[ City Paper Grade: B+ ]
The way the movie Kick-Ass should have been, or Watchmen could have been, James Gunn's Super is a hilarious and deliberately unsettling polemic whose tonal whipsawing has been flummoxing a good number of critics. I'd rather spend my words praising the movie, at least the parts of it that work, than debunking its negative notices, but suffice it to say that the people who miss the movie's point manage at the same time to prove it.
Super's hero, so to speak, is Frank (Rainn Wilson), a glum short-order cook who recalls just two perfect moments in his unexceptional life: pointing out a fleeing shoplifter to a nearby policeman and marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict who presumably finds his dullness consoling. Their imperfect union founders when Sarah encounters a swaggering drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon); next thing Frank knows, she's gone, trading domestic stability for the joys of getting heroin shot between her toes.
Frank responds as any impotent ex-husband would: He slips on a makeshift costume, grabs a pipe wrench and reinvents himself as a crime-fighting vigilante called The Crimson Bolt. The idea comes to him via divine inspiration, here manifested as a tentacle-rape scene out of Japanese porn, with additional details supplied by a hyperkinetic comic-book store clerk named Libby (Ellen Page).
In the wake of Watchmen (the comic, not the movie), situating superheroes in the "real" world has been a facile way for genre geeks to feign seriousness while essentially serving the same adolescent needs. But Super doesn't deconstruct the costumed-hero idea so much as dismantle it, with broad swipes that leave plenty of collateral damage. There's no training montage to transform Frank into a perfect physical specimen, no sensei to school him in the ancient art of crushing heads. He's still a lump, albeit a bright red one, skulking behind Dumpsters waiting for crimes to happen. His lunatic determination gives him a degree of invincibility, as does the slack-jawed look his victims adopt when they see his lumbering form approaching, which gives Frank just enough time to swing his wrench and shatter their limbs.
Gunn isn't the first to observe that this brand of self-empowerment dovetails with some deeply twisted psychology, but he takes a sick sort of glee in running with the idea. After he's brutalized a few street-corner thugs, Frank starts to lose his sense of proportion, cracking the skull of an obnoxious yuppie who cuts into a movie-theater line. Gunn actually shows us the poor jerk's head splitting open, a moment that splits the movie, as well.
Frank isn't Super 's most gung-ho ass-kicker. After Libby susses out The Crimson Bolt's secret identity and blackmails Frank into making her his sidekick, her giddy excitement turns to enthusiastic bloodletting. Gunn stages the scene where Libby demonstrates her skills to Frank as slapstick, with her karate-chopping the air and turning awkward cartwheels, but he's deliberately wrong-footing the audience to maximize the shock when she starts to do serious damage. At the same time, her wide-eyed insanity is more ingratiating than Frank's tortured plodding, and the sight of a pint-size Page sinking her jury-rigged Wolverine claws into a bad guy's face has a genuinely revolutionary kick to it. She's Super 's action-movie id, crushing a thug's legs with her cart and cackling as he spits blood, until the moment when it suddenly isn't funny any more.
Super is an ungainly movie, unevenly paced and transparently shot on the cheap; at worst, it's an eyesore. But for all its goofball jokes and gratuitous splatter, it's a genuine movie of ideas, more genuinely provocative than any of its glossy big-studio cousins. Some critics are inclined to hold the movie responsible for their own discomfort, to read its deliberate ugliness as incidental. But Gunn knows what he's doing, although his execution often falters. Notwithstanding its disreputable façade, Super is thrilling filmmaking, even when it's a lousy film.
Super | Written and directed by James Gunn, an IFC Films release, opens Friday at Ritz East