REVIEW: Super Just Another Minor Film Dressed in Hero's Clothing
Writer-director James Gunn's Super is the white-guy version of the Damon Wayans superhero caper Blankman -- or, perhaps more specifically, Generation X's take on Kick Ass. Not Matthew Vaughn's film adaptation, either, but Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s original comic, with its gamy, emo desperation about a regular guy who decides to fight crime. And, like the comic version of Kick Ass, the action in Super is clumsy and triggers cringe-producing consequences that make you wonder about the sanity of its protagonist.
In this case, it's Frank (Rainn Wilson), whose wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) is so far out of his league that he's begging Fate for trouble. That trouble materializes in the form of Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a condescending drug dealer dressed like a Men's Wearhouse salesman. Gunn gets a charge on commenting to genre and pop culture while doing so without quotation marks. Super shows the broken and self-pitying Frank as he slips the surly bonds of common sense. Gunn's movies work as turns -- alternately horrific or hilarious (or both, as in Gunn's 2006 effort Slither) -- on Old Testament evil being delivered on his small town, contemporary versions of Job: At one point, crazed with grief and self-loathing, Frank even curses God for all of the suffering he's endured.
God's answer? Frank should become a superhero. He converts himself into the Crimson Bolt, modeled on the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a soi-disant costumed Christian crusader in one of what could be Naomi Campbell's old wigs. Frank watches the Avenger's TV series, an eerily plausible, no-budget spectacular that makes the Power Rangers episodes look like Inception. Indeed, the drabness of everyday life is central to Super. When the movie steps inside Frank's fantasy, the color is even more desaturated; Wilson's woozy, whiny Frank is too repressed to dream in vivid colors.
This combination of parody and real-life grotesqueries caused by the hero's single-minded self-absorption has become its own genre, going back to Frank Miller's Batman: Year One (itself a touchstone for Gunn and Super.) But there's genuine comedy because of a single observation: Everyone in the movie is a little too old to be behaving the way that they do -- even Ellen Page, who does double duty as both comics-store employee Libby and as Boltie, the Crimson Bolt's self-proclaimed kid sidekick. If this were a studio adventure, she'd be the heroine; she's about the same age as the actresses in Sucker Punch.
Ultimately the movie ridicules the culture that compels what Cedric the Entertainer calls grown-ass men to dress up like comic-book characters, as well as the Christian attempts to co-opt that culture. Super is a minor film, to be sure -- its ambition to service its plot and functions as genre haiku; though Gunn gets his laughs and gasps. Perhaps the filmmaker realizes that lavishing more dough on this idea would've been more depressing than its title character's pursuit.