Before Ted Lasso and The Nan Movie, Brett Goldstein co-wrote and starred in Jon Drever’s 2015 indie superhero movie, SuperBob – we revisit a hidden gem.
Early on in 2015’s SuperBob, postman-turned-superman Bob Kenner strides into the Ministry of Defence, cape flowing behind him, and plants his feet with an emphatic “Erm.” It’s a moment typical of a distinctly British superhero movie, and one which punches well above its weight for being shot in just 19 days entirely in Peckham and the surrounding areas.
Directed by Jon Drever and co-written by Will Bridges and SuperBob himself, Brett Goldstein, the film starts with Bob being hit by an asteroid and emerging from the experience with a Superman-level power-set – flight, invulnerability, the ability to open tight jar lids, the lot. With a relatively low budget for a modern superhero movie, this mockumentary chronicles his weekly UN-mandated day off.
On this particular Tuesday, he’s hoping to finally go on a date with lovely librarian June, (Laura Haddock) but finds himself at the beck and call of his government handler Theresa Ford (Catherine Tate) as she wrangles the difficult diplomatic side of the world’s only superhero being a UK asset.
The film is presented as an MOD-commissioned documentary to show that SuperBob is “normal”, a prospect that his Colombian cleaner Dorris (Natalia Tena) finds hysterical when it’s suggested. Goldstein is now better known for playing grumpy football legend Roy Kent in Apple TV’s sitcom Ted Lasso (and also as one of the show’s writing staff) but Bob is a much more mild-mannered alter-ego all around. He’s still socially awkward, mind, and of course, he still swears too much.
Fans of Lasso will already know and love the sweary yet sentimental approach that’s also successful here, but SuperBob is a real unsung gem of the superhero genre, if you can call it a genre. It’s simply not true that all movies about superpowered characters are the same, but heck, we’ve had two Batman-related movies in a row that unabashedly paid homage to 1970s American cinema.
Everything else is somewhere on the axis of science fiction and action and while they’re distinct enough, few are as strikingly different as this. Not since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 has a superhero film felt as grounded in its characters’ day-to-day lives, and the struggles and the heartaches that arise between the heroics, but it also has a more tongue-in-cheek tone on the whole.
Have a day off
The original SuperBob was a three-minute short, which you can find in the DVD extras of the feature version. Starring Goldstein as Bob and comedian Jen Brister as Dorris, the 2009 short is a two-hander presented as our hero’s first interview. The tone is vastly different from the feature version, but it gets to the heart of the character that carries over – a shy and nervous man who feels very lonely and over-worked.
The feature is funnier and broader in tone on the whole, with a focus on the admin side of saving the world, and the convoluted British bureaucracy that’s basically Kryptonite to Bob’s public image. He calls himself a civil servant rather than a superhero and he’s roughly about as popular with the great British public, who call him “SuperPrick” and “lazy shite” as he takes the camera crew round his neighbourhood.
Again, the film starts with Bob spending his day off doing the everyday stuff he hasn’t done in the rest of the week – in this case, ringing up gas suppliers or looking in on his mum (Ruth Sheen) at her nursing home. In both incarnations, Goldstein’s likeable performance is what makes the character and his story so endearing.
He looks the part of a British superhero, like a hunky Aardman character or a Paddington Bear who uses F-words more than hard stares, but also personifies the unproblematic national personality that the film is going for – a self-deprecating figure that knows they’re not ideal but tries their best.
Elsewhere, Catherine Tate attaching her name to the feature is what helped to get it made after three years in development, and she clearly has fun playing Theresa in a different vein of Britishness. With the film’s release squeaking in just before the various government upheavals of the last few years, she’s very funny when telling the interviewers that she’s a big deal without any specifics whatsoever, which seems to be more fashionable these days.
Its daft and light comedy is firmed up by the casting and the script, and it’s not a VFX-heavy film like most other modern superhero movies. Handily, it’s self-assured in its small scale and it also lands a couple of whammies that we haven’t really seen in any movies like it in recent years.
One of the big shows of power on Bob’s part comes not in an action sequence but in a dialogue-free romantic beat that revolves around some superhero slow-dancing. Placed in the middle of a quite broad and silly scene in a quite broad and silly film, it’s a touching moment that recalls the romance of Richard Donner’s take on Superman and doesn’t over-egg it.
Shortly after, there’s a scene that touches base with the whole great power and great responsibility thing. There’s a sprawling auto accident set-up that relies not on Bob’s ability to tear car doors off like unwrapping a Twix or blowing out fires with super-breath, but rather being there for people when they need you. Even on your day off.
It’s a genuinely moving moment, coming not too long after the slow dance moment, and taken together, these beats elevate a light-hearted mockumentary into something unique. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk but Bob remains both a funny and melancholic figure throughout the film.
Like Theresa, we’re deliberately talking around these bits, but mostly to avoid spoiling them if you haven’t seen it. In the broader context of superhero movies released in the same year though, SuperBob arguably holds its own against the box-office behemoths of the genre.
Granted, Deadpool effectively brings the grown-up romcom factor to the X-Men franchise, but does it on a relatively larger budget and with a more free-wheeling tone. We’d add that the alarmingly quick reversion to genre formula in the more expensive Deadpool 2 might just show the limitations of how seriously you can take that particular character or his relationship in a tentpole movie.
Two other massive 2016 comic-book movies, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, both grappled with the implications of superheroes without oversight, but both address it in hypotheticals. Both films feel seriously about the need for reactive super-heroics. Charting a hero’s day off might be budget-friendly, but neither of the bigger films confronts what even the Donner film did – what if you can do anything, but you still can’t always save everyone?
SuperBob has got that covered though, and all in the course of a light-hearted mockumentary about a superhero with a rubbish work-life balance. With its talking-head interviews and its romantic finale, it’s more When Harry Met Sally than When Batman Punched Superman, and it still puts its perspective on superheroes across coherently and charmingly.
Goldstein later reunited with Tate to write this week’s much-delayed sketch-show spin-off The Nan Movie, (which was supposed to hit cinemas all the way back in summer 2020) and this past weekend, he won yet a Critic’s Choice Television Award for playing Roy Kent, to go with his Emmy Award.
With Goldstein’s star on the rise, it’s encouraging to think that more people will discover SuperBob, a low-key, high-flying treat and a reliable palate cleanser in the ongoing production line of superhero movies.
At the time of writing, the film is available to watch free with ads on IMDB TV and Pluto TV in the UK, or to rent and buy from all the usual places. If you fancy a taster though, that 2009 short is still available on the Virgin Media Shorts YouTube page, and you can see it below:
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