Third Thursday Throwback – ‘SuperBob’ is the romance the superhero genre deserves

SuperBob, the 2015 feature written by and starring Ted Lasso’s Brett Goldstein, is a small-scale British superhero comedy that showcases the actor’s range. Read our Third Thursday Throwback review of this warm cuddle of film and give it a watch.

Welcome to Subjectify Media’s Third Thursday Throwbacks. This monthly column offers our team an amnesty on the trappings of time and allow us to review a property from the past. It may be a movie, TV show, book or even an album – but on the third Thursday of each month, you can expect to see at least one review here that will cover something that is by no means current, but is still worth talking about.

Third Thursday Throwbacks might include popular older titles or completely obscure properties, and they might either be a first-watch experience of an older property featuring someone who has currently captured the public’s attention (or at least the attention of one of our writers) or they might be a reflection on a tried and true favorite that still holds up. There will probably be a timely, relevant reason for the choice of throwback review, and if we cannot find it, we will create it. I’m going to be real with you – it may well just be clawing together some barely plausible excuse to write about a current hyperfixation. But what is the internet for, if not to constantly discover and rediscover the wealth of stories out there waiting? SuperBob is one such story.

Emmy winner (and recent Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice nominee!) Brett Goldstein is a very busy, and increasingly beloved, boy. Aside from his award-winning acting and remarkable writing work on Ted Lasso — they go back to shoot season 3 in late January — he also hosts a wonderful weekly podcast, Films to be Buried With, which features a series of increasingly wide-ranging and storied guests who come on to talk about the movies that have impacted their lives the most.

Even if all Goldstein had ever done with his career was host that podcast, he would still be one of my favorite people currently working — it’s really, really, really fucking good, both the concept and the content — but he’s also the EP of Soulmates on AMC, which awaits a promised second season, and he’s created a new show for Apple TV+ called Shrinking, which is currently in pre-production.

On top of that workload, he appears to be stepping back into his successful stand-up career, if the near-weekly guest slots he’s done at clubs around Los Angeles over the past couple of months are anything to go by. (We recently reviewed one here on Subjectify.) Goldstein has said he canceled some live gigs trialing out new material in order to take the Ted Lasso writing job, so perhaps a new full-length show might be in the cards.

Related: Brett Goldstein keeps his stand-up hand in at Jam in the Van

But before all of that was SuperBob. Goldstein and his Soulmates co-creator Will Bridges penned the script based on a concept by Goldstein’s classmate John Drever, who directs. Originating as a three-minute short film back in 2009, the SuperBob team spent a few years turning the idea into a feature-length script, shot it in the summer of 2013, and released the movie in 2015. SuperBob has been available on Amazon Prime Video in various countries for quite a while now, but it was only late last month that it finally came to streaming Stateside.

In honor of that, our latest Third Thursday Throwback is SuperBob. Goldstein’s been stealing hearts for a little over a year now as Roy Kent, but as his star keeps rising, more and more people keep on falling for him every day, so if that’s you, then treat yourself to a night in with this lovely film and just bask.

SuperBob‘ movie review

SuperBob is a low-key British feature film starring Goldstein as the eponymous Bob — Robert Kenner — a quiet London postal worker who obtains a number of superpowers when struck by a passing asteroid. As the opening credits roll, SuperBob uses news broadcasts and vox pops as a quick, clever and creative way to set up the circumstances of what happened to Bob without having to do any sort of big origin story or special effects, and we learn that after accidentally crashing through the Shard, Bob turned himself in to the British Government to be studied and trained. Now, six years later, he’s a “civil servant” working for the Ministry of Defence. Except for Tuesdays, which he gets off. And the movie takes place on one such Tuesday.

With a miniscule budget, and filmed in a mere 19 days on location in Peckham, SuperBob does not even try, not for a second, to compete with the blockbuster action hero films in terms of VFX. Yes, Bob can fly. Yes, they give you enough of an impression of his powers via take-offs, landings and wide shots to sell you on it, and honestly, his super suit — the government issue one, not the New Romantics one (wait and see) — is both sexier and more practical than most Marvel costumes. But SuperBob is less about Bob’s powers than it is about his empowerment, and this is precisely why it works for me.

