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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Super (2010)

Written and directed by James Gunn

Rainn Wilson:  Frank Darbo / The Crimson Bolt
Ellen Page:  Libby / Boltie
Liv Tyler:  Sarah Darbo
Kevin Bacon:  Jacques

Featuring the James Gunn Players:  Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Mikaela Hoover and Sean Gunn
With Rob Zombie as the voice of God

"Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world." -- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

"Shut up, crime!" -- The Crimson Bolt

I'm a big old nerd. I don't think that would be a surprise to anyone who has met me since, oh, the age of five or six. I've always liked monster movies and superheroes as long as I can remember. I played City of Villains, the two-years-cancelled MMO game, literally from the first day to the last. I've driven to Chicago to watch a solid 24 hours of terrible movies in January fifteen years in a row. It's just the core of my personality, and I'm perfectly happy being the person who doesn't know anything about sportsball but who was staying up until 4 in the morning to watch Jackie Chan movies on Channel 50 back in middle school.

Of course, up until the late 2000s or so anyone who knew about Tony Stark was a dork, not a movie fan. And if there's one thing I remember about being a nerd through childhood and adolescence it was taking a heap of abuse from family and schoolmates (and it left a mark on my personality, I'm sure--notice that I did not play City of Heroes from the first day to the last).

American comic superheroes are adolescent power fantasies. The purest example is probably DC Comics' Captain Marvel--by saying a magic word, ten year old Billy Batson literally grows up in a flash. He's strong, fast, capable, smart and handsome because he's got superpowers. If only I could do that, the adolescent nerd thinks. If I were someone awesome, if I could reinvent myself, then I wouldn't be the nobody that people tell me I am. If only I were...Super.

I'm pretty sure James Gunn grew up being the weirdest kid in his family, on his block and in the neighborhood. And in the pressure-cooker hell that is growing up different, I'm sure he thought about a costumed alter ego and a war against evil. But thank goodness he was also smart enough to know how that would shake out in the real world, and never did it. But he sure did make a movie about that mindset, a sort of Taxi Driver by way of Gotham City. Watching this, I can see why Marvel Studios tapped him to direct one of their summer blockbusters. But I can also see why they gave him control over C listers like a talking raccoon and a tree monster rather than taking the risk of finding out what he was going to do with a flagship character like Thor.

Frank Darbo is a nobody. He was a fat, despised kid abused by his overwhelmingly religious father and literally pissed on my school bullies, and he grew to be a chunky pizza-faced loser in high school. In voiceover, he describes the two perfect moments in his life:  He married his wife Sarah, and once he told a cop where a mugger ran, and the cop said "Thanks, pal". That's it. That's all he's got to look back on with any measure of happiness for his thirty-plus years on Earth. To combat an implied years of nightmares remembering his existence, he makes a pair of drawings to remember those moments and tacks them to a wall so he'll see them first thing every morning and go through the rest of the day with a residual buzz from the happy memories.

And he's going to need that buzz. His wife doesn't want to touch him and stays home getting stoned with a couple of reprobate friends while he's out at work, and when he get called "doof" by one of them for not closing the door when he gets home he imagines killing the guy with a fireplace poker. There's something very, very obviously wrong with Frank's brain and if a couple of pictures on the wall keep him from snapping, well...let's hope he has plenty of blu-tak to keep those suckers up for years.

One placid morning, Jacques, a skeevy looking guy in an Al Pacino leather jacket comes by looking for Frank's wife and invites himself in for breakfast. He's chuckling and sniffling through the meal (though he does declare Frank's egg-cooking skills are touched by the divine, so he's a polite cokeheaded mooch), and skips out right after eating. And less than a week after that breakfast, Sarah leaves Frank--which leaves him sobbing on the floor, looking at himself in a mirror as he weeps and thinking about how stupid he looks when he's crying.

Then the credits hit, with a title sequence done to look like animated marker drawings of revenge fantasies by a kid that's going to need to talk to the school counselor if anyone sees them. There's also at least a slight element of realism going along with all the cartoon flying and hyperviolence--after the big dance number wrapup the animated characters are panting for breath. Because getting in a fight with half a dozen assailants will wear you out, even if you're a vigilante.

