A film review by Craig J. Koban August 30, 2011
2011, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.
2011, no MPAA rating, 96 mins.
Frank/Crimson Bolt: Rainn Wilson / Libby/Boltie: Ellen Page / Sarah:
Liv Tyler / Jacques: Kevin Bacon / The Holy Avenger: Nathan
Fillion / Det. Felkner: Gregg Henry / Abe: Michael Rooker / Sgt.
Fitzgibbon: William Katt / Voice of God: Rob Zombie
few films have made me less happy and fulfilled in the aftermath of seeing
them like SUPER. It made me
feel depressingly empty: the film is a wasteful, witless,
self-indulgently unfunny, emotionally distancing, oftentimes offensive,
and puerile and vacant attempt at sophisticated satire.
In terms of completely blindsiding audience expectations, SUPER is
indeed a rousing success. It worked
on me, seeing as I certainly did not expect to see something so
amateurishly appalling and lacking in any real redeeming qualities.
The film – from James Gunn, writer/director of SLITHER – bares more than a fleeting resemblance to last year's monumentally better KICK-ASS. That film - also involving low-rent super hero wannabes – worked well by devilishly playing against the conventions of comic book pulp fiction and it did so with an incendiary irony and subversive edge.
real problem with SUPER – outside of its sometimes plagiaristic
similarities to KICK-ASS – is that the
makers seem to have absolutely no clue whatsoever where to dig
their satirical jabs. Just
what are they saying here?
Are they commenting on, as mentioned, the naiveté of viewer
expectations, the nature of on-screen violence, the nature of religious
fundamentalism as a devastatingly uncivilized force, the alluring pull of
vigilant justice, or a combination of all of those?
SUPER seems thematically schizophrenic throughout.
There is no real discourse here in the film: it seems more
interested in just being cheaply sensationalistic.
consider the main “hero” (if you can call him that) of the story,
Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson): Instead of being a sympathetic do-gooder
that actually wants to aid people in need like the high school aged vigilante in KICK-ASS,
he is – at face value – a religious zealot that believes that God has
touched his soul and convinced him to be a costumed clad sadist.
This guy does not just want to catch criminals and thieves, he
wants to brutally injure them or, in most cases, viscously murder them.
How on earth am I supposed to root for such a sick-minded
degenerate? He’s nothing
more than a dweeby, anti-social, and dangerously unhinged Travis Bickle in
the beginning of the film Frank, in voiceover, goes out of his way to
explain how his life has been a series of failures.
As a thirtysomething short order cook at a dilapidated local diner
with no high career ambitions, Frank certainly is a schluby loser in
adulthood. He has, however,
had two “perfect moments” in his existence: the first being when he
pointed a cop in the direction of a fleeing criminal and the second being when
he married his wife, Sarah (a very miscast and underused Liv Tyler), who
is a recovering drug and alcohol addict.
Unfortunately for the perpetually down-on-his-luck Frank, Sarah
hooks up with some old druggie buddies and finds herself seduced by
Jacques (Kevin Bacon, looking unhealthily thin and haggard), a local strip
club owner and drug enforcer.
now alone, finds this all to be too much to bare. He turns to God, habitually prays, and even watches an
embarrassingly B-grade Christian-themed TV show that preaches spiritual
platitudes with an unfiltered obviousness.
One of the super heroes in the programs (on the All-Jesus
Network) is named The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) who almost seems to be
speaking to Frank from the set. Frank
then begins to form a plan to become his own dirt bag-busting costumed
crusader. Later on his idea
is given the motivational push it requires: In a vision, octopus-like
tentacles grab and secure him, cuts off the top of his cranium, exposes
his brain, whereby God is able to touch it with his finger to inspire him
(I’m not making this up).
now has a calling, but he needs to do some research. He attends a local comic shop and asks for assistance from Libby (Ellen Page) who gives him comics based on characters without super
powers. He then tries to come
up with the best weapon that his heroic alter ego will wield; in his case,
wrench. Finally, he
constructs a costume so pathetically cobbled together that it looks like
it were made of rejected extra parts of worn-out clothing.