“I realised that I love the quiet bits in most superhero films,” Goldstein told the Independent back in 2015 when promoting the film, and like, same, Brett. Same. Bob, as weirdly as it sounds, actually feels like a realistic superhero, in as much as that’s possible — or rather, it feels like there’s a level of unglossy truth about the nature of our society in the portrayal, in terms of the bureaucracy and government control. “There is a lot of admin,” Bob admits early on in the film. Indeed. It’s all too easy to imagine regulations like this.

But despite claiming to have actually met with the MoD about what the government would really do with a powered individual [“Goldstein is a little cagey about what he was told but says that, amazingly, there is a genuine plan and that a real superhero would be put to use as a loan to other countries to secure international cooperation.”] SuperBob’s true authenticity to me lies in the quiet focus on the personal consequences for someone placed in that position. That’s what I always like best in my superhero flicks, that’s the reason I get invested. I actually even once talked — as a fan, not a journalist — to the Captain America screenwriters about this, saying that I wanted pretty much zero action scenes, just kitchen sink drama, the more mundane the better, from their characters. And they, too — hand on heart — were like “same.”

SuperBob is not a kitchen sink drama. At its core, SuperBob is a romcom. For Bob, the highlight of his day off is his impending date with a pretty and forward American librarian called June, who finally asked him out after six months of Bob dithering, and the events of the day are being captured by a camera crew, sent by the MoD to make a SuperBob documentary for PR purposes. Bob’s date with June will be his first attempt at having any sort of personal life in the last six years, since the asteroid incident.

But it becomes clear very quickly that the endgame love story is going to be between Bob and Doris (Natalia Tena), his brash Columbian cleaner, who also works at his mother’s nursing home. Tena is bright and addictive in this role, as the only person in Bob’s life who treats him with irreverence. That — the one person who doesn’t treat you like you’re any big thing — is quite a classic element of a romance arc with any sort of character that is in some way Special or Famous, but it seems to matter all the more with Bob because he is painfully shy and diffident.

You can feel what the filmmakers were going for with Bob, just in the way that they let it linger, the way they let his personal energy fill the space. They make you feel it. I am not sure I have ever seen introversion so naturalistically done on screen. He doesn’t quite stutter, but he can barely speak in a straight line when being asked to talk about himself. The man is crippled by direct attention, yet full of boundless enthusiasm and confidence as soon as he’s standing on solid ground about something. It’s just extremely easy to shake his ground and set him wobbling again. As a fellow introvert, it’s eminently relatable.

If you go into this movie expecting a straight comedy or even a satire, you might cringe or find Bob tough to watch, because they really let the social anxiety and pathos — especially in the documentary parts where he knows he’s on camera, and in the parts where we as the audience see the public’s less than fond reception of Bob in contrast to his naive adoration of his community — hang in the air to a degree that is meant to make you squirm. So wear your empathy hat — this is a heart-shaped movie about an endearing, awkward and guileless man who is nevertheless a fucking badass when it counts.

Because Bob may bumble and fumble when it comes to human interaction, but he is in no way stupidified when it comes to actually being a superhero. We don’t see him in action much, but it’s clear that he gets the job done. That was Drever’s base premise for the concept – “just because someone is the world’s leading brain surgeon doesn’t mean he’s any good at parties.” Bob knows his tactics and his strategies and while the people he saves may find his personality a bit cumbersome, he’s clearly more than competent.

And guys, between his goofy laughs and sweet smiles in a training montage involving crash mat flight tests, and the suave and stern way he carries himself at press conferences or strutting around the MoD with a sense of world-saving purpose… I mean. It’s good. It’s very, very good. Brett Goldstein is so hot in this movie, you guys. Brett Goldstein, if you are reading this, you are so fucking hot in this movie. Sorry, or you’re welcome, or something. His gentle, mild-mannered behaviour makes the bits where he does take control, when he gets bossy and sharp and self-possessed, feel that much more dynamic in contrast.

