There are a lot of great things to come out of our obsession with superhero culture - Hayden Panettiere and Joss Whedon directing a freakin’ AVENGERS movie, to name two. I think my favorite aspect, though, is that the genre has moved so far into the mainstream that everyone has a superhero story and everyone is getting a chance to tell it, (Kenneth Branaugh and Thor, Joe Johnston and Captain America, Edgar Wright and Ant-Man, for Stan Lee’s sake). We’re so deep in it that some sharp storytellers are using the format to comment on the nature of superheroes, and that’s what master cringe-inducer James Gunn does with Super, his attempt to throw a bucket of ice water on a costume-crazy nation.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Kick-Ass; not the way a lot of my friends were. I liked the idea of more grounded superheroes, but I thought the movie version of Mark Millar’s comic series sugar-coated some of the less palatable parts of the book. As a result, it felt uneven - the flick jumped back and forth between subverting the cliches of the genre and playing into them depending on what fit the story. (spoiler alert) It didn’t make sense to me that the movie could show Hit Girl lopping off the bottom half of a guy’s leg in a fight, then turn around and have Mark Strong’s character launched out of a building on a rocket like Wile E. Coyote. (/spoiler)
Super has none of those issues: it’s a consistently dark, gritty and uncomfortable perspective on the concept of a costumed hero. The premise is laid out pretty clearly in the trailer, which is embedded below: a schlub (Rainn Wilson) loses his wife (Liv Tyler) to a local criminal (Kevin Bacon), so he reinvents himself as a vigilante dead-set on stopping crime altogether and getting his wife back.
That’s the basic idea, which seems like a fairly standard hero story. But things are never so cut and dry. There’s more to every aspect of that plot description above, and the movie lives on one prevailing idea: “Oh, is this what you want? Ok, you can have it.” Gunn continually takes superhero tropes, puts them in a “real world” context and shows you just how distasteful or shocking they can be without all the gloss of Hollywood (or of the comic book ink). By the end of the movie when Wilson’s alter ego is delivering what he believes are heroic words of wisdom, you’re not really sure where you stand.
The movie is incredibly violent and makes you cringe frequently. That’s part of the message, but it’s still sometimes hard to take, so be warned. My instinctive reaction in the theater was to laugh at many of the bloodier parts, but I almost immediately felt guilty about it. I’m pretty sure I played right into Gunn’s hands.
Super is not perfect - there’s a particular recurrence of tentacle porn, culminating in a scene that feels like it snuck over from Gunn’s last flick, Slither - but it subverts the concept of superheroes like a gross hybrid of Watchmen (the original comic) and The Venture Bros. Most of all, it affected my perspective on that concept, and that’s the best compliment I can give; I can’t remember the last time I could say that about a movie that wasn’t a documentary.
If you prefer your heroes to wear their underwear over their tights, wear a cape and always win in the end, maybe this one isn’t for you. But if you don’t mind questioning whether these model citizens are secretly sociopaths and fetishists, you should give it a shot. Just don’t eat a big dinner first.
Superheroes are fucked up, man.