Girl Meets Context: It’s Indie Horror Month, where we cover some of the best original and independent horror movies to be released in the last few years. Between 2009 and 2010, three films came out that all had a similar premise – setting the superhero story in a real-world milieu, as opposed to a fantastical one. That meant no special powers, no invincibility, real-life consequences. Of the three films, only Super really works. Conceived by Slither director James Gunn back in 2002, it took him years to get the project financed and made. The film centers on the character of Frank (Rainn Wilson) a schlubby short-order cook whose wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a former drug addict, leaves him after falling off the wagon. Sarah’s fallen in with a small-time crime boss and drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Frank’s grief and rage over losing Sarah leads him to create his own superhero persona, the Crimson Bolt. He goes on a bizarre vigilante crime spree and along the way picks up a sidekick in comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page). Frank and Libby ultimately set their sights on freeing Sarah from Jacques, leading to a climactic, violent raid on his compound. Though not a traditional “horror movie,” Super uses gore, wit and brutal plot twists to tell its story in ways that line up with the best films in the genre. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie’s take on violence, Frank’s weird paternalism and the movie’s depressingly heteronormative ending. If you haven’t seen Super please be forewarned that our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. So go watch the movie (and support original, indie horror) and come back!
Sean: Is this the first GMF movie that made you cry?
Kristine: Hmm… During the movie? I think so. Wolf Creek made me cry, but not until later, when I was all alone back in the guesthouse compound where I was housesitting at the time.
Sean: Jesus Christ! Did you really cry post-Wolf Creek?
Kristine: Yes! Yes, I really cried! I was so terrified. The wall right by the bed was all windows with no curtains or blinds or anything. You knew this, right?
Sean: I did not know there were tears. I thought there were just creepy feelings.
Kristine: No there were many tears. Oceans of tears.
Sean: But your Super tears were ones of pathos, not torture, correct?
Kristine: Yes, and ha ha! “Pathos” is the exact word I have written down and underscored on my notes! So I am renaming this movie, is that okay with you? The new name, according to me, is Rainn Wilson: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Sean: Hahah! I love it.
Kristine: Can I just tell you how delighted I was that my crush, Michael Rooker (a.k.a. Henry), showed up in this movie AND he was the only one of the gangster crew with some non-sociopathic tendencies?
Sean: Your lust for Michael Rooker is a…. perversion!
Kristine: He is perfection.
Sean: What part of the movie made tears happen?
Kristine: I was stuck between tears and laughter in the scene where Frank is praying. When he is praying to/cursing God and talking about being cursed with his face and hair and dumb, idiotic personality! I was wildly swinging between laugher and tears watching that whole scene. In other words, it was total hysteria!
Sean: Oh god, that sad prayer… “Even the starving children in Africa, even their parents love them.”
Sean: I have had, like, that exact moment. Except I think I was addressing Satan… Not God.
Kristine: Oh, Sean! (I have, too).
Sean: Well, right. That’s the thing – that moment is a pretty universal one. Total debased abject self-pity.
Kristine: Yes, for sure. Totally universal. But then… and then… the penis tentacles arrived! God has phallic tentacles? God is a perverse octopus?
Kristine: Me too!
Sean: I had forgotten about that detail and when it came on I suddenly remembered that you loathe anime-porn.
Kristine: You know I can’t with anime-porn. I cannot!
Sean: The tentacles constricting on her gigantic DDD titties?
Kristine: Have I talked my experiences on the blog before? How at the video store the biggest freaks would rent the anime-porn and they were so awful and weird about it?
Sean: Describe an anime-porn renter to jog my memory pleae….
Kristine: Honestly, more so than any physical attribute, all the anime-porn renters (excepting those obviously getting it for a lark) just had a really hateful, misanthropic look in their eyes. It really creeped me out. The men renting, like, Butt Destroyers 9 were totally fine, but those anime-porn freaks made me feel like they’d throw me in their trunk given half a chance and no one would ever hear from me again.
Sean: Oh god!
Kristine: Truth. But I have to say, that tentacle-porn scene is one of the many examples of how the director keeps you off-kilter. You think this movie is one thing, and then it becomes another, like, lightning fast.
