Thursday, 18 August 2011

Film Review - Super

The last decade or so has seen multiplexes the world over taken hostage by costumed heroes, be it the lurid, technicolour campery of Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider or the gritty, hard-hitting 'adult' comic book movies like V For Vendeta or Christopher Nolan's Batman saga. Not a summer has gone by in recent memory without at least a handful of our favourite spandex-clad uber-men (and women) being plastered across cinema screens. Despite comic books still being considered a relatively niche area of entertainment, mainstream audiences cannot seem to get enough high-powered vigilantism, though somewhere around the beginning of 2009 something went askew with this exquisite fantasy world. That thing was Zack Snyder's glossy, yet ultimately faithful adaptation of Alan Moore's cornerstone tale Watchmen. Though based on a 20+ year-old graphic novel, something about the notion of 'regular' citizens donning costumes and fighting for what they believe in seemed to strike a chord with film-makers, and in the 2 years since the release we have seen a new legion of Average Joe non-superheroes. The main meat of attention has been lavished upon Matthew Vaughn's regular-kid-turns-crime fighter flick Kick-Ass, a great-if-not-amazing film pushed into the limelight mostly due to Chloe Moretz' C-Bomb dropping child psychopath, Hit Girl. Also released last year (straight to DVD here in good old Blighty) was Defender, a bleaker affair featuring Woody Harrelson as a borderline-mentally-handicapped man trying to fight injustice alongside his own inner-demons.

It is here that James Gunn (Troma Studios veteran and helmer of alien-invasion splatterfest Slither) enters the fray with Super, a disarmingly dark take on the regular-guy-turned-costumed-vigilante angle. Rainn Wilson (he of the US version of The Office and surprisingly little else) is Frank D'Arbo, a downtrodden man whose life seems to have been an almost endless stream of misfortune, save for two perfect memories that he cherishes and has immortalised in crude, childlike drawings - the day he married his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), and the day he helped point a police officer towards an escaping 'perp. When Frank's wife disappears into the clutches of local drug dealer Jock (a perfectly sleazy Kevin Bacon, on a Travolta-like comeback streak after this summer's awesome turn in X-Men: First Class) he appears unable to cope, until inspiration strikes in the dual headed form of a Christ-spouting TV Superhero and an unexpectedly trippy epiphany. Unwilling to sit and allow life to beat him around the chops any longer, Frank suits up to become The Crimson Bolt, scourge of wrongdoers everywhere. It's just that Frank's take on right and wrong offers very few shades of grey, and it soon becomes clear that whether you're dealing drugs, molesting kids or simply butting in line at the cinema, you're just as likely to be having an unfortunate meeting with the wrong end of Frank's trusty wrench.

Exacerbating the situation greatly is the intervention of the young and borderline psychotic comic book store clerk Libby (Ellen Page, disturbingly twisting her Juno persona into terrifying new shapes), who becomes Frank's only confidante and eventual sidekick, Boltie. Her unashamed glee at the notion of punishing 'evil' is at the dark heart of what at first appears to be a quirky, indie-tinged superhero flick, but soon reveals itself to be far more shocking and uncompromising than even Kick-Ass managed to be, foul-mouthed minors notwithstanding. Once The Crimson Bolt really starts dishing out the punishment, James Gunn's shlock-horror past manifests itself in fountains of gushing claret, brutal physical effects and as wicked a sense of humour as one could hope for in a film essentially about a broken man taking his inner turmoil out on what are often nothing more than rude or obnoxious bystanders. If anything, the mostly hand-held camerawork gives the film a raw, almost documentary-like grit (occasional tentacle-based fantasy sequences and animated interludes aside), which is a far cry from the studio gloss usually associated with the superhero genre.

The plot takes a few unexpected twists, and is at times quite uncomfortable to bear witness to, but the film is never without a sense of hope, even if it rears its head in the strangest of ways. The performances are solid if unspectacular throughout, Ellen Page's nutbar Boltie being the squirm-inducing highlight. Rainn Wilson manages to just about cast off Dwight Schrute's mustard shirt and obnoxious demeanour enough that Frank becomes believable in his own right, a broken and mis-guided man desperate to create control in a life he's had very little over. All in all Super is an enjoyable, dark, messed-up little movie that is far more subversive than its more successful cousin Kick-Ass and deserves as much attention as it can get. All together now, 'SHUT UP, CRIME!'

Super gets 8 severe wrench beatings out of 10.
James Lee from CeX Rathbone Place, London

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