Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 1, 2011)
In the same vein as 2010’s Kick-Ass, 2011’s Super focuses on an ordinary person who tries to become a superhero. Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) leads what he describes as a life of “pain, humiliation and rejection” with only two notable highlights: the day of his wedding to lovely Sarah Helgeland (Liv Tyler) and the time he helped cops apprehend a crook.
A former addict, Sarah slips back into her old ways and ends up leaving Frank to be with drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon). In denial, Frank believes Jacques kidnapped her and tries to get the police to intervene. Since they understand this isn’t a kidnapping or missing persons case, they decline, so eventually Frank takes matters into his own hands.
With a little help from God – or at least what Frank believes is a vision of God, who touches him on the brain and inspires him to become the Crimson Bolt, a costumed avenger. He adopts a pipe wrench as his weapon of choice and goes after street criminals like drug dealers and child molesters. Eventually he brings comic store employee Libby (Ellen Page) into the fold as Boltie and the two go on to become the vigilante talk of the town – all while Frank continues to attempt to get back Sarah.
If you want to find the Most Misrepresented Film of 2011, I suspect you’ll want to pick Super. Watch the ads for the movie and you’ll see it touted as a wacky action-comedy.
Which it occasionally is, but Super definitely engages in a dark side to which the promos don’t hint. Sure, they show some of the graphic violence – watch the trailer and see people explode – but the ads leave the impression that Super will be an over the top romp without a serious bone in its body.
That’s not what it delivers. While it does engage in comedy at times, it seems much more dramatic than anticipated. Some of this comes from the depiction of Frank. The movie launches with a montage of his pain and humiliation, all depicted in a way that makes it tough to know whether we’re supposed to laugh or cry.
We don’t really do either, but we do see Frank as a pathetic figure and certainly not the comedic sad sack we expected. He’s just a lost soul with obvious mental health issues – he’s always had schizophrenic “visions” – and he goes totally around the bend when he loses Sarah.
Rather than treat Frank’s transformation into the Bolt as redemptive, this change comes across more like another sign of his mental illness. At first, the Bolt goes after worthy foes; while his wrench-wielding methods might be a little more violent than necessary, at least he hits real scumbags.
But this eventually changes and it appears that Frank can no longer tell the difference between real criminals and simple jerks. We see this shift occur when he viciously assaults a couple who cut in line at a movie; to teach them a lesson, Frank/the Bolt splits open their heads with his wrench.
Do we laugh, cheer or gasp at this scene? Mostly the last one, partially because of the film’s tone. As I noted, Super hints at comedy-action but it’s too dark and depressing to really go down that path. This means that while a movie with a more obviously satirical bent could get away with laughs in this scene, Super becomes shocking. Although we don’t like the line-cutters, we don’t think they deserve to be severely injured for their rudeness.
But Super can never quite figure out how to depict this scene and others like it. The film feels tentative, like it wants to amuse us but understands how horrible the events it depicts really are so it teeters on the ledge between dark humor and drama.
This ultimately makes it unsatisfying, as the erratic tone robs the movie of much of its value. At its heart, I think the film wants to be a drama and it wants to counter the waves of superhero movies with a more realistic tale that shows the repercussions. Kick-Ass flirted with some of those issues but was too much of a standard comic book flick to truly deal with the violent facts of life that’d come with real-life superheroes.
Super doesn’t shy away from those at all. The Bolt brutally beats people and gets hurt himself along the way. Others end up severely injured and multiple gruesome deaths occur. None of this is treated with great horror or solemnity, but neither does the film view these events as funny.
So where does that leave us? It sticks us with a movie that could’ve been an intriguing take on a schizophrenic who decides to fight crime – and suffers the inevitable consequences. Instead, it tries to have its proverbial cake and eat it too, which leaves it without a satisfying feel.
At least most of the actors do well, though I could never quite get used to Tyler as Frank’s wife. She does a spectacular job with the role – arguably the film’s only realistic person among a sea of nutbags and cartoon characters – but I just find it tough to swallow that a babe like her would marry a schlub like Frank. Yeah, the film goes out of its way to explain this, but I still can’t fully accept it.
But that’s just me, and as noted, Tyler offers an excellent performance. Wilson is also quite good in the lead, and Bacon provides a nicely sleazy take on his one-dimensional part. Unfortunately, Page is a bit of a weak link, as she’s just too manic as Libby. Her character’s even more nuts than Frank, but she doesn’t give the role much more life than crazy energy; you start to wonder why even a wacko like Frank would choose to associate with such a loose cannon.
Ultimately, I think Super presents an intriguing tale and delivers it with good acting, but its erratic tone creates too many potholes. While I certainly don’t insist that films find one genre and never deviate, this one’s lack of focus makes it a weird experience that doesn't gel.