Sean: That’s true… I love how Frank’s “vision” is a weird amalgamation of everything he was watching on TV – the tentacle porn, The Holy Avenger, etc. The divine and the perverse become one and the same in this way that I love. In fact, I think that moment is when I fell in love with this movie, that a scene of divine intervention was staged as alien tentacle brainrape.
Kristine: I agree. I really loved this movie and I actually think it’s kind of brilliant. I can’t think of many movies with multiple scenes that made me have so many strong, conflicting emotions.
Sean: P.S. The voice of God was played by…. Rob Zombie!
Kristine: Ha ha! Really?
Sean: Yes. I agree about the many complicated emotional responses that this movie elicits. It is sort of emotionally exhausting, I think.
Sean: But hilarious.
Kristine: For example – Libby’s rape of Frank. Like, I was so upset and so entertained at the same time. I didn’t know how to feel about my reaction. But honestly, Frank really is being violated and it’s horrible, right? He is beyond distraught.
Sean: Yes. It is a total rape. I kept thinking about how differently the scene would feel if the situation was reversed between the two characters. It’s genuinely dark and disturbing. When Libby says, “It’s all… gushy.” That line made me die.
Kristine: Do you dare me to say that line to my boyfriend? Libby’s seduction moves made me want to die!
Sean: When Frank is like, “Stop making those movements, it’s weird.”
Kristine: Ha ha!
Sean: I want to say that I was deeply moved and impressed by Rainn Wilson’s performance, but Ellen Page steals the movie for me. Hands down. She gets all the most hilarious moments.
Kristine: I was not excited for her because I thought I knew what her role would be… and she surprised me and rocked it out. I loved, “Let me just rest” and lying down in the grass right before they stormed Jacques’ mansion.
Sean: She is an awesome agent of pure id and chaos.
Kristine: For sure. And her death fucking shocked me.
Sean: Ugh her death made me so so so sad. You want to know which Libby moment reminded me of Kristine circa 1999?
Kristine: Yes! Tell me! I am dying!
Sean: After they beat the fuck out of Jerry (who she is “pretty sure” keyed her friend’s car) and Libby yells, “We did it! We did it! We totally fucking beat evil!” And then she keeps going “He was evil Frank and you don’t believe me!” That was 1999 K-shock realness.
Kristine: Ha ha! It’s true!!
Sean: That line – “We totally fucking beat evil!” – was the biggest LOL moment for me in the movie.
Kristine: So, I want to talk about how the movie/Frank treats Libby. May I?
Sean: Yes, please.
Kristine: Okay, so Libby is this character that the movie has made us adore, and she is totally sacrificed so that Sarah can live, a character who is not really developed at all and only sympathetic because she’s being drugged and raped. When Frank rescues Sarah and puts her in the front seat of the car and dumps Libby’s little body in the trunk, I was… beside myself. And at the closing scene of the movie, when we see Frank looking at all of his shitty cartoons and remembering Libby, he is crying, but it felt to me like they were tears of transcendence… By which I mean that he thinks that how everything went down was God’s plan and he is okay with it. He is okay with Libby dying so that Sarah could be saved and go off and have a happy life with another man while Frank sits in his wooden-paneled bedroom of insanity. What are we suppose to make of this message?
Sean: I am not sure what we’re supposed to make of the ending, to be honest with you. I will say that, despite loving the movie, I find the ending really problematic.
Kristine: I agree. I love this movie… but god is it problematic.
Sean: I mean, obviously the movie is attempting to be “moral.” I think the movie is REALLY genius in how it deals with the relationship between morality and the superhero fantasy.
Kristine: Yes, especially with Jacques’ last scene. When he tells Frank that Frank is no better than him… And he is right.
Sean: Yeah. Frank as brutal slasher/serial killer in that last scene with Jacques is really awesome and complex. But I guess the first place I would challenge your above thoughts is your claim that we are supposed to “adore” Libby. I think the movie presents Libby as pure unhinged, violent id. In fact, I think one of the most impressive things that Super accomplishes is its ability to present both Libby and Frank in such complicated terms. But the only reason we think we like Libby, is because of how we’ve been conditioned by the tropes of the superhero genre. In reality, she’s a total sociopath.
