The global popularity of K-pop and Korean culture may be considered common today, but it owes a whole lot to senior K-pop groups like Super Junior. With its original 13-member lineup, the group debuted in 2005, when cassette players were still mainstream, and they pioneered models, concepts, and music styles that stretched the boundaries of K-pop sonically, culturally, and geographically. Their hit song “Sorry, Sorry” swept the globe in 2009 and remains a quintessential K-pop anthem for fans of any age.
Fast forward 18 years after their debut, the now nine-piece band is still going strong, an anomaly in an industry enamored by youth and novelty. With the current members Leeteuk, Heechul, Yesung, Shindong, Donghae, Siwon, Eunhyuk, Ryeowook, and Kyuhyun, Super Junior is currently in the midst of their world tour, Super Show 9, and they recently released the second volume of their 11th album, The Road, at the end of last year. Outside of the music world, they have a strong presence in TV programs, often serving as fixed hosts on popular shows like Knowing Brothers, Weekly Idol, and I Can See Your Voice.
The two-episode Super Junior: The Last Man Standing docuseries was created to commemorate the band’s 15th anniversary in 2020, though it was not released until this year on Hulu in the US and Disney+ worldwide. Through behind-the-scenes footage, concert clips, and present-day interviews, the documentary traces the formation of Super Junior, their uncertain early years, and their rise in global popularity, balancing personal stories from the members with contextual insights from SM staff and K-pop industry insiders.
Telling the history of an almost 18-year group is not a simple task, especially in only two episodes and when the group in question has gone through many twists and turns and has made its mark in history multiple times. Over half of the documentary focuses on the band’s first six years, leaving less than half an hour to skim through the last decade. For long-time fans of Super Junior, or ELFS (short for Ever Lasting Friends), much of this history will be familiar, though there are a few stories that the members shared for the first time in the interviews. For newer fans, the documentary is a solid orientation to the members, the group’s origin story, and their contributions to K-pop history. With such a varied audience, the challenge for this series was to give enough context to be accessible to new fans and casual viewers while also keeping it interesting for ELFs who have supported the group from the beginning.
Since only so much information could be crammed into two episodes, there are instances where useful context is omitted or glossed over. It would be informative for non-fans to learn more about the departure of the four original members, the controversy surrounding the Chinese members, and Heechul’s involvement post-accident through this documentary. Then again, these topics need more time and attention to fully unpack than was available in this series. Is it too early to ask for a Season 2?
Viewers learn that one of the reasons Super Junior is unique is because the general public recognizes every member, not just the group as a whole. In several cases, the members are better known for their individual activities than for being a member of Super Junior. Though the documentary does not explore their individual pursuits, it addresses how individual promotion was intentional and surprisingly successful despite the risks to team solidarity. The success of the band and the individual members ultimately disproved criticisms of the large group model and set the stage for 10+ person groups like NCT, Seventeen, EXO, LOONA, and many more. The film accentuates the individuality of each member through different setups and lighting during the individual interviews while also shining a spotlight on the band’s undeniable teamwork. While there were no full group interviews in the documentary–likely due to the members’ packed schedules–the pre-release YouTube Live event brought all the members together and showcased the chaotic and entertaining dynamic that Super Junior is notorious for.
Most of the present-day interviews were held individually, but the prompts and the editing spliced the members’ comments together so well that it was almost as if they were finishing each other’s sentences. The members recount how they leaned on each other during their darkest moments, moments that instilled a sense of precarity that they still carry to this day. Yet, many of these very same moments forged an unshakeable brotherly bond among the team. And even though the angle of the film was more retrospective than emotional, the physically and mentally traumatic events in the band’s history are heartbreaking for both viewers and members to recollect. To dry any tears that may have been shed during the viewing, the film ends with heartwarming interviews of Super Junior fans of all ages professing their adoration for the group.
This documentary has something for all viewers, from “grandma” ELFs to K-pop newbies, and it serves not only to contextualize a group that has had an outsized impact on the K-pop scene, but also to provide a space for the members to reflect on their eventful history. Deeper dives into the band’s history could fill up many more episodes, but this short docuseries offers a solid introduction to their legacy and drums up interest for a sequel. Documentaries of artists often occur after they are no longer active, but in this case, for a group that has persisted against all odds and promised to continue to perform even in the afterlife, let’s consider this a mid-career check-in.