I have a feeling that James Gunn’s second feature “Super” is going to be misunderstood. I’ll grant that it will probably be misunderstood for some very compelling reasons. The movie is profane and disturbing beyond belief. The violence in “Super” is shocking in the way I imagine the violence of “Robocop” must have been for its original audience. It’s raw and organic; frankly it’s disgusting.
Frank takes to the streets with his catch phrase: “Shut up, crime!”
Some will label this movie trash. It may deserve that epithet, but I don’t think so. And I have a few observations about why I think “Super” achieves the status of art.
First off, a little perspective. There’s quite a bit to be disgusted about in “Super.” But that’s not a unique situation in the world of literature. From “Beowulf” to “The Canterbury Tales” to Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor – the list could get really long – the grotesque, the revolting, has been a staple of the literary palette. Dark comedy, in particular is a favorite of artists who are using the grotesque to make a point.
“Super” has horrifying scenes of violence and degradation, but those scenes serve a specific purpose in the film as a whole, and, rather than sullying the entire work, they make what’s beautiful about the movie all the more lovely.
The premise of the film is simple.
Frank D’Arbo (played by “The Office” star Rainn Wilson, in a masterful performance) is a bit of a sad sack. He’s a short order cook who’s lost the love of his life, Sarah (Liv Tyler, who is perfect in this role) to thuggish strip club owner Jacques (played by Kevin Bacon, who gives the part just enough charm to make the character all the more menacing). Sarah is a recovering alcohol and drug addict who’s dragged back into that lifestyle by Jacques. At she approaches the nadir of her deterioration, she leaves Frank to go live with Jacques.
In his desperation to win Sarah back, to save her from Jacques and from her addictions, Frank transforms himself into a superhero. As The Crimson Bolt, Frank takes to the streets complete with homemade costume, red pipe wrench and signature catch phrase: “Shut up, crime!”
We’re witnessing an elegiac portrait of a man torn apart by grief.
At first blush, the story seems like a standard vengeance tale, albeit with a fairly inept and overly brutal vengeance-taker in the lead role. Frank uses his pipe wrench to mete out his justice (actually, it’s wrath) on wrongdoers of all stripes. Thieves, drug dealers, molesters and line-cutters all get the same treatment: a skull-crushing beat-down accompanied by a through-his-teeth lecture from The Crimson Bolt. “You don’t butt in line!” he says. “You don’t steal! You don’t molest little children! You don’t deal drugs! The rules haven’t changed!”
It’s not easy to like Frank D’Arbo. In fact, it’s easy to dislike the guy completely. But as the story progresses and we see Frank’s single-minded devotion to the mission of rescuing his wife, we realize that we’re not in a vengeance tale. We’re witnessing an elegiac portrait of a man torn apart by grief. At this level, the movie becomes metaphor, almost allegorical in it’s portrayal of a human being’s struggle to understand his own existence and the pain and grief that comes with the loss of a loved one.
Like in an epic poem, the bad guys in this movie are stand-ins for emotional monsters that must be overcome for a person to become whole. And, ultimately, Frank’s quest to get his wife back is really a quest to understand what it meant to have her, and what it means to lose her.
“Super” uses the idea of superhero to create a universe where Frank can encounter the obstacles he must surpass in order to move on in his life. He becomes The Crimson Bolt not to fight crime, not to rescue his wife, but to discover himself. He has to put on a mask in order to see himself as he is.
This idea is driven home in the way the story is framed. There are bookend scenes in the film that provide a perfect symmetry for Frank’s journey.
After a brief setup, the film opens with Frank on his knees, crying, inconsolable, begging God for answers. He doesn’t understand why the best part of his life has been destroyed, why this relationship with his wife (the defining factor of his life) has been ripped from him. When God answers, it’s in a way that is, to say the least, unique. It’s also unequivocal. It’s this moment that launches the hero’s quest and sets Frank on his journey to wholeness.
The movie ends with a gorgeous montage and voiceover by Frank. We see him once again in a sort of prayer, once again crying; but this is different. The tears are joyful, the prayer is peaceful. Frank has found his satisfaction. Frank’s quest is at an end, but we get the sense that his real life is only beginning.
“Super” is the kind of movie that leaves viewers reeling.
The combination of violence and comedy is unsettling. It’s hard to know what to expect next. But in that discomfited space the true meaning of the film begins to emerge. James Gunn’s story is a salve for all the wounds it inflicts.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.