Review: ‘Super’ is the Perfect Antidote For The Onslaught of Superheroes

By  · Published on April 3rd, 2011

Everywhere you look there’s another superhero movie these days. Countless studio dollars, a stream of big stars and endless articles have been expended on the subject. Thor, Captain America and the Green Lantern headline an upcoming summer movie season that’s chock-full of various forms of masked avengers.

Concurrently, there’s arisen a far less prolific counter-industry of satirically oriented films, such as Kick Ass, that attempt an indie-friendly examination of the questionable sanity and real world practicality of these figures. It’s these latter films that I’ve personally flocked to, having long-grown tired of the formulaic non-Christopher Nolan big-budget superhero aesthetic.

Thus, James Gunn’s Super is – in the same vein as protagonist Frank’s heavenly calling to justice – a gift from above. In framing the birth of a real-life superhero as a disturbed man’s religious awakening, the Slither filmmaker gets to the heart of the grandiose self-absorption at the core of superherodom.

To don a mask and tights, formulate a nickname and spend your nights prowling the streets, seeking out drug dealers and other unsavory elements, you’d have to be, well, more than a little bit crazy. Frank (Rainn Wilson), the luckless, depressed everyday schlub central figure here fits the bill, driven to unhinged rage when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for scuzzy drug kingpin Jacques (Kevin Bacon).

Our hero, propelled forward in his venture by ecstatic visions of God and the encouraging words of the crime fighting Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), becomes The Crimson Bolt, going after drug dealers, child molesters, line-jumpers and just about anyone behaving in an “unacceptable” fashion. He’s joined in his quest by the spunky Libby (Ellen Page), who morphs into his uncontrollably horny, steadily more psychotic sidekick Boltie.

With broadly stylized comic book touches and a strain of straitlaced silliness mixed with a dark, psychological undercurrent, the picture constitutes a tricky balancing act for all involved. Writer-director Gunn ably shepherds the material through its complicated stages, modulating each conflicting tone and shaping them into a cohesive character-driven whole. In this portrait of a tortured man finding a measure of peace in crazed, suspect fashion, the shocking bursts of violence come from an organic place deep within Frank’s exposed, fraying soul.

Wilson, a long way from Dwight Schrute and The Office, goes full-throttle to a dark place as Frank, giving a performance rife with deep, boiling conviction that brings to mind a latter-day, latex-wearing Travis Bickle. In many respects, though, the star plays second fiddle to Page, who throws away her wise girl shtick to wade into even stranger territory with the wide-eyed innocence of Libby’s earliest scenes giving way to hypersexual bloodlust. They’re a compelling, unusual team, perfectly cast and a testament to Gunn’s sure-handed vision.

By rejecting conventional character arcs and refusing to impose an artificially upbeat sensibility on what’s fundamentally a tragic story, the filmmaker has produced a movie infused with its character’s deep-seated psychosis. It stands as an appealing, often hilarious, corrective to the conventional pop cultural idealization of the superhero, while drawing out the sinister qualities underlying such no-holds-barred crime fighters. You’ll see a lot of men in tights on the big screen throughout the coming months and years, but Frank is one of a kind.

The Upside: The movie is hilarious and unflinchingly dark. James Gunn establishes himself as a strong, gifted filmmaker by ably balancing the film’s many tones. Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page are great.

The Downside: There’s occasionally a slightly desperate feel to the movie’s quest for indie-hipster cred.

On the Side:
Ellen Page looks great in a superhero uniform, in case you were wondering.