From the pits of despair emerges The Crimson Bolt, who goes on a
one-man tear through his city, gleefully putting crooks into the hospital
or six feet under. Eventually,
and while on pursuit of Jacques and his wife, he begrudgingly gets his own
sidekick in Libby herself, who dubs herself Boltie and seems to share
Frank’s taste for skull-cracking mayhem, but also has a deeply chilling
proclivity to fulfill her sexual wish fulfillment fantasy of raping her
partner, which Batman, to be fair, never had to deal with.
does so many things so wrong that I grew dizzy pondering them, from its meanderingly
episodic plot that flimsily looks for an overriding narrative, its queasy
porn-film aesthetic and lethargic and flavorless direction, and the way
it takes woefully easy, fish-in-a-barrel shots at organized religion and
the one thing that really, really perturbed me was how drearily unfunny
the whole enterprise was, seeing as its balancing of laughs with dark
pathos is ineptly handled. The
film is more perverse and disturbing than funny.
Last I checked, nightmares involving graphic anal prison rape are
not funny, nor are scenes of its hero breaking up a child molester
unzipping his pants in a car awaiting a child victim to perform oral sex
on him. Bacon’s villain, at
one point, even drops an N-bomb for no other reason than to get a lame and
even more unsettling is this film’s distasteful level of graphic
violence. I have read how
Gunn stated that he is using the gratuitous gore in the film to comment on
movie bloodletting in general. SUPER
never once convinced me that it was ironically commenting on its violence
because it only seems to be really celebrating and using it as a
sickening punch line to generate gasping chuckles.
The film’s savagery is merciless at times: people are disgustingly blown to
bits; a man has his legs crushed by
a car; genitals are stabbed by projectile weapons; a man’s skull is
bashed repeatedly on a concrete slab until his brain matter spills out; half of a woman’s face and head are blown off with the camera lingering
on the affect-effects in pornographic detail; and, in one vile scene, The Crimson Bolt
gorges his wrench into the skull of an innocent man (albeit an
inconsiderate asshole) whose crime is butting
in line at a local ticket booth. His girlfriend screams after Frank accosts the poor sap, during which Frank
smashes her head in too for good measure. Hardy-frickin’-har.
Wilson is a funny performer, but his work as Frank is unsettlingly
strange. I’m not sure what he’s aiming for here, other than to play
Frank as a freakish loose cannon and psychopathic creep that has all the
nihilistic charm and crazed bloodlust of a serial killer.
He never once comes off as a person worth our sympathy or rooting
interest. Page fares a
bit better as the spunky, if not a bit too histrionic, Libby/Boltie, who
generates some of the film's very few (emphasis on few) laughs at the
expense of her Hulk-sized libido and thirst for killing.
As much as I greatly admire Page, she tries a bit too hard here to
produce sustained laughs and her performance comes off as too
undisciplined and unhinged for its own good.
may question how I could possible hate SUPER while giving a passable grade
to, for example, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.
That latter film was arguably just as toxically violent and vulgar,
but at least it had its tongue-in-cheek and was a successful send-up of
the hyper-violent eccentricities of grindhouse action fare from the
70’s: it was a vividly manic – but reasonable – facsimile of those
films that never took itself seriously.
I ask, in comparison, what SUPER is trying to emulate?
What conventions are the film spoofing?
What are its targets? What’s
it trying to say in mocking those targets?
I don’t have any answers to those questions because the makers of
SUPER don’t either. Instead
of intrepidly engaging in shrewd and razor sharp satire, SUPER is just
content with allowing its numbing violence, chronic sadism, and
ear-splitting vulgarity do the talking.
Its biggest sin is that it is in no way as hysterically or
perceptively sly about its subject matter as it thinks it is, which makes
the film that much more smugly off-putting.