Kristine: Okay, let me restate my thoughts about Libby, because I misspoke. I agree that she is a problem. She is a scary woman-child and she is not doing the superhero thing for any moral reason. She is doing it strictly for kicks and to redress her own petty slights. However, I do maintain the movie makes us care about her. To take her out so suddenly and brutally… It was a kick in the gut for me. Actually, the intensity and brutality of all the violence threw me.
Sean: Well, yeah. The violence in the movie is part of the movie’s “moral” side, right? It refuses to present aestheticized violence for our pleasure.
Sean: When Frank bashes the man who cuts in line in the head with a wrench?
Kristine: What kind of sick freak has a wrench as their weapon of choice?????
Sean: I know, the wrench is a great object/metaphor. It’s clunky, inelegant, brutal. But I’m also fascinated by how it’s tied to the working class (remember that Frank is a short-order cook and Libby works in a comics shop). I’ve always been bothered by struggling, working class folks falling all over themselves to worship superheroes who belong to a class of elites. Batman, Iron Man, Thor – they’re fucking billionaires and princes. I wonder if at the heart of the superhero fantasy is actually a very working class rage/anxiety with how fucked up the system is. Super seems to suggest the answer is yes – and I also want to state for the record what a breath of fresh air Super is in comparison to the paternalistic, borderline fascist subtext of The Dark Knight Rises (a film that I find to be fucking morally grotesque). But when Frank murders Abe by bashing his head into the floor? It is fucking horrible.
Kristine: Oh, God, when Henry (he’ll ALWAYS be Henry to me) gets brained and you have to just watch his dead eyes… It is so awful.
Sean: Right. This is where Kick-Ass failed, was how slick and aestheticized the violence was…
Kristine: But here’s my other point about the movie’s treatment of Libby. Why does Frank get to bash in the head of the guy who cuts in line outside the movies with a wrench (and also the lady friend he was with), but Libby gets chastised and judged for going too far with Jerry, the kid who (maybe) keyed her friend’s car? Frank is constantly judging and being über-paternalistic to Libby and it sucks.
Sean: I think Frank is Libby in the first part of the movie. It’s only once he gets his sidekick and sees what he’s doing from an outside perspective – when Libby bashes Jerry in the face with the vase – that he begins to question the morality of the violence.
Kristine: I think there is something more to it. Something that plays into the Judeo-Christian tradition that Frank ostensibly believes in, or at least is using as an excuse for his behavior. I think Frank believes that the fact that he is a man means that he can do these things, but that Libby is bad if she does the same. I also think this double-standard also exists around her expression of sexuality. When Libby does it, it’s deviant and weird.
Sean: Oh, I get that… I mean, the gender politics of the movie are confusing. For instance, the Sarah character is definitely problematic (in a lot of the same ways as Janet in The Revenant is) but the movie does make some smart gestures towards de-romanticizing her. Like, when Frank has that “romantic” flashback to how they met and “fell in love” and we see Sarah like, weeping disgustedly as she obligatorily fucks Frank on the couch. Sarah never loved Frank, and yet she’s not judged or condemned for that by the movie…
Sean: But Libby is more complicated… Remember Frank taking the pink rifle away from Libby and replacing it with a camouflage bazooka? That was a great moment of our expectations being toyed with. This petite and feminized weapon being replaced by something comically phallic. Both Libby and Frank are pretty queer figures.
Kristine: Yes. The whole gun shop scene was wonderful.
Sean: The use of “Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)” in that scene was a highlight.
Sean: I don’t think the movie flat-out judges Libby. She saves Frank when she bashes the car into Toby.
Kristine: No, the movie doesn’t. But Frank does. I mean, Frank is a patriarchal dick who thinks he’s a chivalrous romantic.
Sean: I think that is too harsh an indictment of Frank. They have an Obi Wan/Luke relationship. I thought it was significant that she was framed as his “Kid Sidekick” (not Girl Sidekick or something else gendered)
Kristine: Yes, I noticed that as well. And Ellen Page does not have a woman’s body. She has a kid’s body.
Sean: I loved her “showing off” her athletic skills to Frank by doing somersaults and shit.
