|IFC FILMS, STEVE DIETL |
Rainn Wilson is shown in a scene from "Super."
Superheroes have been deconstructed so much that it is practically its own genre at this point. In the tradition of such wildly different films as “Watchmen” and “Kick-Ass” comes “Super,” writer-director James Gunn’s independent feature mixing humor with disturbing acts of violence.
Frank (Rainn Wilson, better known as Dwight Schrute on “The Office”) is a good guy but a bit of a loser. He spends his days as a fry cook, and he’s experienced exactly two perfect moments in his life—marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict, and helping a police officer catch a mugger. He’s so clueless that he doesn’t notice his wife slipping back into her old ways. When the man who steals her away from him, a drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon) who operates out of the local strip club, comes to their house looking for Sarah, Frank lets him in and cooks him breakfast.
Late one night, mired in depression, parked in front of the TV, Frank comes across the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a superhero on the religious channel. The Avenger comes to Frank in a dream, giving him all the inspiration he needs.
Spurred on by Libby (Ellen Page), an eager clerk at a comic book store, Frank fashions himself a mismatched red costume and christens himself the Crimson Bolt. His plan: Hide behind a dumpster downtown and wait for crime to happen.
That turns out to be a bore, so, armed with a pipe wrench, Frank goes out in search of crime, punishing offenders who sell drugs, molest children and cut in line at the movie theater. His ultimate goal, of course, is to win back Sarah from Jacques.
As the Crimson Bolt’s notoriety grows, Libby guesses his secret identity and joins him as his sidekick, Boltie. But Libby also happens to be completely off her rocker and a bit of a psychopath.
Much like Gunn’s career (he wrote the two recent live-action “Scooby Doo” movies, as well as the “Dawn of the Dead” remake (2004), then wrote and directed the 2006 horror-comedy “Slither”), “Super” delights in playing with the audience’s expectations. The movie is ostensibly a comedy, though it grows darker, seemingly by the minute, as the violence becomes more and more graphic.
The tone shifts wildly several times but with confidence, Gunn never losing control and the story following a natural course to an ending impossible to anticipate, but ultimately satisfying.
Wilson is the ideal leading man for this kind of material. Despite having a prominent role on one of TV’s biggest sitcoms, he is a fresh face in the movies and he’s funny because he plays Frank as if he is not trying to make us laugh. This is a sad, desperate man, clinging to his last gasp of hope, and everything is deadly serious to him.
Page is more over-the-top in her portrayal, giving the movie the shot of upbeat energy it needs to balance Wilson’s dour turn. Tyler barely has a chance to register in her brief time on screen, but Bacon routinely steals his scenes as the slimy Jacques.
“Super” is the kind of movie that will make a lot of people uncomfortable. It starts as one thing, then becomes another and another. The violence is not sanitized or stylized as we’ve come to expect from our superheroes; it’s as blunt and shocking as a blow to the head from Frank’s pipe wrench.
The even more disturbing part comes later, when you think about what happens in any other comic book/superhero story. If you condemn Frank for meting out his brand of justice, how do you justify the actions of any other masked crimefighter?
Greg's Grade: A
(Not rated. 96 minutes.)