I was watching James Gunn’s Super the other day and I had a great time. I thought it was a very funny and very dark take on super heroes and super hero fans. One thing I noticed while reading reviews and reactions from people on the net was that they were very put off by the violence. Gunn's cavalcade of carnage really seemed to really disturb some people.
I found this interesting because all the violence in Super struck me as very over-the-top and silly. Whenever Rainn Wilson as the Crimson Bolt hit someone on the head with a wrench, the person didn’t just get a bump on the noggin, their skull cracked open. Characters don’t just get shot, they all get shot in the head so the maximum amount of blood can spurt out. At one point Wilson drops a cinderblock on a prostitute.
Now, that might not seem funny until you see the movie. The way that joke is set up it looks like a frame from a Looney Tunes cartoon, and with that in mind, it’s not hard to picture Bugs Bunny holding the cinderblock right over Elmer Fudd’s giant head.
So violence is very comic in the world of Super. James Gunn is a veteran of Troma, and that gleeful love of carnage is very evident throughout the movie. There’s a scene near the end where Ellen Page gets shot in the head, and rather than tastefully suggest the damage, Gunn decides to show all gore, which includes half of Page’s head blown away.
That shot always gets a reaction from people because cute little Ellen Page now has half a head. But while I thought it was sad that her character died (and her character is a highlight of the film), I also thought it was pretty funny. The violence in this situation struck me as so crazy and so excessive that the only reaction was to laugh.
As I mentioned before though, most people seemed to be really apalled by the shot. I suppose the easy answer is to say I’m jaded and sick or that the audiences were just a bunch of wimps. But I think the real reason for this disparity is the film's tone. People seemed to take the story a little more seriously than I did.
James Gunn mentioned on his Formspring account that he always saw the film as more sad than funny and that a lot of people agreed with this view. I can definitely see that interpretation as the film treats its characters very sincerely and Wilson’s craziness can read as real to a lot of people.
That’s not how I saw it though, as Super appeared to me a little more overtly comedic. Wilson is such a sad sack that he states early in the movie that he’s only had two happy memories in his entire life. Kevin Bacon gives his most William Fichtner-esque performance as a mob boss that has a thing for brown eggs. There are a number of sequences inside Wilson’s mind that are incredibly bizarre, including tentacles opening Wilson’s head and a dipping a corn dog into his brain. Ellen Page in particular epitomizes the film’s tone as she’s a super hero-wannabe that just wants to abuse people. She’s a psychopath that thinks she’s awesome. She’s violent, sad and funny.
For me, Super was an arch and darkly humorous satire of super heroism. Others saw it more as Taxi Driver-type character study of a sad individual in the grips of mental-depression (the film’s ending is definitely Taxi Driver homage). Neither view is necessarily correct, but it does explain the reaction to all the violence. I think the film’s a big joke so the violence to me is intentionally stylized and ridiculous. If you see the film as a drama and are deeply invested in the characters, then all the violence that the Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page dish out and take in will be deeply disturbing.
Tone is something of a nebulous concept as you can’t just type “darkly comic” or “depressing” into Final Draft Pro, but it is an important aspect of film that can change how the viewer interprets the film. If Gunn set out to make a sad film, am I wrong for seeing Super as comic?
No, wait! I’m not, because you can’t control how everyone interprets your film. But that’s OK, because if you’ve made a good film, then it can be appreciated for reasons you didn’t necessarily intend. I mean, shit, you think anybody’s interpreting Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star?
So if you ever watch “Super” with me, don’t be freaked out when I laugh at Sean Gunn getting his legs broke by Ellen Page ramming into him with her car. I think it’s supposed to be funny!