Kristine: That whole gymnastics scene could have been so wrong if it was played too “adorably.” It would have been too manic pixie dream girl. But I thought the movie staged it perfectly, showing Libby to be sort of pathetic as opposed to hopelessly adorable.
Sean: OMG “The Creeping Bam.”
Kristine: I hate Frank’s spiritual quest, even though he is an empathetic figure.
Sean: I think in order to settle this we have to discuss the final scene. But was there something else you wanted to discuss first?
Kristine: Oh, okay. I was thinking about how this film and The Revenant have the common theme of vigilantism as, like, the dream. You and I both are in the position of living in states (Arizona and Texas) that are BIG on gun culture, libertarianism (inauthentic in my opinion), and vigilantism. Do you think these are pervasive themes in contemporary movies?
Sean: Yes! Nolan’s Batman movies?! Iron Man?! The Walking Dead? I mean, this is what is at the heart of the superhero genre, which Gunn realizes. That’s what Super is about, no!?
Kristine: Yes yes… The whole idea of having your own fortress and arsenal and that is the dream.
Sean: OMG when Frank like, starts attacking black men selling marijuana in the ghetto?
Sean: Intentional or not, the movie points out how “vigilante” fantasies (like survivalist and superhero films/TV) are fundamentally conservative, fundamentally racist, fundamentally homophobic (as evidenced by all Libby’s gay slurs) and borderline fascist. When Frank screams “You don’t sell drugs!!!” in utter rage at the end? He is the Angry White Man, he’s fucking Rush Limbaugh (irony noted). He’s Rick Santorum. He’s a fucking Ku Klux Klansman. I mean, the fantasy of the vigilante is totally misplaced and fucked up.
Kristine: I can see Minutemen militia types in AZ totally cheering Frank on as he bashes in the skulls of black drug dealers, right?
Sean: I mean, when Frank is givin’ knux to the libertarian gunfreaks in the gun shop? It’s not REALLY in the name of some larger moral good – for Frank or Libby – it’s just an “acceptable” way to channel their latent rage. Since the superhero fantasy gives them “permission” to act out. Obviously, this is best shown by the line-cutter scene.
Kristine: Exactly. Which I would argue is the case with real life vigilantes like the Minutemen, too. Do you agree?
Sean: Yes, I think Gunn is trying to make a point (or at least, pose questions) about the morality of violence.
Kristine: And remember, it’s not just them. In both movies, the general public is pretty well on the vigilante’s side.
Sean: Yes and no. I mean, the crowds react with shock, fear, and horror when Frank and Libby are “doling out justice.”
Kristine: Yes, but overall they are on their side. As evidenced by the smiling little girl who waves at Libby as she’s shrieking out her (homophobic-slur-laden) manifesto from the car as they race away from the murder of the two gangsters.
Sean: I guess, sure. Though I think the only time the movie really seems to grant permission for violence is when those “BLAM’ and “POW” graphics appear as Frank guns down the gangsters right after Libby’s murder.
Kristine: Yeah, about those graphics. Did you think they worked?
Sean: Like when “BOMBS” appeared?
Kristine: Yes. I was of two minds about them.
Sean: I thought they were fine… I mean, I know that Gunn is trying to make a point about the genre with them and I am fine with it.
Kristine: Right, of course I get that. And I liked how they didn’t appear until Frank and Libby were well into their fantasy world, until real life WAS becoming more like a comic book. But I am still not sure it worked. I thought it was too on the nose.
Sean: Well, I loved the animated credit sequence at the beginning. I thought that was wonderful.
Kristine: That was great, yes. And Frank’s wall of cartoons at the end was intense.
Sean: Shall we discuss that ending?
Kristine: Sure. The ending made me think about how both Libby and Frank are totally developmentally arrested. And then Libby is really arrested when she is mowed down and her life ends. I feel like by Frank staying in his room, with his drawings, he is completely arrested as a man-child into infinity.
Sean: I disagree.
Kristine: I think he reaches a state of transcendence, but it is still a form of developmental arrestment.
Sean: I think the point of that ending is that Frank has realized that there are a million small things to be thankful for, and that living a kind and meaningful small-scale life is a worthy life. It’s a repudiation of the violence that marked his quest….
Kristine: I agree with that as well. That’s the transcendence, right?
