James Gunn knows he's made a bit of a crazy movie. He knows you'll be surprised and likely shocked by the film. In fact, the writer-director seems to revel in the idea.
"Basically, all the shots, all the tone, it's exactly what I intended," Gunn said. "So there's nobody to blame but me if that's something that didn't work for people."
Visiting Austin for the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival last month, the spiky-haired and bug-eyed Gunn admitted the thing he hears most often from people about his movie "Super" is how unexpected the genre-twisting movie is.
"I think the element of surprise and disorientation is all a part of what 'Super' is," Gunn said. "I think it's a little too much, frankly, for some people because it comes at you from so many different angles at the same time."
The movie begins with sad-sack schlub Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) losing his troubled wife (Liv Tyler) to a low-level drug-dealing goon (played with relish by Kevin Bacon). Inspired by an absurd religious superhero on TV and a perverse visitation from an alien life form, Frank creates the Crimson Bolt, a superhero who will help the lovable loser save his wife and transform his meaningless life.
On his quest, Frank becomes entangled (romantically and strategically) with a sarcastic comic book store employee (Ellen Page) also looking for adventure. Their heroic exploits feature extreme silliness, graphic bursts of violence and some unsettling resolution of sexual tension.
Frank would be laughable if he weren't so earnest and helpless in his flailing efforts. Scenes of him praying to God for assistance or attacking criminals play for laughs and also make for discomfiting viewing. Gunn realizes that some people might feel uncomfortable watching moments that blur the lines between humor and sadness, though the director and his star find the dichotomy to be indicative of life itself.
"I think that sadness and comedy happen to us all every day," Wilson said. "But I do think it makes people uncomfortable. Actually, I'm not comparing 'Super' to 'The Office' at all, but 'The Office' does that very well. There's sadness in 'The Office.' People are lonely and disconnected and they're uncomfortable, but it's also hysterical and weird and goofy at the same time. And I think that's why it strikes a chord."
"Super" marks the second foray into directing for Gunn, who — not surprisingly — received his baptism into filmmaking as part of the B-movie house Troma Entertainment. He wrote the script almost a decade ago, but shelved it after being unable to find financing and an actor to play the complex lead.
Gunn's ex-wife, actress Jenna Fischer, always loved the script and suggested her "Office" co-star Wilson. Wilson made it through about 20 pages of the script before texting Gunn to tell him that his hands were trembling and he would love to make the movie about a character with whom he identified deeply. The director quickly realized Wilson had the chops necessary to carry off the role's unique blend of humor and drama.
Wilson and his director, who share a slightly perverse sense of humor, realize that their fabulist tale of redemption has a spiritual component.
"I think the thing about Frank is that whether or not you think what he's doing is right, he's doing what's true to him," Gunn said. "I think it is about somebody who follows what he believes is true despite the world telling you that it's insane. And I don't think that there's any sort of artist who makes a living at what he does who hasn't had to do that."