I can’t claim to be an oldschool SuperBob fan, though they do exist – there’s a niche of people who this movie means a lot to. I did only first see it recently, and I watched it due to discovering Goldstein via Lasso, but I would have liked it anyway if I had known about it, and I watched it twice in quick succession, which is rare for me. I actually loved it even more the second time around, when I knew what to expect, because Goldstein’s best moments as Bob are genuinely extraordinary.

When Bob feels something passionately enough to stop being shy and dithery — be it genuine excitement or genuine anger — or when you see how he automatically changes to become more vocal and forward around the people in his comfort zone, like Doris or his mother, who has dementia, watching Goldstein as an actor is very interesting. It becomes clear that Bob’s paralysing social awkwardness is made worse by having to do inauthentic things, and it gets better when he’s like “Fuck this, I’m taking a stand,” but it’s best of all when it comes back around through all of that to being confident in vulnerablity, the moments where he pushes through whatever his mental blocks are to express himself openly.

Even in the documentary parts, when there’s so much second hand embarrassment at play, there are some moments where his deepest feelings break through the shyness, and they’re some of the most amazing deliveries I’ve ever seen – one of a kind – and it’s very well shot in those moments, well lit, and Goldstein just looks and feels absolutely beautiful. “I’ve always wanted someone to shine my shoes with? I’ve never had that.” Holy fucking shit.

Fundamentally, what I like most about this movie is the idea that being controlled in the way that Bob was being controlled has really hindered his chance to be himself. It’s a movie about personhood, and basically how fucking hard it is, for some of us, to engage with the world on other people’s terms, but how easy it can be to engage on our own terms. I like that they don’t try to heal him of his introversion, precisely. It’s definitely a film in which the protagonist grows and makes change for himself, but it isn’t like they cure him of his shyness and change his nature. SuperBob has such a genuine handle on the nature of an introvert, and just how boisterous, vivacious or heated that can be when the circumstances align.

There’s a great example early on in the film, when Bob is being asked about his role by the camera crew: they ask if he calls himself a superhero, and the humble and self-deprecating way that he downplays that notion – nervous laughter, “we don’t use that word,” – is quite telling. The control of job by the MoD makes him even more insecure and wrong-footed. And then a beat later, he’s up and alive, exuberantly explaining tactics about no-fly zones in front of a map, too engaged to remember to be self-conscious. I loved that. I loved that the joke was never that he was foolish or ineffectual. It was more a commentary on how you can be fucking amazing and powerful and admired but still trapped in a fucking brain prison.

The other superpower in this film is Catherine Tate. Her character, Bob’s boss Theresa, is believable not as a soulless bureaucrat but as a very stressed woman who doesn’t have the time or privilege to have emotions and let personal choice matter. It’s a more complex and nuanced role than it needed to be. She doesn’t seem callous, it’s more like she knows that to do diplomacy you have a lot of delicate rules to follow and have to sugar-coat situations – which she’s trying to do throughout this film, as a hostile US senator eyes up Bob as a weapon of mass destruction that he’d like to either disable or obtain.

Tate’s performance in SuperBob is giving me someone who is in no way a bad or even a cold person but one who knows how this stuff needs to work, and she’s saddled with this superpowered civilian who is obviously feelings-led, whereas her career has depended on knowing how to play ball with diplomats. I feel like Theresa has a lot of empathy, but is in a role in life where empathy isn’t going to do shit, and to stop a foreign power launching nukes you sometimes just have to be fake nice and do weird ego-stroking.

She clearly also knows it’s bullshit. She and her colleagues all signed up to basically play this game for the good of world safety, to leave personal needs at the door and play the fucking game. Bob happens to be this random civilian who didn’t sign up for any of that lifestyle, but he’s the one with the powers and therefore the sense of duty to use them. Despite how controlling she is, I like their established working relationship, and at the end when she implores him hopelessly to stay, it seems to me that she knows how unfair it is. She knew, person to person, that he fully had the right to do what he ends up doing at the climax.

