Sunday, February 9, 2014
"It’s called internal bleeding, fucker! And then you die!" The invasion of Boltie in James Gunn's meta-tastic SUPER
After the shit-monster invasion of “Slither”, it would seem the envelope of politicized outrage had been pushed as far as even extreme psychotronica fans might desire. But instead of getting more extreme, provocateur director James Gunn—now finishing “Guardians of the Galaxy”--got smarter with 2010’s “Super”. So smart he could create a superhero satire brisling with evangelical satire and punk-ass energy that pulls off the neat trick of being a Trojan Horse for the story of a seemingly secondary character.
That is, “Super” only seems to be the story of a loser fry cook Frank (Rainn Wilson) turned superpowerless superhero--the ‘Crimson Bolt ’. That the widespread critical dis that the Crimson Bolt aspect was one-note and bleh only stands if you think the film is about Wilson’s Crimson Bolt.
Luckily, it’s my stance that it is not the case. The Crimson Bolt is actually a blank page on which Gunn paints his true picture, that of the dynamic, full-character-arced, pants-pissingly hilarious story of Wilson’s side-kick, Boltie (Ellen Page, in a ridiculously go-for-it, sui generis performance.)
Okay, okay. So there are endless films where a secondary character steals the show. This is not that. In my reading—one supported by Gunn’s coherent, self-sustaining choices—it’s Boltie, and her normal self, ‘Libby’, who are the actual centers of this entirely extraordinary film.
We first meet Libby/Boltie after Frank 1. Loses his junkie girlfriend to a horrible dealer (Kevin Bacon, joyously over the top because he hasn’t yet signed to be in “The Following”, which will destroy his soul.)
2. Frank has his prayers answered by an Tentacle-God that slices off his skull and implants his naked brain with the idea of ‘social responsibility’.
3. Frank is awed by a Christianist TV superhero called The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Clearly, becoming a superhero—with its attendant thrills of idiocy, violence and fame--is the answer to…something.
But despite The Tentacle God and the The Holy Avenger, Frank is clueless about how to actually do anything.
For that, he needs the Keeper of the Gates of Wisdom, aka Libby (Page), a sexy, hyper-smart, hot comic book clerk, all words never seen before in one sentence until “Super”.
Libby advises on superhero tropes with a coiled, gonna-blow excitement that’s like the uranium to the dirty bomb of his revenge dreams.
Now clued in, he sews his pitiful red superhero suit. Thanks to Libby, he finds a weapon that’s all his own—a monkey wrench he beats people’s heads in with while screaming the tagline ““Shut up, crime!’’ (A problem with quiet criminals.)
Alas, he gets himself shot, so he drags himself to Libby’s house. She’s having a party full of upper middle class hipsters like you might see on “Girls” and making out with a guy you know has a band that sounds like Killers or Arcade Fire or even worse while squeezed into an Urban Outfitters or maybe Anthropologie designer sheath dress.
But when Frank spills that he’s the Crimson Bolt that’s been getting local news coverage, and when she sees the blood of his wound, she comes alive; Finally, something real! And violent! And comic-book-y!
She empties the house of these hipster whiners, and tends to Crimson’s wound. Not only does she promise to keep his secret, she decides to create a secret for herself.
She changes into her own superhero duds, a skin-tight lime green superhero number that shows off the muscles she doesn’t have. Frank is freaked. So being a girl, she goes to auto fallback mode: ‘sexy’.
She poses and self-caresses with all the sophistication of a teen that watches the CW for erotica tips. Sex unnerves Frank so she reverts to a full set of… high school calisthenics. Lunges, jumping jacks, jabs and bounces—Page is now like an insane terrier.
Frank gives in. She can be his side-kick. And her name will be…Boltie!
And so it is Boltie who decides on how to fight the scourge of Evil—by attacking a guy who keyed Libby’s car. Boltie is so hyped she almost crushes his face with a statue of a face.
Now that “Super” is moving towards really being about Boltie, we can think about essential things like ‘Fashion is always identity’, especially in superhero works.
Libby changes so easily into her Boltie identity because for her entire life she’s worn someone else’s identity pre-set—‘comic store casual’, ‘hipster-wear elegant’, ‘indie girl basic’. But as Boltie, the real Libby inside her can finally, with no caveats, manifest. Gunn’s most subversive angle is that Libby has no explicating superhero trauma. Unlike “Batman”, her suit isn’t a function of aberration, it’s the medium for a normal voice turned crazy by twenty-odd years of designer repression.
Once Libby tastes freedom as Boltie, there’s no going back.
She speeds a sedan into an actual bad guys’ thighs, joyously hooting, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, you stupid cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ah, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
To a crook Crimson shot, she editorializes, “Oh, you too! It’s called internal bleeding, fucker! And then you die! Whoa! Woooo!”
Rainn Wilson tries valiantly not to break character as he attempts to dump Page--now completely off her rocker in full Boltie fettle—into the car’s backseat where she flails and hoots like some adorably super-hyper kid. Who just killed some people. In the name of fighting Evil. Woo hoo!
A digression: We love forgetting recent home-grown genocides and being unable to get over Übermensch fantasies of consequence-free urban-trashing, it's such a luxury! SUPER shrinks that all down to human size allegory that finds us all corrupt and maddened by the con of possibility, of being able to grab goodness by the throat and gagging it to give up the goods.
Of all the characters in “Super”, only Boltie is seething with life, is dynamic, in constant, core recognizable organic change, no matter how crazy the particulars of her situation. She calms down enough to negotiate a new eroticism based on her power and her place in her new world.
Like a soft conjurer, she asks Frank to think of their lives as comic books, and their moments together not fighting crime as “between the panels” where anything, anything, can happen. Boltie is transported by orgasm; Frank manages to not freak out.
And so she will have to be crushed while Frank will survive. And so “Super” critiques superhero conservatism via Libby’s girl-to-woman story that’s completely legible as such, which is why Boltie never descends into shtick and hijinks. To the very end, she’s rocketing to some higher power place as Gunn shows his political cards when that ascension is terminated bluntly in a very specific way.
Not only is Boltie killed in a firefight with Bacon’s goons, she’s killed in a very specific, grotesque way: shot in the head, with half her skull gone, squishy brains showing.
The shot is held so the parallel can’t be missed: When you’re Frank, a dude, your skull is removed and your brains graced by God. A woman? Your brains are bullet-squished. The squishiness links to another moist moment, when an intolerably horny Boltie rubs her crotch and tells Frank, “I’m all mushy”.
The idea of a wet vagina almost makes him puke. But now that she’s dead and really mushy, he can feel—meaning he can kill like a holy avenger.
But without Boltie, the film deflates and drags to its blah finale. We’re just too busy mourning the film’s star and all she celebrates.
*That she expresses her self in the language of violence is, I believe, part of her tragedy. Like Scorsese, Gunn is rubbing our faces in the awful things we want in our ‘entertainment’ and asking us to look at ourselves and, hopefully, feel at least a bit sickened at what we find. I like to believe that, had Boltie survived, she would have learned to calm the fuck down, come up with a code, or some other well-trod comic road to redemption.