Speaking of vigilantism, the first thing Frank does when he's thinking more or less straight is to go to the strip club that Jacques manages and ask if the guy's seen his wife. Turns out yes, and Sarah doesn't want to see him any more. Jacques breaks the news in the most assholish manner possible and walks off, hench-dudes in tow. There's nothing left for Frank to do but go back to the diner where he works and stare into the distance while the burgers go past well-done and into "someone's gonna complain about this". His fellow grill cook Hamilton tries to get Frank to look past his loss and forget about Sarah, but he's also got a filthier mouth than a trucker who used to be a sailor, so it goes poorly.

It goes even worse when Frank tries to get the police involved; the detective is sneeringly dismissive of him and (truthfully) says the police can't arrest Jacques because Sarah moved in with him. It seems that Frank isn't quite is naive as one might have assumed; he knows Jacques is a drug dealer (though he keeps pronouncing the guy's name "Jock"), and tells the detective that Sarah was a recovering junkie and alcoholic. Which means that if she wanted to go back to her old bad habits, Jacques is certainly someone who could help with that.

Frank's not dealing with things particularly well; he stops by a pet store to see if a cuddly rabbit might help him move on, but decides that he can't risk screwing that up and dooming a perfectly innocent animal. Then he goes home to stun his brain with some television. It's during an episode of "The Holy Avenger" (starring a gloriously mulleted Nathan Fillion in an ill-fitting leotard) that he starts to decide what he has to do--the dialogue in the show--meant for ten-year-olds--tell Frank that he has to fight evil wherever it exists rather than taking the cowardly, easy way out and surrendering to Satan.
Putting that into practice earns Frank a three-to-one beatdown from Jacques' underlings after trying to pull Sarah out of the drug dealer's car.

That night, blood bruises on his face, Frank asks God for guidance and excoriates the deity for putting his soul in a body that he finds ugly and with a personality that other people find repellent. It's a moment as naked and fearless as John Turturro's screaming breakdown in Miller's Crossing. And his prayer gets answered--Frank gets a divine visitation where his skull is sliced open and his living brain is touched by the finger of God. Then, in a pure white void, the Holy Avenger tells him there's a plan for his life and that God wants him to do something. There's an odd red symbol on a yellow background that Frank redraws when he returns to physical reality, and he takes a stop off at a comic shop for further inspiration.

At the comic shop, the sarcastic counter worker Libby mocks the crap out of his selection ("Holy Avenger", natch) and points to a panel where the titular hero says anyone can make the choice to fight evil and become a superhero. Which she reconsiders, and asks Frank why nobody's ever tried to do superhero things in real life. Which is the last piece of the puzzle--Frank (badly) stitches himself a suit with the icon of his mask on the cover and starts calling himself The Crimson Bolt. He also winds up looking in the mirror and psyching himself up for crimefighting in a more than somewhat Travis Bickle-ish moment.

Night patrol turns out to be the Crimson Bolt hiding behind a dumpster waiting for crime to happen near him so he can stop it. After at least two nights of nothing happening the Bolt decides to find out where the drug deals are happening so he can put a stop to them. A cringeworthy conversation at a library gives him a location:  Euclid Street. And his first attempt to stop a dope deal there leads to him getting beat up again (yelling "Not fair!" when his mask gets twisted) and running off with a shit-stained diaper stuck to his super suit. So it's time to go to the comic shop again and see how nonpowered characters like Batman, the Punisher, one incarnation of Blue Beetle, Green Arrow or other Natural origin heroes do things. He tells Libby that he's making up his own superhero, who needs a weapon. She thinks that's cool.

And it turns out that clocking dudes with a pipe wrench is one way to win the hell out of a fight (though the movie is realistic enough that Frank still needs to exercise and demonstrably doesn't know what he's doing yet--there's some collateral damage to the innocent victims he's trying to save). He's also having a little bit too much fun fracturing skulls; I don't mind a hero laughing in triumph when he saves the day, but there's a gleam in the Crimson Bolt's eyes that I don't like at all.

While staking out Jacques' strip club Frank flashes back to meeting his wife (who was a recently paroled convict working as a waitress at the diner). He was a nice enough guy to give her a ride to an AA meeting and they sparked a connection. The stunned look on his face when Sarah doesn't just dismiss him as a weirdo hurts more than a wrench to the stomach. Seeing her stumbling in a haze, barely conscious hurts Frank even worse. Back at work, the TV in the kitchen shows a news report that claims the Crimson Bolt is a psychopath that could go from serial beatings to full-on murders if he winds himself up enough.

