How do you squeeze in 18 years of Super Junior’s colorful history in 99 minutes? The quick answer to that is that you don’t. You focus on a topic and you strictly adhere to it.
“Super Junior: The Last Man Standing” aptly started with snippets of the debut performance of Super Junior onstage on Nov. 6, 2005. It was followed by interview clips of all nine members of the group: Leeteuk, Shindong, Yesung, Eunhyuk, Donghae, Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, Heechul, and Siwon.
Former and inactive members Sungmin, Kangin, Kibum and Hangeng can also be seen in some of the videos.
The documentary dropped on Jan. 18 at Disney Plus to celebrate their 18th anniversary.
“The Last Man Standing” is a line from their song “Superman”. It’s an epic song that utilized every existing member of the group when it came out with their album, “Mr. Simple” in 2011. In the song, they declare that their passion is the best.
It’s a statement of truth, not just plain bravado or male ego. A lot of people are familiar with the story of how Super Junior was an experiment of SM Entertainment. They’ve talked about it plenty of times before in variety shows.
It was a group created to launch and boost the careers of the members so they could successfully pursue other vocations such as acting, singing, or being in a rock band. The members were dispensable.
But they were desperate to make it work. And early on, they showed loyalty to each other. Yesung said that he was always in danger of being cut off from the group. Hence, other members protected him from new additions such as Ryeowook and Kyuhyun.
This treatment was short-lived. The three would go on and become one of the most powerful vocal subunits in Kpop. They would be called Super Junior K.R.Y.In their early photo shoots, the members sported big, shaggy hair kept in place by hairsprays. They looked beautiful. It was inevitable to make comparisons to their present looks.
In their 30s, the members look refined and styled to perfection to show off their chiseled features. There’s confidence in their eyes and the way they move.
In their early 20s, they have the pretty boy vibe, prone to make awkward poses. Their uncertainty adds to their innocence.
Maybe it started with them, maybe it did not. But one thing is for sure, Super Junior heavily contributed to SM Entertainment’s reputation for choosing to represent talented and good-looking idols. Shindong would be the first to tell you that he is an exception to this, which he did so in the documentary.
“Last Man Standing” is the story of Super Junior. It doesn’t claim to be the story of any other groups, but the documentary inadvertently tells the story of Kpop. As part of the so-called second generation, a lot of things that the group did became the formula of success for the third and fourth-generation idols.
In 2005, the norm would be a five-member group. This applies even outside South Korea. Think Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and even the Spice Girls. Super Junior started with 12 members. Kyuhyun was added post-debut making them a total of 13. At that time, having over a dozen members was unheard of.
As if it was not daunting enough, they decided to divide the group further into smaller groups. They call this chapter in the documentary, “The Birth of Units.”
“At first, we didn’t plan units. We wanted to try the genre that other groups can’t. Super Junior needed a chance to promote each member,” said Tak Yeong-jun, chief operating officer of SM Entertainment.
Current members of Super Junior-T are Leeteuk, Heechul, Shindong and Eunhyuk. Their market is supposedly trot lovers, but their fun-loving brand reached far beyond that. “Rokuko” still makes people dance.
“Idol singers were supposed to look cool. They hate getting ugly but we were never afraid of getting ugly from the start,” said Eunhyuk. They wore costumes, acted silly in front of the camera and they immensely enjoyed themselves.
Super Junior-H or Happy that came out with bubble gum pop. While Super Junior-M or Mandarin promoted in China. Donghae and Eunhyuk make up D&E.
The subunits kept all members of the group busy the entire year, conquering different countries simultaneously. The idea paid off.
“In the end, Super Junior performed without a break. In the case of other groups, their group itself may have a lot of fame, but the public is not aware of every member. I could say proudly that a lot of people knew about every member of Super Junior,” said Tak.
Another detail worth observing is the fan merchandise.
When Super Junior came out, fans were only carrying and waving blue balloons. But as years passed, it slowly became Kpop penlights, acrylic lightsticks, then finally became the official ones that could connect to Bluetooth. The evolution is a testament to the group’s staying power.
The documentary also delved into military service.
“The biggest worry for a male idol group is the army. At first, we contemplated joining the army together or going separately,” said group leader Leeteuk.
The group thought about how the two years of absence would make people forget about them. Hence they decided to join the army in the order of their age. This rotation allowed those who stayed behind to continue promoting the group while other members were serving. This practice will be adapted by younger groups, no matter the size, later.
The documentary mostly focused on the business side of Super Junior. How they beat the odds to surpass expectations of them. Discussion of personal lives were kept at a minimum and the experiences that they shared are the highlights.
Heechul and Kyuhyun’s brush with death was tackled. As well as how they bounced back from it.
The interviews in the documentary are very straightforward. But some hints of the fun chaotic group that they are escapes. For example, Yesung describes K.R.Y as the best vocalist in the group while the rest are weirdos.
Then there’s Kyuhyun. He and Ryeowook are known to be the maknae on top. Maknae means youngest. Even in “The Last Man Standing”, Kyuhyun couldn’t resist teasing the older members with his pretend crying.
Super Junior thanked the Philippines for making them famous the last time they were in the country. They said that the “Sorry! Sorry” flash mob of Cebu inmates made them globally popular. A clip of this was included in the documentary.
A nice touch to the show was the inclusion of Elfs (fandom) in the documentary. It would not be surprising if later on, they would say that this is the idea of the members themselves.
New fans of Kpop often wonder where they should begin to learn more about the subculture created by this music genre. “The Last Man Standing” is a very good starting point. It may be about Super Junior. But their impact and influence, make their story a history of Kpop itself.