In terms of the cinema, we are in a new golden age of superheroes. This summer alone, there are four high-budget, high-profile superhero movies releasing, all within months of each other. This isn’t counting other comic book properties being adapted to the big screen, like Cowboys and Aliens, or something like the new Transformers movie, which is, in its own way, a superhero movie. This is a trend that really began with the summer of 2008, where Iron Man launched the entire Marvel Studios plan and The Dark Knight reminded us that superheroes weren’t always one-liners and flashy effects. So why have the cape and tights set become our summer zeitgeist?
Well, money’s obviously a big part of it. Iron Man and Dark Knight made enough money to buy most European countries. The part of me that’s a little less cynical, though, likes to think that it’s a little deeper than that. That, as during the comics boom of the thirties and forties, the world is in a tough place, and people look to larger icons of good and evil to remind them that, sometimes, there are real heroes. People, they say, can have a positive effect on their own world, and, failing that, there’s someone out there that’s looking out for you.
And then there’s Super. While it’s not the best movie of the year, it’s certainly destined to be one of the most interesting.
In the words of my people, Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a schlubb. He’s a boring, odd-looking man that has little to his name other than his short-order cook job and his lovely wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). So, when the fantastically arrogant drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon at his delightfully hammiest) manages to thrall Sarah away with good drugs and the prospect of excitement, Frank finds himself absolutely destitute. However, thanks to a mysterious sign, in a scene that’s too wonderfully oddball to spoil, Frank decides to fashion a superhero identity, becoming the Crimson Bolt. With a cry of, “Shut up, crime!,” Crimson Bolt patrols the night to stop evil, mostly by bashing it on the head with a big damn wrench. He also manages to pick up the slightly psychotic Libby (Ellen Page), who transforms herself into the Crimson Bolt’s kid sidekick, Boltie. Together, they work to fight evil and rescue Sarah from Jacques.
Super is one of those gems that completely misleads you with its trailers. From the trailer released back in March, you might expect something a little bit more madcap, maybe more in line with Kick-Ass than anything else. There’s a lot to compare to Kick-Ass, but I’ll get to that later. Super is a movie of extremes. The violence in this film is just about as graphic as you get. Big, gushy holes get punched out of people, skulls get disgustingly cracked open, and death is significantly less than cool. Even when the real bad guys are getting what they deserve, at least according to the Crimson Bolt, it can get pretty uncomfortable.
With this in mind, every actor involved really gives it their all. Rainn Wilson brings real pathos to a man that might be completely psychotic, but he might also be the only sane person in the movie. Being mostly familiar with his work on The Office, I found myself completely unprepared for how truly fantastic his work was. The same could be said of Ellen Page. After Juno, I’ve had a bit of a short fuse when it comes to her, but she embodies the hyperactive, hard-cursing, completely bonkers Libby. She’s a gal with some serious issues. There’s a particular sequence between her and Frank that follows an incredibly tender scene that’s probably going to be one of the more uncomfortable scenes in a “superhero” movie you’ll see this summer.
I mentioned the comparison to Kick-Ass before. It’s a comparison people are bound to make, considering both films involve a D.I.Y. approach to superheroism. The similarities end as soon as Kick-Ass trots out a young girl in a domino mask chopping off heads and a dude in a jetpack. At the end of the day, Kick-Ass cops out of the “realistic superheroism,” with the addition of the more fantastical, comic-book-y elements. Super, however, takes the entire concept and completely sticks to it, right to the bloody end.
That’s where Super‘s greatest strength lies, in its ability to be absolutely fearless. This film could have easily turned into Kick-Ass, with a lot of gimmickry and comic book conventions for the sake of a big action finish. While there is a big action finish, it’s grounded. There are consequences and a weight to the action, and not just in the finale. All of the action, and the graphic violence that follows, isn’t just so you can go “man, that was cool!” It’s a movie of extremes, but none of it comes across as designed solely for the entertainment value.
Super is a perfect companion to any superhero movie, especially those that purport a “realistic” approach to the subject. It’s part character study, part cautionary tale, part uproarious comedy. It’s a story about one man, confused and raging at the world, that manages to find an outlet for his pain, even if it’s one of righteous violence. At the same time, it just goes to prove that old adage your mom probably told you if you ever got into a fight: violence only begets more violence, and it never, ever ends well.