While going out to the movies, Frank is waiting in a block-long line when someone cuts in front of him and a heck of a lot of other people. When he tells the guy to go to the back of the line, he gets more than one "Go fuck yourself" in response, stomps off to his car to switch identities and tears the line-jumper's forehead open with a shot from his trusty pipe wrench. Sure, it's all fun and games until two people are bleeding and screaming in pain on the ground. (Although, also, don't butt in line, people.)

At the diner, Libby brings a newspaper in where the Crimson Bolt made the front page ("COSTUMED MAN SENDS TWO TO ICU"), introduces herself to Frank and invites him to her apartment-warming party before asking in a whisper if he's really the Crimson Bolt. I don't know if Frank is more uncomfortable talking to a cute young woman he doesn't know or if the fact that his secret identity isn't very secret is making him evasive and sweaty, but either way he's about as cool and collected as the hotel desk clerk in Bad Day at Black Rock. His mental state when that detective he wanted to send after Jacques shows up at his house is significantly worse. It turns out the cop just needed Frank to sign some paperwork, but that minor brush with the law is enough to send Frank into a paroxysm of guilt and fear, throwing out all his Crimson Bolt evidence and asking God for further guidance. He doesn't get (what he interprets as) a sign until after he's tossed out all his Bolt stuff and has to go back to the dumpster to retrieve it. Isn't that always the way?

It turns out that nothing is more conspicuous than a chunky guy in red tights trying to sneak around a big open yard, as the viewer finds out when the Crimson Bolt tries to do a recon mission on Jacques' mansion. Watch for the sight gag with the grappling hook. The Bolt gets right up against a window where two of Jacques' minions are going through with a massive drug trade and Sarah fires the inaugural fix from that deal. It's too much for Frank to take and he shatters a window, talking tough until two of Jacques' goons pull guns on him. They also know exactly who he is, so that's a much more dangerous secret cover blown. He takes a round to the leg while hopping Jacques' fence and his car gets shot up. Good thing he's got that party invite with Libby's address on it, right? Too bad about his attempt to disguise himself, which looks like nothing so much as the killer's gear from Let Me In.

Frank winds up having to confess to Libby that he is secretly the Crimson Bolt, which she thinks is awesome. He's got a bullet wound in his leg (and both he and Libby know that hospitals notify the police when they treat those), so she's got to kick everyone out of her party and treat the wound. Which she's pretty terrible at doing. When she finds out that Jacques' guys also know who Frank is and where he lives, she offers to let him couch-surf at her place so he doesn't get murdered. Which means Frank isn't home (and none of his Bolt gear is there) when the detective who stopped by earlier figures out a thing or two and sneaks inside. His disappointment at the lack of vigilante gear is compounded by his surprise when Jacques' three goons shoot him to death (and then immediately accuse each other of shooting first when the realize they've got the wrong guy, who is also a policeman).

Back at Libby's apartment, she tries out to be the Crimson Bolt's sidekick by doing semi-talented acrobatics and punching air. ("You see what I'm getting at here?" "No.") Frank doesn't want a sidekick, but Libby points out that his solo work got him shot. She designs a much better super suit than the Crimson Bolt's gear and announces herself as Boltie. When she poses to show it off there's quite a bit of fetishistic pleasure in her eyes, and thank goodness the character already said she's 22 because a youthful sidekick shouldn't be wearing skintight spandex. Boltie's all ready to charge out and defeat "Jock" and his men, but Frank points out that his leg isn't healed and the people they're going up against have guns.

Cut to both heroes sitting behind a dumpster waiting for crime; Boltie wants to get more proactive and teach some dude a lesson for keying her friend's car. This leads to a two-person assault on a guy in his home who winds up pleading and screaming on the floor with blood streaming down his face. Boltie keeps calling her mentor "Frank" in public, and also needed to be told not to murder people. She's gonna be trouble, and Frank tells her that the Crimson Bolt doesn't need a sidekick. Then he pulls in to pump gas into his car and two of Jacques' goons are one pump over. Worse yet, the main dude recognizes Frank. Frank doesn't get far limping as he tries to flee and after another beating, he comes within seconds of catching a bullet. But thankfully Boltie's got his back, and smashes one goon against a cement wall with his car; the other one is shot with one of the guns that killed the detective earlier. During the chase, Frank put his mask on so at least the eyewitnesses can't give a good description of him. And Boltie screaming in joy about killing two people is pretty terrifying.

