If you are sending up a very specific genre – in this case, the vulgar vigilante superhero movie that tends to be based on material written by Mark Millar – are you creating successful satire if you’re upholding the same anti-human values? Judging by the mirthless comedy Super, it appears that writer-director James Gunn never bothered to ask himself this pivotal question. Gunn is a man who, by including a joke about double negatives in his films, may very well be more astute than the digital Neanderthal Zack Snyder. (It’s worth noting that Gunn wrote the script for Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.) He certainly seems to be channeling Snyder’s 300 in several flashback sequences filmed in muted color and near black.
But with Super, Gunn shoots blanks.* A cinematic comedy that includes violence is one thing, but Gunn has seen fit to include two rapes (and another indirect one in a car) in this film. Rape is a tricky topic for comedy, but, as The Atlantic‘s Sady Doyle has recently pointed out, rape is showing up in comic book movies with increased frequency. In order to make rape work, you either have to be a bona-fide iconoclast like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who featured a brazenly ironic moment in The Holy Mountain where a tourist takes a picture of his wife as she’s being raped by a fascist soldier, or a blithe mischief maker like Pedro Almodovoar in Kika. In Gunn’s hands, rape isn’t funny and it doesn’t contribute much to the story. At least Gunn can be commended for keeping the rape gender balance right. Rainn Wilson’s character Frank is raped. And so is Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler).
Frank (last name D’Arbo, not Castle) is a short-order cook living a short order life. Shortly before a noisy animated titles sequence that forces its “fun” on us (no animated rapes included), we’re informed that Frank has experienced two great moments in life: his marriage to his wife and a time in which he pointed out to a cop the direction in which a criminal sprinted. Frank has seen fit to memorialize these moments through crayon drawings. When his wife reports that the hands are too big, he applies white-out to make them smaller.
This is a fairly promising beginning. But Super never finds a fresh or lively angle, either as a bona-fide vigilante flick or a parody of one. Kevin Bacon plays Jacques, a nebulous drug pusher (owner of the nightclub Bare Assets) who gets Sarah (later revealed to have been involved in something resembling a Narcotics Anonymous program) hooked on the hard stuff. When the cops tell Frank that there’s little that they can do (Jacques doesn’t have a record? The cops aren’t staking out his club when he runs a flagrant operation?), Frank takes the business of getting his wife back into his own hands. He attempts to confront Jacques in front of his club and is beaten by his goons (which include the gravelly character actor Michael Rooker, whose main purpose in this film is to have his head beaten against the floor near the end).
Since Frank is a quietly pious man, he sees a television show called The Holy Avenger and experiences a Christian vision that involves getting his head carved open with very bad CGI and his brain sprayed with what appears to be the holy answer to special sauce. (Later in the film, Gunn has vomit shift around in a toilet and form a face. These conceptual deficiencies, whereby something scatological is rearranged into some fixed perfunctory image, truly reveal Gunn to be a fauxteur.)
From here, Frank starts reading comic books, beginning with The Holy Avenger. He is determined to become a superhero, even if he knows little. He meets Libby (Ellen Page), a 22-year-old exuberant working at a comic book store. He stitches his own costume – a red uniform containing the obvious joke of zippers dangling on the front – and becomes The Crimson Bolt. He wears a fake beard to a college library and asks where the hard crime is. Then he heads to Euclid Street and tries confronting these criminals. He is unsuccessful. He returns to the store, asks Libby about superheroes without weapons. He then begins to beat the heads of anyone he deems criminal with a large wrench. This includes people who key cars, who tempt children into cars, and people who cut in lines.
As Frank says in a flashback, “Happy people are kind of arrogant.” So, for that matter, is James Gunn. The story here is so sloppy that, after a detective following up on the Crimson Bolt’s activities is shot, the film never returns. The police also do not arrive as dynamite, gunshots, and various other nihilistic sounds go off near the end. (Gunn might have had a funny joke here about ineffectual police, thus justifying the need for vigilantes. But given how these plot threads dangle like long white shoelaces in search of anglets on the blackest boots, it becomes very evident that Gunn’s merely a colossal incompetent.)
However, the movie does have one redeeming factor. Ellen Page, whom I originally (and wrongly) pegged as some thespic XX answer to Michael Cera’s limited hipster archetype, offers surprising range for such a throwaway character. When she enlists herself as the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie, and demonstrates gleeful excitement after a man has been maimed, the moment is executed with baleful fright – the only bona-fide feeling this movie successfully delivers. And that emotional truth exists because Page is smart enough to comprehend that, because Gunn’s material here isn’t especially funny, she has no alternative but to play her character as real as possible. “It’s called internal bleeding, fucker, and then you die,” she shrieks after a car has plowed a man against the wall. Yet moments later, she’s contrite. Later she’s desperate. Later she’s oblivious. These flighty flits between emotional states give Page’s character a resonant psychology that this blasé film doesn’t deserve.
Page’s strong performance also has the unintended consequence of revealing Rainn Wilson to be a spent force who has played Dwight Schrute for too long. (If Wilson was looking to escape being typecast, why did he sign on for a somewhat misanthropic character who, like Schrute, is into weapons and fundamentalist values?) Page even manages to perform better physical comedy than Wilson during one moment where Libby is attempting to prove her gymnastic worth before Frank. This is a shame, because Wilson does have a deep voice that might have pulled off some jocular response to Kevin Conroy’s Batman.
If comic book movies (or their satires) are to stand any chance of evolving, then the time has come to reject anything involving Zack Snyder or the dimwitted writers he’s happened to hire. We must demand better movies, whether comic book or not, for women. Let the corpulent Comic-Con slugs choke on their own Cheetos-soaked vomit.
* It seems fitting to ridicule James Gunn’s name, seeing as how he has done the same to Rainn Wilson’s character. But perhaps I’m just sour because I will never get my 95 minutes back.