Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2011

Behind its time

James Gunn's 'Super' can't find a fresh take on increasingly stale material

IFC Midnight
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo and Nathan Fillion
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Sometimes you have to wonder how much better an idea would work if it had simply been made at a different time. Case in point: James Gunn's Super, which has come along at time in which just about every possible iteration of a superhero saga has been done. Every comic-book hero has been, or is being, adapted to the screen. Every wrinkle has been covered.

Aside from the obvious franchises, we've had animated superhero films (The Incredibles); dark, allegorical superhero films (Watchmen); superhero romantic comedies (My Super Ex-Girlfriend); movies about schools for superheroes (Sky High, Zoom); superhero parodies (Superhero Movie); movies about reluctant, lazy superheroes (Hancock); and black comedies about real people who try to become superheroes (Kick-Ass, Special).

And now we have Super, which falls into the latter category, and not surprisingly feels like it's retreading all too familiar territory. At this point, the only person I want to see take on a superhero movie is Quentin Tarantino, and let's face it, that's probably not going to happen.

I have to convince myself that, sooner or later, the superhero bubble will burst, right? Then the trend can die down and eventually, maybe, a project like this one can find some genuine inspiration. The thing is, I have little doubt that Gunn could make this work. In the right circumstances, at least.

There are even great ideas within Super. For instance: the way spurned would-be hero Frank is inspired to fight crime by a television character called the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a Christian crusader on the All-Jesus Network who thwarts Satan's diabolical schemes in every episode. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks an entire film based around the Holy Avenger could somehow work? Isn't the superhero movie/religious satire just about the only hybrid that hasn't been done?)

Or consider the following scenario, culminating in what is easily my favorite sequence of the film: Frank (Rainn Wilson), a short-order cook by day who has decided to become a superhero after his wife is seduced/drugged/kidnaped by a drug kingpin (Kevin Bacon), is in his early days as a crimefighter. He calls himself the Crimson Bolt. (The costume, naturally, is handmade by Frank himself.)

One night, instead of fighting crime, he agrees to join some friends to take in a movie. While waiting at the theatre, he is offended by a man who shamelessly cuts in line. Frank's response? To run across the street to his car, put on his costume, come back to the ticket line and beat the offending line-cutter's face in with a wrench.

Now that is black comedy - and also the moment in the film when we realize Frank is not just some heartbroken loser with a distorted sense of street justice, but a deeply disturbed individual. The scene, at least on its own, works exceptionally well because of all the different ways it pulls at us. At this point, we've come to at least tacitly cheer Frank/Crimson Bolt on, if only out of morbid curiosity. Then Gunn throws in a completely unjustifiable act of psychotic violence that we nonetheless laugh at, and kind of enjoy, because the perpetrator's act was such a crass violation of social code. I mean, who hasn't wanted to beat up some stranger for rudely cutting in line?

(The scene reminds me of Lars von Trier's great short film Occupations - in which a man, played by von Trier himself, viciously brutalizes an annoying audience member during a movie screening. It's three minutes long, available online, and one of the finest moments of von Trier's career.)

But despite that inspired moment, the film runs into problems with its own internal logic thereafter. In later scenes, after he's been joined by an equally pyschotic sidekick (played by Ellen Page), he insists that he draws a moral line at ultraviolence inflicted upon relatively innocent people. This despite the fact that we've seen otherwise. Nothing is made of this apparent disconnect; the film seems to have forgotten quite what it was doing, almost as if the movie theatre scene were meant to have been saved for later in the film, or cut out altogether.

But perhaps that's ultimately a nitpicky concern on my part. Ultimately the problem with Super isn't its logistical inconsistencies, but the fact that it plays out like a half-baked idea searching for relevance - looking for its own fresh take on the genre where there are none to be found.

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