Super is the kind of film that critics of comic book movies say they want to see but dismiss when they are actually made. James Gunn created an almost entirely realistic look at what it would take to make someone decide to become a masked vigilante and the horrific results of those choices. Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is basically Bipolar, and his wife’s (Liv Tyler) leaving him for drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) is the first in a series of psychotic breaks that drive the film toward its resolution. Individuals comment that Bruce Wayne must have been driven insane by the loss of his parents at the hand of Joe Chill, and that’s why there is a Batman in Gotham City. Super is basically a take on that theory.
Frank is an incredibly sad character. The beginning of the film features a scene of Frank showing his wife two pictures he drew of his happiest moments. One is of their wedding, and the other is a time when he witnessed a criminal running from a police officer – and he told the officer where to turn to catch the crook. This is an adult male who can only think of two happy moments in his life. In one of those moments, he is just a bystander. The scene is played for laughs until the viewer realizes that’s all there is to him. He loves his wife and he liked being good.
When his wife leaves, he reports to the police that she was taken by Jacques. The police officer tries to explain to him that the fact she took all of her clothes with her implies that she left of her own volition, but Frank cannot wrap his mind around that fact. Why would a recovering drug addict leave him for a guy with lots of money and obvious jitters?
This causes Frank’s first break, which involves a vision of God opening his skull and touching his brain. This is a clear sign of psychotism. Frank is then inspired to create his own superhero and meets the overly friendly comic store worker, Libby (Ellen Page). After his first outing as the Crimson Bolt, he is beaten fairly mercilessly by drug dealers on the street. He returns to the comic shop to discuss superheroes who use their wits and weapons in lieu of powers. After this, he starts fighting crime with a pipe wrench.
This is where the film starts to break up the audience, by the way. He starts hitting people with pipe wrenches, and the audience sees very real results. People fall down and don’t get up. The news media in the film starts discussing his activity, calling him a madman because he sends people to the hospital. Frank himself does not realize the horrors of his ways until he attacks someone for cutting in line at a movie and watches the man’s head crack open. Audiences have trouble cheering for protagonists who do horrible things. Do we need to cheer for him, or do we need to see his journey?
After the line-cutting incident, he starts believing the news reports about his obvious madness. Watching the television series for The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) inspires him to try one more time, this time to save his wife from Jacques. He is driven off by the drug lord’s gun wielding cronies and gets shot. He turns to Libby to hide, and she cancels a huge housewarming party just to tend to him. This is a sign of her character. While he rehabilitates, she decides she must become his kid sidekick, Bolty. On their first outing together, she attacks a guy who “probably” keyed her friend’s car, and she slashes his face brutally with the intent to kill him.
I’m not sure if Bolty is a commentary on kid sidekicks, but she is definitely reminiscent of Jason Todd’s Robin and Frank Miller’s version of Dick Grayson in All-Star Batman and Robin. The difference is we never come to understand Libby’s aggression like we understand Todd’s and Grayson’s. They saw their parents die and want revenge on the world. Libby seems to be an adrenaline junkie with a fetish for superheroes. Which leads to the next psychotic break.
Frank is attacked at a gas station by a couple of Jacques’ stooges, and he is saved when Bolty rams their car into one of them – crippling him from the waist down if he manages to survive the internal bleeding. Later that night Bolty requests to make love to the Crimson Bolt, stating that she wants to respect Frank’s marriage by not having Libby sleep with Frank. He says No, but she rapes him. After the incident, he throws up and sees his wife’s face in the upchuck. He decides at that point they need to attack Jacques’ stronghold head-on, with weapons.
The final portion of the film has been described to me as not fun at all. It really depends on if you’re a fan of Troma Films, as Gunn used to be involved with that incredibly sick and violent studio. The scenes of violence involve a character getting a third of her face blown off, a man’s head being repeatedly pounded into the corner of a fireplace, a man being completely blown up by a pipe bomb, a vicious stabbing, and many beyond critical gunshots. It must be noted how desensitized Frank is to all of this despite his previous policy against killing people. He is completely broken.
The surprising thing is what seems to fix him. Jacques’ final speech includes a mix of “We’re not much different” and “This won’t really win her back.” Somehow Frank finds the catharsis he needs in killing the guy who wasn’t really responsible for stealing away his wife. She doesn’t even stay with him in the end. She stays clean, goes back to school, marries another man, and has children with him instead. And instead of becoming incredibly distressed by this, he embraces it. The kids call him Uncle Frank, and he plasters his wall with many drawings of his new happy moments.
What I really enjoyed about the movie was that viewers are taken through a man’s journey into madness and subsequent revival as a whole and happy person. We’re led to believe that the slaying of his external demons is what exorcised Frank, but I don’t see it just that way. Frank dragged himself through Hell and saw a darker side of both life and himself, and he didn’t like what he saw. When you’re not paying attention, there are no heroes in life. We can’t even be heroes when we view the world through this lens. In seeing the true darkness, he found that there is so much in life for which to be grateful – and we are all heroes in some way. The two pictures on the wall in the beginning of the film is contrasted with the wall of pictures at the end of the film to represent Frank’s journey and paradigm shift. Despite the horror’s of the movie, it is truly hopeful. While the lesson is very obvious, it does represent something that everyone should learn and never be ashamed to relearn through life.
Did I like it?: I really did. It’s very dark, though. I think that entering into this film without realizing how dark it can be is a huge mistake that warps the viewing experience. Expectation is a horrible thing, which I think skewed Ebert’s take on the film. Who could blame him? Check out the trailer.