“Shut up crime!” It’s the comic battle cry of the Crimson Bolt, a crimefighter garbed in a red patchwork costume and doling out steel-lugged justice to line butters and other scum of his city. Before being snatched up to helm Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn wrote and directed 2010’s Super, a darkly comic deconstruction of the superhero genre, nestled right in the middle of the genre’s hostile takeover of American cinema. The film follows Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson, in one of the best performances of his career), a nebbish fry cook with only two good memories in a life filled with pain: 1) marrying the love of his life, and 2) helping a police officer subdue a criminal. When his wife (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, slips back into addiction thanks to a local high level dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), it is only a matter of time before Darbo snaps. And snapping for this man, who can only see the world in black in white, is to don a homemade superhero costume and beat ne’er-do-wells with a monkey wrench.
Super is an examination of what it would mean to be a superhero in the real world. It asks the question: What if someone lifted the techniques, methods, and moralities from a comic book, and applied them to real life? And the result is something far less fun than the Avengers, or even the similar-in-concept Kick-Ass. Frank’s quest to rid his city of crime is one of a deluded man. While all manner of people decide to take the streets into their own hands in the pages of comic books, Super posits that anyone would have to be legitimately insane to become a costumed vigilante. It’s not the whim of a well-adjusted individual, but someone who is severely broken in some way. It’s a thread that Batman comics have been pulling for eons, but one that hasn’t quite made it up to the big screen in a big blockbuster production.
Gunn’s directorial debut is a much different superhero film than Guardians of the Galaxy promises to be, but it’s easy to see why Marvel was so keen on having Gunn bring the property — Marvel’s weirdest venture to date and a considerable gamble for the studio — to life. With Super, Gunn proves his deep understanding of the psychology of comic book superheroes, of the type of lunacy that it takes to become a vigilante. And to varying degrees, Both Super and Guardians are films that mess with the status quo of what most filmmgoers expect from their costumed heroes. At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy is a tale about a handful of galactic misfits that band together to save the day. Rocket, Groot, and Peter Quill don’t resemble the stalwart Superman or the endlessly charming Tony Stark. Instead, they are the misfits. They are the losers, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the guys with a couple of screws loose. The Guardians of the Galaxy are more Frank Darbo than Clark Kent, and they are in the hands of a director that understands that.