By now, a motion picture concerning an average citizen suiting up to fight real-world crime is not an original premise anymore. Most recently we’ve seen Defendor and Kick-Ass assume such routines, and the 1980s film Hero at Large used a similar idea. 2011’s Super is writer-director James Gunn’s take on the concept. The product is fundamentally a mix of Kick-Ass and Napoleon Dynamite, with a hint of Falling Down and Death Wishalso thrown in for good measure. Super definitely has its own identity, though – it’s a darkly funny and at times just plain darkspin on the civilian superhero subgenre. With Gunn having graduated from the Troma school of filmmaking, Super is off-kilter and exceedingly violent. Conventional superhero movies often ignore extreme violence, but Gunn lets the blood and guts fly (his previous movie was 2006’s Slither).
Meek, socially awkward cook Frank (Wilson) has lived a lifetime of misery, and is devoted to his wife Sarah (Tyler) who’s recovering from several years of drug and alcohol abuse. After shady drug kingpin Jacques (Bacon) steals Sarah away from Frank, the schlub becomes insurmountably depressed, and he starts looking to remove the criminal element from the streets. Following a vivid hallucination, Frank operates under the impression that God wants him to be a superhero. Frank creates his own makeshift costume complete with a pipe wrench, and hits the streets as the Crimson Bolt to beat criminals senseless in his quest for retribution. Frank soon draws the interest of overzealous young comic book geek Libby (Page), who figures out Frank’s superhero identity and begs to become his kid sidekick Boltie.
Super‘s first half gels remarkably well, as an agreeable tone of schlocky campiness pervades the scenes of ultra-violence (the montage of Frank using a pipe wrench to punish people is a cesspool of comedic awesomeness due to Frank’s stupid and overzealous sensibilities). Things become even more fun when Boltie enters the picture, and from there the pic seems primed to become an instant classic. However, Gunn fails to entirely capitalises on this potential. As the climax kicks in, there’s a jarring change in tone and identity – things grow so bleak and uncomfortable that fun preceding it becomes tarnished. The tonal problem begins with an unforgivable character death that’s worsened by the implication that Sarah’s life is more valuable than the deceased. From there, things only go further downhill – the concluding 10 minutes are clumsy and disagreeable, and the ending’s optimism feels unearned. Furthermore, one assumes that Frank’s journey is one of self-discovery, but the payoff is half-hearted and grim, and the deceased main character is left entirely forgotten. Being an indie picture, Gunn probably wanted his story to be real-world and grounded, yet such serious aspirations do not mesh well with this darkly comic tone. It’s the equivalent of putting a scene from Schindler’s List at the end of a Jim Carrey comedy – the jarring dissonance is overwhelming.
Best known for his work on The Office, Rainn Wilson is terrific in the role of Frank – he gives the character a well-judged degree of vulnerability to make him sympathetic and likable. However, just like in Kick-Ass, the costumed kid sidekick is the one who steals the movie. As Libby/Boltie, Page is batshit crazy, breathing fearless life into this hot young geek with a healthy sexual appetite and an unexpected penchant for violence. Page’s brilliance lies in the way she sells different aspects of Libby’s personality. At first she seems like a geeky comic shop clerk, but she unleashes her inner psycho when she becomes Frank’s sidekick, cackling at criminals before telling them things like “It’s called internet bleeding fucker, and then you die!“. Oh, and she practically rapes Frank at one stage. Another standout is the underused Nathan Fillion as a bible-thumping superhero known as The Holy Avenger. Always a talented comic performer, Fillion steals every frame in which he features. In supporting roles, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon are solid if not entirely memorable, and Michael Rooker is enjoyable as one of Jacques’ henchmen.
Ultimately, Super is a terrific idea yielding an often fun but uneven ride, with misjudged execution and Gunn’s rough-around-the-edges sensibilities marring what could have been an instant classic. Its tone is all over the shop, alternating between darkly comic and downright unsettling, rendering Super nothing more than watchable but unremarkable escapism. If James Gunn revised his script and few more times, the film may have indeed been “super”. As it is, it’s about 70 minutes of brilliance and 20 minutes of sloppiness.