Consider the rather remarkable career trajectory of one James Gunn.
Getting his start in the industry toiling in the filmmaking slums of Troma by penning such amusing grotesqueries as Tromeo And Juliet, Gunn has since honed his skills, climbing the Hollywood tree from scripting Scooby-Doo movies and a remake of Dawn Of The Dead to making his directorial debut with the majestically slimy Slither before finding wide scale acclaim by helming off-beat but lovable team movies and shows for both Marvel and DC – in fact, as of writing, he’s literally sitting on top of the mountain as he attempts to lay out a ten year plan in order to finally untangle the unruly coils of the newly christened DC Cinematic Universe.
Regardless to how it all turns out, however, linking it all together was a down and dirty, indie superhero flick that took the same route as Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and instead gave us a vastly underrated treat that also tied his whole career together.
Short-order cook Frank Darbo has a miserable existence twinned with some noticable emotional problems that are only enhanced when his wife, a recovering addict called Sarah, leaves him for swaggering, shit-heel nightclub owner Jaques and promptly gets back on the junk again. After Frank’s heartfelt attempt to get her back fails (hardly surprising when it consisted mostly of him writhing on top of Jaques’ car bonnet, screaming her name) it seems that his depression and loneliness will all but consume him as he clings to the only two perfect moments in his life so far – his wedding day and a time when he pointed out which way a criminal went to a pursuing cop – but he has an epiphany after he’s given a direct message from God courtesy of some hentai tentacles and a quick craniotomy.
Now realising his place in the world is to deal out punishment to do-badders everywhere, Frank gets further inspiration from Libby, a psychotic teen who works in a comic book store who schools him on the finer points of powerless superheroes and so the Crimson Bolt is born.
Running around town in a bright red costume, literally braining every wrong doer he sees with a dirty great pipe wrench while yelling his catch phrase “Shut up, crime!” at everyone, the police soon brand Frank a menace and after cracking the skull of a douchebag merely because he cut in line, it’s somewhat hard to disagree, but after getting wounded while trying to save Sarah, he gets shelter from an eager Libby who’s disturbingly eager to help.
After making herself Frank’s teen sidekick, Boltie, and after the two work through some, um, personal problems, they tool up to rescue Sarah once and for all; but what Frank may actually saving is his own sanity and sense of self worth.
Essentially what you’d get if Lloyd Kaufman (who naturally has a cameo) had produced Kick-Ass, Super’s chief obstacle is the fact that Gunn’s incredibly vicious yet bizarrely touching seems to have a lot in common after a cursory glance – fuck, even the homemade Crimson Bolt and Kick-Ass costumes look somewhat similar – but if you dive under the surface the differences are legion.
Taking a more threadbare approach and tackling irresponsible superheroics through the prism of mental illness instead of adolescent fandom, Gunn brings his now-famous sideways approach at life that is both jaw droppingly offensive and overwhelmingly sweet that lines up multiple targets in its sights and proceeds to crack them each between the eyes with a heavy plumbing tool.
Gunn’s chief target is, ironically considering his recent promotion, the notion of comic book heroes themselves as a horribly lost Frank, hallucinating visions of divine advice straight out of Japanese anime porn, decides to do good in order to turn his agonisingly empty life around by fashioning a super suit and setting out on a crime fighting career built on clumsy trial and error rather than a bat cave and ninja training. It’s about as wonderfully chaotic as you would expect, serving up ludicrous, subversive laughs as a mentally ill man awkwardly smashes in the faces of local drug dealers and paedophiles.
Yet while the movie gets great mileage of Rainn Wilson essentially taking his Dwight Schrute persona to a maniacal extreme, Gunn maintains a deceptively fragile balance by never actively portraying his emotional problems themselves as funny – only their effects – although he does push some boundaries. Speaking of pushing boundaries, this brings us to Elliot Page’s Libby, a scene stealing, amoral nutcase who makes Frank’s attempts at brutal vigilantism positively rational by comparison. Sadistic, manic and yet confoundingly lovable as only a James Gunn character can be, the hyperactive teen is not only responsible for some of the most fucked up shit seen in the movie, but possibly in the superhero genre in general, which is really saying something in a world in which The Boys exists. Whether she’s randomly brutalising people because she thinks they’re responsible for keying her friends car, cackling like a lion as she carves up a thug with homemade Wolverine claws, or – in the movie’s most out-there moment – sexually assaulting Frank in a moment of crazed enthusiasm, she’s a creation that any combination of director and actor simply wouldn’t be able to pull off.
In fact, the whole movie is edgy as hell which probably led to some people being repelled by its violently black humour as Gunn rejects simple spoofery in order to try to get us to laugh at the darkest moments without the benefit of making the violence cartoonish. If featuring a scene that basically involves the equivalent of Robin raping Batman, gunshots, explosions and repeated batterings with a wrench are all shown in all their graphic glory, goading us to laugh at the serious ramifications as Frank’s refuses to take responsibility for his farcical quest – what could be more Troma than that?
Obviously some may be lured in by the presence of Kevin Bacon and an underused Liv Tyler (don’t worry, Gunn regulars Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn and Gregg Henry and Steve Agee all appear too) only to be horrified at Gunn’s tone (the Taxi Driver style finale carries a few hefty shocks and few easy answers as responsibility finally comes knocking on Frank’s door), but ask yourself this – isn’t it more disturbing to laugh at a movie that features violence with no repercussions whatsoever?
The movie that perfectly showcases James Gunn’s talent for fusing the adorable with the ghastly, Super may not have a Marvel or DC budget behind it and it may even lack the throwback horror stylings of his debut, Slither, but if you’re in the mood for a indie comedy that packs a legitimate wallop with its questionable laughs, you won’t find much better than this as it lovingly batters the superhero movie into submission.
Super is…. well, super.