Sunday 10 July 2011

Disorganised crimes: "Super"

You can tell Super is another of the American cinema's recent nerd fantasies because it's the kind of film where Rainn Wilson has ended up married to Liv Tyler, and we're invited to accept this coupling as an entirely normal state of affairs. Yet the MO of James Gunn's curio is clearly to do a Kick-Ass meant for grown-ups rather than latent sociopaths or snivelling pederasts: when his wife Sarah (Tyler) is snatched away from him by a nefarious lap-dancing entrepreneur (Kevin Bacon, visibly loving this new wave of villainous parts), Wilson's Frank begins to channel his mounting rage and frustration into the persona of The Crimson Bolt, a red-suited superhero he takes to the streets, clonking drug dealers over the head with a common-or-garden monkey wrench. His catchphrase is Super's best gag: "Shut up, crime!"

Gunn is the Troma graduate who made the witty The Specials - a savvier, straight-to-DVD variant on the theatrically released Mystery Men - and the fun B-picture homage Slither. His apprenticeship most obviously shows through in the tits and tentacles of Super's opening ten minutes, and a later scene where chunks of the hero's vomit form themselves into a portrait of his lost love, but the whole film is curiously splurgy and throwaway, almost exactly the sort of thing Troma would have knocked out in an afternoon between Toxic Avenger sequels.

There are chuckles to be winkled out of the idea of a fully independent superhero movie, beholden to no particular studio, backstory or ethical code. Frank has to sit round waiting for crime to happen in between sudden flurries of clumsy, inelegant ass-kicking, and it's a genuinely subversive conceit to present his interventions as actual violence, rather than the cackling fantasy that sustained Kick-Ass or the circumscribed scuffles of its PG-13 equivalents; the film earns its 18 certificate for having the gall to show what happens when you go around wearing Wolverine claws, or a bomb goes off in somebody's face.

Yet while it's plenty violent, it's just not as funny or inventive in its deconstructions as either The Specials (which could afford no star bigger than a pre-West Wing Rob Lowe) or, indeed, the not dissimilar Special, which had Michael Rapaport as a schizophrenic whose medication led him to believe he had superheroic powers. Nor is it exactly a field day for actresses. Ellen Page presumably got to keep her tight latex costume for signing up for the pliable sidekick role, but I'd rather Liv Tyler had extended her sabbatical from the movies than returned in a part that merely requires her to look washed out and exist under the constant threat of rape.

Some casual homophobia aside (which really isn't funny, in this day and age), Super is still far less problematic than Kick-Ass - as scattershot as ever, Gunn even contrives to inject notes of sweetness in the form of Frank's uxoriousness, and the final push for affect - but it's substantially less well-organised, too, trampling all over its better ideas in its hurry to get to what it believes is the cool shit. One sliver of good directorial intelligence is evident in the casting of permastubbled, perennial ne'er-do-well Michael Rooker as arguably the most considered and moral individual on screen - still, you have to ask yourself: two decades on from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and this is all the American cinema can now think to say on the subject of violence?

Super is on selected release.

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