James Gunn, the director of the gross-out horror/comedy Slither, has solidified himself a master of depravity. His sick sensibility has entertained audiences since he broke onto the scene years ago. Then what it is about his latest venture, Super, that seems so unnerving? It’s hard to tell if all of the elements of the movie are intended to be as disturbing as they were to me, but shock is certainly a prominent part in the film that follows a down-on-his-luck man who decides to become a superhero when his wife leaves him.
Honestly, shock is something that Gunn does brilliantly. The visual excess and overwhelming violence helps drive home some of the stronger messages of the film. Even though the film is remarkably low-budget, and it shows in terms of the film’s setting, there’s a certain quaintness to it. Super never gets bogged down by over-the-top special effects or elaborately choreographed fight sequences. Instead, it recognizes its own limitations and plays to a rather small stage, enjoying its own limited production value and its limited audience.
That’s another part of Super that should be acknowledged, and even commended. Super is not for everyone. It doesn’t pander in a desperate attempt to attract a bigger audience. Rather, it ropes in its small audience (maybe larger than it normally would be, considering the mainstream appeal of Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page) and does everything it can to drive them away. In between the bloodshed and the generally offensive material, Super has a lot to work with to unnerve even the most hardcore of viewers, but it can’t seem to overcome some of its initial problems to make the leap from enjoyable schlock to breakaway cult favorite.
For all of the strengths of the visual and the performances, Super never seems to be able to compensate for the weakness of its protagonist. Rainn Wilson is charming enough playing his part, but the issue is that, the character doesn’t seem to be written as a charming kind of guy. There is plenty of evidence of this, but most clear is the mission that pushes him to become the superhero, the Crimson Bolt. As previously stated, the driving force is his wife, played by an almost unrecognizable Liv Tyler, leaving him for druglord, Jacques, a delightfully campy and over-the-top Kevin Bacon, who seems to relish every moment onscreen. His wife is an ex-drug addict who Frank (Rainn Wilson), claims to be saving from a life of addiction and misery. There’s only one problem. She doesn’t want to be saved. While this could have made for some great comedic moments, at a certain point it becomes kind of creepy. The rhetoric used (the line “She’s mine!” is actually spoken) is disconcerting, but I was never sure if this was intentional or not. It seems clear that Frank thinks he’s doing the right thing, but even in the film’s conclusion, it is never really established whether we are supposed to side with Frank on what is, essentially, a suicide mission to kidnap his wife back.
It is this type of moral ambiguity, paired with overt religious messages, that forces Super to falter. It is never firmly established which elements of the narrative are intended as satire or not. Especially given that the film starts off as a clearly marked comedy before sliding into some surprisingly dark territory, the differentiation needs to be made more clear. Still, the film’s evolution from a good-natured comedy to a darker study of the blurred lines of vigilante justice and heroism is a message that is well-received and well-executed, despite its painfully selfish and morally deluded protagonist. While it will more than likely be a forgotten exercise in the superhero genre, it makes for an entertaining enough time, even at its most disturbed.