(Concurrent with Boston-area screenings of Super, writer/director James Gunn sat down for an interview with MovieBob. The quotations in this article are taken from that interview.)
“There was no ‘lightning bolt.’ Back in 2002, I wanted to make a short film because I hadn’t directed anything that I thought was worth showing … so I thought about making a low-budget short about a superhero without powers who went out and started fighting crime. I started writing – and just kept writing – and wrote the whole first draft in one day. It was 57 pages long – too long for a short, so I decided let’s turn it into a feature.”
– Super writer/director James Gunn, on his inspiration
At this point, the omnipresence of superheroes in American popular culture is a cliché in and of itself – a character-type that was once the most dismissed and ghettoized in all of fiction is now the standard-bearer of modern mythology. Costumed vigilantes dominate not only the world of TV cartoons and toy shelves, but also magazines and Hollywood blockbusters. Where once upon a time, every leading man movie star needed to get at least one cowboy, cop or soldier under his belt, today, every star’s agent worth their salt is combing through Marvel and DC’s backlog for a cape that might look good on their client.
Most incredibly (or troublingly, depending on your perspective) of all, the trend has bled all the way out into reality itself, driven, no doubt, by the rise of social media. The last few years have seen a nationwide explosion of “real life superheroes” – actual people adopting costumed identities and engaging in comic book-style vigilantism. Some, like the Rolling Stone-profiled “ Master Legend,” mostly seem like general do-gooders with, let’s say, “active inner lives.” But others, like the now-infamous Phoenix Jones – who patrols the city of Seattle with defensive weaponry and a suit of body armor – are close enough to the (formerly) unreal to make one wonder how long we have before Doctor Manhattan shows up.
“I hung out with Phoenix Jones a couple times… He busted into our panel at Comic-Con, I tased him onstage … he came to our premiere! He’s an interesting guy …”
– James Gunn, on real-life superheroes
Writer/director James Gunn’s Super isn’t the first film built around this sort of “real-life” superhero (indeed, it was written several years before the phenomenon really took off), but it differentiates itself by looking for a bigger picture. While films like Kick-Ass are about costumed crimefighting as either wish-fulfillment or brutal reality checks for so-called “fanboys,” Super broadens its scope to encompass the effects of a superhero-saturated culture on those with otherwise no connection to the genre. Its hero, Frank D’Arbo, has never cracked a comic book until after he decides to become “The Crimson Bolt.”
“I know what it’s like to be doing something where the goal is to FINISH IT. This movie had to be made BEFORE we set foot on the sets … had to have EVERYTHING ready.”
– James Gunn, on low-budget filmmaking
Played by Rainn Wilson, Frank is a pleasant, alarmingly naïve schlub whose life (and psyche) falls to pieces when his wife (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, is lured back into her old life by a local wannabe gangster (Kevin Bacon). It’s not just the betrayal that breaks him, nor the knowledge that she’s almost certainly being used as a chemically-sedated sex slave, but the (to him) baffling lack of justice. He’s clearly a Good Guy, Bacon is clearly a Bad Guy … so how did “good” love to “evil?”
Frank is a simple man, beaten down by real life’s refusal to conform to his childlike moral outlook, and like many such people in such situations he turns to religion – or rather prayer in the general sense – for answers. But instead of finding God, he finds The Holy Avenger, a campy, low-budget Christian kiddie show (a wicked satire of the depressingly quite real Bible Man franchise) in which a costumed crimefighter (Nathan Fillion) metes out justice and bumper sticker moralisms.
“The character [Holy Avenger] was there from that very first draft – he’s based on Bible Man … I think Bible Man is hilarious. I originally wrote the role thinking of Bruce Campbell, but since then I’ve become good friends with Nathan and he’s perfect for the role. Every role I give him he goes above and beyond.”
– James Gunn, on The Holy Avenger
In a very real way, that his spiritual awakening and/or psychotic break is triggered by a cut-rate religious screed that’s only incidentally about a superhero is the key both to Frank and to Super in general. Frank doesn’t have any fanboy dreams to live out, it’s not the costumed-fetishism or ever the power fantasy of superheroes that calls out to him – it’s their simplistic, black-and-white, good-triumphs-over-evil, wrongdoing-is-punished, status-quo-is-restored moral outlook.
