***originally written 3 August 2011***
I wanted to see Super at the cinema. I read about it in last month’s Empire, it sounded good, I made a point of looking out for it. Then it turned up on DVD *immediately* with, it seems, no cinema release to speak of. So I have to break my usual reviewing rules a little and go with my experience of the film on the small screen.
The premise, then, is that Rainn Wilson plays pitiable sad-sack Frank, whose straight-edge wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) goes off the rails into the arms of small-time drug player Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank, who already we worry might not be holding a full deck here, decides to take matters into his own hands, eschewing responsibility by believing he has been chosen by God to fight crime in an ill-fitting costume that makes him look like a deranged Mexican wrestler. …okay, a more-deranged Mexican wrestler. Along the way he acquires an enthusiastic sidekick, Libby (Ellen Page), who quickly turns out to be more of a liability than an asset.
So far so Kick-Ass, right? It’s going to be tough to explain why the two films are so different, but they are. Super is an indie everyman-superhero movie of a very different stripe. At first I thought perhaps the jokes weren’t landing, that the first half hour was too soft, too half-hearted. False-sense of security. As the film continues it plunges quite brutally into a realm of dark, nihilistic comedy. Kick-Ass headed in the other direction, abandoning the indie-charm of it’s beginning for the less interesting tropes of standard comic-book movie fare. Super goes for the jugular. It’s a braver, more complex movie, if not a crowd-pleaser. I’m sure most will want to stick with Kick-Ass. It’s an easier watch.
Because the characters here aren’t underdogs to cheer for; Frank and Libby have serious emotional problems. Hitting people in the face with a wrench whilst in disguise is not cool, but then Super has no interest in being cool. In fact, it’s difficult to figure out what it is Super does want to convey, except possibly unease. If this is a trait you like in your comedies then there is much to enjoy here, if not then you may wonder where the jokes are at all. Hitting people in the face with a wrench might not be cool, but it can be funny, even if it’s the nervous laughter that comes with shock. The violence in Super plays out, for the most part, quickly, matter-of-factly, harshly. And the characters seem disinterested by its effects. This could all very easily be read as a sad, perhaps even tactless film about mental illness.
Wilson and Page are fantastic though. Wilson, whom I remember most vividly as Arthur in Six Feet Under, convinces from the get-go as Frank; frustrated, sad, angry at the world for his lot in life. Page at first worries; is she playing too whacky? But what is at first mistook for over-acting is soon revealed as simple mania. Libby is a dangerous person, especially in her costumed seduction techniques. Together they are like drug addicts fixing off of each other, tipping into the world of the unwell.
Inevitably it all leads to a final set-piece as Frank (a.k.a. Crimson Bolt) and Libby (a.ka. Boltie) storm Jacques’ expensive home as a drug deal goes bad. This set-up begins feeling disappointingly formulaic, cliché and mundane. Ultimately however the film throws in a couple of plot-turns jarring enough to make the conclusion genuinely remarkable, if not exactly what the viewer was rooting for. Super is almost too doggedly determined to undermine viewer expectations, wrapping up with a coda that works, but leaves a strange sense of disappointment. You know what you wanted to happen, but this movie has no interest in giving it to you. All you get is that mild sense of unease. And, if you’re anything like me, more than a little respect.