Friday, August 25, 2017

Super (2010)

USA, 96 minutes
Director/writer: James Gunn
Photography: Steve Gainer
Music: Tyler Bates
Editor: Cara Silverman
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie, James Gunn

If superhero movies have turned into something of a cliché—or perhaps more accurately into a thriving industry with a full spectrum of manifold overbred clichés—the psychologically realistic treatments of them are not far behind. Indeed, they probably belong on that spectrum of clichés themselves now. Alan Moore and Frank Miller impressed when they worked out the approach 30 years ago in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (respectively). Batman is the natural here, as the basic idea is always that these figures don't have superpowers but they do have perverse personal motivations to "fight crime." They often work at night, and well outside the law. They aren't exactly role models with utility belt gimmicks the way they were in the '50s and '60s.

Super starts from this point, with another foot planted firmly in a certain quirky indie comedy ethos, signaled by casting Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon in the principal roles, by the use of a kind of low-budget naturalism in the action scenes, and by Tyler Bates's wincingly twee score, which is at once cloyingly sweet and archly i - r - o - n - i - c (sample here, I dare you to listen to more than 20 seconds). Director and writer James Gunn has, of course, gone on to be captain of his own Marvel franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy, and it's not really hard to see how he got from here to there. Equally telling credits for Gunn include screenplays for the 2002 remake of Scooby-Doo and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Yet somehow Super is greater than the sum of its puny parts, offering that rarest of things, a transcendent superhero movie.

I think I need to add more caveats. There is much to overcome in this movie and I suspect the best plan is to go into it with lowered expectations. At least, that's how it worked for me. So a few more points to drag it down. The violence is brutal and people we like do not come to good ends. Roger Ebert hated it. It has a weird thing going about religion which never adds up. It's often compared with the vastly inferior Kick-Ass, another indie-inflected superhero movie released in the same timeframe. But now I'm starting to praise it again.

Rainn Wilson is Frank Darbo, a repressed and lonely man in his 30s who lives in an indeterminate large city (perhaps Detroit, perhaps Los Angeles) and works as a short-order clerk in a greasy spoon, where Sarah (Liv Tyler) comes to work as a waitress after a stint in rehab. Frank falls for her vulnerable ways, Sarah doesn't know any better, and they marry. Soon, Sarah meets the evil gangster and dope dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), starts using drugs again, and leaves Frank. Frank has a vision, in part inspired by TV shows he watches on religious channels, and comes to believe that God (Rob Zombie) is encouraging him to become a superhero. The words he heard on TV ring in his head: "All it takes to be a superhero is the choice to fight evil."

He calls himself the Crimson Bolt, puts together a costume that makes him look like a dumpy version of the Flash, and uses a pipe wrench as his totemic weapon. He really hits people hard with it too, going after them for selling drugs, molesting children, and robbing others, though it's not long before things like butting in line at the movies or keying someone's car warrant head-busting beatdowns too. His long-term plan: Rescue Sarah. His motto: "Shut up, crime!"

I think I mentioned it's also a comedy? It's straight out of a familiar overly cynical "dark" playbook, where easy targets like rightwing Christian TV are lampooned broadly and at will (that's Gunn himself hamming it up on the Christian shows as a figure of bad influence known as Demonswill), and the action is spiced with jolts of ultraviolence. The whole thing is a little ripe, unhealthy and sick, playing against expectations. You keep wanting these people to be quirky and charmingly eccentric, and you keep seeing evidence they're damaged. That's the edge, and it's one you can cut yourself on if you're not careful.

Which brings us to what I do like about Super, the factor that redeems everything else for me, and that is Ellen Page. At the time, Page was still in her imperial phase as a kind of "it girl" from about 2007 to 2011. She was never a particularly good performer, but more of a known quantity that people found good ways to use, e.g., Juno (or not, e.g., Inception). In retrospect it's likely that much of her mysterious charming quality was merely youth. Whatever it was exactly she always brought it—a certain animal nervous alertness combined with intriguing strategic cerebral engagements with roles and stories.

She performs mostly with her forehead, and directors such as Gunn who knew how to create a space for her reaped great rewards. Here she is asked to play a psycho—in this story it's Robin not Batman who is most deeply damaged—and she does it in much the same way that she played a pregnant teen determined to see the baby to term and a good home. Libby is a comic book store clerk, and when Frank comes in to buy comic books to research being a superhero it doesn't take long for her to connect the dots with later news stories of a nighttime vigilante. Soon, through the use of plot devices, they are united as a team to fight crime—the Crimson Bolt and his sidekick Boltie. Actually, Frank only reluctantly goes along with this, as he is still mainly intent on rescuing Sarah from "Jock" and needs the help.

But Libby is in the ecstatic throes of embracing her destiny. This movie jerks to life any time Page is on the screen. She veers in a million directions and it's often hilarious and horrifying at once—her mocking laughter, for one example. When she takes action, she does so with decisive confidence, though her judgment is often skewed wildly. She keeps topping herself—the script gives her the openings and she takes every one. Libby is 22 (Frank asks how old she is at one point) but emotionally she is an 8-year-old. It's one of the few performances I've ever seen anywhere, inside or out of a superhero movie, focused on the emotional experience of reading superhero comic books for wish fantasy fulfillment the way an 8-year-old does. Or anyway, it feels familiar to me. (Compare Velvet Goldmine for a similar look into the experience of encountering a certain depth of rock 'n' roll for the first time.) Gunn's script is the source, with all its sharp insights (and misses), but Page's performance is what puts it over. It's the reason I come away from this movie positively shaken, moved, and haunted—every time.

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