“Super”: The sad-sack superhero indie reaches its insane apex

Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page play deranged superheroes touched by Jesus in this ultraviolent fantasy

Topics: Kick-Ass, Our Picks, Movies,

"Super": The sad-sack superhero indie reaches its insane apexRainn Wilson in "Super"

Since I’m not quite sure what to say about writer-director James Gunn’s “Super” — except that it seems to be a superhero movie made by, for and about people with severe mental illness — let’s retreat into the high-walled castle of film theory for a minute. We seem to be witnessing the second coming of the avant-garde in indie film at the moment, which isn’t necessarily something I expected to encounter in the remainder of my movie-reviewing career. Maybe it’s the beginning of a backlash against the naturalistic tone and minimalist manner of so much American independent cinema in the 2000s, and maybe it’s just a coincidence. But the indescribably bizarre “Super” is opening the same week as Quentin Dupieux’s “Rubber,” which manifests as an imitation late-’70s roadsploitation thriller but is actually much closer in spirit to the self-detonating films of Jean-Luc Godard.

If “Super” doesn’t have the art-school pedigree or the audience-poisoning aspirations of “Rubber,” it’s still a movie Godard would appreciate, in that it resolutely refuses to stick with a style or mood and is destined to provoke hostility in many people who see it unawares. Inescapably, many viewers will draw comparisons between “Super” and “Kick-Ass,” last year’s much-pilloried superhero spoof, but beyond the basic premise they aren’t all that similar. “Kick-Ass” is pretty much “That’s Entertainment” compared to Gunn’s film, which is a lot dirtier, a lot crazier, a lot more devoted to a late-’80s vision of alterna-culture and a whole lot less eager to please.

Gunn has described “Super” as an adaptation of William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” complete with superhero costumes and comic violence, and he’s not kidding about that nearly as much as you’d think. Another way of translating it might be to say that Gunn has taken the loser-hipster characters from “Ghost World” and transported them into the splatterific, grade-C genre universe of Troma Films. (The comparison isn’t random; Gunn wrote the screenplay for “Tromeo & Juliet,” infamously earning $150 for his work, before moving on to the “Scooby-Doo” live-action films of the early 2000s.)

You Might Also Like

“Super” stars Rainn Wilson (best known as Dwight from TV’s “The Office”) as Frank, a hapless fry cook in some nameless, R. Crumb-style Middle American city. Frank’s one implausible stroke of luck is that he wound up married to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict and sometime stripper who sees him as an antidote to all the lamentable guys in her past. But Sarah has been spirited away by a pseudo-suave drug-dealing lowlife called Jacques (Kevin Bacon, giving an ur-Kevin Bacon performance), who takes a half-sinister, half-benevolent interest in Frank, at least before he orders his minions to beat the crap out of him.

“God has graced you with a goddamn egg-cooking gift,” Jacques tells Frank, and that’s not the only mention of the deity in this motion picture. Frank discerns messages aimed at him from within a fourth-rate Christian superhero show called “The Holy Avenger,” and receives a highly disturbing personal visitation from the Almighty, which I shouldn’t spoil for you except to say that it’s the first and most startling of several special-effects eruptions amid this deliberately lo-fi motion picture. (Think tentacles.) This divine intervention leads Frank to buy some red fabric, learn to sew and reinvent himself as the Crimson Bolt, a deranged crime-fighter who wreaks vengeance on Jacques and his ilk. And on yuppies who cut in line at the movies. By beating them half to death with a monkey wrench.

And did I mention his dangerously crazy nympho sidekick? Yeah, in case we don’t think that slow-burning, chronically unhappy Frank, with his ridiculous costume, his outbursts of unearned violence against random strangers and his stupid catchphrase — “Shut up, crime!” — is enough of a nutjob, there’s always his sidekick. That would be Libby (Ellen Page), the comic-store geek-girl who figures out the Crimson Bolt’s secret identity and nominates herself as Boltie, his “kid sidekick” and potential sex partner. (Frank is horrified; he is a married man, albeit a cuckolded one.) Gunn seems to have conceived of Libby as a challenge, or a series of challenges, and Page embraces them with overamped gusto: Can a small, pretty young woman be presented not just as an Asperger-like misfit prone to inappropriate outbursts and a sexual aggressor but also as a borderline sociopath?

Like the apparently psychotic Frank and the Holy Avenger and Bacon’s odious Jacques and the whole damn movie, Page’s character is funny until she is really, really not funny (and then she gets funny again, maybe, on the other side of that). She hangs out the window of the Crimson Bolt’s 1980s American beater, shouting to the crowd: “Any time some stupid motherfucker wants to commit some gay-ass crime, you tell them …” But she doesn’t quite finish the thought, because Frank can’t get the car started, and the guy whose legs they’ve just crushed against a wall is lying on the hood, screaming in pain, maimed or dying.

It’s a fatally miscellaneous scene in a movie that shifts from farce to grotesque to melodrama to straight-to-video action flick, without pretending to make sense or reassuring us that we’re having a good time. I think “Super” is occasionally brilliant, sometimes awful and terribly confusing overall; this movie reminds me of an old Irish joke about the ancient and terrifying housekeeper who asks the young priest whether he enjoyed his egg. (“In parts,” he says nervously.) Is it destined to be a cult movie of the future? Maybe, if such things are still possible. Is it a genuine upwelling of id-fueled American insanity? Same answer.

“Super” opens April 1 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow. It will be available on-demand, beginning April 13, from many cable and satellite providers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>