Now that Deadpool has become a monster hit, there are a billion articles about how ground-breaking this R-rated, raunchy, fourth-wall-smashing superhero movie really is. And no mistake, Deadpool is hilarious. But there’s one film, starring an insane hero in a red suit, that never gets enough credit for how far it pushed the superhero genre: Super, written and directed by James Gunn.
Actually, as I pointed out in my review of Deadpool, there have been plenty of over-the-top, R-rated comic-book movies in the past decade. Deadpool owes a lot, stylistically and otherwise, to films like Wanted, Kick-Ass and Kingsman. One of the main ways that Deadpool feels so fresh is because it takes the stylized violence and insane humor of those other films, and puts them into the X-Men universe. Which is, to be sure, a big deal.
But James Gunn himself took to Facebook yesterday to rant, after an unnamed Hollywood executive said Deadpool’s self-deprecating tone had “never been done before.” And that Marvel would “rather stab themselves” than make fun of themselves in a movie. Gunn responded, “Let’s ignore Guardians [of the Galaxy] for a moment, a movie that survives from moment to moment building itself up and cutting itself down—God knows I’m biased about that one. But what do you think Favreau and Downey did in Iron Man? What the fuck was Ant-Man??!”
And of course, Gunn (who directed Guardians) is right. I don’t even know where this perception that Marvel is humorless, or some kind of dull assembly line, comes from.
But my main reaction to Gunn’s comments was to wonder why he didn’t bring up Super—a film which actually does lay a ton of groundwork for movies like Deadpool. Sure, Super was not a huge box office megahit or anything, and it probably slid so far under the radar that it traveled through the Earth’s crust. But if you wanna talk about movies that push the superhero genre past its limits, then Super ought to be your touchstone.
Super is an incredibly fucked up movie—guaranteed to offend pretty much everyone—which digs deep into the contradictions and hypocrisies of the superhero genre that Deadpool only pokes a teeny bit of fun at. The whole “hero” concept, the notion that one person can go out and fight evil, the delusion that violence can be pure and wonderful, and the whole power fantasy that causes you to put on a costume and fight “evil.”
Rewatching bits of Super today, it’s even more messed-up and insane than I remember. Rainn Wilson (from The Office) plays Frank Darbo, a regular guy who works as a short-order cook. After his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him to go live with her scummy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Frank decides to become a superhero—so he puts on a costume and calls himself the Crimson Bolt. But he attracts a sidekick, the unstable Libby (Ellen Page).
On one level, Super is sort of pushing the limits of the vigilante/sociopath divide—at one point, the Crimson Bolt bashes two people’s heads in for cutting in line at a movie theater, and Libby nearly kills someone for allegedly keying her friend’s new car. The Crimson Bolt has an exaggerated sense of right and wrong, and absolutely no sense of proportion, and his catchphrase (“Shut up, crime!”) seems more like the sort of thing a crazy person would yell on the street.
But part of the genius of Super is that Frank is such a compelling character that you can’t help but root for him and empathize with him, and Kevin Bacon is such a scumbag, you desperately want him to get what’s coming to him. I remember thinking that Kevin Bacon played two comic-book villains in the same year (the other one was in X-Men: First Class) but his villain in Super is by far the more memorable and hateful of the two. Even if Frank’s crusade is off the rails before it even starts, you want him to save his wife.
But meanwhile, Super is funny as shit—and a lot of its funniest stuff is digging into the ways that the superhero genre makes no sense whatsoever. The whole thing of dressing up in a brightly colored costume so you can beat someone up, the self-righteousness of the self-proclaimed hero, and the whole delusional fetishistic mess. No mainstream superhero movie could afford to be 1/10 as irreverent as Super manages to be, because Super gleefully saws away at the very foundations of the genre.
And in terms of super-stylized comic-book violence, this movie is still fascinatingly unique, thanks to a mixture of 1960s Batman-style “effects” on the screen, other weird graphics, and uncomfortably real blood and brains.
And it all leads up to an ending that’s unexpectedly powerful and moving, in which Frank’s childlike monstrosity actually gets a surprising resolution, and you’re left with a sense that you’ve witnessed a real character journey.
I’m not saying that Deadpool was influenced by Super, although I would not be at all surprised if the makers had at least seen it. Nor am I suggesting that Hollywood should try to copy Super in any way, shape or form—unless someone really does want to hasten the destruction of the superhero genre, in which case go for it.
But if you wanna talk about insanely inappropriate, crazily violent, deeply offensive movies that explore the furthest extremes of how far you can go with superheroes on screen, I’d argue that Super has already staked out that territory. Any other splattery, obnoxious, wrong-as-fuck superhero flick is going to be exploring a land in which Super has already claimed the furthest outpost.