‘Super’: The Black Comedy That Launched James Gunn’s Superhero Career
As you’ve probably heard by now, thanks to news reports or one of several hundred rage-filled YouTube videos, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn is the new co-chair of DC Studios and has been tasked with reshaping their movie world, aka the Pepsi to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Coke.
This is obviously a daunting job, not just because it involves telling stories starring beloved pop-culture icons, but also, apparently, requires firing several hulking musclemen who could presumably break James Gunn like a human Kit Kat bar. So what does Gunn’s future for the DC-verse look like? It’s hard to say, but given his new position, we thought we’d look back at Gunn’s first directorial foray into the superhero genre: the 2010 black comedy Super.
Gunn was clearly interested in reinterpreting and subverting comic book tropes, as even before Super, he penned the script for 2000’s The Specials – directed by future Chernobyl and The Last of Us showrunner Craig Mazin – about the day-to-day lives of a celebrity superhero team.
But with Super, Gunn demolished the mythology of the lone, self-empowered hero with the origin story of The Crimson Bolt, played by Rainn Wilson. In Super's bleak, real-world setting, the "hero," Frank, is just an unhinged vigilante motivated by social alienation and mental illness. His "superpower" is merely a desire (and willingness) to bludgeon small-time criminals with a pipe wrench, all supposedly in the service of getting his estranged wife back. Even his "kid sidekick," played by Elliot Page, is also grappling with severe anger issues.
Super arguably tries to have it both ways. The film critiques the superhero narrative by depicting the pitiful absurdity of how it would potentially play out in the real world, while also reveling in the extremity of the ensuing violence and offensive humor with the glee of a seventh-grader doodling in their notebook margins. We're supposed to find Frank's violence sickening but also titter at the sight of a dude dressed like the star of a Flash porn parody going full Death Wish.
Of course, Super was far from the first subversive take on superheroism, but it came out at a key moment; while Gunn wrote the script back in 2002, it ended up premiering just two years after the release of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. And weirdly, the movie's gnarly appeal is what led to Gunn being considered for the Guardians of the Galaxy job. It's a little like if Mel Brooks was hired to make a Star Wars movie because of Spaceballs – if Spaceballs included scenes where Lone Star casually bashed people's skulls in.
In retrospect, there's an added oddity of Gunn being briefly fired by Marvel for old, inappropriate Tweets when he first caught the studio's attention by making a movie that seemed to wield its relentless inappropriateness as a badge of honor. There are certainly shades of Super in Gunn's later superhero projects, like the ultraviolence of The Suicide Squad or the quotidian malaise of Peacemaker, but Gunn no longer seems interested in interrogating the potential toxic influence of the superhero fantasy. Which likely means the new Superman movie won't find the Man of Steel wailing on innocent people with items from a hardware store.
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