Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for June 2011

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clich├ęs.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

A Tribute to James Royal Berry (1967-1999)

Royal Berry should have turned 44 yesterday, but we lost him at 31.

I can’t say we were close friends, but he left such an impression on me, I feel like there should be something on the Internet to mark his passing, something more than a formal obituary.

An obituary can’t capture the best things about Royal because Royal was a geek — one of the most brilliant, creative, hardworking examples of geekdom I have ever seen.

Royal was a whirling dervish of creative energy. He had that indefinable “thing” that turns men into entrepreneurs and captains of industry. He had the essential courage of a small businessman, the fierce desire to try new things and make money on his own terms.

In the late ’80s he made a BBS game called “The Pit” — one of the first BBS games to feature color graphics and PVP combat. In Lubbock I believe it was THE first, based on a highly addictive gladiatorial arena model. I did some writing for Royal, back in the day, and I frequently wish I could go back and do it better.

I was a bit in awe of Royal back then, but I didn’t really understand him, and I didn’t know enough about video games to really understand what he needed.

The world had just discovered “Doom” and “Castle Wolfenstein.” Royal was experimenting with 3-D graphics, grappling with concepts that were a decade away from mainstream popularity.

Royal was always a bit ahead of his time, and we lost him right before the world got interesting. I can only imagine what he would have done with iPads, smart phones and an app store full of mobile games.

Royal was also my first Game Master — the guy who took me through my first dungeon crawls and taught me the unique mix of discipline and storytelling that makes a good DM.

That’s what I remember most — the incredible wit and energy that Royal brought to gaming. He brought characters to life and ruled the table with an iron fist. As Dungeon Master he was wicked and merciless and terrifying. I liked to run soft, cooperative games that coddled players and fudged things in their favor.

Royal was my opposite — random, heartless and utterly unpredictable. He never cheated, he never fudged, and he was never blatantly cruel, but he was as impartial and uncaring as the big bad world itself.

He inspired genuine respect and genuine fear as we huddled around the table, knowing our characters could die at any moment, at the mercy of rules and dice.

I admired Royal as a programmer and an entrepreneur, but looking back, what I miss most is having him at the head of that table, performing for a crowd of happy gamers — juggling six different kinds of intrigue, intercepting secret notes, and unleashing plot twists that kept us all on the edge of our seats.

One of my favorite memories from high school was a roleplaying “duel” we fought to settle a bet between two groups of rival gamers. We built it up like the Superbowl and spent weeks trash talking each other beforehand.

We planned an epic battle between a dozen characters and “hired” Royal to adjudicate. This is my favorite memory of Royal because we really did treat him like a Judge. This was a fight between two camps of mortal enemies but there was one thing we could all agree on — we knew we could trust Royal Berry to handle it right.

We didn’t use the word “integrity” back then, but we knew even in this silly context that James R. Berry was a man of honor.

I wish I had known him better. If I’d been a little less intimated by him, we could have been better friends.

The world will remember James Berry as a programmer, an entrepreneur and an online gaming pioneer, but I miss Royal the trickster, Royal the storyteller, Royal the entertainer — cracking jokes and rolling dice with a twinkle in his eye.

Happy birthday, Royal. We miss you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 2, 2011 at 11:45

Posted in Best Of