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When sad-sack loser Frank (Rainn Wilson, The Office), a short-order cook, sees his ex-addict wife (Liv Tyler, The Lord of the Rings) willingly snatched away by a seductive drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), he finds himself bereft and unable to cope. But he decides to fight back under the guise of a do-it-yourself superhero called Crimson Bolt. With a red hand-made suit, a wrench, a crazed sidekick named Boltie (Ellen Page, Juno) and absolutely nothing in the way of superpowers Crimson Bolt beats his way through the mean streets of crime in hopes of saving his wife.
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The story opens with an intro to the sorry state that is the life of Frank Darrbo (Rainn Wilson). He’s a fryer at a local burger joint, he’s married to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, and his life is mostly a series of humiliations. His two crowning achievements are his marriage and that one time when he pointed out which way a criminal ran to a cop. Sarah soon relapses into her habits, coinciding with her meeting Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a drug dealer. She leaves Frank, sending him into a further downward spiral resulting in what’s probably best described as a horrific episode, eventually culminating in his donning a homemade superhero costume and calling himself the Crimson Bolt, a patchwork looking vigilante who mercilessly clubs his enemies with a pipe wrench.
Like other films in this “real life” superhero subgenre, such as Kick-Ass or Defendor, there’s a dark sense of humor to accompany the expectations of the action scenes. The Crimson Bolt spends the first few nights hiding behind a dumpster and encountering little crime other than the evidence of littering. When he expands his territory into an actual dangerous neighborhood, we get a surprisingly upbeat montage of him brutally assaulting criminals of various kinds in ways that could leave them dead or crippled. I mean he lays down some savage beatings on people with that wrench. The violence and bloodshed only escalates when he teams up with his comic geek admirer Libby (Ellen Page), who joins him in his crusade as his “kid” sidekick, Boltie. Between his delusions and her sadism, they do quite a bit of damage with absolutely no negative consequences from the police.
Even though the general tone is that of a comedy, it tends to warp and twist almost as dramatically as the mental state of Frank himself. It’s made clear early on that Frank is not only delusional, but clearly disturbed. He has a history of seeing things, cannot communicate well with others, and suppresses a lot of rage at the world and the life he feels he was unfairly dealt. His depression is at times not humorous at all and taken surprisingly serious, while the next scene could include him smashing someone’s head in complete with cartoony sound effects animated onscreen à la the Adam West Batman series. There’s a consistent morbid humor, which is evident by the gleeful presentation of horrific violence, but it clashes with the emotional drama of the character.
Around the time Boltie makes her debut, the movie hits its stride, and even though she’s completely psychotic and deranged (possibly more so than Frank), Ellen Page laughing manically as she brutally attacks someone is admittedly (albeit oddly) hilarious. She really has some fun with this role and it’s difficult not to like her. The rest of the acting is really strong as well, especially from Rainn Wilson, who shows a surprising amount of range both comedically and dramatically.
Unfortunately after its climax, which almost becomes a clichéd action sequence (though Frank’s insanity prevents it from being one entirely), it has a strangely hopeful ending, with a tacked on “lesson learned” as if there was always some greater meaning to Frank’s journey. It comes across as disingenuous and doesn’t match the depravity of the characters up until that point, which is the entire movie. That any sort of catharsis could be found at the end of this madness seems almost like a cheat or a copout.
Writer/director James Gunn’s directing is highly stylized and erratic, given what we get on the screen. At times there’s some surrealist imagery, at others more conventional comedy/parody (any scene with the Christian superhero Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) is pretty great), and at others, ludicrously gory action. The way he films the violence, from the upbeat montages to the more conventional finale, makes the assaults and blood spilling seem like some sort of release for the characters. It’s often shocking, but we are encouraged to enjoy the scenes where Crimson Bolt crushes a man’s skull or Boltie stabs someone repeatedly while laughing maniacally. There’s an odd sense of sadistic glee in the action scenes, and when coupled with the delusional mind of the protagonist it left a strange taste in my mouth.
Super is an odd, and often disturbing story that goes so far in any direction it’s leaning towards. There are genuinely funny moments, and there’s also some dramatic subtext for the characters and their skewed motivations, but this only makes the ridiculous and over-the-top graphic violence seem all the more shocking. While I can’t very well say this is a great movie (it’s a mixed bag at best, depending on your tastes), I can’t deny that I found it strangely enjoyable, too.
Some critics, including the late Roger Ebert's Web site -- no surprise -- missed the point. This is a black comedy. A black comedy isn't always ha-ha funny. Dark humor can make you grimace and cringe and want to turn away. There are genuinely funny moments here, and others that serve as satire.
