Captain America, Green Lantern, Thor and X-Men: First Class may well be terrific movies. But a strong contender for "most memorable superhero movie of the year" is already out, and it stars the most unlikely superhero of all: Rainn Wilson.
No, seriously. Super is an outrageous comedy, but it's also got something that few other superhero movies have — it's a character study. This movie is a weird blend of quirky character-based indie comedy, and half demented superhero spoof — and neither half gets shortchanged. With Frank D'Arbo, Super has created a hero we can both laugh at and identify with, which is all too rare.
There's a moment, which you've probably glimpsed in the trailer, where Rainn Wilson's character Frank is on his knees praying and crying and kind of freaking out. It's one of those weird things where you start out laughing at how preposterous this character is, and then you start feeling how sad and hopeless he is. The moment whipsaws between extreme comedy and genuine pathos, and you either stop laughing or feel guilty for laughing. You'll be left wondering at times, "Am I a bad person for laughing at this?" (The answer is yes. But we are too.)
That's how Super is — it's messed up and funny and deeply emotional and actually kind of spiritual. And did we mention messed up?
This film is definitely not going to work for everybody — some people may find the extreme graphic violence and weird sexuality horrifying. And some viewers may not want to identify with a superhero who, at one point, bashes two people's heads in for cutting in line at a movie theater. Like we said in our early "first impressions" post, if you have any buttons, this film will find them and push them like crazy. But if you like a movie that goes way too far, in a kind of Tarantino/Troma way, but actually manages to tell a real story about a person's journey, then Super is a rare marvel.
In a nutshell, people are either going to love Super or hate it.
But since seeing the film a few weeks ago, it's stuck in my head. Not just because of the ridiculous comedy and deeply offensive weirdness — but also because the character of Frank/Crimson Bolt kind of got inside my head. There are lots of little character-based moments in the film that I've found myself revisiting and thinking about. Frank is a monster, but he's also a hero, and he has really complicated relationships with the women in his life.
In Super, Frank D'Arbo's wife leaves him, and at first you think that this is just because he's kind of a loser who works as a short-order cook, and she was bored with him. But eventually, you realize that she's a recovering addict and she's gotten sucked into the orbit of a total sleazeball (Kevin Bacon) who's force-feeding her tons of drugs and keeping her a virtual prisoner. She's so drugged up she barely knows what day it is, and the cops won't do anything about it. So Frank needs to become someone who can save his wife.
That's when Frank has the ultra-bizarre religious experience where the tentacles peel his head open and the finger of God touches his brain. And he transforms himself into possibly the wackest vigilante ever — the brutal Crimson Bolt, who goes around hitting people in the head with a pipe wrench. With a ludicrous costume and the slogan, "Shut up, crime!".
The thing is, Super is not a realistic movie at all, even when you leave out the tentacles and stuff. It's a larger-than-life fantasy, in which you have to sort of accept that a guy who goes around in broad daylight breaking people's skulls with a wrench wouldn't get caught by the police. (Frank makes so many mistakes and makes himself so obvious, it's ridiculous — but he only has one near-miss where he almost gets caught.) The film is pretty much just as unreal as every other superhero film — except that it works on a smaller scale and delves more heavily into Frank's character.
The film telegraphs its lack of realism by veering from Sundancey realness to stylized cartooniness. There are some weird Adam West-y moments with sound effects plastered on the screen. Because it's not just the costume and catchphrase that make Frank a superhero rather than just a regular vigilante — it's the act of entering a comic-book world, something the film comments on a fair bit.
Meanwhile, the only other superhero we see in the film is Nathan Fillion's Holy Avenger — it's a crime that no clips of the Holy Avenger have been released yet.
Because he's totally broken and socially maladjusted, Frank's version of being a superhero is both ridiculously moralistic and borderline serial-killer-y, and he only occasionally questions whether over-the-top violence is the key to saving society from crime and degeneracy.
What Frank really needs is a sidekick to balance out his love of violence and simple-minded attitude to superheroing — so instead, he gets Libby, a total maniac who thinks this is all just a game. She has absolutely no impulse control, and Frank is put in the weird position of having to rein her in. Ellen Page brings a manic energy to her scenes as "Boltie," and she's a major source of a lot of the wrongness in the film.
Frank has two self-destructive women in his life, and his relationships with both of them are really complicated — he wants to be a savior to both of them, but he's also like a child that they're protecting.
I think another reason why I really loved this movie is because it has a powerful ending — there's plot resolution, but there's also a kind of thematic and emotional closure that caught me by surprise and made me see the whole film in a new light. Through his superhero experience, Frank grows and changes as a person, and gains a measure of peace — but he's still utterly broken and dysfunctional, at the same time.
Superproves that superhero films still have a lot of storytelling juice left in them. And all of those questions that superhero films deal with, about power and responsibility and the individual versus society, can still be asked in new and challenging ways.
Make no mistake: this film is really over the top and liable to offend a lot of people. But if you enjoy South Park-style insanity and midnight movie weirdness, then this film will be your new favorite. And it's a surprisingly sweet, moving film that will stick in your head long after you've stopped laughing at the madness.
Your move, Marvel and DC.