After cutting his teeth under the banner of Troma Entertainment—a horror film production company—director James Gunn seems poised for a career working in shlocky exploitation cinema.
For his third film, the pseudo-comic book movie “Super,” Gunn enlisted the help of Rainn Wilson to portray Frank, a deeply perturbed fry cook with a fascination for religious television.
When Frank’s wife, played by Liv Tyler, is lured away by a smarmy drug dealer, he takes matters into his hands and adopts an alternate identity as The Crimson Bolt, a mighty superhero. Soon, he’s fighting his way through the criminal underworld, saving the day in his demented way. Libby, played by Ellen Page, is a comic book store clerk who appoints herself as Frank’s sidekick Boltie and quickly joins him.
Despite its lurid subject matter, “Super” has a kind of backward charm. Already proving himself adroit in blending and deconstructing genre tropes, Gunn’s superhero tale owes far more to “Taxi Driver” than “Batman” by blurring the line between heroics and vigilantism. He raises a number of intriguing concerns about the nature
of justice and the many ways it’s carried out—all with a delightful shade of gray.
But in getting down to brass tacks, Gunn’s capricious stylization can’t save the film’s flimsy narrative and gimmicky premise. Little of the confidence Gunn seemed to
possess in previous work is present here.
Where the film excels is in its characterization. Frank leads a minimalist lifestyle, yet as The Crimson Bolt, he has a purpose. But Frank isn’t motivated by heroism. Instead, it’s his innate and irrational anger that drives his actions. Via Frank’s fractured psyche, Gunn speculates on the falsities of superhero lore, particularly on the complete lack of realism present in some comic books and graphic novels. Though clearly unopposed to escapism, Gunn is clearly taking jabs at the delusional nature of the superhero mystique, using the sociopathic Frank as an example.
On more than one occasion, Frank lashes out at criminals and neglects to realize the legitimate danger at hand. Despite what Marvel Comics leads him to believe, he quickly learns criminals fight back. All he can think to mutter when a particular baddie beats him to a pulp is, “No fair!”
In this regard, “Super” is almost a critical denigration of the superhero gambit. The glorification of such inane behavior is never given thoughtful consideration. While Gunn’s film is far from thoughtful, given its grotesque depictions of violence, he at least has the gall to demystify the inscrutability of superheroism.
“Super” rarely reaches the heights it sets for itself. Frank’s pseudo-religious delusions, which are stoked by a Christian superhero he’s seen on TV called the Holy Avenger, fuel a skewed moralism that leads him to senselessly beat a villain and his girlfriend who cut in line at the movie theater with a lead pipe. This is pitch-black humor, but Gunn’s broad strokes leave little to be desired. The line is blurred for Frank, but there seems to be little demarcation for the director.
Provocation is never a bad thing, but justification is key. As clever as Gunn is, he’s not much of a satirist. “Super” lampoons a good number of institutions, such as religion, marriage and urbanization, but there isn’t anything revealed about these subjects that hasn’t been revealed before.