Why James Gunn’s “Super” Deserves a Second Look

Why James Gunn’s “Super” Deserves a Second Look

Just like in his acclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy movies, in Super, James Gunn isn’t afraid to push his characters to uncomfortable places while also bringing out their true compassion. Writer David Ginsburg revisits one of his favorite movies.

In 2010, writer, director and producer James Gunn would release his film Super. It both represented an undying love within Gunn for the comic book/superhero genre and commented on the repetitive nature of the big-budget comic book films. With as much respect for the genre it had it knew there was something new to do with it. Later Gunn would also provide a fresh voice in the large slew of oncoming Marvel movies. But how does Super lead you to one of the house of mouse’s most prized possessions? With such adult themes, gruesome violence, and a certain punk-rock DIY flair it doesn’t seem like a film that would lead you to the magic kingdom.

Two years after the releases of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for DC and Jon Favreu’s Iron Man for Marvel there was already a sense of oversaturation in the superhero market. By 2010 we already got three MCU films, the successes of which meant there were only more to come. It was time we received an original, not based on an existing property, hard-R take on the genre. And along came this low budget indie film starring Rainn Wilson from The Office, Ellen Page who at the time was still pretty much widely known for Juno, Liv Tyler from the Lord of the RIngs franchise and at one time America’s sweetheart, Kevin Bacon. While it didn’t have the marketing behind it that an MCU film did and had the misfortune of opening in the same year as Kick-Ass, a much more financially successful film with a similar premise, the trailer got me. It was something offbeat with an edge and dark sense of humor. It was different. I was fifteen at the time of its release and it must have been a 9 or 10pm showing at the Landmark Sunshine. It normally would have been an R-rated film, but without an official MPAA rating it got released unrated, meaning I could buy a ticket. I sat there and loved every frame from beginning to end.

Ever since the releases of Super and Kick-Ass as well as an even more saturated superhero movie market peppered with superhero fatigue there have been more daring approaches from Ryan Reynolds’s straight-comedy Deadpool to the depressing western drama that is Logan. Four years after Super’s release James Gunn would be hired as writer, director and producer of his first MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy. Until that point the MCU had been playing with all the familiar faces like Captain America, the Hulk, and while Iron Man was not as well known upon its release people still had generally heard of the comic book hero. Guardians of the Galaxy on the other hand was a deep cut and was a risk for any large studio to take. Many people were not even aware of this property. But with the knowledge that the MCU had gathered a rather large and devoted fan base and Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) had loved James Gunn’s script that they decided to go ahead and make it. The movie went on to make $773 million world-wide.

Hollywood works in an interesting way. One thing that isn’t so mysterious is the fact that they pluck young filmmakers who have at least one film under their belt and put them in charge of a film with a $200 million budget. Well, not so much “in charge of” as simply there for creative input, and to direct the actors, and to focus on getting the best performances possible. It’s easier for a company to be in charge of a film while having a filmmaker to play their game instead of hiring an auteur. When Marvel has tried to work with well established filmmaking auteurs, those directors have never made it past the test shoot phase. Edgar Wright was supposed to make Ant-Man, Patty Jenkins was meant to make Thor: The Dark World, and Ava Duvernay was going to make Black Panther. And even though Joss Whedon made the first two Avengers films, after making Avengers: Age of Ultron he was outspoken about how much he disliked the process and how little control he had creatively. It was a process which essentially scared him off from continuing with Marvel.

Let’s talk about DC for a moment. Years ago, Tim Burton made the Batman films, which were considered too dark to merchandise for kids. Essentially McDonald’s couldn’t sell toys of The Penguin because he was portrayed in the film as a sex-obsessed pervert. There was a time when DC wanted Burton for a Superman film. They wanted the Kryptonian superhero back on the big screen since the last film Superman IV: Quest for Peace was not the box office hit the studio hoped for. DC also wanted it to have a fan-satisfying lineup of classic names from the man of steel’s rogue gallery: Brainiac, Doomsday, and the ever-returning Lex Luthor. And the producer for this new Superman film that would never be was John Peters, who wanted the movie to have a giant monster spider, a demand that was confusing for many. But that’s the power of the producer with the checks, if they want something they get it. If you’ve seen the film Wild Wild West, also produced by Peters, you’ll see that he finally got his wish. The screenwriter they hired was a young rising star among indie film fans and pop culture fanatics with two films behind him: Kevin Smith. To this day Smith theorizes he got the job due to a one-minute scene in his film Mallrats. In this scene, the main character T.S. discusses with his friend Brodie the implications of Superman impregnating Lois Lane and whether her human body could withstand carrying the super-human alien’s child. I think that studio heads will at least talk to a filmmaker if they see they have talent to get a film made, a big enough following so they have one step forward in marketing, and any knowledge on the project they wish to make.

