Over the course of the past two decades, James Gunn has made a remarkable leap from being the brightest light of those lovable scuzzbuckets over at Troma (where he made his screenwriting debut with Tromeo & Juliet, a gleefully stomach-churning gross-out comedy that took some liberties with Romeo & Juliet, the play that inspired it) to being the guardian of Guardians of the Galaxy, a pop culture phenomenon that, between its worldwide gross, home video and merchandising revenue, has probably made somewhere in the range of $1 billion.
Even more remarkably, Gunn managed to make the leap from the newfangled poverty row of Troma to the A-list without losing his voice or his audacity. The guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy one of the few Marvel movies that doesn’t feel like the product of an assembly line (a sleek, efficient, and effective assembly line, but an assembly line all the same) was the same dude who made his first mark on popular culture by mashing up Romeo & Juliet and The Toxic Avenger for the benefit of stoned idiots and the educated alike.
Gunn has always been brash and outspoken (graduates of Troma are not generally known for their coquettish ways and tasteful restraint), but when you make a billion-dollar movie that inevitably leads to another billion-dollar blockbuster (that would be Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is already underway) the world tends to pay close attention to what you have to say.
“The film implicitly asks why we find some forms of violence exciting and fun, and others abhorrent and disturbing.”
So when Gunn laid into studios and the media on Facebook for learning all of the wrong, lazy lessons from smash success of the hard-R rated Deadpool (another oddball, overachieving member of the Marvel family), he found a receptive audience.
Gunn passionately argued, “Deadpool was its own thing. THAT’S what people are reacting to. It’s original, it’s damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks.”
Original and good are both scary and unfamiliar to studio executives. They don’t trust either quality, as they’re both liable to scare away audiences. Subsequently, they’re most likely to pick up on the most easily copyable elements of Deadpool — namely, the fourth-wall-breaking, post-modern tone, the R-rated violence, and the swaggering, smart-ass attitude.
Gunn is among the hottest filmmakers alive. Deadpool’s paradigm-shifting early success almost instantly transformed the concept of an R-rated superhero movie from a massive risk into a tantalizing commercial proposition. I imagine that all over Hollywood, hacks are feverishly cramming profanity, sex scenes and pop-culture references into previous family-friendly superhero opuses.
Yet a mere half decade ago, Gunn wrote and directed a hard-R rated superhero movie (one that easily could have been NC-17) that failed to gross even a million dollars. Now, I’m no mathematician, but a billion is substantially more than a million — and even a million is substantially more than the sum grossed by Gunn’s blood-soaked, brain-splattering labor of love, Super.
According to the money-counting folks over at Box Office Mojo, Super made less than half a million dollars. That’s a pittance even given the film’s tiny budget, but I can’t help but feel like Super isn’t just a movie that didn’t make a lot of money — no, it’s a movie that couldn’t (and probably shouldn’t) have made a lot of money.
Super is less a conventional superhero movie than an alternately grim and goofy meditation on what Taxi Driver might have looked like if Travis Bickle had put on a homemade superhero costume and decided to channel his vigilante instincts into beating criminals to death with a giant wrench rather than going the gun-and-assassination route. That’s a big part of what makes the film bold and audacious, but it also explains its complete commercial failure.
In a role originally intended for John C. Reilly, Rainn Wilson stars as Frank, a sad-sack short-order cook who plasters crude, childlike drawings of the two happiest moments of his life — when he married wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and helped police officers pursuing a criminal — in his shabby little home as a perpetual reminder that the world has more to offer than just misery, humiliation, and an endless gauntlet of pain and suffering.
Frank clings to his sense of morality, to his sense of how things should be, and his bond with Sarah as life preservers in a cold, cold world forever threatening to drown him in his sorrows. Then one day Sarah stumbles out of his life, seemingly permanently, after getting involved with a scumbag drug dealer named Jock (played by Kevin Bacon).
Sarah was a recovering addict who married Frank as one of those mistakes people sometimes make while they’re still in the fumbling, fawn-like early process of recovery. In a flashback, we see her weeping while they have sex, and it’s unclear whether she’s in tears because she’s so raw and vulnerable and open without drugs or alcohol to numb her emotions, or whether she’s crying because she looks like Liv Tyler and she’s having sex with a man who looks like a particularly pathetic Rainn Wilson.
“It’s a film that uses an insane comic-book plot to explore belief and morality and purpose and addiction and connection.”
The real villain in Frank and Sarah’s life and relationship isn’t a low-rent dope peddler, but addiction. Sarah seems to have gravitated towards Frank because he was so removed from the drug-fueled realm of decadence she needed to escape — a simple, honorable man who doesn’t seem to understand why people would ever use drugs when they’re illegal, let alone be driven by the compulsions that gripped his bride.
Frank can’t understand that Sarah is sick, and that sometimes in people’s sickness and disease and addictions, they make terrible decisions that hurt themselves and the people who love them and society as a whole. To make sense of the situation, his brain transforms Sarah’s selfish, drug-fueled withdrawal into something more palatable — he decides that Jock stole Sarah and forced her to use drugs, and he just needs to get her back to heal the massive hole in his soul.