Sean: Yes – and I don’t agree that Frank’s quest is “religious” at all…. I think it is a totally secular transcendence. You said, “the Judeo-Christian tradition that Frank ostensibly believes in, or at least is using as an excuse for his behavior” and called his quest “spiritual.” He is a seeker, yes. But I don’t think there are any real religious or spiritual components to his quest…
Kristine: Right, he is trying to figure out how he can exist in the world and what his place is.
Sean: In fact, I think the film contains a critique of religion.
Kristine: Oh, definitely a critique! Without a doubt.
Sean: Frank borrows these really wrongheaded ideas about good/evil and black/white morality from religion. The Holy Avenger tv show is the starting point for his vigilantism, but I think the “religious” elements of the quest end there. Frank is pretty clear in his interactions with Libby in the comic book store that he is not really interested in the God/Jesus stuff. My biggest problem with the ending of the movie wasn’t any sense that the denouement was quasi-religious, but that the ending was filled with all this fucking championing/romanticizing of heteronormativity, monogamy, marriage and child-rearing.
Kristine: Yes and, like I was saying, Frank thinks it is okay that he and Libby were sacrificed to help support that tradition. He is at utter peace with that outcome.
Sean: I don’t think he’s at “utter peace” – I think it’s more like “pathos-choked acceptance.”
Kristine: I think he is at peace.
Sean: Though I was relieved that Frank himself remains a queer figure, I hated how the end made him seem small and meager compared to the grand amazing narrative of heterosexuality that Sarah gets to play out.
Kristine: Sure, this idea that queerness ultimately equals being alone in a little room.
Sean: With a bunny.
Kristine: Or it equals death, because Libby is a queer figure too.
Sean: Yes, right.
Kristine: So queers get rape-sex and bunnies, and heteros get a real life.
Sean: Basically, yes. I heart Libby. Just real quick, my second favorite LOL moment was the exchange between Libby and the guy she was macking on at her party when she’s kicking everyone out: “Christian you gotta go” – “Is he your sugar daddy?” – “I don’t have to tell you anything” – “Fine then enjoy the candy from your sugar daddy” – “Oh I will!” Her “I don’t have to tell you anything” really, really cracked me up.
Kristine: I agree that exchange was great.
Sean: I also died laughing at Libby going, “They know your secret identity? Fuck!” in utter rage.
Kristine: I know! I loved how she was immediately on board and just there.
Sean: So great.
Kristine: I loved her rage. And, yes, I definitely related to it.
Sean: So one thing I dig about this movie is how it is loving but critical of the whole comics thing. I love how the script at different moments points out the utter, inherent absurdity and incoherence of superhero mythology. Like the exchange between Libby and Frank: “What the fuck is a Robin? Why is he named after a bird?” “Because…. he’s loyal.”
Kristine: Right, Frank and Libby discussing superheroes was great and totally pointed out how absurd it all is… But we are both comics fans, so we get it. Did you notice Steve Agee, the gigantic ginger from The Sarah Silverman Program, in the comic book store?
Sean: OMG when Agee goes ““Hold this, asshole” to the little kid?
Kristine: Heh heh. Like The Simpsons have taught us – most comic book store owners are total dickwads.
Sean: So… I normally hate Kevin Bacon. But I thought he actually really great in the role of Jacques. When Frank touches his car with one finger and Jacques goes “I’m going. That’s not the kind of touching I meant.” Did you appreciate Bacon in this?
Kristine: I thought he was completely great. He and Ellen Page were in competition for movie-stealers. He was really, really good.
Sean: His line reading at the end of “I am. Fucking. Interesting!” was awesomeness.
Kristine: And it was the truth.
Sean: The role of Jacques really gave him a chance to play around with some inherent douchiness that he possesses.
Kristine: Hee hee! I agree that KB is inherently smarmy. I am glad he is embracing it.
Sean: Him and Kyra Sedgwick are my least favorite most boring Hollywood couple ever.
Kristine: Yeah, they are … whatever.
Sean: So what do you rate this?
Kristine: I am torn. Which is different than double rating.
Sean: Tell me.