James Gunn was a product of Troma, a production house started by Lloyd Kaufman that embraces micro to low budget filmmaking with the tagline “Make your own damn movie.” Gunn’s first ever produced screenplay was Tromeo and Juliet, a ‘90s take on Romeo and Juliet directed by Kaufman, about a filmmaker who falls for the daughter of his former partner. After making a film at Troma Gunn would get Universal’s support in distributing his directorial debut, the horror-comedy Slither, which earned him cult status. With his expanding filmography he penned the screenplays for the first two live-action Scooby-Doo movies and got enough clout that he was able to venture into the superhero genre and make Super.

Super follows Frank (Rainn Wilson) a guy down on his luck whose wife (Liv Tyler) has recently left him for a powerful drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). In the midst of his grief, he meets Libby (Ellen Page) who works at a comic book store. She recommends him comics about heroes without supernatural powers. Later, she learns he used them as research so he could create his own hero, The Crimson Bolt. Both Frank and Libby are also mentally unstable, exhibiting rash decision making and making harsh judgements. Before going after the drug dealer and supposedly rescuing his wife, Frank has to train. However, instead of going after hardened criminals, Frank reacts to everyday jerks. When a man skips him in line at the movies, Frank changes into his hero ego, The Crimson Bolt, and proceeds to bash the man’s head in with a large wrench. While Libby isn’t there at the time, his actions are reported on the news and she is in full support and she becomes his costumed sidekick.

While Gunn had been playing with the comic book/superhero genre, it was interesting that he was chosen to helm Guardians of the Galaxy. Though that film is considered darker than most other MCU movies, Tromeo and Juliet, Slither, and Super are significantly dark comedies. The scene of Frank cracking a skull open is as funny as it is horrifying because you can’t believe what you are seeing. In Guardians, Gunn shows a true artistic voice while also playing the Disney game. While Marvel is a company under the Disney banner it’s still clear how much influence Disney has. In all the MCU films and the most recent Star Wars movies the characters crack snarky jokes as if they are all spawns of Han Solo. Often the jokes will undercut a moment that should have been more dramatic. There were moments of levity and goofy humor and moments where the pain of a character is explored without fear of getting too real or triggering trauma in both the Guardians films. Unlike Edgar Wright, Gunn is willing to stay in the realm of Disneyfication. The difference is that his visual and storytelling styles are already in tandem with the heart of the MCU films and his creative input doesn’t veer off course from the overarching Infinity Saga as it were. That said, Super is not Guardians of the Galaxy. It is something much more indicative of Gunn’s sensibilities since it has the free range of an unrated film.

To this day it remains one of my favorite movies and inspires me to create. Even in 2010 superhero movies were already derivatives of each other. I hadn’t seen anything like it, except Kick-Ass, but even that film follows the trajectory of most big budget action films. Super has a budget of about $2.5 million and is littered with wild creativity. There even exists a TV show within the film about a Christian superhero who saves teens from the influence of Satan. To think that Gunn had to write and direct all those scenes shows how much fun he had making this movie. There are moments in Super that are straight-up batshit crazy that give the movie it’s own wild personality and lends to its rewatchability. Seeing Super got me into screenwriting because I learned that if you think it you can write it and let the pieces fall where they may. It goes without saying that if you like what James Gunn was able to do in the MCU, you’ll love what he’s able to do without the voice of a major studio. Super is currently on Showtime or available to rent or buy on Amazon, Youtube, or Google Play.

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