James Gunn has made the ultimate Troma movie with his new deranged superhero black comedy "Super," and I say that with all the mixed feelings that would suggest.
To be honest… it made me kinda gooshy.
I don't love Troma movies. I get the appeal, but for the most part, it's too corny, too gross, too lowbrow for me. I can't laugh ironically, so I can't really laugh. Just doesn't do it for me. I've seen most of the Troma "classics," and I certainly respect that Lloyd Kaufman built this legendary exploitation house out of pretty much nothing. I really like that James Gunn got his start with Troma and that he's definitely continued to fly his freak flag long after getting over the walls of Hollywood. So if anyone was going to finally make an authentic Troma film that just happened to star real recognizable movie stars, it was going to be him.
You're going to hear a lot of comparisons between this film and "Kick-Ass," but they were chasing totally different goals. "Kick-Ass" is about a bunch of deeply broken people, but they do manage to become heroes of a sort, and Matthew Vaughn's film traded heavily on the iconography of superhero cinema so far in an affectionate way. "Super" is something else entirely, more akin to a "Taxi Driver" with dick jokes than any other superhero film. It's a sad film, with waaaaaaay more religion than you might expect, and it grapples with some wild shifts in tone.
The film tells the story of Frank (Rainn Wilson), and in the film's opening moments the entire film is laid out for you as Frank describes the two perfect moments in his life. One was when he married his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), and the other was when he was on the street one day and saw a criminal running from the cops duck into a store to hide. Frank told the cops where to look, and that act made him feel powerful, like he was part of something. Those two perfect moments sum up who Frank is… a man who loves his wife and who aches to do something big and important to fight evil.
Frank's given the subject of evil a lot of thought, and he's had visions of a religious nature his whole life. When Sarah leaves him suddenly, Frank goes into a personal tailspin that culminates in an outrageous religious experience that absolutely makes the list of the five strangest things I've seen in a movie theater this year. Turns out Sarah is a recovering addict, and when she falls off the wagon, she ends up meeting Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a scumbag who is happy to use his access to drugs to win Sarah away from Frank. Frank interprets his religious experience as a call to make a costume, rename himself The Crimson Bolt, and fight evil so he can win Sarah back and save her life.
Frank's version of fighting evil, though, seems to consist mainly of beating people's heads in with a giant pipe wrench.
It's hard to explain "Super" precisely because it's all over the place in terms of tone and story, but somehow that shotgun scattershot approach doesn't cripple the film. James Gunn is one of those guys who has had some big mainstream success ("Dawn Of The Dead," "Scooby Doo") but whose heart is pure cult. I thought when it was first announced that "Super" was going to end up playing a lot like "The Specials," a superhero comedy that Gunn wrote and starred in, but he's not repeating himself here at all. This feels like you're getting 100% pure James Gunn in this film, with no filter. He plays havoc with his characters, with the genre, with the notion of religious visions, and more. He's got so much he want to get to that the film is dizzying at times.
As Frank's reign of terror gets more attention, he ends up crossing paths with Libby (Ellen Page), a girl who works at a comic book shop, and she becomes the only person he can talk to about his new calling. She designs her own costume so she can become Boltie, his kid sidekick, but almost as soon as she gets that costume on, something tears open inside LIbby and she seems to lose all moral compass. Her performance alone would get me to recommend the movie. She's like a crazy little animal in the film. It's kind of amazing. She's not Hit Girl, either. She's not played as particularly competent or, you know, sane. And through her character, Gunn is able to further mutate certain tropes of the genre, like the tension inherent to the hero/sidekick relationship, explored here in a way I've never seen before.
Many of Gunn's favorite collaborators show up here, like Michael Rooker as one of Kevin Bacon's hired goons or Nathan Fillion as the hilarious and disturbing The Holy Avenger. Everyone seems energized by the material. Wilson is flat-out upsetting as Frank and the Crimson Bolt, and every time you're in danger of sympathizing with the character, Wilson does something to intentionally remind you that this guy is dangerous and unbalanced and not at all heroic. Kevin Bacon is so gross in the film that you're afraid you'll get some of it on you just sitting there watching the film. The entire film has that same ragged visual energy that the Troma films have, but with some polish that no Troma film has. It's that energy that comes from shooting fast and loose, and it works here, especially underlined with that Tyler Bates score. When the film gets rough, the violence is incredibly over-the-top and hilariously vile, and there comes a point when the film stops being funny precisely because the gore is so extreme.
"Super" is never going to be a mainstream giant hit. No way. It's too outrageous, too filthy, too pleased about all of that. But it ripped the roof of with this midnight crowd, and I think the cult audience for the movie will be a vocal and energetic one, and for good reason. I may not love every moment of "Super," but I think it's an embarrassment of riches, and a great personal way into the superhero genre.
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