The DIY Superhero

Rainn Wilson on Seattle geeks and Super.

Cheerful, costumed dorks paraded through downtown last month during the Emerald City Comicon, which put visiting actor Rainn Wilson in a reflective mood. "I used to go to what is called Norwescon, which is a science- fiction/fantasy convention, a gaming convention," he recalls of his Seattle youth. Taking a break from The Office, where his Dwight Schrute has become an iconic workplace underminer, Wilson's return to his former hometown was occasioned by the new movie Super (see review). Its self-styled, DIY crime-fighting hero is something of a costumed dork, though with considerably worse sewing skills than the Comicon fans who attended an advance screening of the film. Not to mention his anger-management issues. It wasn't always thus for the Shoreline-raised, UW-schooled star of Super, as he explains of his early immersion in the local fantasy/sci-fi scene. "My dad, among all of his crazy pursuits, he wrote science-fiction books, and one of them was published. It was called Tentacles of Dawn. And that's how we got into the whole sci-fi scene. They invited him to [Norwescon]. And I was a young fan, and I bought all these crazy fantasy and science-fiction books during the '70s. "And that's when I started gaming. We played Dungeons and Dragons, and I entered Dungeons and Dragons competitions they had there. And I played D&D with a bunch of strangers in a hotel rec room for 12 hours one day. It was pretty crazy." Norwescon, which celebrates its 34th year next weekend at the SeaTac DoubleTree Hotel, is small potatoes compared to San Diego's Comic-Con, where Hollywood studios annually trot out their stars and preview clips from the summer blockbusters. Wilson has made those publicity junkets, where fans dress up in elaborate costumes. This, he remembers, is nothing like the old days at Norwescon: "It was before the days of dress-up, because this was right after Star Wars; this was the late '70s. I don't remember costumes; it was just the super, super nerds. And there were no women there. It was maybe 5 percent women. It was nerdy, fat, mostly bearded science-fiction geeks. You go to [a convention] now, and it's so sexualized. It's like Halloween. It did not use to be that way." Wilson's character in Super, a miserable guy named Frank D'Arbo, is likewise a throwback to a different era. There's no high-tech Batcave, no exotic weapons, no ninja abilities, no inherited wealth. Frank's just a poor schlub whose wife (Liv Tyler) slides back into drugs and stripping (lured by a smilingly evil Kevin Bacon), triggering his red-costumed crusade of vengeance as The Crimson Bolt. Says Wilson, "He doesn't have Stark Industries behind him. He's a cook. He's probably got about $320 in the bank. He's a sad sack, and he's the last person you'd expect to . . . go on a rampage, a mission. But that's one of the things I love about him. OK, you wanna be a superhero? What do you do for a costume? You gotta make it! You've got to get a book on sewing and get a sewing machine, and it'll probably turn out pretty crappy." That's very much the intention of writer/director James Gunn (Slither), whose roots are in the cheap, jokey horror movies of Troma. Joining the conversation at Emerald City Comicon, he says, "I thought it was extremely important that [Frank] was middle-aged. He's been around the block. The only thing that makes Frank a superhero is the costume. The story is about a guy who puts on a costume and decides what's right and wrong." Yet, just as Frank has no superpowers (his chosen weapon is a pipe wrench), Super doesn't suggest that he has perfect moral judgment. He could be right about those malefactors in need of punishment, and he could be wrong. That ambiguity is heightened with the addition of an overeager sidekick (Ellen Page), who clerks at a comic-book store. The movie starts on a more comic note, as we laugh at Frank's bungling and misfortunes. Then we gradually cheer his superheroic makeover and new assertiveness. And finally, things turn a little ugly. For Wilson, the movie explores "the fine line between vigilante/superhero and sociopath. That's why it is as violent as it is. It's not gratuitous violence. It's real violence. Super really isn't a movie about superheroes or even about comics. Frank just happens to wear a superhero outfit. It's really much more of a movie like Taxi Driver than anything else." So could there be a Super 2 for Wilson to reprise his role? "I think if there was a sequel to Super, it would probably be Frank as an elder-statesman superhero, and a bunch of teenagers that want to be superheroes. And they come to him to suckle from his teat of wisdom." What might some of that wisdom be? For example, sidekicks—pro or con? "Yes on the sidekicks, but just don't get too attached to them. They should definitely kick in for gas. And do coffee runs. A sidekick is very much like a personal assistant." What about procuring costumes and weapons? "Hardware store, the Army-Navy store would be good. Or the junkyard. Frank's total investment in his wardrobe is probably about $185, all in." Could Frank go into the superhero- mentoring business? Wilson imagines the Frank D'Arbo School of Fighting Evil (FDSFE). And how would he advertise for pupils? Probably, says Wilson, he'd post flyers on telephone poles. "It'd be like, 'Wanna fight evil? Ask me how! First lesson free!' Then you'd tear off the little phone number at the bottom of the flyer."

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