When you ask a group for their opinion, James Gunn’s ‘Super’ is simply polarizing. Some will adore it, some will despise it, there is no middle ground. Most of the common complaints about the film happen to be on the film’s over abundance of violence and how it seems rather unnecessary and that it doesn’t focus on the story and characters enough. Having seen ‘Super’ multiple times since it came out in 2011 on DVD, I can’t help but disagree. It’s probably the most realistic superhero film, personally. Even if the violence is nuts and the characters are a little too fucked up, there is a reason behind it all.
For those who have never even heard of this film, ‘Super’ stars Rainn Wilson as a man named Frank D’Arbo, a chef at the local diner who is married to a recovering drug addict, Sarah (played by Liv Tyler). One day, a sleazy dealer named Jaques (Kevin Bacon) comes into Sarah’s life and she leaves Frank. Through a Christian TV show and some strange visions, Frank turns himself into The Crimson Bolt, a superhero who bashes peoples’ heads in with a pipe wrench. Along the way he meets Libby (Ellen Page) and the two try to find Jaques and get even.
It may sound like it came straight out of a Troma film (which is where director James Gunn started), but ‘Super’ more than that. It’s the study of a psychopath who finally breaks down after years of humiliation and fights back against the world. The opening scene really demonstrates this best by showing Frank’s past. He claims to only have two perfect moments in his life and both are relatively minor. The first is he married Sarah just as she was recovering from her addiction and he gave the cops a small tip on where to find a criminal. The rest of his life was nothing but abuse from his peers. His father beat him as a child, he was bullied at school and he was treated like shit his entire life. For example, we see a teenage Frank at prom with a beautiful girl at prom getting their photo taken. Later, he finds her having sex with the photographer trying to tell Frank to go away. Because of this tragic past, Frank is now a slightly sheltered and lonely man who just needs someone who cares about him. He just wants to be good and treated the same.
After Sarah leaves him, Frank finally just breaks down and has had enough. Through his breakdown, he has visions of a corny Christian TV show character called ‘The Holy Avenger’ (played by Nathan Fillion) and tentacles coming in and scalping him so that he can be touched by God. The scene is really brutal and gross, but it also serves as a way of showing how far Frank has been pushed by using these sick and brutal delusions.
Now, after some comic book research, Frank has become The Crimson Bolt and starts fighting crime. From drug dealers to pedophiles to line butters, Frank takes on anyone committing evil. Some have said that Frank doesn’t suffer any repercussions while fighting crime and seems to get away scott free. How would that be so if Frank is easily noticeable by anyone close to him, people close to him are traumatized or killed and he was really close to being arrested or sent to an asylum? He suffers a lot of the consequences during his journey to find Sarah. The line cutting scene is an excellent example. Frank is at a movie theatre and a young couple cut in line. After Frank confronts them and they tell him to fuck off, he goes back to his car and dresses into his Crimson Bolt outfit in broad daylight where people can see him. He walks out again and bashes the couple’s heads in in front of a large line of people who can write down his license plate and report it to the police and maybe even recognize him if the crowd didn’t run away immediately after. Even the cop Frank encounters in the beginning of the film knew it was him as the Bolt and if it weren’t for Jaques’ hit men (led by Michael Rooker) killing this man, Frank would be in jail. There is enough ways Frank D’Arbo could have been caught but he got off lucky without a single arrest or report from somebody.
Eventually Frank encounters Libby who becomes his sidekick, Boltie. Her character in this film is the perfect foil to Frank and his motives. She just wants to go out and fight just for the sake of wanting to be a bad ass without any regards . Frank is fighting because of how society broke him and he wants to get even with the wrong in the world. She also fails to be doing this for the greater good, she doesn’t care if her efforts affect others. Their first mission together involves her trying to kill someone for keying her friend’s car and she also forced Frank into sex with her. Libby’s selfish attitude and careless brutality helped Frank focus his mission on evil instead of going after petty crooks like the line butter and the guy who keyed the friend’s car.
Libby later convinces Frank to get better weapons, such as knives and guns and they raid Jaques’ home on a farm. At this point, people started complaining about the brutal violence saying it was too over the top and unnecessary. First of all, James Gunn used to work for Troma and since then wrote the Dawn of the Dead remake and wrote/directed Slither from 2006. Most of his filmography has been ultra-violent and gross films, so what else was there to expect from Super? Also, the over the top violence works very well. The violence seems to be there both for the darker comedy’s sake as well as from an analytical perspective.
The over the top nature of the violence can be explained as Frank possibly imagining a lot of this and we are seeing the grey line between reality and fantasy on his part since everything is told from his perspective and we already know he is disturbed. There are those moments that are real, like Sarah’s reaction to Frank stabbing Jaques to death and those that are a little too fantastical, such as part of Libby’s head being blown off during the shootout at Jaques’ farm. Gunn has also said he was inspired to make this from comics he read as a kid, which explains how unique, cartoony and fantastical the film can be.
The main idea of ‘Super’ is to study Frank and have audiences question if what he’s doing is right or wrong. There is a method to his madness, but is his journey worth all of the suffering onto others? By blurring the lines of reality and fantasy, both sides are presented equally as well. Personally, Frank is a psychopath, but considering the context of his life, it is understandable why he went to such extremes to get Sarah back. He is a lonely man who needed someone and after she bailed for Jaques, Frank felt that he stole her from him and wanted to get even with not just Jaques but also society for being so evil. The character of Libby is an excellent foil to Frank, the ultra violence works flawlessly in the film and I think it’s the most realistic vigilante film ever made. ‘Super’ may still polarize others, but it is still worth at least a watch for it’s ideas and it’s brilliant take on the vigilante.