“This was a very difficult movie to shoot – a normal movie you have 15 to 20 setups a day, we were doing 45 to 50.”
– James Gunn, on Super’s tight 24 day shooting-schedule
Maybe if he’d watched a different show, Frank D’Arbo might’ve joined the priesthood, or the army, or Dianetics, but he believes his “calling from God” came through The Holy Avenger, so Frank D’Arbo transforms himself into The Crimson Bolt, a D.I.Y. superhero in red padding and tights who patrols his city by night, bellowing his mantra of “SHUT UP, CRIME!”, protecting Good and fighting Evil …
… by beating people nearly to death with a pipe wrench. That’s basically his only weapon, and The Crimson Bolt is not a big fan of proportionate punishment. He brutally caves in the skulls of not only muggers, drug dealers and child molesters, but also the merely rude and socially-unmannered. It is a bad idea, for example, to cut in line if The Crimson Bolt is within walking distance of his wrench and uniform.
“I think that we go around, we see these big superhero movies – we see them bashing people, knocking people out, blowing things up, lasering each other … we don’t really see the physical ramifications of that. Super is all about seeing the repercussions – we see what’s on the other end of that.”
– James Gunn, on superhero movies
Helping to further set Wilson’s sad-sack-on-a-mission apart from the rest of the genre is co-star Ellen Page, who enters the story as the comic shop clerk who helps Frank with his “research” and begs her way into sidekick-hood as “Boltie” once she discovers that he’s The Crimson Bolt.
“Ellen is amazing. She put every fiber of her being into this role. There was a time on set where she almost fainted! You have to watch out for Ellen, because she works so f***ing hard … the first thing she said to me, when we first talked about this movie, was that she’s always being asked to play these characters who’re ‘wise beyond their years’ – these snarky teenagers saying things out the sides of their mouth – and this character is the exact opposite of that. She’s an 11 year-old in a 23 year-old body!
– James Gunn, on working with Ellen Page
Boltie, unlike her would-be mentor, is the quintessential fangirl – for her, it really is just about the power-fantasy of consequence-free assault on “evil” and the sexual fetishism of the costumes. She is, we quickly discover, deeply disturbed even more than the Bolt himself; a sprite-sized psychopath and a clear danger to herself and others.
“She’s not trying to be ‘good’ – she just wants to beat people up! And the costume gives her the ‘license’ to do that. We go to a superhero movie, we want to see people getting beat up. It’s couched in terms of ‘Good and Evil’ … but we really just want to see the mayhem.”
– James Gunn, on Boltie
Super won’t be a movie for everyone – the combination of extreme violence, black comedy and genre-satire built around an unnervingly realistic portrait of severe depression requires a certain vigilance against tonal whiplash on the part of the audience; and one is constantly reminded that Gunn (who also helmed the cult hit Slither) cut his teeth working for the notorious Troma Films, who specialize in smashing hardcore horror-sleaze and blunt-force social commentary together (see: The Toxic Avenger, a blood and vomit slathered shocker about … environmentalism.)
“My goal was: I wanted to make a film where you don’t know what’s going to happen at any point; keep setting it up so you think you know where it’s going and then it doesn’t.”
– James Gunn, on tone
And even those who can stomach the ride may not go along anyway once they realize Gunn isn’t interested in condemning Crimson Bolt’s actions. Whereas most stories of comic book crimefighters gone real maintain the ultimate moral of Watchmen – that “real” costumed vigilantism would be a one-way path to Armageddon – Super challenges its audience by not offering a definitive judgment of Frank D’Arbo. He’s pathetic, naïve and clearly out of his mind, but is he wrong? That’s up to you.
“Maybe. It’s important to remember that, even though the violence is very real, it’s still a fairy tale. We’re talking about a fictional guy killing fictional people, and his journey is less a ‘commentary’ and more about his experience. Frank feels that he’s received a calling that seems completely crazy, and is seen from the outside as completely wrong by a lot of people … but he really, truly believes it and goes for that.”
— James Gunn, on whether the world could use a real Crimson Bolt
Super is in theaters now.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.