27 April 2011 | Movie_Muse_Reviews
Likely to divide opinion with its multitude of genres, "Super" will become a cult fave
The superhero film craze has led to a lot of ordinary main characters taking justice into their own hands. In that sense, nothing will strike you as original about "Super," the latest film from James Gunn ("Slither") and one made on a shoestring budget. Rainn Wilson stars as Frank, a man who loses his cool when a drug kingpin (Kevin Bacon) steals away his wife (Liv Tyler). After having a vision in which his brain is quite literally "touched by the finger of God," Frank decides to create his own superhero, the Crimson Bolt, a force against all that is evil in the world, or at least the small town he lives in.
Much like last year's "Kick-Ass," which re-examined superhero tropes using unlikely and subversive heroes, "Super" specializes in being deliberately perverse and relishes in the violation of genre expectation. James Gunn's film is foul, hilarious, real and campy all at different times. The film's disapproving critics will undoubtedly argue that down-to-earth characters and a gritty context cannot coexist with excessive, comical violence. Gunn likely believes that these two universes can be reconciled into one film, but nevertheless, the film delivers roaring entertainment with surprising moments of poignancy despite being a complete brain-scrambler.
"Super" begins like a typical narrated indie comedy. It portrays Frank as a bit of a dreamer, a slightly unrealistic person with a slight but charming naïveté. He finds oddly religious sources of inspiration to become a hero, such as the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a made-up TV superhero used to promote Christian messages to children. Although Gunn brings Frank's overactive imagination to life, the film stays grounded in its "real person seriously considers being a superhero" concept. As Frank's world comes crashing down, we develop a definitive sense of pity and support his revenge fantasy. Then Gunn blows the lid open.
First off, the Crimson Bolt's weapon of choice is a pipe wrench. It seems goofy and kind of silly at first, but then he's actually bashing people over the head with a pipe wrench until they're bleeding and/or unconscious. Eventually, sweet lovable frank becomes a morally ambiguous hero, especially after he decides to teach the guy who butted in line at the movie theater a thing or two. This certainly makes "Super" a more complicated film, but it also creates a definite discomfort. Enter Ellen Page as the over-zealous comic book shop girl who inserts herself into the equation as Frank's kid sidekick Boltie. She not only attempts to seduce Frank, but she has an even more unrealistic notion of the violence she seeks to create. Together, they serve as a catalyst for the black comedy elements and the campy gore.
Both Wilson and Page push themselves in positive ways with their roles. Page leaves her dry wit comfort zone for some outrageous antics and Wilson shows some range with Frank's emotional side. Their radically different notions of what being a superhero is about leads to great hilarity and disturbing conflict.
Gunn chooses to sacrifice communicating the great depth of these characters by violating viewer expectation with the violence. Some of the gore stays realistic but uncomfortable while other deaths go over the top. The inconsistencies jar the tone of the film and suggest to the audience that they should take the film more or less seriously depending. It can become very difficult to remain engaged in the character sub-plots and the script's other strengths with this distraction. The other issue is the lack of realism with Frank being able to pull of his superhero. He drives around with his own license plates, for example and does a terrible job of concealing his identity. For a film that chooses to create down-to-earth characters, it becomes a bit hypocritical to ignore obvious truths.
Yet the fun, the humor, the strength of character and the way Gunn challenges thematic notions raised by most superhero films definitely elevates "Super" in a way that suggests its future will be as "cult favorite" as opposed to "lauded superhero spoof." The way it toys so carelessly with realism and cartoony realism makes the ride a bit bumpy, but judging it purely on entertainment value it's a hilariously good time. One simply must be able to reconcile its various genre elements in order to remain engaged in Gunn's unique and well-intentioned story that deconstructs our previously unquestioned love of superheroes.