We’ve been down this road before. Watching the average frustrated citizen suit up and fight real-world crime isn’t a novel idea, with recent entries “Kick-Ass” and “Defendor” working similar routines, even dating back to a 1980 John Ritter film, “Hero at Large.” To make “Super” something unusual, writer/director James Gunn has infused the film with wild serio-comic spirit, drawing from his years making schlock for Troma to shape a superhero lampoon that’s too horrific to be a comedy, and not serious enough to register as sincere. It’s a middling, puzzling picture that doesn’t offer a secure point of view to make its mischief useful.
A demented schlub with a pronounced fear of God, Frank (Rainn Wilson) is devoted to wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug and alcohol user. When Sarah is tempted away by drug kingpin Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank goes mental, growing fed up with the indignities and criminal element of life. Assuming God wants him to battle the evil hordes, Frank suits up as the Crimson Bolt, using a makeshift costume and a pipe wrench to stun and slaughter his enemies. Along the vigilante journey, Frank’s efforts spark the interest of rabid comic geek Libby (Ellen Page), who dreams up her own outfit, soon joining the Crimson Bolt as Boltie, his faithful sidekick. Taking on crime to prepare for an assault on Jacques, the duo learn some painful lessons, emphasizing the difference between the action on the comic book pages and the violence of the real world.
Gunn proved himself a skilled troublemaker with the slimy, gory horror comedy “Slither” back in 2006, heroically nailing a blend of creeps and guffaws while raising perfectly amusing cinematic hell. “Super” proves to be a more difficult prospect for the filmmaker, who takes his low-budget challenge as an opportunity to summon an ultraviolent not-so-superhero adventure that merges semi-farcical overtones with biting reminders of authentic bodily trauma, slapping comic book violence up on the screen for full inspection. “Super” is a rowdy, jagged, chaotic picture once fully immersed in Frank’s masked delusions, only Gunn can’t control his own film, spending much of feature chasing its runaway train tone instead of confidently guiding the blur to blinding heights of irreverence.
Using a biblical superhero (played by Nathan Fillion) as his guide, Frank moves from timid crybaby to red-suited tough guy, feeling the wrath of Jesus in his blood. While religion is a major theme of the film, Gunn doesn’t follow through on the possibilities of the character’s fanaticism, drowning out the delusional uneasiness with swift acts of bludgeoning, as the Crimson Bolt takes to the rough part of town to beat the snot out of drug dealers, pedophiles, and bastards who cut in line. Frank’s frustration is palpable, yet “Super” doesn’t strike any particular societal note, insisting that clown time with our man-child hero is more interesting than investigating his urban fears or elevated sense of spiritual guidance. “Super” hints at a superb merging of complications hitting Frank from all sides, but the moment of truth never arrives.
Another problem for the film: It’s not funny. Though Gunn chases a darkly comic tone that toys with the monkey business of bad and good guys, sprinkled with acts of excessive violence, the feature’s funny bone is surprisingly lifeless. Outside of the fact that many of these jokes have been told before, “Super” never locates a rich vein of dementia, preferring schlocky violent overkill as its method of comedy. The performance by Page is another irritant, with the young actress wildly overplaying her role as the hyper sidekick, more than willing to beat and claw her enemies to death, revealing a sexual fetish for the superhero gig and tight costumes. Page is needlessly shrill and clumsily unrestrained, desperate to make a frantic impression in a film that could use less of the busy stuff. Her scenes are agonizing.
“Super” looks to keep a sobering element in play to ground Frank’s adventure in reality. After all, the man isn’t endowed with super powers or high tech weaponry, making the physical toll on his body a concern. However, it’s difficult to understand how seriously the viewer is expected to take all of this. During the splattery climax, Gunn dreams up a few chilling turns of fate, but it all feels utterly meaningless inside a film of grinding gears, with a fragmentary schizophrenic mood that blunts any lasting emotional lash. “Super” is a rough ride with a few riotous ideas, but the execution is unfocused and the comedy nonexistent. It’s a rundown condo in Tromaville that could’ve been so much more audacious and, indeed, super.