This post contains open discussion of depression, and spoilers for Super.
“The rules were set a long time ago. They don’t change.”
When I was ten, a new student transferred into my school, and I made my first friend. In the second term, he beat me with a plastic tennis racket until I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know quite how long I laid in the shade of the portable classroom, the sound of the other children playing had long since blended into a peaceful, endless drone. When the bell rang, I dragged myself inside so I’d be present on the register, and told my teacher what happened.
“Don’t lie about your classmates,” she said. “If Jake had actually beat you with one of those, you wouldn’t be able to stand.”
A decade later, I sat in a small, grey office (are there any other kinds?), as a woman looked at me with an expression equal parts disappointed and confused. She’d just told me that I’d been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and wanted to know why I didn’t seem to have any kind of reaction.
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” I said. And she smiled.
I thought this would make me feel better in some way. When you grow up lonely, the only thought ever on your mind is “Why?” Why don’t people want to talk to me? Why do I feel so disconnected from those around me? Why did the one person I trusted beat me til I felt the taste blood in my throat, and why did that make him more popular? Now I had an answer in front of me, and it wasn’t enough. The question remained.
Super is a movie about asking why.
Frank D’Arbo is a loser. The film’s opening sees him recounting his only two “perfect moments” in a life filled with rejection, sadness and disappointment: his marriage to his wife Sarah, and the time he helped a police officer catch a criminal. But when his Sarah leaves him for drug dealer Jacques, he begins to break down, and after a desperate prayer (“let Sarah be my Sarah again”), he suffers a vision which convinces him that God has called upon him to fight evil and get Sarah back.
In this initial act, Super appears to be going through the motions of a standard condemnation of manchild entitlement, every character telling Frank to get over the break-up and move on, whilst he slides deeper and deeper into his delusions. But as the movie progresses, thanks to a deft script and a stunning performance from Rainn Wilson, it becomes clear that assessment is, whilst not entirely incorrect, more than a little surface level.
A flashback to Frank and Sarah’s early days shows how their relationship helped Sarah stay sober, and we realise Frank’s breakdown comes not fully from a place of societally reinforced possessiveness, but from someone trying to reconcile the very notion of good and evil within a world that is ambivalent to both. Frank has always been a good person, but that hasn’t made him any happier, and he’s spent his whole life asking why.
Until Sarah. She loved him wholly for his innate goodness, which led to an empty and doomed relationship, but finally validated Frank’s worldview. Sarah’s love was the one thing he could cling to as proof that life was fair, that goodness led to the “good things” that Frank says other people have. And when that illusion breaks, Frank comes face to face with the reality that being good is incapable of making him less alone.
Thus is born the Crimson Bolt, an icon of Frank’s crumbling worldview made real. As the Crimson Bolt, Frank violently assaults anyone who breaks the rules regardless of severity, from drug dealers to child molesters to people butting in line at the cinema. No longer is there room for nuance or understanding, for the concepts of good and evil are too clear cut to require it. Frank’s desperate need for the world to be fair is taken to its logical endpoint, and the results are horrific. Not just in their gruesome violence, but in their naked emotional roots in a bitter resentment that borders on nihilism. People have hurt Frank all of his life, and this is the closest he can get to punishing them.
Whereas a lesser film (-cough- Kick-Ass -cough-) would use the superhero subversion to say something as meaningful as “have you considered that the good person is actually bad,” Super’s aims are far more universal and poignant. Instead of being part indulgence of and part condemnation of the superhero as violent fantasy, its Superhero aspect is almost incidental, purely the metaphorical outlet through which to analyse this internal conflict.
In the end, Frank saves Sarah, murdering Jacques and his henchmen in a violent, nasty explosion of all this anger and bitterness. It’s unpleasant watching, all the more so because it’s framed earnestly, with no obvious layer of detached critique to make viewing more palatable. And if the movie ended here, I’d probably agree with its detractors that Super is harmful and indulgent.
But it doesn’t. Frank drives home from the ranch, cleans off the blood from his suit, and begins his final monologue. He seems calm as he explains how Sarah stayed for a while out of obligation, but eventually moved on regardless. He accepts he’s never been right for her, and as she moves on and has kids, is able to remain her friend and their “Uncle Frank.” All of the anger, all of the resentment, all of the bitterness has gone, and Frank is finally at peace with his place in the world, able to realise that he matters and always has. He sits smiling on his bed, and in the film’s final moments, we see he’s looking at a wall of drawings, from his co-worker’s wedding to being complimented at the tollbooth.
With this ending, Super turns from a nasty movie of anger and resentment into a beautiful expression of letting go of your pain. The ugly truth of Frank’s breakdown is revealed to him in all of its horrific glory, and he responds not by doubling down, but by moving on. He stops asking why, and in letting go of that question, in making peace with the fact there will never be an answer, is able to see the beauty in moments mundane and throwaway. The movie’s often vile tone revealed finally as the necessary painful build up to an overwhelming catharsis, and the most beautiful reward.
A thousand perfect moments.
I watched Super at one in the morning, Christmas Eve before last. At the time, I was home from University for a month, and the thought of going back made my whole body tense. My best days at uni were those where my flatmates all went out together, because those were the days where nobody would hear me crying. It was meant to be the place where I finally found a sense of belonging, but it turned out to be the place where I never felt more alone.
After the credits rolled, I sat there in tears for about twenty minutes, and started the film again. It’s hard to describe the profound effect the movie had on me, functioning entirely as a journey through my own pain, depression and isolation, and leading me somewhere where I could feel like I was going to be okay. I’ve always dived into movies to both escape and process my depressive breaks, but only very rarely do I find those special and personal enough to give me strength to carry on long after the final frame has faded away.
I’m still depressed. I’m still lonely. But with everything I do, I try to process the bitterness into something positive, helping others where I can, and being open and honest with my emotions no matter how scary that may be. In the year since, I’ve written about mental health more times than I care to count, I’ve left that university and re-applied to somewhere new, and moved back home to help my mother out with her desperate situation.
Super is one of the things that gave me the push to get there, to be okay with who I am, and by this time next year, I’ll be somewhere even better. I’m always going to be different, I’m always going to struggle slightly with fitting in, I’m never going to be ‘healed’ of that, and in fact, I’d resent the implication that I should be.
I explained the woman in the office that no matter how many diagnoses people throw my way, they don’t mean anything is wrong with me. And that’s never going to change.