James Gunn is one of those directors like Joss Whedon or Quentin Tarantino, where you feel like he’s accomplished so much more than he’s actually done. I have an inexplicable love for James Gunn, but honestly, he’s done Slither and the PG Porn parodies and that’s about it. Sure, he was mostly responsible for Tromeo and Juliet and yes, he did earn screenwriting credit on Scooby-Doo 2, but his resume is kind of bare. So I was rooting hard for Super, and not just because Gunn hired one of our Pajibans to work on his film. I love the concept of the vigilante superhero or the homegrown maniac fighting back against the people who have wronged him. Gunn had a very original idea six years ago when he wrote the script, which is when he should have made the film. Instead, he’s now going to get moderately unfair comparisons to Kick-Ass, and Defendor, and Special, and even that stupid-ass Tim Robbins film Noise where he plays “The Rectifier.” Truth be told, Gunn’s take on the costumed vigilante takes an extremely savage and cruel path, and one that could have been mined for serious fucking darkness. But like when Homer set out to build the barbecue on “The Simpsons” and ended up with chaotic rage art, the same can be said for Gunn’s super. The film slingshots erratically between depressingly maudlin and dark to lighthearted and slapsticky hilarious like the seismic readout of a 20-year high school reunioneers rushing the open bar, and it never takes the opportunity to settle. A lot of people will still probably enjoy enough of the awesome parts of Super to call it a good film, but it’s too inconsistent to be as astonishing as it had the potential to be.
Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is a short order cook whose wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) gets readdicted to drugs thanks to the machinations of the slimy club owner /small time crimelord Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Heartbroken, he tries desperately to get her back and get her clean, but he’s too powerless. He pleads for God to show him a sign, and has a vision of The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — a televised Christian crime fighter ala Bibleman — and Frank decides to become a crime fighter. He does research at the local comic shop where he draws the assistance of the hyperkinetic manic pixie Libby (Ellen Page) . Soon, Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, a red masked avenger who goes around finding criminals and caving in their skulls with an adjustable wrench. Frank’s crime fighting skills consist mostly of seeing people selling drugs or soliciting underaged prostitutes and bashing the people in the face with the wrench before screaming , “Don’t sell drugs!” or “Don’t molest children!” or “Shut up, crime!”
It’s a genuinely fascinating concept, particularly if you look at it from the standpoint that Frank might be mentally ill. It’s a dark edge to tread, and Gunn doesn’t seem confident enough to take his own script seriously. And while it’s admittedly hilarious to see pudgy Rainn Wilson bashing line-cutters and parking violators in the noggin with a monkey wrench, the true horror and heartbreak of the film is that a schlubby man so shattered by his wife’s relapse into addiction literally has a break from reality and tries to fight back with Anarchist Cookbook pipebombs and plumbing paraphernalia. The added ludicrousness of having this epiphany come at the hands of a faux religious cartoonish superhero is another angle that Gunn lets dangle. Gunn can’t shake his Troma roots enough to put down the goony humor and actually delve into the really dark and intriguing aspects of his own character.
But it’s hard to fault him when you see how much fun the cast is clearly having with their parts. Liv Tyler’s having a ball trading on her typical indie role by basically playing a PG Porn version of Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream. More people shit on Ellen Page than a German porn actress, but here’s why we love her. Her Libby/Boltie character doesn’t steal the show like Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass, rather she’s like a constant jolt of adrenaline. She the epitome of Red Bull, a college age spaz acting childish and overstimulated. Kevin Bacon is Kevin Bacon. It is everything we love about Kevin Bacon. The only thing he doesn’t do is dance and sing. He’s reveling in playing the serpent, and you can practically see him gleefully clapping his hands before dousing himself in oil for the part. Fillion’s doing his Captain character, be it Mal or Hammer, turned up to 11. His part is pure parody, and he plays it with cheesy aplomb. Rainn Wilson does a damn fine job as Frank, although I do feel like he’s the weakest link purely because he’s trying so hard not to be Dwight Schrute when the way Gunn’s filming it desperately needs him to be Dwight Schrute. I think I disliked his performance more because I’d just seen what he was capable of in Hesher and so I think I have to lay the blame mostly at Gunn’s feet. Frank’s such a schizophrenic character — no pun intended towards the mental illness tip — that it’d be impossible for Wilson to perform any other way.
The heartbreaking part about Super is that there are so many awesome moments. To expound upon them would be to spoil the experience of anyone wanting to watch the film. Gunn takes his characters to some fucking dark, DARK moments. I’m not trying to deter people. I think if you want to see Super, you still should. I just found it to be disappointing. It catapaults from really silly gore action and wacky hijinks into Frank weeping in a corner because he just wants to see his beautiful wife again. I’m glad that Frank and Sarah are actually married, because I think making his devotion to her delusional would have been the wrong move. The story itself raises so many potentially fascinating questions and then wraps them on the head with a wrench and tells them to shut up. Gunn spends so much time frantically swapping out the dramatic masks that someone needed to whack him one with a heavy metal tool and tell him to calm the fuck down and make it right.