Similar to “Kick-Ass,” which preceded it by a couple months in 2010, “Super” takes on the elephant in the room of superhero movies. In 95 percent of genre films, the violence is stylized so the good guy knows the exact degree of punishment to dole out so the bad guy is subdued, but not dead; and in fact, the bad guy will probably make a full recovery – but he’ll be safely locked away by then. In real life, such expert control is almost impossible. “Super” aims to be more like real life.
So when Frank/Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson, putting a darker spin on his “Office” persona as Dwight) hits a man who budges in line at the movie theater with a pipe wrench, it looks like it would really look. The man ends up in the ICU and may or may not survive; perhaps he has permanent brain damage. In a montage of Crimson Bolt taking out various street thugs, a man twitches in his death throes as our hero prepares to deliver the finishing blow.
And yet this is unquestionably a comedy: Crimson Bolt’s costume is amusingly homemade, and he gets his initial inspiration from the Holy Avenger TV series wherein Nathan Fillion — playing his most wonderfully ridiculous character since Captain Hammer — teaches Christian kids about the evils of drugs and premarital sex.
It’s hard to tell if writer-director James Gunn (the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films) wants us to ponder the fact that we’re having a good time watching a movie in which the hero doles out realistic violence. It’s possible he’s making a wacky film for the fun of it, and not trying for a wider point. Intentional or not, “Super” shows us a world where violence does serious damage, and it’s a refreshing contrast to all the genre films that pull their punches … even though, as a general, I’m like everyone else and I want those punches to be pulled.
“Super” would be too much to take if it was more than one movie, or if it didn’t have other things going for it. Separating them from their psychopathic violence (because otherwise this argument will fall apart), Frank and his sidekick, Libby/Boltie (Ellen Page), are sympathetic and likable people, if in a comic-booky way.
An opening montage tells us Frank has had two good things happen in his life: Getting married to Sarah (Liv Tyler) – who has been nabbed by drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon) to be an unwilling tester of the product — and having someone say thanks to him one time. He’s a sad sack, but one who tries to be positive: After all, he dwells on those two good things.
Libby is an inexplicably cute comic-shop cashier who enthusiastically recommends non-powered heroes to Frank when the Holy Avenger proves to be an ill-fitting role model. She suggests Batman, Green Arrow and Iron Man. In every way that Frank exists in reality, Libby exists in a fantasy world: She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Well-Meaning Psychopath.
Gunn’s wildly swerving mishmash of characters and tones and happenings is never uninteresting to watch. The overall aesthetic is indie, thanks to the soundtrack. Tsar’s catchy “Calling All Destroyers” sets the mood over the top of the animated opening credits, and other bands deliver Sixties vibes, like something you’d hear in a twee rom-com; one of the tunes has a bouncy “ba-ba-ba-ba” part, another has a “woo-hoo-hoo” part.
By the time we get to the part where Libby seduces Frank by showing off how sexy she looks in her costume, “Super” is fully in the territory where you either go with it or you’ve already bailed; I’m in the former camp.
Gunn’s love of superhero traditions shines through even as he skewers the genre every step of the way, including putting “Batman” 1966 “pows” and “blams” over the top of bad guys being shot to death. Playing behind all this – as becomes clear in Frank’s storming of Jacques’ mansion – is the point: Maybe it will or maybe it won’t make the world better to kill or maim bad guys, but Frank won’t know until he tries.
That’s Gunn’s attitude toward “Super,” too, I think: Maybe it’ll coalesce into a good movie, maybe not, but it’s worth a try. I’m glad he tried.