Kristine: I am torn between Problematic but fun as hell, and Masterpiece. I really think this movie does some amazing things, the performances are great, it is constantly upsetting it’s own apple carts. I never knew where it was going or how I was going to feel. So that is significantly more than “fun as hell,” though it surely was that. But I don’t know if I can give it the designation of “Masterpiece.” Have you noticed I am much more stingy with my “Masterpiece” ratings?
Sean: You are!
Sean: I am such a masterSLUT I am going with Problematic but fun as hell AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good. What’s your final word?
Kristine: Arg! Problematic but fun as hell, with moments of Masterpiece. I have one detail I want to mention and one total aside.
Sean: Please do.
Kristine: Detail – Sarah’s face molded in puke. Loved it! A grotesque shout-out to, like, the shroud of Turin or people seeing Jesus on their toast.
Sean: Hahaha. So disgusting.
Kristine: Aside – Remember when we read Big Cats by Holiday Reinhardt? I remembered that she was married to Rainn Wilson and then I remembered how fun that book was for book club.
Sean: Yep. I think Rainn Wilson is amazing in this – and I am not a fan of The Office. This movie made me love and respect him.
Kristine: I thought he was amazing, too. Balls to the wall.
Sean: His reaction to Libby’s death, that’s when MY eyes filled with tears. BTW, my boyfriend was really upset by this movie, specifically Libby’s fate, and he was perturbed that we were watching it.
Kristine: Yes, I know. I swear, when Frank dumps her in the trunk, and he knows that it is wrong but he doesn’t know what else to do – he will never know “what to do with” Libby, right?
Kristine: Your boyfriend is a sweetie.
Sean: So I want to just mention a couple of other moments I loved.
Kristine: Please do.
Sean: The little girl going “Mommy!” and pointing to Frank’s rhinoceros of an ass in his dirty underwear.
Sean: Baby Frank being beaten for having pictures of Heather Locklear in his closet.
Sean: The fake beard in the library – “They wanted me to be a real beard Santa, but I was like… No I have to write this report…”
Kristine: That librarian was perfect in her patient exasperation with his ridiculousness.
Sean: His paranoid fantasy of being busted by the police and ass-raped by a tattooed bear.
Kristine: Ha! I agree with all those moments being great.
Sean: And Libby going “You know what I mean, how monogoloids eyes are just “like that”?”
Kristine: Yes! That so reminded me of US! Libby’s whining about being bored, being tired… it was awesome and hits a bit close to home.
Sean: Haha! I have one final question. Did I have any right choosing this movie for our horror movie blog?
Kristine: Yes, because Frank and Libby are amoral, brutal serial killers. This is why I love Michael Rooker being in this movie – he is a bad guy but all throughout you see him struggling with the morality of what is happening. I think having Rooker in this move is more than a shout-out, I think it is making a point about how Frank really is no better then the character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Sean: I totally agree on the Michael Rooker casting, whether intentional or not.
Kristine: And because, as in a lot of horror movies, there is no real justice. Chaos and violence just exist.
Sean: Yeah. And also, I think this movie delivers several horror-movie-esque gut punches. Abe’s death, Libby’s death, Frank stabbing Jacques brutally to death…
Kristine: Oh, yeah.
Sean: Is Liv Tyler a monster or a friend?
Kristine: I have never cottoned to her. That being said, I think she was well cast in this role.
Sean: I just want to say that I have always been charmed by her and suspect she is very cool IRL.
Sean: I like her! She’s had a cool career. She makes cool choices.
Kristine: That’s fine! I don’t loathe her. I am just… not convinced.
Sean: Last thing I wanted to say: I think it would be fun and interesting to do a comparative analysis of The Toxic Avenger and this movie.
Kristine: Oh absolutely. I think The Toxic Avenger might actually have a less depressing attitude towards queerness. And I can’t believe I’m saying that.
Sean: I think you’re right. I mean, bunnies are fine and everything. But I’d have liked Frank to get his freak on.
Kristine: For all of its adolescent bathroom humor, Toxie in his little tutu with his blind piece is a more sex-positive, radical image than sad Frank stroking his hare.
Sean: Stroking his hare. I am dying.
The Girl’s Rating: Problematic but fun as hell with moments of Masterpiece.
The Freak’s Rating: Problematic but fun as hell AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good.