He Needed a Hero

A regular schlub turns caped crusader in James Gunn's 'Super'

Rainn Wilson in <i>Super</i>
Rainn Wilson in Super

Bad things happen to good people in James Gunn's films. Really bad things. In Tromeo & Juliet, his screenwriting debut for Lloyd Kaufman's notoriously gonzo Troma Entertainment, the Bard's star-crossed lovers end up living a fate worse than death, but not before Juliet is transformed into a hideous, literal heifer. Zack Snyder's controversial remake of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (scripted by Gunn) not only featured a stillborn zom-baby but managed to end on an even more downbeat note than the original. And in Gunn's directorial debut, the criminally underrated horror-sci-fi-comedy Slither, Michael Rooker's Grant, a jealous husband, is inhabited by a parasitical alien nymphomaniac that manifests itself as a pustulant, tentacled, bad-lovin' machine. See? Really, really bad things ... that just happen to be pretty funny when you think about them. Not unlike the real world, where the shifty borderland between hilarity and horror, good and bad – two bloodied faces of the same filthy lucre – is not always so easy to discern.

"At about age 7 or 8," explains Gunn from his home in Los Angeles, "I started to have a combined love of both Abbott and Costello and horror movies, especially the old Universal horror films. That was really where I started to fall in love with filmmaking. And then when I was 10 or 11, I saw Bonnie and Clyde for the first time, on television with my dad. That movie really changed my life because, basically, it had an unhappy ending where Bonnie and Clyde were mowed down. And to me that was a revelation – that a movie, when you're watching it, can end any way. It doesn't have to have a happy ending."

Super, Gunn's newest, takes that Rubicon and fuzzes it even further, to the point where words like "sane" and "insane" become interchangeable depending on which character's perspective the action is filtered through. Super's being marketed as a superhero-action-comedy, but it's much more emotionally intense – more real – than the smart-alecky genre shellacking that was last year's fanboy favorite Kick-Ass. Gunn, directing from his own script, adds another layer or three to the ongoing multimedia discussion/deconstruction of the Great American Superhero: Is Rainn Wilson's everyman Frank D'Arbo crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy? Judging from his patchwork crimson getup and the favored tool of his particular crime-fighting trade – a meaty-looking monkey wrench – he's both. The character, driven to vigilantism after his addict paramour (Liv Tyler) falls in thrall to predatory dope man Jacques (a skeletal-looking Kevin Bacon), goes completely off his mental rails with the addition of an unwanted and ultra-enthusiastic girl-geek sidekick named Boltie (Ellen Page). As Frank takes his lumps and doles out blunt-force trauma in an effort to eradicate crime of all kinds, his mental pendulum fluctuates wildly between certain and certifiable. Ultimately, Gunn's scrappy, indie anti-superhero film could be the one that's closest to today's topsy-turvy, millennial unreality – it shares a bit of the nihilistic fervor of Charles Bronson's Death Wish films minus the weapons fetishism. Any way you look at it, bad things happen to good people and superheroes aren't what they used to be. Or are they?

"I wrote the first draft of Super in one crazy, whirlwind day on April 2, 2002," says Gunn. "I know the exact date because I looked up that first draft the other day because I was really interested in what was in there. I was originally writing it as a short film, and then it began to take on a life of its own. So the first draft became much longer, about 57 pages long, than a short film. Looking at that first draft, a lot of that stuff made it into the final cut. Some of the scenes in that first draft are almost exactly word-for-word in the eventual movie.

"When I wrote Slither, the plan was to sell that and then take the money I made off of selling that script so that I could then go off and make this independent movie, which was Super. But at the time, the financing people and I couldn't agree on the lead actor. I knew I needed somebody who was able to handle the dramatic part and handle the comedic part. It also had to be a guy that the audience would believe was such a goof that he was being picked on constantly. And he had to be physically powerful enough that he could go around beating up people with a pipe wrench. At the time, the only person I could imagine playing the role – and this was back in 2005 – was John C. Reilly. At that point the people who were financing it did not consider John C. Reilly a big enough star."

Gunn, who "learned everything" there was to know about making a movie during his years at Troma back in the 1990s, had already established himself via the mainstream success of the two Scooby-Doo movies he'd penned for Warner Bros., both of which were directed by Raja Gosnell. He'd also acquitted himself more than admirably in the very dicey Dawn of the Dead remake department. Although it's difficult to recall in today's revenant-saturated zeitgeist, a minor cultural flame war erupted between opposing genre fans. On one side were the traditionalists, who thought of Romero's shambling pantheon as gospel and lickety-split zombies as tantamount to heresy; on the other, the new breed birthed by Danny Boyle's 2002 undead dash 28 Days Later, who were unfazed by the idea of characters having to break a sweat to outrun the gnaws of death. Society survived, even if the denizens of the Monroeville Mall did not.

Which brings up the always interesting tangent regarding deconstructionist zombie films and the decline of Western civilization (the real thing, not the punk rock doc).

"I had two screenplays in development when the twin towers fell," says Gunn. "One was a romantic comedy that never ended up getting made, and the other was Dawn of the Dead. Immediately after the twin towers fell, people got very sensitive about dark stuff, and it seemed like the romantic comedy was the film that would get made. However, just a couple of months after that, something happened in the culture where, I think, people wanted a cathartic experience, to be able to experience horror in a safe way. And so Dawn of the Dead ended up manifesting itself in that way."

Is there a correlation between our by-now obvious fears of the zomboid other and the relatively recent tendency to lob both metaphorical and literal kryptonite at our once-invincible defenders of truth, justice, and the American way?

"I think they're two different things, really," says Gunn. "Both zombie movies and superhero movies have something much less mysterious going on beyond their cultural ramifications, and that is simply the element of technology. If you go back and you watch the original Superman movies, they look utterly ridiculous. Today, however, you have the technology to take what was always so fascinating in a comic book panel, these guys flying around and bashing each other in the middle of the air, and do it in a way that looks real. In the past that wasn't possible, and I think that has everything to do with the dramatically larger amount and success of superhero movies in general."

But Super's the Crimson Bolt (aka Frank D'Arbo, aka Rainn Wilson) is, well, anything but super. He's a schlub and a half, and while his heart may be in the right place, his head has clearly gone cuckoo.

"Frank is a superhero only because he wears a costume," explains Gunn. "That's it. Super is really about who decides what's right and what's wrong. Superheroes, when you think about it, are good guys who are beating up bad guys. But where do you get the power to decide what's right and wrong? Batman is taking the law into his own hands: He's deciding that this person is a bad guy, and he's beating the shit out of them. Spider-Man's doing the same thing. He's going around and taking the people whom he decides are bad, tying them up with webbing, and hanging them from the ceiling. I think that's a big part of the conversation that's in [Super]. What is right and wrong, and who gets to make that judgement call?"


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