At first glance, Super might seem too similar in concept and energy to last year’s powerless superhero flick Kick-Ass. It’s an easy and totally logical comparison to make; both movies deal with bullied protagonists who revolt against scum by piecing together homemade costumes, dreaming up goofy nicknames, and fighting crime with zero combat training.
But that’s where the parallels cease. Super, written and directed by James Gunn, isn’t a teenager’s movie—it’s an extremely dark, perverse, and gory romp that’s quite hard to categorize. Gunn, who wrote 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead and was a judge on the horror-themed VH1 reality show Scream Queens, has a slew of wicked ideas for the movie, all of which are tossed into a scatterbrained compendium of tones. At one moment, you’ll laugh at the sight of the film’s hero, Frank “The Crimson Bolt” D’Arbo (The Office’s Rainn Wilson), ironing his costume and practicing his catchphrase (“Shut up, crime!”) into his bedroom mirror; at another, you’ll squirm as half of a major character’s face gets blown off, and not for comedic effect.
Super bounces around from lightness to darkness with reckless abandon, giving the film an invigorating sense of fearlessness yet ultimately making for a bumpy ride. All of Gunn’s players, however, act with steadfast commitment. D’Arbo is a meek pushover who’s troubled wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), once again succumbs to drug addiction and falls under the manipulative control of drug pusher Jock (Kevin Bacon).
After a few unsuccessful attempts to reason with Jock, D’Arbo takes inspiration from a religious superhero on TV, The Holy Avenger (fanboy icon Nathan Fillion), and adopts an evil-battling alter ego, The Crimson Bolt. He first tests his fight skills by bashing street thugs’ heads in with a pipe wrench; once he’s somewhat confident, D’Arbo teams up with spunky comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page), a.k.a. Boltie, to go after Jock and reclaim Sarah.
While not the most obvious choice to play a superhero, Wilson is a smart casting choice here. On The Office, his Dwight Schrute character is all delusional narcissism and side-eyed scheming; as D’Arbo, though, he’s able to show range that his hit NBC job doesn’t allow. One of the ways Gunn humanizes D’Arbo is by having him draw child-like illustrations of his happiest memories, a fairly hokey concept that Wilson sells through his emotive performance. He makes it easy to accept that D’Arbo’s geeky innocence would manifest itself through construction paper drawings.
On a totally different plane is Page, wilding out in her most eccentric and provocative role to date. She’s a firecracker, talking at a mile a minute and reacting to everything with an over-caffeinated vigor. In some ways, Page’s work in Super is preferable to her award-nominated breakout show in 2007’s Juno—Libby’s unbridled friskiness might have a little something to do with it. Clad in her skintight yellow-and-green costume, Page’s Boltie persona is pure comic book nerd fantasy. Her raciest scene, in which she basically rapes D’Arbo while wearing her get-up and radiating like she’s in heat, is hotter than anything in Halle Berry’s ridiculous Catwoman.
Along with Page, Bacon clearly has a blast playing against type as the sleazy villain, and it’s that kind of insider enjoyment throughout Super that works in Gunn’s favor. Super all but screams, “This is a cult movie!” A veteran of Troma Entertainment, Gunn brings the subversive genre company’s brand of gallows humor and bloody violence to the film. To show D’Arbo’s superhero epiphany, Gunn uses a graphic animation bit where tentacles cut D’Arbo’s head open and literally drop courage onto his brain. Although it’s not for the squeamish, it’s a dream sequence played for uncomfortable laughter, unlike Super’s similarly violent climax, where corpses pile up, tears fall, and Gunn obviously wants a visceral, serious reaction. For a movie that opens with an animated credits presentation featuring characters dancing hand-in-hand, the bleak resolution isn’t as satisfying as it confusing.
But that seems to be the point with Super. Gunn didn’t set out to make a superhero movie ready for a Nickelodeon tie-in cartoon series, though it’s difficult to comprehend just what exactly he did intend. Smart money would be on an aspiration to show how an unprepared civilian’s revenge isn’t always the wisest choice. To get to that message, Gunn took the windiest road possible—consenting to his sensory whiplash is recommended only if you’re the type to prefer Tromeo & Juliet over William Shakespeare.