Bob does the saving-people thing with both good will and skill, but he’s completely naive to the game-playing side and finds the rigmarole ridiculous – and so he should. Put any normal person in the delicate balance of international diplomacy, all the quiet careful things various representatives do to avoid international incidents and conflict, and they’re going to find it insane.

Worse, for Bob, he becomes the subject of such diplomatic talks, not a participant. He becomes a thing, a commodity, not a person. It’s about him being dehumanized and depersonalized and the peak of that is when he’s forced to pander to the ego of the American senator that’s been making all the trouble, with a performative photo op.

Now, I’m not in the business of comparing an actor’s selection of roles to one another — I generally hate it when people do that — but Brett Goldstein has said, quite a few times, that he didn’t think he’d be considered for the role of Roy Kent on Ted Lasso because his colleagues think of him as demure and mild, but that he knew himself that Roy was “in me, growling.” After this? I get it, Brett. I get how you knew you could do it even though you didn’t think other people saw you that way.

The anger that comes out at the crux of things – the savage smile, the threatening pleasant tone, the quietly violent escalation and eventual explosion. You can see why Goldstein knew he was capable of Roy, even if he didn’t feel that his new American friends had gotten that impression of him as a colleague. Even if none of these people had ever seen him be anything less than quiet and pleasant. Yeah, he has always been in there. But it’s also the perfect expression of fury for Bob — Roy Kent or not, it’s moments like this that make SuperBob really shine.

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper British comedy without the filmmakers including at least one scene that’s the most depressing fucking thing you’ve ever seen in your life and forcing the audience to dwell in it. Sometimes I think that British filmmaking inherently believes that everything is sad underneath. It tends to hinge on the inevitability of never truly being pain-free. They’re not wrong, but it’s always about facing the darkness, not escaping it. See also: every Christmas advert ever made for a UK department store.

The way these films and TV shows – say an Edgar Wright comedy like Shaun of the Dead or The World’s End, or, I don’t know, any Richard Curtis movie or The Inbetweeners or Fleabag or Derek (in which Goldstein also acted) or fucking Blackadder – all varieties of comedies, some downright farcical, that have some of the most dramatic, traumatic, subtle, wrenching moments I’ve ever seen on screen. There’s a tragedy in the DNA of them that wouldn’t be present in a similar piece of work made in America, I think, and it’s the same kind of pain I often feel in really great, perceptive stand-up (usually from British comics, surprise surprise.) It’s often cathartic, but rarely a respite.

This isn’t new information, I’m not going to be the person who finally extracts all the psychological reasoning behind the whys of dark British comedy and turns it into some sort of seminal thesis. I’m just here to tell you that SuperBob definitely does this and it’s absolutely fucking miserable and brilliant. There’s a turning point for Bob about his role, and the way he goes along, or doesn’t, with the rules set for him. What happens is profoundly moving while still laced in a slight amount of farce, to do with the premise of him not being allowed to help — and ordered to stop helping — due to his United Nations-mandated Official Day Off.

The interaction at this point between Goldstein and Tate is almost non-verbal, but it is so loaded, and when Bob comes home, grubby, dirty and noble, covered in blood, the pain continues. “It was really tough today,” he tells Doris quietly. “Really tough.” That’s the best line reading in the film, heart-stabbing, and it makes you, for the first time, truly reflect on the scope of his job – how normalized, yet not normal it is, the things he faces and copes with. All this while Bob is dissociating on the sofa as Doris strips off his tactical gear and cleans the blood off him with a spray bottle like she’s done it a hundred times before.

Of course, it’s not a perfect movie – what is? But pleasantly, the two biggest gripes I have with it both have legitimate silver linings. Firstly, as mentioned, the very structure of the film is that the Ministry of Defence sends a camera crew to do a documentary about the real Bob, on his day off, but it’s unclear whether the crew is meant to be following Bob for every scene of the movie – whether each and every scene we see is done through a double lens, via the fictional documentary camera and the real actual camera.

