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Toronto 2010: 'Super' is 'something different'

September 11, 2010 | 11:41 am


On Friday night in Toronto, the Ryerson was again hopping with a long line of people waiting for the world premiere of "Super" in the Midnight Madness slot. With a healthy turnout of eager industry buyers as well -- some already grumbling about the films they'd seen so far -- the scene meant that this year's festival was in full swing.

Just before the screening began, writer-director James Gunn said, "Let's see something different." He wasn't kidding around.

It's different all right, an alternately wild and moody film that is equal parts love story, portrait of mental instability and raucous comic-book-inspired action picture. The story follows a sad-sack diner cook named Frank (Rainn Wilson) who in the aftermath of being left by his wife (Liv Tyler) feels himself touched by the finger of God and called to create a crime-fighting alter-ego known as The Crimson Bolt. Armed with a pipe-fitting wrench, a homemade costume and his own psychotic convictions -- "Shut up, crime" is one of his battle calls -- he begins attacking drug dealers, child molesters and people who butt in line at the movies. Along the way he picks up an excitable comic-store clerk (Ellen Page) as his friend and eventual sidekick.

Both Wilson and Page give performances that are distinctly different from those for which they are best known. Wilson gives a much deeper and more soulful turn than one might expect from his comically stoic part as a paper salesman on the television show "The Office." Here he seems like a guy on the verge of cracking up, or perhaps someone well past that point, a mix of desperation and willpower that is often more unnerving than straight-ahead comedic.

For her part, Page sets aside her over-it smart-alecky persona to play a young woman desperate to live a life with gusto. Once she assumes her own role as the kid sidekick Bolty, her lusty yells and excited exclamations as she whales on yet another criminal are strange and jarring. (As is a scene in which she forces herself, in her superhero costume, onto Frank. The way the costume hugs tight to her body only accentuates her bony androgyny, allowing Gunn to play out a scene that could be more straightforwardly sexy as something bothersomely ambiguous.)

"Super" will of course be compared to "Kick-Ass," Matthew Vaughn's film from earlier his year that also featured a regular person deciding to take up the life of a superhero. Yet where "Kick-Ass" could never stop reminding a viewer that it was a movie and that things shouldn't be taken too seriously, "Super" has an honesty and genuineness in its compassion for Frank. When Frank starts beating on a guy with a wrench,  Gunn wisely never loses sight of how psychotic it is for one man to be beating another man in the street for whatever reason.

Wilson's portrayal of Frank never loses sight of that either, giving the film a remarkable depth of humanity. It keeps close the sense that there is a guy in that outfit -- a troubled, lonely man reaching out to the world the only way he can.

Wilson, also an executive producer on the film, really took over the stage during the post-screening Q&A, acting as de facto emcee and keeping the energy up even as the event wore late into the night. Gunn said it was his ex-wife, actress Jenna Fischer, Wilson's co-star on "The Office," who most encouraged him to  make the film. Wilson added that when Gunn first e-mailed him the script, he actually received it at his desk for his character on set. He then printed it out and began to read it in his trailer.

"I was only on page 21 ... I texted James and said, 'I'm in. I want to make this movie. My hands are trembling,'" Wilson recalled. "That's a true story. I responded incredibly to this script in a really emotional way."

Producer Ted Hope said that he first learned of the project when Wilson posted something on his Twitter feed and felt that he wanted to get involved.

Without giving away any spoilers, let it be said that the film takes some wildly unexpected turns in its final stretch and its ending strikes just the right tension between success and failure, triumph and heartbreak. Asked about the ending's tone, Gunn responded: "It was just the ending that happened; don't know how to explain it. The speech Rainn gives at the end, 'You think that I'm the crazy one' ... is what I thought when I was writing the whole script.

"I thought that The Crimson Bolt was crazy, and maybe you do too, but at the end he feels like he was doing what he was called to do," Gunn said. "To me it is sort of a happy ending, it's just not your typical happy ending." 

-- Mark Olsen

Photo: Rainn Wilson in "Super." Photo courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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You mention comparisons to "Kick Ass", but the description of "Super" in and of itself (especially the mental illness part) sounds almost identical to "Defendor" starring Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas and Sandra Oh. Which was a decent enough film. I'm all about something "different" but I'm seeing a trend beginning with these anti-hero/vigilante types and have a feeling that before we know it the theaters are going to be clogged with just as many of them as their super hero counterparts. I say if we're going to do the anti-hero route, why not make something more original like "Fight Club" where the Super Hero persona isn't so obviously played out?

With the exception of the final Batman installment, I think I'm done with comic book movies for the time being...it's time for a break.

If this is indeed simply one of a new subgenre of films, the "anti-superhero" or "superhero parody" subgenre, I suspect that it will flame out rather quickly. The dismal box office of such films as "Kick Ass," "Defendor," and I'm sure "Super" will quickly cool the interest of studios in financing such films. Whether the "superhero" genre of films is going to flourish or not will depend in large part on the performance of upcoming productions like "Thor" and "Green Lantern."

As I've said elsewhere, the idea for Super was being shopped around before the comic book Kick-Ass was ever written.

And as for box-office, from what Gunn has said in interviews, this film cost in the low millions to make. The actors all agreed to work on scale because they loved the project so much. That's saying something. And the film won't really have to make a whole hell of a lot of money in the box office to make a profit. Not to mention that this has serious cult potential, just like Gunn's Slither and Tromeo and Juliet.

Just for reference for those that might not know...James Gunn isn't 'stealing' the idea from "Kick Ass" or following in its stead. He's had the script for this movie in the works for YEARS. He admitted himself that the timing wasn't ideal because of the recent release of "Kick Ass".



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