Joshua Reviews James Gunn’s Super [SXSW 2011 Review]

While the superhero film genre itself has now become one of the most prevalent genres in modern filmmaking, the films deconstructing this very film model have also begun to grow in numbers.

After becoming something of a polarizing hit amongst the public, Kick-Ass joined films like Defendor as a take on the superhero film and its tropes, and subverted them.   Well, taking the stage just a year after Matthew Vaughn’s film, director James Gunn is back with his send-up of the comic book movie, Super.

Following a similar structure as the aforementioned set of films, Super follows Frank, a schmuck of a fry cook, who loses his lovely yet troubled wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler) to a drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon).   However, not going down without a fight, Frank finds his true calling in the form of a new identity, that of the superhero, The Crimson Bolt.   Armed with a wrench and other various forms of weapons, he seeks revenge on the man who took the one thing he truly had in this world.

And goes on one hell of a fun ride while doing it.

Best known for the cult horror/comedy Slither and his work as a writer on films like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, Gunn is back in full force here, giving us not only a viscerally charged and thematically interesting ride, but one that’s also quite visually striking.   Shot on the RED One, Super is a really gorgeous, and absolutely brutal film, that thrives on the handheld direction of Gunn and his crew.   The use of handheld really suites this film, setting itself apart from a lot of its counterparts within the genre.   Not a film to go off the wall into shaky cam, Bourne Ultimatum style direction, there is definitely a grittier feel to the film, and yet one that when joined with the great and stylish effects, really gives the superhero film genre a bit of a face lift.

It also helps when you work with as great a cast as Gunn has collected here.

Rainn Wilson stars here as Frank, and fits this role perfectly.   He is not only absolutely convincing as the character of Frank, but when he dons the costume, Wilson is just the right amount of crazy, and also physically imposing, that makes his character’s switch wholly realistic within this world created.   Ellen Page is also great here, playing the nihilistic Libby, and is just the perfect dash of sweet, and absolutely crazy, that makes this a nice change of pace for the actress.   Liv Tyler is absolutely wasted here as nothing more than a pawn for the narrative, and is really poorly used within the film’s story.   Kevin Bacon is definitely a blast to watch ham it up on screen, as is one Nathan Fillion, who absolutely steals the show as an evangelical, Bible Man like superhero, who inspires our lead.

Thematically, the film deals with quite a bit.   At its core a narrative about morality and the lack there of in a lot of our pop culture, the film is also a really well toned story about man’s infatuation with that very world of pop culture.   Ultimately culminating in an ending that beats this point home rather bluntly, the film may not ultimately pay off that well on these themes, but it left this writer a buzz after the screening.   Getting tagged as nothing more than a nihilistic pile of cartoonish sexism, the film has a distinctly dark mood and pitch black atmosphere, but it’s not without its fair share of intellectual heft.

Overall, the film’s primary flaw comes in its wholly cliché and completely uninteresting ending.   Unraveling any and all themes and ideas that were set up prior, the ending is far too on the nose, and craves for an emotional heart that it absolutely does not earn during its previous 90 or so minutes.   Shockingly dull for such a cartoonishly violent and brooding film, the ending absolutely lays flat on screen, and fails to pay off on both the narrative, as well as the overall tone of the film.

As a whole, Super is a wonderfully sadistic take on the modern day superhero, that fails to stick its landing.   Featuring a cavalcade of hilarious performances, Super is a brutally visceral piece of filmmaking from director James Gunn, with more than enough to say.   Definitely not for everyone, Super is a wild ride down a darkly comedic path for those who really give it the chance. An IFC release, don’t expect this one to join the Criterion Collection, but then again, it would be a perfect addition.  A commentary on a genre and now seemingly an entire era of filmmaking, this would be a perfect addition to the collection. Here’s to hoping.