerable, except that it's done in a way that's easy to disavow. "I'm just telling a story of a guy fighting a three-headed alien - I don't see where you get all this 'father issue' stuff!"
Today's film, Super, told a very universal story with immensely personal elements all wrapped up in a genre fare that could be dismissed by naysayers as ultraviolent or "just another superhero flick." Super is a fun flick that has some great scenes of action, lots of WTF moments and great comedy. But, as I was watching it, I couldn't help but sense that something else was going on - there was another layer to this whole story that seemed to be occurring just beneath the surface. The movie ended and I took to the interwebs and found Devin Faraci's excellent review. It was well written and the only one that I could see that openly dealt with what I thought this movie was about: dealing with a devastating break-up.
Super tells the story of Frank D'Arbo, short order cook for a diner, who one day comes home to find his wife gone. She's packed up and run away with local sleazeball Jock, and this has left Frank in a bit of an existential no man's land. The cops are of no help, since no crime has been committed. Sarah is uninterested, unwilling or incapable of returning his calls or even talking to him. He prays, begging for some guidance - which he receives when God touches his mind. This leads to Frank dressing up in a homemade superhero outfit and fighting crime as "The Crimson Bolt" with his signature weapon - a big ass wrench. He is soon joined by the young dork maiden from the local comic book shoppe and the pair take on the criminal element. Lessons are learned, tears are shed, laughs are had. Roll credits.
Obviously, there's more to it than that but those are the broad strokes. Super is part of that second wave of superhero genre movies - along with Kick-Ass, Defendor and a few others - that deconstruct the formula while adhering to it. Which means we get the scene where someone says "why doesn't someone just do this in real life?" This scene needs to never happen again. Firstly, it's almost literally said word for word in all of these films and secondly, it has happened in real life. But again, as much as it is about superheroes, Super is really more about relationships.
Between his last film (the amazingly awesome Slither) and this one, writer/director James Gunn got divorced from his wife of 8 years, Jenna Fischer. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm guessing the decision was more hers than his - based on her status, attractiveness and the fact that she got <2 years later and got preggers shortly thereafter. While I've never been married, and my longest relationship is only a fraction of those 8 years, I'm going to guess that this was a time of personal reflection, self-doubt, confusion and anger for Mr. Gunn. And whatever problems between Gunn and Fischer that may have risen and culminated in divorce, the fantasy that a third party - some nefarious outsider - caused it will always be enticing. Wouldn't life be great if it were as easy as beating that villain, conquering the evil forces that separated the lovers in the first place?
Frank (as played by The Office's Rainn Wilson) is a sad man who only has two good moments in his life. One where he feebly helped a cop find a fleeing criminal and the other when he married Sarah (Liv Tyler). Now that Sarah has moved out, and the cops have proved useless, he turns to God. Without spoiling too much, there's a high probability that Frank is either schizophrenic or actually in touch with God. The movie kind of has it both ways, but it works well enough that you don't mind the coincidental nature of Frank's...visions. In order to fight off the evil Jock (Kevin Bacon) and reclaim his wife, Frank must adorn a costume and wield a weapon. Once Jock is taken care off, Sarah will surely come back to him and love will blossom again.
So Frank throws himself into the work of being The Crimson Bolt, making a costume and fighting criminals. He occasionally makes mistakes and causes severe head trauma to someone cutting in line at a movie. When the local news and police label him as dangerous and a criminal, Frank doubts his calling and is prepared to throw it all away. Soon he's enlisting Libby (Ellen Page) as "Boltie," his kid sidekick (even though she's 22), and preparing to take on crime anew. Again, these are the actions of someone who has lost love - throwing yourself into a distraction (work, exercise, some hobby, becoming a civil war reenactor, etc.) and then finding yourself in a new, ultimately doomed and most likely fleeting relationship with another woman. Again, Gunn is using the Frank surrogate and the superhero origin formula to work out these same demons of sudden abandonment and the pure desire/wish fulfillment of being able to say "that guy. that's the guy responsible for our relationship ending. if he were gone, we'd be good."
Wilson does great work as Frank, being a combination of a bland, blank slate and a possibly psychotic lunatic. There's a real sense of loss, desperation, self-loathing and purity in Wilson's performance that elevates Frank beyond laughable sad sack or awkward nerd in a mask. In fact - all of the performances are pretty amazing in this movie. Ellen Page as Libby/Boltie is great - not just as a clever comic book nerd, but also as the all too eager Boltie that wants to dispense violence...and also maybe some justice. Kevin Bacon is really good as Jock, the likeable prick that's despicable while still being fairly agreeable. Nathan Fillion has a bit more than a cameo as a Christian superhero, but he makes the most out of it (as he is always wont to do). Gunn is able to get some really excellent performances from all of his actors who seem to straddle the line between over-the-top and incredibly natural. But that duality is the heart of the movie - the wish fulfillment of solving all of your problems with a wrench vs. the reality of being an uninteresting and flawed person.
Two other aspects of the film are worth noting: the soundtrack and the visuals. The soundtrack, with original score music by Tyler Bates, is really great. From the opening animation where all the characters are rendered in lo-fi cartoon form, running around, then singing along to "Calling All Destroyers" by Tsar like an Adult Swim version of Bollywood to the really excellent pieces of music in the violent and cathartic climax - Gunn and Bates have assembled an amazing soundtrack that adds a lot to the film.
The visuals are not the most flashy - this was a micro-budget film (as far as action movies go). A lot of it is reminiscent more of the stuff Gunn has done in his Troma days (bags of blood and bad prosthetics) than his Slither work, but all of it is interesting and a nice combination of utter joy and gory viscera. It's not just set the camera down and let stuff happen: the camera moves around, CGI and practical effects are intermingled, various angles are used to convey emotional states of characters. It's nice to see this much effort put into all aspects of the film, from acting to music to visuals, and it speaks to the fact that this was a passion project for so many and will to immediately endear itself to cult audiences for many years.
The film isn't perfect, I think the very last act/coda is a bit rushed and unearned, and there's a possible subplot that got completely excised. But the whole film succeeds because of the emotional honesty at the heart of its familiar sad story mixed with the escapist joy of headshots and explosions. There's tentacle hentai porn humor, Bubbles from The Wire, inventive kills and weaponry, mocking of Christian TV, Michael Rooker loving candy that culminates in a tangible exuberance that makes Super a cult classic that people will revisit for many years. Come for the fun, stay for the heart, wince for the tentacle porn.
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