Without Sarah, Frank is adrift; lost, a raw nerve just barely functioning in the world. He’s a man in need of a sign, in need of direction, in need of a purpose. Then, one curious night while watching television, God (voiced by Rob Zombie, in a shameless bit of typecasting) sinks His tentacles into Frank’s body, runs his enormous finger over Frank’s brain, and instills him with a sense of purpose: it will be his fate to fight evil and crime wherever he goes, to reinvent himself from a sniveling sub-human to a super-heroic crime fighter known as the Crimson Bolt.
Frank is aided in this revelation by “The Holy Avenger” (Nathan Fillion), a cut-rate Christian superhero in the vein of Willie Aames’ Bibleman, whose hilariously cheap, bible-thumping productions always seem to be on the verge of turning into pornography. It’s as if The Holy Avenger gang is intent on simultaneously filming their Christlike morality tales and an X-rated parody.
As a crimefighter, Frank is a distinct primitivist, and his fight scenes feel like deliberately cheap, artless throwbacks to Gunn’s Troma days, fortified with elements borrowed from the 1960s Batman. Frank is driven by a divine sense of purpose, but his efforts quickly devolve into a form of crime itself.
Frank brutally beats child molesters and drug dealers, but he also takes his wrench of rage to people who’ve done nothing more serious than cut in line at a movie. I remembered Super being stomach-churning in its violence, but re-watching the film for this column, I see less than I remembered. Gunn doesn’t need to pile on scene after scene of sickening bloodshed: the inhuman thud of metal smashing into meat and flesh as Frank clobbers one mortified bad guy after another indelibly conveys the sadistic, grotesquely excessive brutality of his actions. The film implicitly asks why we find some forms of violence exciting and fun, and others abhorrent and disturbing. The answer has a lot to do with morality, but Frank’s ideals are unstinting and unforgiving that he blurs the line between hero, anti-hero, and villain.
Frank has a child’s black and white worldview, and sense that evil is an uncomplicated entity that simply needs to be punished for good to prevail. But he reluctantly picks up a sidekick who calls herself Boltie (Ellen Page, in the kind of performance you imagine her agent having a heart attack over) who is, if anything, even more bloodthirsty and over-the-top in her violence.
She’s motivated less by a conventional sense of morality than a fetish for being a superhero that always has a sexual component to it (she’s getting off on the idea of being Robin to his Batman) but becomes assaultive when she rapes Frank while they’re both wearing their costumes.
Boltie is the demon hanging over Frank’s shoulder, urging him to give in to his worst, most brutal instincts. If he’s deeply troubled, she’s a sociopath. Together, they’re less a traditional crimefighting duo than a pair of delusional psychopaths feeding into each other’s madness and dysfunction.
Many elements of Super are campy and broad in outline. The protagonist is “touched” in the head, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. There is a delirious animated opening sequence where the Crimson Bolt and Bolty don’t just swiftly and ably dispense justice in a way they never do in the actual film, but also dance exuberantly, and some of the most unnerving violence is accompanied by comic book flourishes.
“Underneath the Troma-style wackiness is a fundamentally serious, even tragic film about a lost man in a lost world.”
But underneath the Troma-style wackiness is a fundamentally serious, even tragic film about a lost man in a lost world seeking transcendence and meaning in the worst possible way. It is a film that uses an insane comic-book plot to explore belief and morality and purpose and addiction and connection.
Gunn has wrestled with drugs and alcohol in the past (struggles that inform his haunting and poignant 2000 semi-autobiographical novel The Toy Collector, whose protagonist is named James Gunn) and Super’s treatment of addiction and recovery is one of the places where its intense sincerity is most powerful.
The film ends with its hapless hero retiring his Crimson Bolt persona and returning to normal life after he succeeds in freeing Sarah from Jock’s clutches and sends her on the path to recovery. With noble self-sacrifice, he helps a woman he realizes is much too good for him find herself and her purpose, a process that inevitably involves her leaving him for a man who is not so broken, not so damaged, and capable of giving her the life she’s always wanted, complete with a brood of adorable, apple-cheeked children.
The Crimson Bolt sets out to be God’s holy wrench of vengeance, but comes to understand that he’s not supposed to save the world. He’s not even supposed to save his wife. No, he’s supposed to give this good but sick woman the tools she needs to save herself. There’s grace in that. There’s transcendence. There’s beauty and purity and compassion in that sacrifice. After alternating between comic book comedy and aching tragedy for much of its duration, Super finds an elegiac, poetic tone as it reaches an incongruously beautiful and pure conclusion.
Wilson invests the film’s protagonist with total emotional investment, but I couldn’t help but think that Reilly would have been better in the role. There’s an ingratiating sweetness at Reilly’s core that makes it easy to root for him no matter how misguided his actions, and while Wilson is good, there’s a prickliness to his persona that’s a little off-putting. Then again, there’s a whole lot that’s off-putting about Super, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.
To quote Gunn on Deadpool (whose hero also wears a red suit and has some issues), Super is its own thing. It’s original, it’s damn good, and it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks. Yet it was precisely those qualities that kept audiences away, and will keep future filmmakers from cynically ripping it off. It turns out that — commercially speaking, at least — there’s such a thing as being too original and too risky. So Super will remain forever Gunn’s own thing. He’s made his blockbuster superhero movie for the masses, but he clearly made Super for himself, and for a strange, small subset of cultists uniquely turned into its strange wavelength — touched, as it were, not by the finger of God, but by the strangely earnest and deep vision of a profoundly talented filmmaker.
Original Certification: Rotten
Tomatometer: 48 percent
Follow Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @nathanrabin