James Gunn has quite the credentials. His first screenplay for a feature film is the critically panned Specials, starring Rob Lowe. He followed this with the live-action take of Scooby-Doo. Two years later, he must have realized what a huge mistake that crap was, because he went on to try something (slightly) more respectful and dignifying: Zach Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead. Looks like Gunn's career is taking a nice turn, after all! Oh...wait. Scratch that. The same year he helped scribe Scooby-Doo: Monster's Unleashed.
Well, someone finally must have thrown a heavy object at his head and snapped him out of it, because in 2006 he wrote and directed his first feature film, Slither. I have not had the opportunity to see this one, but from what i understand it has a loyal underground following, and holds a steady 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. Judging from the trailer, it seems to have an Evil Dead vibe to it, so it is probably worth checking out. Four years later, Gunn brings his second directorial effort to the big screen.
Rainn Wilson, known to most as Mr. Dwight Schrute, of Schrute Farms, has clearly had tremendous success as an actor on television, the same can't really be said for the silver screen. It's unusual for Wilson to have more than a couple of minutes of screen time, mostly having blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameos. That is, up until 2008's The Rocker, which was a dud. His second attempt at a starring role isn't so unfortunate however.
Super stars Wilson as Frank D'Arbo, your everyday Joe Schmo, and potentially a loser. He lives with his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), but thanks to her resurfaced addiction with drugs and Kevin Bacon, their marriage is crumbling, and falls apart entirely before the opening credits (which are oddly spectacular) even begin. However, like most losers, he is still in love with her, and is under the impression he is supposed to win her back. We learn that the only reason Frank is with her in the first place is because God told him to. Literally said "Marry her". Fair enough.
Now that Sarah has left him, he begins to question what devine plan God has for him. So God speaks to him again, although not so directly this time. Instead, he sends the Holy Avenger, hero of a fictional and religiously sappy television show and comic book. The bits of his show we get to watch are quite hysterically corny, and to no one's surprise, Nathan Fillion fills the role quite satisfactorily as the Catholic "super hero". It is through the Holy Avenger, whom Frank meets in a vision, where he is told he is supposed to fight crime as the Crimson Bolt. From here, Frank suffers from mostly trial and error, as he is in no physically fit condition, and obviously lacks in bad guy-fighting experience. More than a couple of times, he gets his ass kicked. This is when he approaches Libby (Ellen Page) of a local comic book store, to seek for advice, as she is a nerd. She delightfully gives him advice about heroes without super powers. This proved to be pointless however, for his research for a new weapon was hilariously quick (he went with a steel wrench).
From here, Super seems to take an odd turn from a comedy to exploitation. Frank doesn't just hurt people with that wrench, he destroys their limbs. I would say that the film was heavily influenced by recently reviewed Hobo With a Shotgun, but given the fact that it was only released a year after Super doesn't make it very likely. However, the similarities become very difficult to ignore. Frank doesn't attack anyone who doesn't have it coming to them, although that might be debatable. Hotheaded, he attacks a total douche who butts in the long line of a movie theater. But come on, that's what we all secretly wish would happen. The difference, however, that divides the Frank from the Hobo is that he doesn't kill anybody. He just destroys and disassembles their limbs so horribly that they wish they were killed. But when you think about it, isn't that worse than death?
This isn't the only time that Super takes an unexpected turn genre-wise. The final act doesn't even attempt to be humorous - it is very dark, gritty, and violent, and it really almost feels like a different film altogether. On the plus side, the final act is totally bad ass. Frank achieves almost what any man with a little hair on his chest has daydreamed of accomplishing: destroying a bunch of bad guys who have it coming to them. But the fact that Frank is an everyday, normal man like it's viewers makes it all the more hair-raising.
While the script is certainly unpolished, it brings out some memorable performances. Kevin Bacon is one of my up-most guilty pleasures, particularly as a villain. Ever since his considerable darker role as a child molester in Sleepers, he has never failed at being ever so hateable, but at the same time his presence on screen is always missed when he's absent. His role as the Nazi super-villain in Xmen: First Class certainly proved this ability, and he certainly applies it here to my satisfaction.
Ellen Page, on the other hand, gives a performance that is unlikely her past material. At first, we see Page as she always is, the "adorkable" and quirky love interest. But as the story evolves, we learn that she is quite...psychotic, and it is very entertaining to watch Page dwell in this unexplored territory for the first time. But like most of the script, while it is entertaining, it doesn't feel quite right or natural, because she is arguably more intense and mentally unbalanced than Bacon's character, who is the villain.
Rainn Wilson himself doesn't tread too far from his familiar oddball, beet farmer territory. I couldn't help but but constantly being reminded of Recyclops, Dwight Schrutes alter-ego. Fortunately, it works, as Wilson makes the best out of what he was given, and he delivers just fine.
Unfortunately, Super suffers from the fate of an untimely release. On the surface, Super seems like a direct ripoff of Kick-Ass which was released nearly one year prior. IFC were evidently aware of this, since they seemed to pitch the same idea in the (very, very limited) marketing that existed: what if someone finally had enough of our violent society, and became a super hero? In context, this isn't what the film is about. It bounces along the themes of redemption, sacrifice, and just being alone in the world, but doesn't seem to address exactly what it is trying to say about any of it. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a film that was both so strangely allegorical and abstract at the same time.
This is what Super ultimately suffers from - it's inability to decide exactly what it is trying to be or say. It is highly possible that it isn't trying to be or say anything at all. And while that is an admirable approach, it is unsettling as a viewer, because if the film has no clue what to say for itself, why should we be given the burden instead?
The film isn't without heart though, and it is the little moments and touches that keep the film from being a complete mess. The most powerful line in the film arises in the height of it's climax, but it is not because it is deep or complex. It is in fact very straight forward and simple. But Frank is forced to make it so, because Jacques is an evil scumbag, and simply can't comprehend why Frank has gone through such lengths to attack someone for doing such a small thing as cutting in line. Wilson delivers his response in such a heartfelt, frustrated way that as a viewer, I couldn't help but salute him:
"You don't butt in line! You don't sell drugs! You don't molest little children! You don't profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don't change!"