Cult films are by their very nature divisive. They often fail commercially because they divided audiences or were impossible to sell to the mainstream. For however many cult films we reviewers embrace, using our personal preference to somehow cement their status, there are plenty of others which meet all the criteria of cult status regardless of our opinions.
In the last few months I've highlighted several films which meet all the cult film criteria but fail to personally make the grade - films like Shock Treatment, Big Trouble in Little China, and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. The latest addition to this list is Super, a film which will leave you completely schizophrenic. You will tie yourself up in knots trying to work out whether or not you like it, whether or not it means anything, and ultimately whether or not it works. The answers I have settled on, at least thus far, are: not really, possibly, and no.
Comparisons have been drawn between Super and Kick-Ass, with the former being perceived as a rip-off of the latter when first released. Both films explore the idea of ordinary people deciding to become superheroes, and struggling to compensate for their lack of powers. Both have distinctive visual styles, which take the comic book format to different kinds of violent and sexually charged extremes. And both, as you might expect, didn't exactly flatten the box office (though Kick-Ass did take money).
It's often the case in filmmaking that two similar projects will be developed at the same time, and with Super and Kick-Ass this is no exception. Mark Millar, creator of the Kick-Ass comics, has publicly defended James Gunn from accusations of plagiarism, going so far as to screen Super at the Kapow! comic convention in London. It is likely that Kick-Ass got better distribution because of the credentials of its production team: the selling power of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who collaborated on Stardust, outweighs that of a Troma graduate who directed Slither.
You have to applaud Super and Gunn for the sheer alacrity of its vision. It may not sound like the greatest compliment, but this film could only have been made by someone who was slightly deranged. No-one could accuse Gunn of chickening out or softening the edges, either in plot details or the extent of the violence. Where Kick-Ass was a top-end 15, depicting comic-book violence in a dark setting, Super is an 18 through and through, being much more realistic and much more brutal.
For the gorehounds among us, there is enough head-cracking violence in Super to satisfy anyone. While Kick-Ass had many moments of wince-inducing pain, this rivals Kill List as one of the most explicitly violent films in recent memory. Gunn's Troma background is evident in the use of old-fashioned make-up and prosthetics (to good effect), and the extremes to which he takes the action: if someone gets hit in the head with a monkey wrench, it's likely that their head will split in two. Gunn goes way over-the-top, but you have to applaud him for at least having the guts to go that far.
But while Super may tick all the boxes in terms of violent spectacle, it falls short of the standards set by Kick-Ass for one simple reason. Kick-Ass knew from the start what it wanted to be and stuck with it. It still managed to be a fun, blackly comic and damn exciting film, but you felt grounded in Vaughn and Millar's creative vision. Super constantly unseats you, lurching in tone from scene to scene, so you don't know whether you're watching a college humour parody with good production values, an exercise in moral hypocrisy on a par with Cecil B. De Mille, or a dark and subversive comedy about real people dealing with jealousy.
There are individual images in Super which seem completely misjudged, in isolation or in whatever context they find themselves. Early on there is a hentai sequence on TV of a young girl being sexually assaulted by a giant squid... I could make a joke about whatever floats one's boat, but frankly that just doesn't seem right. Later on our main character imagines the prospect of going to jail - and pictures being raped in the showers by a fat elderly man.
Oddest of all is the scene where Frank (Rainn Wilson) throws up in the toilet, and the vomit reforms into the face of his kidnapped wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) whom he has sworn to rescue. Scenes like this have a similar effect to the cut-away jokes in Family Guy: occasionally they are funny, or amusingly bizarre, but they have no narrative coherence and end up throwing what little plot there is completely off-balance.
When I reviewed Bad Lieutenant some months ago, I spoke in detail about the ethics of depicting rape in such a full-on manner. Abel Ferrara gets it right, if such a phrase is remotely appropriate, by characterising rape as something utterly hideous and repulsive. Assuming that Gunn agrees with this - and we have no reason to doubt him - he hasn't mastered giving this impression in his films. Of the two rape scenes in Super (discounting the shower scene), only one has the desired effect of repulsing the viewer. With Boltie's rape of the Crimson Bolt, we're uncertain whether we should be turned on, repulsed or confused, and so we end up with an unsettling mix of all three.
All of which brings us back to the central question with Super: does it really know what it is doing? It is a deeply conflicted film, with even the meaning of its title up for grabs. Sometimes it wants to be taken literally - 'super' as a realistic glorification of the life a super-hero could lead if he or she had a sufficiently warped moral compass. Sometimes it wants to be ironic - 'super' as the life of a vigilante being anything but, taking the glamorised comic version of events and showing how awful life would be if they was replicated. I'd like to think the latter was mostly true, but somehow this feels like I am giving Gunn more credit than he deserves.
The dubious morality of Super is a big problem, which cannot be entirely solved by Kick-Ass' arguments about violence and satire. The early scenes which poke fun at Christian comics are fair game, even if it is a rather soft target. But then Super does a complete volte-face, as Frank's crime-fighting becomes a serious spiritual calling. The satirical intentions are in there somewhere, but the film ends up like the Biblical epics of Cecil B. De Mille, condoning all manner of horrible things on the grounds that God will turn up at the end to deliver the moral. Whether you're offended or enticed by Gunn's views on religion, the ending is a mawkish disappointment.
The cast of Super do their best and manage to convince within the world of the film. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is that everyone involved believes in the project, even if they are unsure exactly what they believe in. It may seem inconceivable that Rainn Wilson could have married Liv Tyler, but both are plausible characters in their own right, even if the latter has little to do. Kevin Bacon chews the scenery as Jacques, delivering a performance every bit as seedy as his work on Where The Truth Lies. And Ellen Page proves her determination not to be pigeonholed, turning in another scene-stealing performance (if often for the wrong reasons).
There are so many contradictions within Super, which even after much dissection remains a psychotic little bundle of a film. There is so much to admire or appreciate that all its flaws prey on one's mind - and yet so many obvious problems that its positives feel like oases of brilliance in a desert of misjudgement. The only sensible conclusion is that the film just doesn't work, and that the only reason which can be agreed upon is its rampantly uneven tone. The need to defend it remains, but is at least tempered by recognition of its failings.