Super, written and directed by the cult-equipped James Gunn, reminds me of two recent movies. The first, and most obvious, is Kick-Ass. Like that film, and the comic book upon which it was based, Super takes the last decade of our nation’s obsession with anything and everything involving people in brightly colored underpants fighting crime to its logical conclusion: a real, non-superpowered individual puts on brightly colored underpants and fights crime. Also like Kick-Ass, the movie is shockingly violent in the way it dissects our fascination with superheroes. Which brings me to Hobo with a Shotgun, the other film Super reminds me of. Hobo with a Shotgun is a grim, joyless piece of work masquerading as nerd comedy, in which a vigilante mercilessly exterminates scores of criminals who rape, rob, and murder scores of innocents. Super sort of falls into the weird, misshapen chasm between the two.
Like that hobo with his damned shotgun, Rainn Wilson’s Frank uses his pipe wrench to dispatch child molesters, drug dealers, line-cutters, and other assorted wrongdoers. In surprisingly blunt flashbacks which set the stage for the rest of the film, we see Frank beaten by his father, urinated upon by his classmates, and ditched by his prom date, whom he discovers having sex with some other, more attractive kid. The latest person to disappoint and abandon Frank is his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler). But Sarah is different. Sarah is pure. Sarah is an angel. In one of the divine visions Frank believes he has, the faces of everyone in the room have transformed into ugly demon snouts, except for Sarah’s, whose face radiates heavenly light. He has to get her back. So, one night, after watching a ridiculous children’s show about a Christian superhero called The Holy Avenger–no doubt inspired by the actual ridiculous children’s show Bibleman–Frank has a vision in which the made-up hero (a wickedly funny Nathan Fillion) visits him and tells him God has chosen him to be a real hero.
Thus Frank does what any other crazy person would do in this situation and heads down to the local comics shop for inspiration. He asks Libby (Ellen Page), the girl behind the counter, for any comics about superheroes without superpowers. She loads him up with Batman, Green Arrow, etc., and the result is The Crimson Bolt, Frank’s pipe-wrench-bearing alter ego. In one of the film’s stronger stretches, Frank undergoes his Year One, from hiding behind a Dumpster waiting for crime to stepping up and busting a pot seller in the face with his wrench. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and pretty damn funny, the kind of comedy Wilson has excelled at for years on The Office, though with decidedly less gushing blood.
It’s easy to imagine Super as a low-key black comedy, and at times it is. Unfortunately, James Gunn also has other directions he wants to stretch his movie in. He asks us to take Frank and his plight seriously, and Wilson gives a fairly admirable performance as Travis Bickle Lite. His whole crusade is rooted in his love for Sarah, and there are scenes which are supposed to be genuinely emotional. There are other moments in which the film is a cutting satire of superhero culture, as realized in Nathan Fillion’s regrettably few appearances and Frank’s odd relationship with Libby, who becomes his “kid sidekick” Boltie. There are yet other times when the film is a nihilistic revenge fantasy in which Frank’s perverted sense of justice is meted out in increasingly extravagant ways.
Occasionally, the movie is downright disturbing. Which is pretty much par for the course, except when it’s not. Kick-Ass created some controversy by showing Hit Girl, a young child, mutilating and disparaging bad guys. The movie had a moral out, though: Hit Girl was brainwashed by her father, and even then, for arguably justifiable reasons. Emphasizing arguably there. Comparing the two side-by-side, Super‘s Boltie is actually the more unnerving girl sidekick. For probably the first third of the movie, Libby is just the snarky Ellen Page character armed with a terrifying horse laugh. That she would geek out upon discovering Frank is The Crimson Bolt is to be expected. That she would suit up to become Boltie is understandable. And then that she would apparently be an out-and-out ruthless insane psychopath? Uh…yeah. On her first outing, she stops just short of murdering some guy who keyed her friend’s car, and only because Frank is there to keep her in check. You see, Frank does have a code. You don’t kill people, you just smash ‘em in the face with a wrench. But Libby seduces him over to her psychopathic ways, leading to the film’s climactic murderous rampage.
Said murderous rampage is pretty indicative of exactly what’s wrong with the movie. It jumps from the gleeful spilling of guts to real emotion, and just as he’s maybe kind of got us on his side, Gunn interrupts the proceedings with totally out-of-place cartoon effects. It’s hard to connect with Super on any of its several levels, because none of it is real, even when Gunn tries to convince us it is. The violence is for shock effect; the emotion is false sentiment; the laughs largely ring hollow. Portions of Super do work. I like the early stages of The Crimson Bolt’s career, of Rainn Wilson trying to get a hang of the crimefighting shtick. I don’t like the senseless violence for violence’s sake, the unfunny cruelty with which it’s dispatched. I liked Kick-Ass; I didn’t like Hobo with a Shotgun.