I didn't expect much of this film or of Rainn Wilson. I was glad to be so wrong. He balanced Frank with his Crimson Bolt persona on par with, or better than, any of the A-listers in the general superhero releases. I called Frank a "life loser" in quotes. That's how society may view him, and it's certainly how he views himself. He's been battered and abused by life. His default, unstated, super power is invisibility. It's the first of three powers never explicitly named by the film. Wilson's light narration and his bloodless, depressive personality find some outlet in drawings. His existence hinges on a reverential relationship with his beautiful, damaged wife Sarah (Liv Tyler). The film offers sufficient explanation as to how they bridged their looks differential. His wife is a recovering addict, and her relapse with a local drug kingpin triggers the events that follow.
Along the way, Frank D'Arbo finds himself inspired by a superhero drawn from Christian programming. He develops his Crimson Bolt suit, whose look improves with his abilities. The portrayal of violence is both humorous and grippingly real. This departs from Batman, who fights dozens of bad guys with his fists and feet, and emerges with bruises and glamor scratches. Crimson Bolt quickly finds that his average, bulky frame and lack of fistic ability require another method: Namely, ambushing foes with a pipe wrench. It's a send up of superhero tropes of ridiculous fighting skills, and violence with no consequences for those involved. Moreover, the costume plays a key role in this film. Superhero films are like musicals in that there's no transitional material. How does Batman just appear in full regalia, without anyone catching him changing? "Batman vs. Superman" was the first film I've seen where someone actually snagged the cape to throw Batman off balance. How do you transition to a different outfit after a mission or an injury? We get some answers from "Super."
Crimonologist Lonnie Athens has spent his career promulgating a theory of "violentization." This film conforms to its four stages: Brutalization, where we see the triggers and background that show why Frank isn't a "loser," and how he has been beaten down. Belligerency, when Frank D'Arbo decides to stop himself and others from being brutalized. He forges the Crimson Bolt persona. From there, violent performances begin: Crimson Bolt's early missions, his surveillance from behind dumpsters, a shift from tackles and clumsy fisticuffs to the use of a pipe wrench. A standard 18" pipe wrench can weigh 5 pounds and is weighted toward the head. It's a deadly weapon. Use it, and you'll face conspiracy to commit assault and felony assault charges. The final stage of Athens' theory, virulency, an escalation of violent performances with intent to maim and kill. D'Arbo's personality changes, his shift in confidence, his visions contribute to virulency in a bloody third act the above-mentioned reviewers complain about. Frank lives in the "real world," and his invisibility is complemented by a second default super power, people underestimate him. These allow for Crimson Bolt's mobility, which allow his continued acts despite repeated screw-ups and oversights, complemented by the bystander effect. If you saw a man in a costume relentless club someone or engage in other acts of aggression, you might hesitate to jot down his places or queue your phone to take footage. Moreover, Frank's former super powers gird a third: A willingness to do what it takes, by any means available. Every object in your environment is a weapon if you intend to do someone else grievous bodily harm. Any police officer, soldier, prison guard, or mental institutional trustee will tell you the same: There's a difference between someone who wants to fight you, and someone who wants to go through you. The willingness to do anything, in the right circumstances, can trump nuanced fighting skills. "Super" may tie comic elements into the violence, but you are seeing the events through Crimson Bolt's eyes as much as your own. Nobody else is as real as his ideals and his mission -- and his delusions.
While I love "Kick-Ass," I found "Super" to be more affecting. "Kick-Ass" is unconventional and real-ish, until a silly jetpack and a couple of major plot holes emerge that the comic had filled in. "Kick-Ass" remains a great film. Kick-Ass doesn't encompass Frank's range of emotion, his ability to make you want to cry with him and rage with him. Hit Girl does, to a lesser extent, particularly in the pivotal rescue scene.
Ultimately, Frank sees failure and writes a different story for his life; he decides to turn daydreams into resolve. Whether this is better for the world, or whether Sarah actually is worth saving is for the viewer to decide. Crimson Bolt's nemesis is the smarmy kingpin Jacques, played by an ageless Kevin Bacon who could have dialed it in but doesn't. Honorable mention goes to Michael Rooker, Jacques' chief henchman Abe, who acts through his expressions. It's a powerful performance despite maybe 30 words of spoken dialogue.Of course, seeing Juno play Boltie is a delight. Ellen Page is amped up, manic, charismatic and annoying. She's the ultimate unhinged fan-girl.
I'd recommend the viewer pair this with "Defendor (2010)," to see another take on the indie superhero genre, starring Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is more Sling Blade than Crimson Bolt, but it's another underrated film with fine performances and largely rooted in a real world. And he shares at least two of Crimson Bolt's super powers.
I could and would say more but I do not like spoilers ;-)
Most recent customer reviews
Some what like a high-end Troma movie (Lloyd Kaufman cameo).
Has big name actors. Liv tyler and Keven Bacon Take away from this film.Read more
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