Shut up crime!
It probably happens more often than we notice: two writers coming up with similar movie concepts at close to the same time. In 2009, Peter Stebbings wrote and directed "Defendor," starring Woody Harrelson as a delusional man who thinks he's a superhero and keeps going after the bad guys, even though he's overmatched. A year later, James Gunn wrote and directed "Super," with Rainn Wilson as an ordinary guy of the Walter Mitty sort who decides to turn superhero after a strip-club owner lures his rehabbing wife away from him and he tires of bullies like him.
Both ideas were probably germinating around the same time, and in the indie tradition, both films were meant to be quirky, ironic, and seriocomic. But there's an overriding sense of the pathetic that can make it hard to watch the main characters in each film play out their scenarios.
Wilson, for example, wraps himself around the sad and clueless qualities of his character, Frank, with the same deadpan embrace as we've seen him use in "The Office." But Gunn ("Slither") belabors the point of Frank's helplessness, illustrating it in scene after scene when two would have been more than ample. I mean, nothing says "cuckold" like his wife's drug provider (slash) lover, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), coming to the house and, hearing Sarah's not home, asking short-order cook Frank to make him something to eat.
By contrast, the normal-looking but over-eager comic-store worker who strikes up a conversation with him (Ellen Page as Libby) seems underdeveloped. Why would she approach and befriend a man like Frank, and, lacking the motive that he has, what would possess her to encourage him in his superhero fantasy and then become caught up in it herself, insisting on being a "Boltie" sidekick to his Crimson Bolt character? Here's where we could have used more development.
Tonally, too, Gunn seems uncertain of the way--content to let the film meander across moods rather than firmly deciding how to integrate the comic-book elements into a narrative that straddles the comic and the serious. One minute "Super" is as POW BIFF BAM as the cover art and costumes imply, and the next minute it's a graphically violent film that slips into high dramatic gear. What's strange too is that while we get the comic-book lettering onscreen, often missing is the comic-book tone. As I said, it's a strange film that covers a lot of stylistic and tonal ground.
"Super" can be deliciously ironic and suggestive--as when the meek (wanting to inherit the earth RIGHT NOW) Frank is watching the All-Jesus Network and sees the Holy Avenger in costume acting out a morality play. All it takes is that one exposure and Frank is imagining a visit from the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) and feeling chosen by God to design a new superhero to fight people like Jacques and reclaim his wife (Liv Tyler).
What happens next is tough to watch, because too many scenes are like the one in "Cool Hand Luke" where Luke keeps getting up in his fistfight against con-boss Drago, only to be savagely beaten again. In real life--and reality tugs at the core of this film more than fantasy or romantic revisionism--wimpy guys seldom beat the bullies. Even though the Crimson Bolt gets his 15 minutes of fame . . . well, life goes on.
Unlike "Defendor," which had a hapless hero who was obviously in over his head, at least Gunn gives us an Everyman smart enough to know he'd better start doing some extensive sit-ups and push-ups to get in shape, and he has no delusions about his own shortcomings. With no super powers, he knows he needs some sort of weapon, and with no Q. to supply him with lethal Bond-like gadgets, he's got to rely on what's at hand.
Ultimately, how much you like or dislike "Super" may depend upon how far you think someone, pushed to the breaking point, will go to seek justice, or how much a person can change his nature under such circumstances.
The big four--Wilson, Page, Tyler, and Bacon--do a commendable job with their roles, and while Page's character is the most problematic, that's no fault of hers. She (and sometimes the others) seems reined in by a script that, unlike Frank, doesn't sense its own limitations.
"Super" is rated R for "strong bloody violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use."
According to Imdb.com, "Super" was shot using a Red One Camera and 4K Redcode RAW source format, so it's no surprise that it looks clean and bright on Blu-ray, transferred to a 50GB Blu-ray disc using the AVC/MPEG-4 codec and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. There's just enough grain to underscore the film experience. Otherwise, everything is hyper-realistic. Colors are bold, detail is exceptional, and edge delineation creates a nice sense of 3-dimensionality.
The audio is comparable, with the featured English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack full of life when it needs to be, pumping sound across the field. Mid-tones are the strongest, perhaps because dialogue is prioritized. Everything is nice and clear, and original music by Tyler Bates drives home how dynamic the soundtrack is. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish.
The making-of features seem obligatory on the surface, but much better as you watch them. Gunn and Wilson team up for a better-than-average commentary track that will have you going back to the film and giving it another look. Meanwhile, a just-under-20-minute making-of extra has the same combination of behind-the-scenes footage and interview clips, but throws a few interesting segments at you--like Wilson learning to shoot Wild West gunfighter style. After that, though, there's not much here: a four-minute "How to Fight Crime at SXSW" bit featuring the Crimson Bolt in costume walking around Austin, Texas; a four-minute look at the animated title sequence; a one-minute deleted scene; and a trailer and TV spot.
Also available as a Best Buy exclusive, which features a DVD of additional bonus features.
I liked "Super" more than I liked "Defendor," because there was a logical basis for the hero's plunge into the world of superheroes, and a sense of logic and realism that prevailed. If only the director could have better integrated the comic, ironic, comic-book, serious dramatic, action, and violent parts that sometimes pull this film in different directions, it might have indeed been "Super."