Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 04/19/11 12:50:03

"Fear the Crimson Bolt."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Here's a case of mismarketing, I think. "Super" is being sold as a wacky iconoclastic comedy in the mold of "Kick-Ass," but it hews closer to the depressive sting of the underseen "Defendor."

The movie, an original by James Gunn (Slither), tells what I assume to be the truth about what kind of person really would be driven to be a superhero. Sometimes the Batman comics come close, implying that Bruce Wayne is short a marble or two, or at least is trying to fill a very large void. But he's still rich and handsome and cool. Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is none of those things. Frank has recently lost his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, to local scumbag Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Something snaps in Frank's mind; he pours himself into a red costume, arms himself with a pipe wrench, and takes to the streets.

Tracking Frank's grim journey, Super sidles into psychodrama territory, with the accent on psycho. But then Ellen Page pops into the picture as Libby, a comic-book-store clerk who giddily offers herself as Frank's "kid sidekick," and the mood jumps considerably. It's fun watching Wilson and Page reunited after Juno (even though their scene in that film boasted some of the most vilified dialogue in history, homeskillet), and they're an amusingly unstable team. Libby may be even more twisted than Frank is; her head full of simplistic heroics, she has to be reminded not to kill people. If he's a psychopath, she's a sociopath.

Whenever possible, Gunn uglifies the violence (though not as much as he could have); hitting someone with a pipe wrench will file them away in the ICU for a while. And the bad guys, Bacon and especially Michael Rooker as his main henchman, are allowed brief moments to register just how scummy they've become: when Jacques is obliged to hand Sarah off to a guy he's doing a deal with, Bacon has an amazing little bit when he flips from angry to sad to resigned to put-on callous in the space of a few seconds. Gunn tends to marshal fine actors his frequent secret weapon Nathan Fillion turns up in classic droll form as a kiddie-show religious hero who influences the deranged Frank. As for Wilson, if there's any justice Super should kick his career up a notch; there's nothing of the closed-off dweeb Dwight Schrute in the vulnerable, damaged Frank. Again, the movie is sort of being sold, in part, as Dwight Schrute: Superhero. But Wilson goes to more uncomfortable places than that.

The whole thing builds up to a mock-cathartic Taxi Driver climax, with which the only problem I have, treading lightly around spoilers, is the question of what exactly becomes of a major character. (I mean, we see what happens, but then there's the aftermath, and how such a thing is explained to authorities and friends.) But then, by that point, I doubt we're meant to take the film literally. Super will probably nudge fans into endless what-was-real debates, similar to the eternal discourse about Taxi Driver's finish. At heart, though, it's the latest whack at grappling with the adolescent power fantasies that have current blockbuster cinema in a stranglehold (I wonder what our summers would look like if the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies had tanked).

If the tone is uneven, if the "comedy" doesn't yield as many laughs as we're led by the ads to expect, that's only the collateral damage of the destruction Gunn hopes to wreak on the increasingly debased and tired genre. A superhero in real life would be a delusional narcissist with serious rage issues, his sidekick would be an impulsive kid who really hasn't thought through the life choice, and the film puts that across nicely.

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