I do think you are meant to differentiate, I’m pretty sure there are scenes which are just meant to be us viewing the characters, where the characters, in real life, are not being filmed, and those scenes are some of the strongest. The movie wouldn’t feel as good and as honest as it does if it had all been shot by the doco makers, but it just doesn’t track as cleanly as it could in terms of what lens you’re following.

I half-want to say they should have done away with the documentary element entirely, but capturing Bob’s awkwardness when he is forced to perform for the cameras is absolutely necessary to showcase the character’s headspace and, without giving too many spoilers, the epilogue is a return from the documentary crew to catch up with Bob and Doris in their new home, and is one of the cutest highlights of the film. It shows how Bob has changed even in front of the cameras, and that moment depends on that documentary framing. So. Swings and roundabouts.

And there’s one pretty harsh slut-shaming moment of anger from Bob to Doris that I wish they’d found another option for, even though I’m aware it’s meant to be entirely uncharacteristic and not representative of either Bob as a character or Goldstein as a writer. It’s word-vomit, and he immediately apologises for it, but it weirdly has this silver lining for me of proving how not-awkward Bob is with Doris.

As mentioned, he’s an introvert and she’s inside his bubble, and I liked that the film wasn’t like “Bob was once shy and now he’s confident, the end,” it’s that he is an introvert and he stays one, but in various moments he is weird and talkative and shouty because it’s either with someone inside his comfort zone, or it’s regarding a bigger need. So the moment in question was weird, but it made me feel sort of good (?) about their closeness that he lashed out.

This sounds sort of messed up, but he is not someone who has a lot of social experience — clearly, ever, in his life, hence becoming a mail depot worker. Everyone he knows thinks he’s weird. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more introverted film lead, and again, as mentioned, in some of the documentary scenes where he’s being asked to answer, he can barely vocalize any actual words. And I think that’s why I was okay with this? It was shitty, but it was unfiltered, and that’s a sign of good things, of sorts. And the heat involved is definitely realistic for the kind of person who just gets under your skin. For sure this is a couple who have charmingly gripey and infuriating vibes – mostly in a good way. Your mileage may vary, but I was more okay with it than I expected – I’d be keen to pick Goldstein’s brain about it, though.

Bob, delightfully, also has serious game, when he’s confronting his feelings for Doris. This movie includes one of the most amazing kisses I’ve ever seen. It’s erotic and sweet, the physicality of it is immense, he pulls away barely able to stand up, his whole body curling around her. And I mean we know this already from Ted Lasso but Brett Goldstein really knows how to Look at a love interest (“Woman with the fucking… eyes.”) and the way Bob does it at the height of his powers is so smooth and so free and so unbelievably sexy. Confidence really is everything and the way this film empowers this man is truly smokin’.

What I found the most interesting is that same confidence felt totally authentic, as opposed to movies where the insecure guy grows a new personality. SuperBob doesn’t do that – the film is littered, from start to finish, with instances of Bob stepping in and out of his comfort zone, social anxiety-wise. We see pretty early on his unencumbered state, and contrast it constantly against his self-conscious shield when being perceived.

So with Doris, it felt organic, because all he was doing was working within his bubble where he is fully on firm ground, just with a new sense of purpose. In fact, as soon as he’s confident in her reciprocation, he’s fucking commanding, and it feels absolutely right for the character. He’s comfortable being his whole self with Doris, rather than trying to force things with someone who doesn’t make him feel comfortable, like June. When Bob feels strongly enough about something, it cuts through his awkward performance and he’s totally fine.

To me, SuperBob feels like a story about being an introvert and being finally able to set the terms of their engagement with the world, inhabit a safe space of their choosing, and act in the way that they’re naturally wired, and how doing all that can become pretty simple and freeing when your feelings are stronger than your social anxiety.

If you’re a fan of Ted Lasso, love to cry over comedy, or you want the superhero genre to do more with its scope in terms of normalizing the world of superpowered people and their problems, this movie is required viewing that rewards the re-watch.

‘SuperBob’ is streaming in the USA and worldwide now