The following is a reprint of our review from SXSW.
“Shut up, Crime!” bellows Rainn Wilson in “Super.” Such a random demand is highlighted by the outsized appearance of the speaker, clad in thick red fabrics, stocky and pear-shaped within a makeshift superhero costume. It serves as a power fantasy for him, a power fantasy for us. As seen through the eyes of writer-director James Gunn, a man of notably questionable taste, this is no ordinary fantasy.
Wilson plays the ineffectual Frank, an average man who’s experienced a life of shame, though one that’s somehow allowed him to marry the dewy Sarah (Liv Tyler). Lest this be one of Hollywood’s consistently unlikely pairings, we learn of Frank’s status as a white knight, the only non-corrupting force in Sarah’s life. This tenuous bond is tested by the sleazy Jacques (a funny turn by Kevin Bacon), a drug-dealing interloper who registers as some sort of drug kingpin in this rainy, dilapidated town.
Dumbstruck by the loss in his life, Frank channels his emasculation by seeking guidance through religion. Of course, he pursues the shorthand approach, becoming a fan of a Bibleman-like superhero named the Holy Avenger (a doughy Nathan Fillion), a fixture on a local Christian television channel. Of course, the Holy Avenger, who preaches a proactive form of “goodness,” has a clearly-defined villain (the Devil, in a memorably goofy Gunn cameo), willing subjects (high school students desperate to be “saved”) and a reliable format (the episodes of the Holy Avenger’s show seem to have the same sets, location and actors).
Inspired by the Holy Avenger’s “choice” to do good, Frank starts to hallucinate feverishly, and finds the motivation to become the Crimson Bolt. His brand of justice, meted out with a thick tool shed hammer, involves finding drug-dealing hotspots and delivering severe brain damage to those who give off the impression of crime. Fortuitously, he becomes aware of real crime as well, and soon skulls are damaged citywide.
The narrative pirouettes in the introduction of Libby (Ellen Page), a comic book clerk who assists Frank in finding crime-fighting inspiration and eventually discovers his dual identity. Possibly suffering from OCD, the hyperactive nerd is soon dressing up as “kid sidekick” with the moniker Boltie. But while the Crimson Bolt is the product of the loss of power, Boltie is an exploration of new found power, an outlet for an already overactive mind. As soon as her skintight costume debuts, we learn that the costume’s main appeal to its wearer is the enhancement of her sexuality.
Boltie, of course, is a threat to the superhero fantasy not only because she injects a lawlessness to the proceedings, but also because she gears the power fantasy to an obvious sexuality that remains oddly absent in these stories of costumed crime fighters. The attraction is the lack of corruptibility, which is never possible, leading to the many in-joke-ish superhero deconstruction pieces we’ve seen in the last few years on film (comic books remain two decades ahead of the mainstream film world, it seems). Gunn has the courage, and tastelessness, to take matters a bit further than we’ve seen them before, at first using violence as his weapon of choice — unhinged comic moments like the Crimson Bolt murdering a couple who dare cut in line go uncommented upon, queasily grouping them with the child molesters and thieves who have met the end of the Bolt’s hammer, a dichotomy that properly establishes the film’s sense of anarchy but doesn’t seem either amusing or disturbing enough. And as far as sexuality, well, let’s just say you’ve never seen a superhero/kid sidekick dynamic play out like this before.
Gunn plays his hand a bit too clearly, playing out the same superhero arc we’ve seen before, complete with brief retirement and suspense-less triumphant return. And while there’s the suggestion that much of this is a product of his imagination, “Super” does straddle the line between superhero escapism and superhero mockery. An action-packed finale that leaves several dead bodies in its wake remains underlined by the Bolt’s cheesy homemade weaponry and his uncomfortable manner of waddling around in his tight-fitting uniform. A highlight is Page’s comic turn of boundless enthusiasm and bloodlust, a maniacal, cackling goofball who gets way too much joy from the superhero fantasy. Once she affixes claws to her uniform and annihilates a few arteries, we know that “Super” has gone beyond the pale.
Moreover, in Gunn’s third film, the aesthetic reverts to his first, the Troma picture “Tromeo and Juliet.” While his last film, “Slither,” was a handsome looking (and inexplicably poorly-received) monster movie, the “Super” attitude seems to have a general “let’s get this over with” vibe of a number of the non-sensationalistic scenes. As a result, entire chunks of this film feel like familiar montages, and a good 20 to 30 minutes of the midsection just treads water, particularly with digressions like Frank’s reconfirming of his values, or the nattering back-and-forth between Jacques’ bumbling sidekicks (including Michael Rooker, apparently a close friend to Gunn, as well as Gunn‘s own brother Sean).
Gunn’s focus isn’t as sharp as it was with “Slither” or his script to the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, instead punctuating scenes of violence (which, until the climax, never once feel like genuine action sequences) with asides and gags of little consequence. It feels like a rush-job, tonally off because of a genuine lack of insight into a world that’s been explored already in a sea of other films. For every biting comment on the genre, there is one deflated comic sequence, one failed attempt at winking at the audience who have already committed themselves to an ersatz superhero fantasy. Like all of those, it is simply too flattering to the audience. [C+]