There's a new genre of film emerging, so new it doesn't even have a name yet. "Realistic Superhero Movies", "Hipster Superhero Movies", "Indie Superhero Movies", whatever name we eventually settle on, this genre has already established its own formulas and clichés, despite there being only four entries so far, give or take a few. Super is the latest of these entries, and while it is one of better ones, it also does absolutely nothing new.
Most of these films have been indie flicks that never found widespread mainstream release, so for those not in the know, the four films falling under this genre so far are, from best to worst: Special, Defendor, Super, and Kick-Ass. Yes, the most well known of the four is also the least worthy of your time; good, but hardly representative of the best the genre has to offer.
Films of this genre tend to play out like Taxi Driver if instead of getting a Mohawk, Travis Bickle wore spandex. Super is no exception. Rainn Wilson takes the Bickle role, a socially awkward, mentally-disturbed individual who seeks to solve the injustices he perceives in the world through violence, with mixed results. Jodie Foster's character from Taxi Driver has her character traits divided between two characters here: Liv Tyler is Wilson's tarnished damsel in distress, his estranged drug addict wife who is under the sway of the local drug lord; and Ellen Page is the jail bait sidekick (of legal age, in this case, but the age gap between the two is still significant), a young comic book vendor who joins Wilson in his crusade.
Of all the films of its kind, Super comes to closest to dethroning Kick-Ass in the category of gratuitous violence. Wilson's alter ego dishes out brutal, sloppily-executed damage upon a host of characters, whether deserving or otherwise. Heads are blown apart by bullets, people are stabbed to death, genitalia is mangled with blades, the film pulls no punches. However, the tone & portrayal of said violence is inconsistent. Certain scenes are handled in such as way as to make the audience feel uncomfortable, such as a scene where Wilson attacks a man with a pipe wrench, presumably killing him or causing a serious head injury, for the crime of cutting in line. At one point Ellen Page's character leads Wilson to nearly beat to death a young man she suspects may have keyed her friend's car. These scenes seem to be set up to rebuke the societal glorification of violence, but are outweighed by the majority of the scenes which revile in that very glorification. Director James Gunn's goal may have been to draw his audience in with the fun, gleefully gory action scenes only to pull a bait 'n switch and chide them for enjoying it, much like Michael Haneke's Funny Games. Unfortunately, all it succeeds in doing is make the film feel at odds with itself.
To the film's credit, it brings one new element to the table by incorporating religion in Wilson's motivation. Among the influences that lead Wilson to don his costume is a fictitious Christian children's show called The Holy Avenger, featuring a hilarious turn by Nathan Fillion. The show is a rather obvious parody of the real life Bibleman series, and as someone who was unfortunate enough to watch that show as a kid (I still have the VHS tapes), I can confirm that yeah, that's pretty much exactly what it was like (with the exception of the abstinence episode. Trust me, in Christian children's programming, sex does not exist). Anyway, as a result of a dream brought on by the show, Wilson comes under the delusion that he has been ordained by God to wage war on crime as a superhero. The problem with that is that it ultimately adds nothing to the film beyond another layer of disturbing psychosis to the protagonist. The film doesn't seem to be making any statement about religion driving people to violence anymore than Kick-Ass was saying that comic books drive kids to violence. In today's social climate, casting a violent religious fanatic as your main character is something that must be handled with severe caution, and to add it in with no apparent point to it seems very ill-advised.
Even beyond the violence, the film goes out of its way to disturb its audience, again with no apparent goal in mind. From a macabre hentai-inspired dream sequence to the first female-on-male rape scene I've seen since The Rookie, moments of extreme emotional discomfort are littered throughout the story with little connection between them. Ellen Page's role itself is rather inexplicable, as unlike Wilson, she has no apparent motivation for her actions. Wilson has a long history of hardship and abuse, a lonely depressed man with no friends for whom losing his wife to a drug dealer is the final straw that breaks his mind, leading him down his irrational path. Page, on the other hand, has plenty of friends, including a loving boyfriend, plus a stable job, nice apartment, etc. She has no major hardships are suffers no major injustice that the audience is informed of, and yet she behaves far more psychotically than Wilson's character ever does, reveling in violence and killing without provocation or regret.
Finally, Super makes the final act mistake that almost every film like it has made. It set out to ground itself firmly in the real world, with the fights being awkward and messy, Wilson having difficulty finding crime to fight rather than there being a mugging every few blocks, all the standard tactics of a "realistic" superhero film. The problem is that these films can never figure out how to make the last act feel climatic without bending or outright breaking their own rules. While Wilson's final assault on his enemy's mansion doesn't quite break the laws of physics, Murphy's law does take a few minutes off. He gets all the lucky shots in, all the guards happen to look away at the exact right time, and none of the wounds he receives along the way manage to be fatal, or enough to put him out of action. Honestly, I'm waiting for one of these films to have the courage to just have to good guys loose. Stick to your premise and end with the exact bloody mess of failure that would really result from a bunch of crazy people trying to fight crime in brightly colored outfits.
Super is a film filled with many interesting, but ultimately unfulfilled ideas. It aspires to by many things: a statement on violence, religion, the superhero ideal, but succeeds in none of them. It's definitely James Gunn's most ambitious film to date, his previous two, Tromeo & Juliet & Slither, being largely superficial gore fests, but ultimately it proves to be an overreach. It's not a horrible film as it does succeed at its core premise, that of a dark comedy about a depressed loner vainly struggling to control his miserable life by becoming a makeshift superhero. The performances are excellent: Wilson manages to ellicit genuine sympathy as an incredibly lonely man desperately searching for some kind of happiness, Kevin Bacon is an often times funny but still hatable villain, and no amount of bad writing in the world can keep me from enjoying the spectacle of Ellen Page in a spandex superheroine outfit, especially with her swearing up a storm and killing people with Wolverine claws. It's worth a watch, but tries to be more than it's capable of being, and frequently stumbles as a result.