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Gunn Aims to Discomfort His Audience

Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page are partners in crimefighting in James Gunn's "Super."
Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page are partners in crimefighting in James Gunn's "Super."
By Leanna B. Ehrlich, Contributing Writer

“They were freaked out,” James Gunn responded gleefully when asked about the audience’s reaction to the premiere of his new film “Super.” Starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, and Kevin Bacon, the film is a serious departure in tone and characterization from most of its cast’s earlier works. As such, this particular audience at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival had no idea that the film they were about to see was a truly dark comedy—with an emphasis on the ‘dark.’

“Super,” Gunn’s second directorial work after 2006’s “Slither,” tells the unexpectedly violent and heartbreaking story of Frank D’Arbo (Wilson) and his quest to rescue his drug-addicted wife (Tyler) from the clutches of an evil drug dealer (Bacon). Frank transforms into a self-invented superhero, “The Crimson Bolt,” and confronts the city streets with grit and bloodlust alongside his sidekick Libby (Page), who names herself “Boltie.”

But the film is far from a traditional entry into the genre. “One of the things about ‘Super,’” Gunn said, “[is that] it’s not really about a superhero. It’s about this guy, his beliefs—what’s right and what’s wrong ... It just so happens that he wears a superhero costume while he goes through that story.”

Yet Gunn did not deny that “Super,” unconventional though it may be, is still a superhero movie, albeit a self-conscious one. “[The film] is a commentary on that, or at least a reaction to that. We see Batman—he puts on a cape and we take for granted that he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, who should get beaten up and who shouldn’t,” he said. “Super,” by contrast, was designed to shake up these preconceptions. “In ‘Super,’ what’s really right? Does he get to beat those people up or not? And why do I like watching him do it?”

Throughout the discussion of his film, Gunn made frequent reference to his love of superhero comics and their movie adaptations. He enjoyed making “Super” as a response to the traditionally clear-cut morals and lack of consequential reality in this genre. “We see these superhero movies where people are blowing up things, punching people, knocking people out, and we don’t really see the ramifications,” he said.

It was this desire for uncomfortable realism that pushed Gunn to make the violence in “Super” so decidedly un-stylized. “We actually see the results of the violence,” he said. In one scene, where Frank attacks a man who cuts in line at the movies, “we see the wrench to the face and the head split open,” instead of Hollywood’s traditional quick knock to the head that tidily renders a villain incapacitated. In real life, noted Gunn, “they stand a 10 percent chance of dying if they get knocked unconscious like that!”

Gunn’s inspiration for playing with the minds of his audience stems from many of his stated cinematic influences—films with harsh violence and ambiguous morals like “Taxi Driver” and “Unforgiven,” as well as those like “Napoleon Dynamite” that champion the unlikely underdog.

Combining these two genres, though, yields an unlikely mix of emotions. In the movie line scene, notes Gunn, “when the guy buts in line, you’re like, ‘I hate this guy, I want to see [Frank] kick his ass.’” But the resulting brutality puts the viewer in an awkward position. “You watch [Frank] really hurting him and you’re like ‘I think I still like it—I feel bad!’” This narrative theme of “rooting for somebody but not really being sure that you should,” as Gunn put it, is constantly at play throughout “Super,” alternatively challenging and discomforting its audience.

Where do these eccentric, damaged, and distinctive characters come from? It turns out that for such an outlandish premise, the characters involved are more personal than one might think.  “Libby is, frankly, like a lot of girls I knew growing up,” said Gunn. “She’s got a lot of issues and yet she’s so dynamic that I love her even though she’s a total sociopath.”

Discussing his inspiration for Frank, the conversation became more somber. “I grew up in a very dysfunctional home, with a lot of violence and stuff,” he said. “I used to get in fights all the time, and that’s a part of me. I relate to Frank. Frank is me, in many ways.”

“No matter what he’s doing in his life, moral or immoral,” Gunn continued, “I believe he has the right motivations. He’s not doing what he’s doing just to hurt people. Libby, on the other hand, is kind of putting on the costume so that she can beat people up. The thing with Frank is he is trying to do the right thing, even if it’s totally wrong.”

Gunn acknowledged that his film’s initial premise—Average Joe decides to become a superhero—bears superficial resemblance to last year’s zany “Kick-Ass.” But Gunn wrote the script for “Super” years before “Kick-Ass” even became a comic book, let alone a film. “I think a lot of people think [‘Super’ is] like ‘Kick-Ass’ before they see it,” Gunn said. But, he added, in light of his film’s darker, more conflicted undertones, “to walk out of the theater and think it’s like ‘Kick-Ass’—there’s something wrong with you!”

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