On the surface, Super seems like another “ordinary person tried to be a superhero” movie. And it is, but it’s more than that, with a raucous energy and refusal to play by the rules that’s very refreshing.
Short-order cook Frank (Rainn Wilson) has exactly two things in life he can look back on with pride: his marriage to the way-out-of-his-league Sarah (Liv Tyler) and the time when he helped police catch a purse-snatcher (his heroism was limited to pointing and saying “He went that way.”). Frank’s tenuous happiness comes crashing down when Sarah, a recovering drug addict, falls off the wagon and takes up with local drug dealer Jacques (delightfully skeezy Kevin Bacon). Despondent and broken-hearted, Frank gets a divine vision one night that inspires him to be a crime-fighter as a way of winning back Sarah. With some help from slightly unbalanced comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page) Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, armed with a red monkey wrench that he uses to beat down evil-doers.
The story arc is familiar, but along the way director and writer James Gunn throws in a number of deranged and subversive touches, from a silly animated opening credits sequence to a scene of divine inspiration that’s fuelled by hentai anime and a cable-access Christian children’s TV show. Likewise, Frank’s superhero role is taken up less out of a sense of injustice than a way to lash out at the lifestyle Sarah has abandoned him for, and he and Libby (who becomes his sidekick Boltie) go way overboard in administering brutal payback for minor crimes.
Though obviously made on a low budget, Super turns its limitations into assets. The location is an unglamorous part of Shreveport, Louisiana, with no tall buildings to leap in a single bound. Most of the effects are old-school and practical, depicting in gruesome detail just what happens when a person gets their skull caved in by a monkey wrench. The movie’s considerable violence is hilarious and appalling at the same time, and in its own way much more honest than the bloodless carnage or offscreen body counts in many action movies.
The acting hits all the right notes across the board. Wilson is perfect as life’s whipping boy, and no matter how odd, pathetic, or deranged he gets we’re never out of sympathy with him. Indeed, he brings the movie to outright pathos at times, as he desperately prays to regain the happiness he’s lost. Tyler spends most of the movie relapsing into drug use, though a flashback portrays her as a fragile woman looking to create a better life for herself, and goes a long way toward explaining why Sarah and Frank got together. Page probably has the flashiest role, as her Libby goes from snarky comic store nerd to off-the-leash sociopath. And kudos go to the numerous people who show up in minor roles. They range from Rob Zombie as the Voice of God (I’m not making this up) and Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman as a passerby, but the best minor role has to be Nathan Fillion as The Holy Avenger, a superhero on a cut-rate evangelical TV show who helps inspire Frank. Probably the only actor who’s not well served is Michael Rooker, whose role as one of Jacque’s less odious henchmen never gives him enough to do.
It’s not perfect. The seams show and the tone shifts wildly from scene to scene. The characters could have done with a bit more fleshing out and not all of the jokes work. But Super has an energy about it and a delight in its audacity that’s refreshing in this day of cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers movie-making.