It's been a very long while since a film really shocked me. I'm not sure if that is a good, bad, or neutral statement. Depends on one's point of view, I guess. "Shock" as defined here is a moment of complete disbelief, an advantage taken by the filmmakers of their viewers, even jaded ones who've sat through some pretty hard-to-watch imagery. Even within a movie that clearly wants to evoke such reactions. I'm becoming more sensitive in my old age, but splatter, even when ridiculously graphic, doesn't automatically shock me, any more than something pornographic does. Without some dramatic context, both types of content on their own are often just plain boring.
I'm thinking of one particular moment near the end of 2010's SUPER, but there are a few others that shocked me. Writer/director James Gunn (whose previous SLIVER is a cult favorite) proves to be quite the proavacateur with this movie, one that turns the whole superhero genre inside out. While there's been a current trend to make darker superhero (and would-be superhero) films, none I've seen are quite as dark or nasty as SUPER.
Rainn Wilson, so well-known for Dwight, his nebbishy, sycophantic, and sociopathic character on T.V.'s The Office, plays Frank, a short-order cook who describes himself as a loser who's only had 2 good moments in his life: the day he married Sarah, a recovering addict (Liv Tyler), and when he directed a cop toward a runaway criminal. Very early on in SUPER, Sarah leaves Frank for the oily Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a local strip club owner/drug dealer who has gotten her hooked on the junk again. Frank's heartbreak turns to anger, but his attempts to get her back result in his getting his rib cage kicked in by Jacques's goons.
While watching a cheesy morality drama on the AJN (All Jesus Network), Frank becomes inspired to re-think his plan of action. The "Holy Avenger", a sort of Christian superhero, from the show appears to Frank in some sort of vision and encourages him. Frank later has another disturbing vision of alien tentacles unscrewing the top of his head and implanting into his brain the wherewithall to become a superhero. Has God called to him? Later, after further inspiration from a comic book, Frank stitches together a low rent red suit and goes off to fight crime.
Business is slow at first, but soon Frank, now the "Crimson Bolt", dons a wrench and clocks a disparate collection drug dealers and pederasts over their skulls. Just when you feel the urge to root for Frank, we get a blindsidingly grisly scene when a couple who dared cut in line at a movie theater get the business end of that wrench. It's a sickly funny moment. At first I was stunned, then laughing, then felt horrible for laughing, somewhat like I did during that the backseat scene with Marvin in PULP FICTION. Yes, the couple were obnoxious. And who hasn't wanted to exact revenge on such behavior? But the moment reveals to be a great subversion of payback fantasy. The scene feels horribly real - the camera does not look away from the brutality. My "appreciates gallows humor" side was even dispirited. Yet I couldn't quite hate Frank.
At the comic book store, Frank meets an amazingly foul-mouthed clerk named Libby (Ellen Page) who eventually learns his secret and clamors to be his sidekick, "Boltie". Frank very reluctantly agrees, and his charge reveals herself to be quite the little psycho, enjoying the resulting violence way too much. Two scenes really illustrate this. Libby convinces Frank to bust in and nearly beat to death a young guy she swears keyed her friend's car (another PULP FICTION nod?). After much brutality, she states, well, maybe it was him. Next: after Frank is ambushed at a gas station by two of Jacques' thugs and chased down the street, Libby pins one of them against a building with a car, crushing his legs as she screams in orgasmic delight.
There's also a moment when Libby, in full costume, tries to entice Frank for sex. He rebuffs her because, as he protests, he is still married. She reasons that if he gets into costume too, it's not infidelity. After he refuses, she rapes him. Frank, who probably could've pushed her off of him, seems to eventually enjoy this, but then runs to the toilet to puke. In the vomit, he see's Sarah's face, who calls out to him. It's a moment that Gunn's former bosses at Troma Films were likely quite tickled over.
So what is SUPER trying to do? Does it achieve a consistent tone? The movie is obviously a comedy, quite goofy at times, including its shoddily animated opening title sequence, with every character from the movie singing and dancing and becoming out of breath. There are many moments of slapstick and more esoteric humor, even a few "Dwight" moments here and there, but Gunn is trying for something else. He seems to be out to completely overthrow our expectations. Superhero films want us to cheer for and identify with the hero, saving the day. SUPER certainly has that as its framework, but the uglier, baser aspects of human nature are quite revealingly explored here too. We're likely are no longer cheering, but we are identifying. It's like watching someone's (your?) darkest fantasies.
The DARK KNIGHT films, WATCHMEN, KICK-ASS, and even the wretched HANCOCK all tread these waters with varying success. SUPER goes further. It is a cheaply produced, washed-out looking, often sick movie that may cause you to re-examine your own tolerances. That moment of shock I referenced, the one near the end is so abrupt, so ugly, perhaps so unnecessary. But it felt real. The confrontations in action films and TV shows are so cartoonish and stylized. Bad guys fire magazine after magazine of bullets and the good guy emerges either unscathed and merely grazed. That does not happen here. I imagine most viewers will be (understandably) repelled. But it's a perfect illustration of Gunn's method. The director has real stones for shooting it.