In an early scene from the disturbingly good new vigilante movie Super, a recovering drug-addict (Liv Tyler) finds it in her heart to see the real person inside of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a sincere yet creepy short-order cook. Very quickly into their shotgun-marriage, however, she relapses and falls under the sway of an unctuous drug-dealing pimp (Kevin Bacon). D’Arbo is broken up by his loss, naturally, and, because he truly loved her, quickly plots to get her back. He has no choice: she was the only woman who ever took the time to understand him. What she understood, however, made her want to leave him, and this is what D’Arbo has a hard time accepting: she found a guy who loved her deeply, yes, but one who also talked to god on a regular basis and was able to use this as justification for any bizarre idea he had. She found, in short, that he was unstable, and being unstable herself, she knew they could never work out.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise to her when, during Super’s over-the-top climax, D’Arbo shows up at the pimp’s mansion in a garish costume, calling himself the Crimson Bolt and wielding weapons in a ploy to rescue her. The audiences watching Super will not be surprised either, partly because one out of every five movies lately has been about a normal man’s transformation into a self-styled hero, but also partly because we know that guys like D’Arbo are really out there, patrolling the streets of just about every major city on the planet.
According to possibly-skewed estimates, there are over 250 “real-life superheroes” active in cities around the world. Look them up. They’re people who seem to feel a righteous passion for crime-fighting, but who are put off by the idea (or the work) of becoming cops. Something in them — the romantic notions gleaned from movies, most likely — directs them towards an outlandish costume and makeshift weapons. These people exist. They’re probably roaming the worst neighborhoods of the city you’re sitting in. Which is to say, Frank D’Arbo, in some form or another, is walking around your city right now. But we know that another type of guy, also a lot like Frank D’Arbo, is out there too: the violently off-balanced loner with a voice in his head he solemnly attributes to god. The problem that Super takes pains to elucidate is that there is a dangerous but inevitable crossover between these two types. And the proof is in the movie: go ahead and watch it, and then admit to yourself that you’ve met people a lot like Frank D’Arbo, and that maybe, in a guarded way, you thought they were kind of interesting.
Interesting is the right way to describe this movie. Not many films could pull off its brutal, angular balance of tones. The beginning and middle of Super are played, successfully, for a kind of scuzzy, surreal comedy. From the onset of D’Arbo’s heartbreak through his initiation into the life of a superhero, we’re watching a cruelly funny movie, yet one nagged by a persistent sense of the painful drama (and whacked-out religious visions) in its main character’s life. Even after D’Arbo has harmed a few innocent people (for standing in the way of his sense of justice), it’s hard to resist seeing the whole thing as a fiendishly dark comedy. And it’s harder still not to feel a bit of Inglourious Basterds-esque guilty pleasure watching him disproportionately punish people who, it has to be admitted, would piss us off too. It’s not until the arrival of D’Arbo’s kindred spirit, Libby, a sociopathic comic book store clerk (played by an unhinged Ellen Page) who turns herself into his sidekick, that Super begins to draw its comedy and drama together, in the process tipping its hand to reveal the satire at its heart.
Although there’s been a recent onslaught of funny movies willing to take their jokes in a more graphic, painful direction (Shaun of the Dead, Observe and Report), this one is meaner — much more willing to stop our laughter dead or start it off unexpectedly — and it trumps them all. Super is the rare comedy with the balls to take its characters seriously, not least by forcing on them the appropriate amount of time in which to suffer for their ridiculous behavior. Suffering, in fact, is built into this movie’s genes: if D’Arbo and Libby were like most movie superheroes, able to escape with scratches and bruises from situations that would pulverize ordinary human beings, the movie would fall apart. It has to matter that when D’Arbo conks someone on the forehead with his pipe-wrench, he peels the skin off their skull and they fall to the ground screaming. To be sure, director James Gunn is a man who likes to splatter his movies with gore (Slither); it’s just that here he’s taken care to let us know that this gore comes from the muscle and tissue of human beings in complete agony.
It’s no easy feat for Gunn to balance his comedy with a kind of gritty low-realism, but the real weight falls on the shoulders of Wilson, a hulking, gangly yet agile actor more than used to self-deprecating to unbelievable depths (The Office). Here he shows his impressive range and gives it over to uncovering something like the beating heart within D’Arbo: a man who cries when he talks to god, draws pictures in crayon to take his mind off personal pain, and sometimes stabs people he’s just lit on fire. Aided by Page and Gunn, he pitches the movie just shy of misanthropic, right in the sublime center of the comedic danger-zone.
The gritty comedy and the conviction of Wilson to play D’Arbo with pathos make Super a remarkable kind of movie, an eye-opener in a genre quickly going stale. Both Gunn and Wilson have the wicked tenacity to follow the superhero formula to its logical conclusion, even if their motives might not be entirely pure. If they have too much cathartic sympathy for D’Arbo’s ill-directed anger, that can easily be written off as part and parcel of the satire. The movie’s dismissive attitude towards women is what is genuinely, perhaps unintentionally, offensive, and if the movie picks up steam, it should spark the most virulent discussion. I suspect that, like the line between real-life superheroes and real-life psychos, Gunn means to blur his misogynist lines to shocking effect. And, as with any real satire, the question of its effectiveness — does it denounce violence cleverly or simply revel in it? — is for the audience to answer.