Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Super is a dark comedy superhero film released in 2010, and it was written and directed by James Gunn. The film tells the story of recently separated loser Frank, who adopts a superhero guise in order to fight crime and rescue his estranged wife from a drug dealer. The film stars Rainn Wilson, Elliot Page (credited as Ellen Page), Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon and Nathan Fillion. The film is Gunn's first foray into superhero territory as he later found acclaim writing and directing Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel as well as the 2021 reboot The Suicide Squad. Released with little fanfare, the film failed to make an impact at the box office with global earnings of just $593'000 - Gunn's lowest earning film to date. Critics were divided as the tone and comedy were praised but the film's violence and moral ambiguity unsettled many. The film also came not long after another film about a wannabe superhero, Kick-Ass, which was far more successful at the box office.
What's It About?
Fast food cook Frank Darbo has only had two memorable moments in his life: marrying the lovely Sarah and helping the police apprehend a bag snatcher. Sadly, things haven't gone well lately and Frank's marriage is collapsing badly. Sarah, a recovering addict, leaves Frank for strip-club owner Jacques who gets her hooked on drugs once again. Devastated by this turn of events and unable to interest the police in his predicament, Frank finds himself at a local comic book store and decides to create his own superhero persona for himself despite a lack of superpowers or even an athletic physique.
Armed with a pipe wrench and a homemade costume, Frank adopts the guise of The Crimson Bolt and soon heads off to fight crime in any shape or form he can find. His violent outbursts are dealt out to an number of rule breakers, from drug dealers and pimps to a guy pushing in to a queue. Becoming a media sensation, Frank soon finds himself gaining all the wrong sorts of attention - store clerk Libby insists on becoming his sidekick, the police take a dim view of his vigilantism and Jacques soon notices that his thugs are increasingly dealing with a costumed lunatic demanding justice...
What's to Like?
Super is a really curious picture, juggling an odd blend of comedy and tragedy in a low budget, strictly-not-for-kids superhero film. In its favour are the performances of the cast, led by Wilson who is pitch perfect as lovable loser Frank. Despite a questionable sense of ethics and moral ambiguity, Frank is a deeply sympathetic character and in an odd way, we can understand his sense of loss and desperation. Far more disturbed is Libby, wonderfully played by Page who delivers a character who is sweetness personified one second and then worryingly troubled the next. The two of them generate some wicked humour between the two of them as they dispense their own brand of justice via DIY tools and vehicular homicide.
Unlike Kick-Ass, the film adopts a more realist approach and depicts these people as troubled or disturbed individuals rather than noble people striving for justice. The film isn't afraid to question the ethics behind superheroes - why are their actions tolerated by the police but not those of vigilantes who are ordinary citizens? Yes, the film is extremely violent but it illustrates the brutal consequences of that violence, often with gruesome results. It's as troubling as it is entertaining but Super is certainly a brave film. It's made without compromise, well written and the big names in the cast seem far bigger than the film they appear in. Like I say, it's a curious picture.
- Gunn originally wrote the film before his debut hit Slither and was encouraged to push on with the project by his ex wife, Jenna Fischer. Fischer also discussed the script with her co-star Wilson on the set of their sitcom The Office. Wilson agreed to star in the film straight away, as did Page who Wilson worked with in their earlier film Juno.
- Fillion, Sean Gunn, Rooker and Henry all would work together with James Gunn in Guardians Of The Galaxy. They also would have all appeared on screen in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 but Fillion's cameo was ultimately cut.
- Fillion's character, who inspires Frank to create a superhero alias, is loosely based on an actual character from a show called Bibleman, a direct-to-video series of Christian-themed children's show featuring a costumed superhero of that name. The series ran from 1995-2010 before being revived in 2016.
What's Not to Like?
The problem with Super is that with so many ideas up in the air, it can't help but drop some. It doesn't know what it wants to be, veering wildly from satirical superhero flick to a downbeat character study to an almost nihilistic orgy of violence. It never seems to flow the way you want it to, which makes watching the film feel a rather disjointed and uneven experience. You're laughing one minute and then feeling embarrassed that you did the next. It's a difficult film to recommend - not because it's not good but because it isn't exactly entertaining.
Like Juno, the film feels almost stubbornly 'indie' with unglamorous location shoots, natural lighting and a soundtrack that feels interchangeable between tracks. While Kick-Ass has plenty of things that are more mass appeal like slow motion shootouts, Hit-Girl and Nicolas Cage's spot-on impersonation of Adam West, Super feels much more niche by comparison. It also isn't helped by the fact that it followed its big budget competition so soon afterwards - the film only received a limited theatrical run in the UK and I can see why. It's almost trying to be esoteric, a deliberately off-beat take on the superhero myth that works hard to put people off. I sense that there is a good film in here somewhere, buried beneath niche references and gory ultraviolence. But perhaps Gunn should have been prepared to compromise on his pet project and make necessary changes in order to make this film more palatable instead of this particularly bitter and acquired taste.
Should I Watch It?
At its heart, Super is a super dark, super violent and super smart take on the whole myth of superheroes. With more effort, it could have been a classic. However, the film suffers from a director not yet in peak form which results in an uneven tone and depressing atmosphere. Thankfully, Wilson and Page are in cracking form here and their performances make the film watchable, if not entirely memorable.
Great For: people fed up with the deluge of superhero films in recent years, reinforcing stereotypes about people working in comic book stores, dividing opinion
Not So Great For: viewers under the age of 18, putting Marvel off from hiring Gunn, anyone unused to indie cinema
What Else Should I Watch?
Between this and Kick-Ass, I'd have to plump for Mark Millar's adaptation which is more fun and feels less disparaging than Super does. Chloe Grace Moretz bursts onto the A-list with her amazing performance as Hit Girl and she also steals the show in the underwhelming Kick-Ass 2 which was otherwise a disappointment. Gunn himself credits the largely forgotten comedy Hero At Large with depicting realistic superheroes as John Ritter plays a struggling actor who stops a robbery in a silly costume and decides to try crime fighting for real. But there are certainly more subversive takes on superheroes, especially since Marvel began flooding the market with countless properties. Suicide Squad is an unsteady mix of villains doing some do-gooding, Margot Robbie nailing the part of Harley Quinn forever more and Jared Leto ruining The Joker. Much more entertaining was Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool which pokes endless fun at any and all topics related to superhero films, fully aware that he's also playing one.
Vigilante films have been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years after the term was monopolised by Michael Winner's gritty Death Wish in 1974. Liam Neeson revived his career with the brutal action thriller Taken, Keanu Reeves returned to action cinema for the first time in years in the excellent John Wick and Denzel Washington found success behind the recent revival of The Equalizer. But these days, it isn't just the men going out of their way to settle scores. In this post-Weinstein landscape, the ensemble superhero effort Birds of Prey sees Robbie reprising the role of Quinn as she leads a team of bad-ass femme fatales on a bloody trail for revenge while Promising Young Woman is a disturbing tale of a woman conducting her own quest for justice against men looking to take advantage of her.
Frank Darbo / The Crimson Bolt
Libby / Boltie
The Holy Avenger
Detective John Felkner
Release Date (UK)
8th July, 2011
© 2022 Benjamin Cox