Like it or not we live in a transitionary period as far as how you get your films goes. In the US, things have already changed considerably, with many films that would have been arthouse or indie breakout hits debuting via on demand services and having very limited cinema showings weeks later. In the UK we haven’t quite adopted this model yet, but with the popularity of the Lovefilm service and people favouring streaming over physical copies on new formats like Blu-Ray it probably won’t be long. Whilst we make this move, we find that many movies are being given short shrift in cinemas before debuting on DVD weeks later. Super is one such movie and could be my favourite film of 2011 so far. It received a brief limited theatrical run in June and is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray for the world to discover this work of insane genius.
Nothing in James Gunn’s previous filmography prepared me for this film. His screenplay for Dawn of the Dead is great but he didn’t direct it. Slither seemed to me to be one of those films that was kind of forced into cult status by the presence of Nathan Fillion despite being a pretty shameless riff on Night of the Creeps and Brian Yuzna’s Society. Super is a different beast entirely, it manages to be nasty, comic and extremely moving without being overwhelmed by all of the different genres it navigates with skill.
Super begins with sad sack cook Frank (Rainn Wilson) coming to the realisation that his beautiful former drug addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is going to leave him for slimy drug dealer/club owner Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Try as he might Frank can’t compete with the life of glamour and status that Jacques offers her. Eventually she leaves and Frank’s mind fractures once he sees cheesy christian channel crusader The Holy Avenger (a hilarious Nathan Fillion) on TV and he gets a message from a tentacled messenger from beyond. It seems that Frank’s higher power wants Frank to strap on a red suit and fight crime as the Crimson Bolt. Frank’s early attempts at crime fighting do not go well and he is often beaten by street dealers and thugs. Looking for a weapon he finds one in the shape of a wrench and starts to beat open the heads of people who are out there raping, robbing and even cutting in line at the cinema. During his research into comic book heroes he meets comic shop clerk Libby (Ellen Page) who is just as keen on amateur crime fighting as Frank except a little more unhinged, and decides to suit up herself as Boltie. Together they learn that Jacques may well be an even more sinister threat than Frank first thought.
The basic set up is reminiscent of last years Kick-Ass and the film has been compared to that a lot. Whilst Kick-Ass is a fantasy action version of what would really happen if people decided to suit up and fight crime in real life, Super is the really real version of the madness that would ensue. This film is brutal - it’s brutal in its violence, its comedy and emotionally too. Whilst watching Frank’s actions as the Crimson Bolt you are alternately revolted and inspired as he does the things we would never dream of. There is no glorifying of the violence either, no slow motion or speed ramping here. A man's head is split open with a wrench and it does exactly that, sickening crack and all the details. Frank’s actions are definitely questionable but once he meets Libby his actions seem positively sedate. Ellen Page plays Libby as the manic pixie dream girl she has played many times except with a damaged homicidal streak a mile wide. It’s a brave performance from Page who has had much acclaim very early in her career but nothing indicating she was capable of this. Libby’s behaviour brings sharp focus to the amount of general wrong Frank has been committing but there is a general feeling that its too late to turn back and so Frank’s real mission and the purpose of his quest comes back into focus. Rainn Wilson is outstanding in this role, his naturally sad posture and everyman demeanour work perfectly for the character and Wilson flips seamlessly between mad, sad and heroic. It’s the kind of performance the academy won’t look at due to the subject matter but it really is awards worthy stuff. The rest of the supporting cast is up to the sharp, nasty script and well defined characters Gunn has written for them. Kevin Bacon is great as a real slimebag and Liv Tyler as Frank’s troubled wife lends sympathy to a character that should be easy to hate. Genre faves Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry also pop up in smaller roles and make the most of their limited screen time.
The feeling that anything could happen is increasingly rare in these times of studio mandated blockbusters based on existing properties, but that’s what you get with Super. It’s a film that constantly surprises you with where it goes and never becomes offensive or crass despite some extreme subject matter. From the raucous animated intro to the tear jerking finale, I loved every minute of Super and it's one of the very best films 2011 has had to offer. I can’t wait to see what James Gunn comes up with next.
Extras: Behind the scenes footage, Trailer.
Super is out now on DVD/Blu-ray