When it first came out in theaters, James Gunn’s Super was dismissed by many as a rip-off of Kick-Ass – another superhero film based on the graphic novel of the same name by Mark Millar. This is both inaccurate and unfortunate. It is inaccurate because Gunn had been working on Super since 2002, years before the release of the the Kick-Ass graphic novels. (Thankfully, Millar has been quick to correct those who scream rip-off at Gunn.) And it is unfortunate since Super is a far more enjoyable story. Indeed – if I may break out a testing analogy – Super is to Kick-Ass as Man of La Macha is to Don Quixote.
I think most are familiar with the character of Don Quixote – a man enchanted by tales of chivalry, who decides to become a knight errant. What fewer know, however, is that Miguel de Cervantes meant for Don Quixote to be a satire of chivalric romances and a cautionary tale against such idealism. And yet most people think of Don Quixote as a charming figure rather than a comedic one; a character who may be mad but one whose madness has made him into something greater. Much of the fault of this lies with the musical, Man of La Macha, which said that Don Quixote’s mad quest was not in vain, so long as one person’s life was saved by the crazed knight.
Similar comparisons can be drawn between Kick-Ass and Super. At its’ core Kick-Ass is violence porn for teenage boys (or those with the mentality of one), disguised as a superhero satire. It has all the subtlety of a whoopee cushion. Like Millar’s other adapted graphic novel Wanted, it aspires toward deconstruction of the superhero genre while managing only destruction. In the final analysis Kick-Ass, as either a comic or a movie, is essentially heartless with no statement to make besides “Superheroes are stupid and you’re stupid for liking them”.
On the surface Super would seem to be the same kind of movie. Both films center upon a loser hero in a shabby costume. Both have scenes of our hero getting his ass-kicked as he realizes that a costume is not enough to strike terror into the hearts of evil. But that is where the similarities end, for the heart and message of Super is far, far different.
Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is something of a schlub. A simple, religious man, he works as a short-order cook and doesn’t seem to have any hobbies past watching TV and drawing. Indeed, he can only think of two good things that have happened in his life; his helping a police officer to catch a criminal and his marriage to Sarah (Liv Tyler) – a recovering drug-addict, who worked as a waitress at his diner.
Aware that his marriage is falling apart, Frank is still stunned one day to find that Sarah has moved out and is now apparently now staying with Jacques (Kevin Bacon) – a local vice lord, who operates out of the club Sarah had just started working at. With Sarah’s drug addiction readily enabled by Jacques, the police unwilling to take Frank’s story seriously (They think it far more likely that Sarah ditched her loser husband than that she’s an unaware captive) and Frank’s own attempts at rescuing Sarah ending in a beating, Frank is at a loss what to do next.
Inspiration comes to Frank while watching a children’s show about a Christian superhero; The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Having a vision where he believes he is touched by the finger of God, Frank is inspired to create a costume and become a superhero. Unaware of just what that might entail, for Frank is no fanboy, he journeys to a local comic book store to do research on superheroes without superpowers. It is here that he meets Libby (Ellen Page); a 22-year-old clerk who eventually becomes Frank’s girl wonder.
It is here that the parallels with Don Quixote become inescapable. Both Frank and Don Quixote view the world in simple, black-and-white terms. There is Good and there is Evil and Evil triumphs whenever good people do nothing to oppose it. But more than that, both men see things that others do not, with Quixote boasting an ability to see through the enchantments that mask the monsters of the world and Frank claiming a gift for visions. Indeed, in one of the film’s most artful moments, we get to see how Frank views Sarah – as a glowing angel, being held down by the devilish Jacques and his demonic thugs as her light grows dimmer.
However, Super differs from Don Quixote in one important respect: James Gunn is wise enough to let the audience draw their own conclusions about Frank’s mental state. Is Frank a madman who believes he is talking to God, finally pushed over the edge by his increased feelings of powerlessness and the loss of his wife? Or are Frank’s visions of evil in the world around him real and his belief that he has been chosen to fight that evil true? The movie offers enough evidence for both viewpoints to be valid, even in the closing narration when Frank defends his actions and their ultimate outcome.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Frank is crazy or not. Gunn’s thesis is that of Man Of La Macha; that the battle is not against Evil itself but against the apathy to do nothing and just accept the world as it is. Gunn suggests that Frank will be victorious because at least he is trying to make the world a better place, even if he is a funny-looking fat man in a red suit. This further separates Super from Kick-Ass for while this movie does make light of how Frank goes about his holy mission, it does not often make light of the mission itself.
Does the movie suggest that we should all put on a costume and hide in alleys waiting for muggers to thwart? Of course not. But it does suggest there is something seriously wrong with a society so quick to question the motivations of those who have no hidden agenda in what they do to help others.
The cast of this film is eclectic yet perfect. Fans of The Office, will likely be stunned by Rainn Wilson’s portrayal of Frank and not just because of the violence involved. Frank is, like Terry Pratchett’s Captain Carrot, a man whose views are simple but not stupid and Wilson perfectly captures the conflict of a loving, spiritual man of peace who thinks he honestly has been called to smite the wicked in God’s name.
I was afraid based on the previews that Ellen Page would be playing the same stock quirky Indy Film heroine she’s portrayed so many times before. Yet, like Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth, she quickly transforms into something different. Delighting in the violence of her role as “Boltie”, she is astonished to find that Frank has deep convictions about not killing deeper motivations than revenge and doesn’t share her fetish for wearing a costume and hurting people. Despite this, she is still supportive of the quest to save Frank’s wife, even after her attempts to seduce him fall flat.
Kevin Bacon is delightfully douchey as Jacques, seemingly channeling John Travolta’s crime-boss character from the Thomas Jane Punisher movie but managing to stay on the right side of hammy. He is a sociopath who views everyone around him as a replaceable commodity, channeled through the filter of every rich jerk you ever knew in high school.
Fans of Firefly and Castle will probably be disappointed to find out that Nathan Fillion’s role is little more than a cameo. And yet it is a great and glorious cameo, with Fillion in full-on Captain Hammer mode as he portrays The Holy Avenger as an obvious parody of Willie Ames’ Bible-Man.
The one weak spot in the cast is Liv Tyler, who is given relatively little to do save look beautiful and act stoned as she plays the Dulceina to Wilson’s Quixote. Thankfully, she carries off her meager role beautifully and unlike many actors asked to portray addicts she manages to convincingly shift between the various mood swings the character must go through. Still, with all the other development the other characters get, it’s a bit jarring that we never really get a chance to see the inner beauty that Frank talks about when describing her, apart from one flashback scene.
I’ll give you all one final word of warning, before I finish. Do not go into this movie expecting a dark comedy. While this movie has comedic moments, it is very dark and very violent. Those with weak stomachs are advised to skip it entirely. For while this movie does contain a lot of the same violence porn of Kick-Ass, there is one scene that will absolutely stun even the most jaded of horror fans silent.
In the end, I recommend Super to all fans of quality superhero movies.