Back at Frank's house (with the Boltmobile in the garage and Frank worried that someone might have gotten his license plate) Libby talks to him about how she just got too bored sitting behind the dumpster and how she craves action and excitement; Frank says that a little boredom is a good thing and muses that heroes must feel it between the panels. Libby thinks that she and Frank can do anything between the panels and tries to romance him. Turns out that 1) Frank is still married, and doesn't want to go against that sacred trust, and 2) Libby's his kid sidekick. He turns her down in absolutely no uncertain terms. She's sad and ticked, but not enough to sit out the gun store montage as the pair of them gear up to the awesomely appropriate strains of "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" covered by Minor Threat.

Back at Casa Libby, he's putting pipe bombs and a knife-throwing rig together while Libby freaks out over a mention on the TV news. Turns out that the media's starting to piece things together and realizing that the Crimson Bolt's assault victims were felons and public opinion is shifting in the vigilantes' favor. That night Libby tries to seduce her mentor while he's sacked out on her couch. She points out that Frank might be a married man, but the Crimson Bolt can have sex with Boltie without anything being wrong. Which leads to the least sexy Ellen Page in spandex sex scene it would be possible to film; it's an assault on the antihero of the film and the audience. Frank takes it quite badly and in a spasm of self-loathing he tells Boltie to gear up and get ready to assault Jock's mansion, not caring if he lives or dies.

That big deal Jacques alluded to earlier is going down; Mr. Range is in from out of town (possibly Movie Haiti, based on his accent) and he's brought his own security goons to supplement Jacques' people outside the mansion. Boltie isn't sure this is such a good idea and her bulletproof vest is slowing her down and wearing her out. Jacques also has a few ladies sitting around not wearing a heck of a lot in case Range wants some negotiable affection as part of the deal; he picks Sarah, of course, so the audience can worry about her. But she's also not thrilled to be a lagniappe on top of a dope deal and a little spark is starting to cut through the smack haze. In keeping with some of the most reprehensible storytelling tropes in superhero fiction, Range assaults her in the upstairs bedroom.

Meanwhile, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie are thinning out the herd of hired muscle outside; the Bolt warns his sidekick to stay subtle but then sets a guy on goddamned fire before stabbing him to death. The screams from upstairs in the Range and Sarah suite drown out the flaming guy's cries (and there's a really neat shot from inside the house as Michael Rooker's character eats some candy while not noticing the distorted flames through the pebbled-glass window. The first pipe bomb (which turns a goon into chunky salsa) definitely gets everyone's full attention, though. The armed response knocks Frank down because his vest worked, but a vest doesn't cover every part of the body, as Boltie finds out in the last tenth of a second of her life. Faced with the lethal consequences of his divine plan, the Crimson Bolt enters Beast Mode and massacres every criminal he can find in the house. I can't say I agree with the "POW!" "BLAM!" graphics superimposed on the fountains of gore as the Bolt works his way through the henchmen; I mean, I get it. Real violence isn't the same as paper violence. I think it's a bit of a misstep because it's cinematic "realistic" violence condemning other kinds of violence. I also don't need to see a cartoon sound effect on screen to know that Frank Darbo's fucked in the head. It's not a movie-ruining artistic decision but I don't think it particularly worked.

By the time he finds Jacques (who gets it worse than anyone else, of course, but not before Frank gets shot twice and has to rally himself for the big finish) and Sarah's utterly traumatized by witnessing what her husband is doing. He walks off into the night, carrying her like a movie monster, and escapes the carnage at Jacques' mansion. And gets away scot-free, although without Sarah in his life. But the ending image is one that struck me as surprisingly emotional, and one that matches the tone of the rest of the movie; he didn't get the girl and the Crimson Bolt is still thought of as a psycho hitting the right targets at best, but Frank finds a measure of peace and acceptance. He's made it through the other side and things are probably going to be pretty all right for him in the future.

Well, now I've seen all of James Gunn's movies (I'm pretty sure Slither is going to be popping up for HubrisWeen this year), and I can't wait to see what else he does, either in the megabudget realms with Marvel Studios or in smaller, weirder, creepier areas with his own stuff. He's got a genuine knack for finding the bruised soul in his protagonists and he got two very different, fully developed performances out of Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page in this film. I hope that he shows us something else screwed up and lacerating next time around. I'll be there.

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