Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Suspicious Characters: Super review



Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: James Gunn
Stars: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion
Running Time: 91mins

Super would have benefited from being released in closer proximity to Kick-Ass. It comes across like a riposte to Matthew Vaughan's movie, similar in plot details but very different in tone and the conclusions it reaches. Had the two been released perhaps only a few months apart, rather than just over a year, Super most likely would have seemed more relevant. Instead, it feels like a comeback to an argument that ended so long ago that no-one remembers or cares what it was about. The implications of superheroism moved into real-life? The theme struck a chord at the time, but since Super wasn't around to offer its counter-argument when it mattered, watching the movie now and having those old questions raised again just comes across as repetition, rather than achieving the striking effect it might have a year earlier.

That's a shame, because Super is a more ambitious and dedicated project than Kick-Ass, which could never quite decide whether it was commenting on superhero movies or trying to be one. James Gunn's movie has similar problems finding the right tone, but commits itself to its premise without restraint. Despite what you may read in the listings, that premise is most definitely not comedic in nature. It has a handful of laughs, but they mostly serve to make a dramatic point about the levels of violence that people are willing to accept on-screen, on the page, and in real life.
The 'comedic' aspects of Super are the most ill-fitting, giving the impression of being shoehorned in to provide a more mainstream trailer and perhaps attract some of Ellen Page's Juno followers as well. The crayon-styled animations which sometimes fill the screen, and make up a very Juno credits sequence, don't convince as evoking the movie's comic book influences because they are drawn more in the style of a child than a graphic novel artist. The occasional 'BAM!' calls back the Adam West Batman TV series, but that's hardly material which ever purported to offer an ounce of seriousness and is thus an unsatisfying target for a movie whose primary concern seems to be examining the morality of comics and movies presenting superheroes in a semi-realistic context. Christopher Nolan's take on Batman is more suitable in that respect, and Rainn Wilson's Christian Bale-esque growl when dressed as the Crimson Bolt, dispensing blunt force justice for even the most menial crimes (such as jumping a cinema queue), is more amusing and substantial because the target of the parody is more in line with Super's intentions.

Fortunately, animated sequences and silliness occupy little of the movie's running time. As a drama, it has more to say: at first, the audience is invited to sympathise with loser Frank (Rainn Wilson) and his decision to adopt a cowl and fight 'evil' after a drug dealer named Jack (Kevin Bacon) steals away his recovering wife (Liv Tyler, who has barely anything to do but look woozy) to use her as a guinea pig for his latest product. Yet unlike Kick-Ass quickly reaching the conclusion that its protagonist's move into superherodom was foolhardy but admirable, there's an overbearing tension that Frank is driven primarily by his anger not only towards Jack and his crew, but also a society which has subjected him to a life on the bottom rung. His bar for what constitutes 'evil' is set ridiculously low, with everyone subject to the same punishment of several thumps from a monkey wrench, and it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to discover that watching the actions of an evident psychopath is actually a little thrilling, cathartic even.

The arrival of Libby, a comic book shop clerk whose mind from the start is clearly not entirely based in the real world, pushes Frank's quest to ever deeper depths of horror. She's temperamental, unpredictable and perpetually horny, having never quite grown out of her adolescence - the prototypical bomb waiting to explode. She jumps at the opportunity to force herself in on Frank's scheme as the Crimson Bolt's 'kid sidekick' (she's twenty-two, but seems to get off on the idea of having Frank as both father figure and f**k buddy) and follow him on his exploits. When she realises that this involves a lot of waiting around, she convinces him to bring 'justice' to a boy she's fairly certain keyed her friend's car recently, and watching her almost kill the guy even unsettles the unhinged Frank. It's a venomous reversal of the disturbed nature of many comic book protagonists and their relationships (I'm sure more than enough has already been said about Bruce Wayne and his various Robins living under the same roof), especially the championing of the outcast who takes justice into his or her own hands. Super seems less than convinced that these are the people we should be trusting to take back the streets.

The religious element to the movie's theme reinforces this view of revered texts - whether holy books or comic books, both are pored over with devotion by their followers - having the potential to send astray those who misunderstand their messages, but the idea is never explored beyond a deliberately lousy TV series, based around a religious superhero who thwarts a villainous Satan's attempts to spread the sins of lethargy and premarital sex around a high school. Frank's visions are a potent way of showing how he takes these ridiculous messages as literally being a truth from on high, but the fake program itself seems far too winkingly terrible for even the most deranged brain to take seriously. Nathan Fillion appears in a long-haired wig as the eponymous Holy Avenger, a role that seems to exist only to draw on the affection he commands in fan circles and to get his name on the credits.

Also disappointing is how many shortcuts the movie takes in order to make its plot work. Given how much of the Crimson Bolt's violence seems to be exacted on regular people, are we really to believe that the police would not only do nothing, but that Frank would later be lauded by the media as a hero? It's not as though there was any shortage of horrified onlookers when he assaulted the man outside the cinema, for example, none of whom seemed convinced that cutting in line was justification for nearly killing a man. Given how little Frank does to protect his identity - everyone in the line immediately identifies him in costume as the irritated guy who walked away to his car earlier - the police don't seem particularly bothered by any of what is going on.

In terms of performances, Rainn Wilson is pitch perfect. He gives Frank a quiet drone of a voice and dour, staring-through-the-world expression of a man who has had no choice but to sit on the fence his whole life and watch other people laugh as they pass him by. The two moments of happiness he draws up and sticks on his wall are the things which seem to be keeping him sane, and when Jack takes one of them away (his wife), he reverts to the most extreme form of the other (stopping criminals). The character's self-destructive neediness and almost literal impotence without his wife - which Libby takes particular offence to and action against - force him to seek a sense of balance and purpose wherever he can find it, and Wilson finds all the right emotional cues with the slightest shifts in Frank's passive-aggressive demeanour.

Ellen Page is fully invests in her character's wild shifts from bouncily simple-minded young girl to an unflinching murderer who seems to only see her actions as part of an extended joke. I suspect her casting was supposed to have a twinge of irony to it, playing on the actress' roles as the world-wary hipster in Juno and prior superhero experience in X-Men: Last Stand, but anyone who saw her remarkable turn in Hard Candy will know that she's done this type of role before and to even more chilling effect. Kevin Bacon jitters and flails around as the script requires, but he's not given the opportunity to expand his role beyond that of the rakishly vile drug pusher. Liv Tyler and Nathan Fillion are less characters, more symbols in Frank's insane quest for fulfilment.

Super has a lot to recommend it, but can't get away from the fact that it has turned up at completely the wrong time - the superhero movies released around it this summer have mostly been of the fantastical variety (Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men etc), whilst it is too late to work as an interesting counterpoint to Kick-Ass' more frivolous take on the idea of a real-life costumed hero. It has interesting ideas and commendably sticks to its guns all the way to an astonishing finale, but trips over its cape too often to elevate its efforts from those of a plucky outsider to genuinely heroism. [ 6 ]

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