I was sad to find a lot of mediocrity of films at this years’ Fantasia Film Fest. More often than not I left the theatre somewhat unsatisfied. I was even underwhelmed by the highly anticipated Attack the Block.
One film however, was different. One film had me alternating between an ear-to-ear smile and an expression of anguished sympathy for the entirety of its runtime. I left the theatre with my faith in cinema renewed and a warm, satisfied feeling in my soul, like after I go to that place off St. Catherine Street on Friday nights which is frankly none of your business Mr. Noseypants. That film was Super, an independent superhero comedy starring Rain Wilson (The Office) Ellen Page (Juno and my future wife) and a host of others.
The plot may strike some familiar chords. Wilson plays Frank, a depressed middle-aged man whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a skuzzy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon of too many noteworthy films to count). Inspired by a bible-themed TV superhero (Nathan Fillion of Firefly and my current man-crush) he becomes The Crimson Bolt, a red-clad vigilante who wangs wrongdoers in the head with a pipe wrench with a triumphant cry of “Shut up, crime!”. Before long he’s joined by Ellen Page as Libby, a comic store employee who becomes his teen sidekick Bolty and quickly proves herself to be crazier than a bag of ferrets.
Now, I know what you’re thinking (I do, actually. And you’ve got some issues, buddy) “Thomas, you stallion of a man, you. This sounds a lot like Kick-Ass or Defendor, what makes it so special?” “Well”, I would reply “Almost everything.”. To start, the film finds an almost perfect balance between comedy and heart wrenching drama. While Kick-Ass quickly became an out and out spoof, and Defendor abandoned any pretense of comedy after about 20 minutes, Super manages to segue between the two so seamlessly you barely notice. One minute you’re cackling at the brutally visceral pipe wrench beatings, the next you find yourself thinking “Wait a minuteâ€¦. Frank, that ain’t cool, man. You’re losing it!”. Frank’s slow transformation from dealer of righteous, cathartic justice to violent, unhinged vigilante is so well executed, and the character so sympathetic and tragic, that when he starts to slip and attacks people for only minor crimes or annoyances we feel a sense of real dread at what he is becoming. We can see him starting to lose it and genuinely don’t want to see this sad, sweet guy basically turn into Travis Bickle in red underoos.
That of course leads me to the strongest point of the movie, the characterization. Frank’s transformation into The Crimson Bolt is not motivated by power, sexual thrills, glamour or the license to beat people up. He’s never read a comic book in his life, he isn’t part of that world of fanboy superhero-worship. What Frank is really interested in is reducing the world to stark principles. Light and dark, crime and justice, good and evil. He can’t fathom the idea that maybe, just maybe, his wife left him by choice, and isn’t a damsel in distress kidnapped by an evil villain, or that this perceived injustice will go unpunished. He becomes The Crimson Bolt so he can reduce the world to ideas he can understand and cope with, a four-color comic book world where good is good, evil is evil and crime is always punished. Enter Libby, the polar opposite of this mindset, who IS in it for the thrills, sexuality and violence. Frank’s interactions with Libby gives gives him the chance to make it through this without completely losing touch with reality.
Wilson’s performance as Frank is fantastic, showing yet again how comedic actors can take to dramatic acting like a duck to water, though he’s given enough comedic moments that we don’t forget his roots. Ellen Page brings an appropriate energy and enthusiasm to contrast to Frank’s dour awkwardness, and seems to be returning to her roots after her seeming career misstep with Inception.. The supporting players are pulling their weight admirably, with Bacon providing a suitably hate-able villain and Michael Rooker (Would you like a chocolate covered pretzel?) as his subtly conflicted croney. Keep an eye out for some other familiar faces like Linda Cardellini and Andre Royo.
Super is easily in my top five movies for this year, and my favorite of the movies I saw at Fantasia. It has heart, comedy, fantastic characterization, an awesome animated opening sequence and some of the most wonderfully bizarre scenes I’ve seen at the movies in a while (the scene where Frank receives his great inspiration has to be seen to be believed). The movie is on DVD and Blu-Ray now and will be enjoying a place of honor in my collection shortly. Not checking this movie out would be a crime. And you know what crime needs to do.