When recently revisiting James Gunn’s MCU directorial debut for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature, I was surprised to find that the film had greatly improved with time & distance. A lot of problems I had with Guardians of the Galaxy felt entirely inconsequential the second time around. Unfortunately, I couldn’t repeat this trick with Gunn’s other superhero movie, 2010’s dark comedy Super. I enjoyed Super well enough the first time I saw it a few years ago, but found it deeply flawed in select moments that often poisoned the film’s brighter spots with a certain kind of tonal cruelty. More specifically, I thought Super‘s lighthearted approach to sexually assault in not one, but three separate gags was a huge Achilles heel in an otherwise enjoyable film. If anything, recently giving Super a second, closer look made this fault even more glaring than it was the first go-round.
In the film a short-order grill cook & lifelong target of bullying (Rainn Wilson) is emotionally wrecked when his exotic dancer wife (Liv Tyler) relapses on her sobriety & leaves him for a ruthless drug-dealing schmuck (Kevin Bacon). In this moment of crisis our pathetic hero finds solace & inspiration in a Christian television show about a pious superhero named The Holy Avenger. Things get out of hand when his religious delusions become full-blown divine visions where the finger of God touches his brain (literally) and convinces him to take justice into his own hands by becoming a real-life superhero. As his newly-minted superego The Crimson Bolt, our hero is no longer on the receiving end of bullying. He’s no longer the kind of pushover who’d make his wife’s new lover fried eggs for breakfast out of timid kindness. He’s now empowered by a homemade costume, an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), and some nifty catchphrases (“Shut up, crime!”) to fight evil deeds by mercilessly beating people within an inch of their lives with household tools for minor offenses. In his mind The Crimson Bolt is all that’s standing between justice & chaos. From the outside looking in, he’s a man suffering from crippling depression & self hate and is more of a dangerous liability than he is a divine vigilante.
My favorite aspect of Super is the ambiguity of its tone. Is it a pitch black comedy or simply pitch black? When The Crimson Bolt weeps in a mirror & thinks to himself “People look stupid when they cry,” does the humor of that observation outweigh the severity of its emotional turmoil or should you join in on the tears? It’s difficult to tell either way, but part of what makes James Gunn pictures so engaging is in the fearless way they’re willing to explore this compromised tone by going hard on darker impulses that complicate their humor. Sometimes I’m more than willing to laugh at these clashes in tone, like when The Crimson Bolt has a moral dilemma about murdering people for non-violent offenses (like cutting in line or keying cars) that he summarizes as “How am I supposed to tell evil to shut up if I have to shut up?” Other times I’m left much more uncomfortable, especially in the multiple instances of rape “humor” that make light of prison rape, female-on-male rape, and drug-assisted sexual assault. In these moments Gunn’s tonal ambiguity plays much more like a detriment than an asset & any humor meant to be mined from the violence falls flat & unnerving.
It’s possible that the exact discomfort I’m describing is what Gunn was aiming to achieve in Super. The director makes a cameo in the film (in the context of the Holy Avenger television show) as the Devil & it’s possible that’s exactly how he sees himself. He promises to deliver certain genre goods in his films (Kick Ass-style dark comedy in this case), but merely uses them as a vehicle to deliver something much more misanthropic & grotesque. It’s a classic Devil’s bargain. I enjoy so much of what Super grimly delivers & maybe Gunn’s turning that sinful delight against me with this distasteful line of rape humor. Who’s to say? All I can really do is note the discomfort & wish for better.