One of the minor things that bothers me about Inception is that it’s so high concept that it doesn’t afford much room for characters. So you get tremendously talented actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, and Ellen Page, but you come away from the movie with no inkling how talented they are.
After the jump, Super to the rescue
Watching Ellen Page in Super was just what I needed after watching her patiently listen to Leonard DeCaprio for what seemed like hours on end. She is so committed in Super, so ridiculous, so adorable, so over-the-top and inappropriate, that it works even when it doesn’t quite work. And the end result is that it works entirely and director James Gunn knows how to take advantage of it. In fact, by the time the Super is over, it’s almost as if the script didn’t quite appreciate how good Page was going to be. But that’s okay. We, the audience, appreciated it. We’re used to being out of step with the script at that point.
For the most part, Super does a great job with a script that dances around what we expect and what we don’t expect. You can’t really deconstruct superheroes anymore, because they’ve been deconstructed nine ways to Sunday, which is why movies like Iron Man can get away with unrepentantly reconstructing them. But what you can do is just plop down your superheroes and let them be every bit as ridiculous as they are, within the context of mostly real-world rules. In this regard, Super isn’t afraid to commit. Kick-Ass wanted to stab its lead character, but it couldn’t resist also stringing up Chloe Moretz for some fancy wirework.
But here’s where Super, a movie entirely lacking wirework, benefits from James Gunn’s Troma background. I’ve never really cared for Troma’s aggressive attempts to shock me or gross me out. It just feels needy, like a John Waters movie or like when some guy corners you to tell you a joke and all you get is the overwhelming stink of insecurity. So even Troma veteran James Gunn’s Slither was kind of shrugworthy for me. I mean, yeah, a Troma guy is of course going to do a horror movie with lots of latex and fluids and bad jokes. And if a Troma guy is going to do a superhero movie, well, you might as hunker down for another Toxic Avenger.
But Super, which is written and directed by Gunn, takes a different approach. Instead of being subversive by shocking you and grossing you out, it’s subversive by being subversive. And it does it in a way that even Kick-Ass couldn’t manage. Kick-Ass might have been R-rated, but it was mostly safe and even a bit sterile, neatly exemplifying Mark Millar’s “aren’t we cool but safely fantasizing for spelling “fuck you” when the keys fly off the keyboard as we knock out someone’s teeth?” mentality. Kids, man. The hollow buzz of their unfocused frustration has all the fury of someone waving a leaf blower around the yard next door.
But Super won’t have any of that. Super is the anti-cool, anti-fantasy superhero movie, entirely unafraid to go exactly where it should, and mostly unconcerned with anything fancy and arguably French like deconstruction. For Super, the rules were set a long time ago. They don’t change.
Rainn Wilson is mostly playing his usual clown/loser character. Early on, this is as disappointing and facile as the Jesus superhero schtick gamely contributed by Nathan Fillion. Wilson’s career seems to be defined by this sort of role, which is too bad. I don’t know The Office very well, but I was fortunate enough to get to see Wilson work on it at one point, and my takeaway was that he’s a really good actor who should be given a chance to do something beyond his clown/loser parts in The Rocker, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and Juno. And while Super isn’t going to break him out of that stereotype, it does afford him the opportunity to go to exactly the kind of place he deserves to be. His payoff, performed underneath a cowl so that it’s all in his eyes and his spittle-flecked jaw and just as effective as anything Christian Bale has tried to do, is the most pyrotechnical moment in Super, a movie that had a budget for actual pyrotechnics. That final scene with Kevin Bacon, and the wind-down the follows, is a prime example of how Gunn can be subversive without going for the low-hanging shock/gross-out fruit. At this point, it seems like Gunn has outgrown Mark Millar, Troma, and even superheroes, all in one fell swoop.
(Super is currently in limited release, hopefully at a theatre near you.)