Super? Not Quite

Latest long-underwear entry is under-powered

I've read at least one review of Super that suggests it is best seen as being in dialogue with the likes of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but I can't help comparing it to last year's other "normal guy puts on long underwear to fight crime" super-hero movie, Kick-Ass (which was super indeed).

Both movies are narrated by protagonists who don ridiculous disguises to Fight Crime, both feature explicit violence and neither delivers much in the way of deep insights into the human condition.

As it turns out, though, once you get past the basic premise, there is a world of difference between Matthew Vaughan's brutally funny and eminently re-watchable action-comedy and James Gunn's equally brutal (but only occasionally funny) tale of a delusional middle-aged loser who — at God's prompting — reacts to his wife's desertion by dressing up in the aforementioned undergarments and a mask and attacking criminals with a lug-wrench.

Sadly, despite an excellent cast and a premise brimming with surreal possibilities, Super ends up being far less than the sum of its parts. Super doesn't suck, but neither does it kick ass. Spoilers ahead.

Tentacles of tedium

James Gunn's indie movie has been getting a lot of buzz in some circles, despite (or maybe because of) its lack of a distribution deal, enough so that I was looking forward to it with a lot more optimism than that with which I usually greet news of yet another super-hero movie. (Yes, knowing that the often-brilliant Ellen Page lent her talents to the production had a lot to do with my anticipation.)

But where Kick-Ass' witty and visually exciting 120 minute blood-ballet was a happy surprise, Super is a slow-moving, heavy-handed production whose dialogue is obvious, whose surrealism is laboured and which doesn't, in the end, seem to know whether it's meant to be a non-sensical romp or a satire of ... well, something. Religion, maybe.

Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a depressed middle-aged man who considers himself a failure. In the film's opening voice-over, the short-order cook tells us that he has had "two perfect moments" in his life: first, marrying his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler) and, second, being in the right place at the right time in order to help a cop in pursuit of a purse-snatcher.

Now Frank's marriage is failing. Sarah, a recovering heroin addict, is falling into her old ways and soon is gone, run off with her dealer, leaving Frank alone with fantasies of revenge against the man who "stole" her from him. But the police are dismissive and Frank retreats to late-night television, alternating between tentacle-rape anime and a Christian super-hero in eternal battle with Satan.

Shortly after a humiliating (and physically painful) attempt to take Sarah back from Jacques, Frank starts to hallucinate — not for the first time, we find out: Jesus Christ himself featured in visions when Frank was a child. His latest is a doozy, and one that should be hilarious to anyone who has ever been even briefly exposed to shokushu goukan.

Should be, but isn't. Somehow, when God tentacle-rapes Frank, then ejaculates directly into his exposed brain, the satire falls flat. The reversal — middle-aged White man in place of nubile Japanese girl — comes across as a hipster's story-boarded idea, instead of a fully-realized film-maker's vision.

It's not that it's a bad scene, it's just that it's not a good one — and so, doesn't convince.

Most of the rest of the movie exists on that same, mediocre plane. Take the following dialogue between Frank and Ellen Page's comic book store clerk, Libby.

LIBBY: You really into this Christ-y shit?

FRANK: I've never read it before.

LIBBY: Dude. God, I gotta warn you, that this is pretty fucking stupid. Well, I mean, unless you're laughing at how gay it is, 'cause then it's awesome.

FRANK: Okay ...

LIBBY: I mean just, look at this art-work. They look like a bunch of Mongoloids. You know, you know what I mean, how Mongoloids' eyes are like that? Speaking of Mongoloids, just how fucking crazy would it be to be a midget? [Page kneels behind the counter, bringing her head level with it.] Just fucking crazy. I don't understand how you'd operate at all.

As with the halucinations, there's nothing horrible about that dialogue, but there's nothing good about it, either. It doesn't convince and it isn't witty enough to entertain. Page tries hard to animate it, but even she sounds like she's reading lines instead of inhabiting a character.

Though the actors in Super are trying hard — it's obvious they're taking the material seriously —, the script doesn't reward their efforts. Only Kevin Bacon manages to bring his amoral drug-dealer fully to life.

In retrospect, Super's main problem is obvious from the get-go; the too-ironic upbeat vocal pop that opens the movie just screams with knowing irony. We aren't meant to be fascinated by Frank D'Arbo, or to empathize or even to sympathize with him. We're supposed to mock him, though why Gunn has chosen his target isn't clear — in any case, the jokes aren't funny enough to support that rather shallow pleasure. After all, if the writer doesn't take his story or his characters seriously, why should we?

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