James Gunn's Super is a singularly unique movie-going experience--wildly, yet entertainingly, uneven, it skids and crashes all over the goddamn place. It's such a weird hybrid, this movie, an equal but odd mix of parody, gore, and honest-to-God pathos. The story is yet another in the "loser with no powers becomes an inept superhero" subgenre, yet it works in ways that predecessors like Kick-Ass and Defendor did not. Why? Who knows. It adopts much of the same style--mixing broad parody with real violence--but somehow, subtly, takes itself just seriously enough. We've seen much of this stuff before. But not quite like this.
It knocks us for a loop from the jump, with a pre-title sequence which makes quite clear that this is not going to be your typical dopey spoof flick. We meet Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a schlubby fry cook, basically a good person, married to a recovering addict (Liv Tyler). She falls in with Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a drug dealer and general scumbug; within days, she has left poor Frank. There's all kinds of ways to approach this material, but Gunn (who wrote and directed) plays the real sadness there, and when the jokes appear, they cut. When Frank sits alone in his room and sobs, they're real tears; the scene is played straight, and then when his voice-over announces, matter-of-factly, "People look stupid when they cry," then we laugh. But the laugh sticks.
The whole movie is like that: we relax, we engage, and we're caught off-guard. His decision to become a super-hero--with the assistance of Libby (Ellen Page), the cute girl at his local comic book store who helps with "research"--proceeds along the expected lines, with misfires and beatings and a badly-sewn suit and so on. But Gunn doesn't kid the violence; the weapon of Frank's alter ego, "The Crimson Bolt," is a big-ass wrench, and even while we're laughing at his catch-phrase ("Shut up, crime!") we're flinching a little bit at the pain he's inflicting. (Gunn, who came up in the Troma school of filmmaking, lets the blood spray.) And it doesn't shy away from Frank's very real psychological problems, particularly when he goes too far, breaking out the wrench to teach a lesson to a couple that butts in front of him in the movie line. That scene knocks us back a little; we're not quite sure what to do with it.
And yet, it's funny, and I'm not quite sure how. Wilson may be the key. He is playing isn't subtle (nor should it be). But he's somehow believable anyway; when he's sending up a crying prayer, there is real pain there, and it's totally ridiculous. He can do both things at the same time. As on The Office, he can play a broad caricature with real weight; he may not be the most versatile actor, but he's got that very specific gift down cold.
Page is totally charming, particularly when she makes herself his sidekick and can't get over the kick of fighting crime ("My God," she yells, "my hand is trembling!"). Tyler and Bacon are good if not terribly memorable, while Gunn fills the supporting cast with likable character actors, most of them from TV (Hey, it's Bubs! And Lindsay Weir! And Captain Mal Reynolds! And Mitchum Huntsberger!), to great effect.
Not all of Gunn's experiments work--the weird psychosexual detour isn't quite successful, and the subtly (and later not-so-subtly) racist subtext is a bit troubling. But above all, Super is a genuinely interesting movie, and those are hard to come by nowadays. It doesn't ever quite coalesce, not really. But it keeps our interest, that's for sure.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.