Movie review by Greg Carlson
Arriving roughly one year after the similarly themed “Kick-Ass,” “Super” continues the practice of aggressively self-aware mash-ups attempting to both satirize some aspects of comic book culture and wallow in the shocking violence that happens when an average citizen elects to pull on a costume and mask. “Kick-Ass” creator Mark Millar has magnanimously endorsed writer-director James Gunn’s “Super,” suggesting that the projects were developed independently and simultaneously, but the two movies share plenty of DNA. The concept of the frustrated nobody whose fortunes change (for good or bad) as the result of splitting one’s psyche into colorful crusader and secret identity deserves a great movie. “Super” is not it.
Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a luckless fry cook whose beautiful, recovering-addict wife (Liv Tyler) relapses and takes up with an odious drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Energized by the fictional adventures of the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a Christian super hero on cable TV, Frank stitches together a makeshift disguise, arms himself with a wrench, and becomes the Crimson Bolt. As news of the Bolt’s head-cracking exploits attracts some media attention and the hero’s leg attracts some lead, Frank reluctantly agrees to take on comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page) as his crime-fighting sidekick. Christened “Boltie,” Libby’s alter ego unleashes a torrent of manic, out of control rage that makes Frank’s own loony solo missions look conservative by comparison.
Page’s enthusiastic characterization is among the bright spots of “Super,” and the hyperactive zeal with which Libby doles out “justice” results in a string of bone-crushing gags sure to elicit delighted shrieks of glee from the demographic familiar with Gunn’s Troma Entertainment roots. Released without a rating from the MPAA, the content of “Super” is no more graphic than dozens of horror titles, but a significant portion of the movie’s notably small budget was certainly earmarked for gaping head wounds.
The problem with “Super” is not the explicitness of the shocking violence, but the haphazard application of tone in the commission of mayhem. Frank’s glum fatalism contrasts sharply with Libby’s insubordinate rebelliousness, and the odd coupling – especially Libby’s attraction to Frank – is only superficially explained. Gunn’s streamlined, simplified focus on Frank’s goal of the rescue of and reconciliation with his wife comes to blows with the capricious arrangement of expository flashbacks and clock-padding montages. Most of the secondary characters are tired stock staples, from Michael Rooker’s thug to Gregg Henry’s cop. Hearts will break for Andre Royo, magnificent as Bubbles on “The Wire,” but magnificently wasted here.
Gunn also teases the viewer with flickers of emotional credibility only to hastily retreat any time Frank threatens to earn our sympathy. Following an earnest scene in which Libby’s romantic overtures are gently rejected out of Frank’s loyalty and fidelity to his wife, Gunn includes a perplexing interlude of coercive sexual imposition seemingly for the payoff that allows him to create a vision in the chunks of vomit floating in a toilet. “Super” is filled with off-color moments like this one, and while the ends can be funny, the means to achieving them are clumsy and confounding.