I must admit that I approached writer/director James Gunn’s quirky action/comedy “Super” with much trepidation. You see, I’m of the belief that Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s disturbingly underrated gem “Special” is the end-all, be-all of peculiar, off-beat superhero flicks. It’s a near-perfect blend of action, comedy, and dramatic depth, a mixture that others have attempted to replicate yet failed to achieve. James Gunn comes dangerously close to obtaining this goal, and while he just falls short of the mark, “Super” will definitely have its own unique space in any discerning cult cinema fan’s film collection. Assuming, of course, that you have a high tolerance for Gunn’s style of shock humor. If you don’t, I completely understand. It takes some getting used to.
That having been said, it’s worth stating that “Super” is definitely not for everyone. Gunn pulls absolutely no punches here, stuffing his deranged superhero epic with a wide variety of offensive, expletive-laden rants and subversive, gore-soaked sight gags. Although the veteran director’s penchant for blood, guts, and religious jabs may fool you, Gunn understands that this sort of abrasive, graphically violent comedy requires a heart in order to function properly on-screen. Much to my surprise, this is the area where “Super” shines the brightest. You genuinely want our hero to rescue his estranged wife, wipe out the local drug syndicate, and ride off into the sunset. Instead of being obnoxious, this wannabe do-gooder is extremely easy to identify with.
Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, your average, everyday short-order cook who’s experiencing a bit of marital discourse. It would seem that his lovely young wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) has recently started seeing the town’s weaselly drug kingpin Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and Frank is understandably upset about it. Attempting to convince the local police that she’d been kidnapped by the infamous criminal proves fruitless, and our hero soon realizes that the only way he can save Sarah from the clutches of this well-dressed villain is to take matters into his own hands. After receiving a Hentai-inspired vision from God and doing a little investigative research at the local comic book shop, Frank hits the streets as Crimson Bolt. Although his first few missions are unmitigated disasters, Frank soon gets the hang of things. With the assistance of his trusty red pipe wrench, of course.
However, all of the nifty tips and tricks he learns from savagely beating down child molesters and crushing the skulls of line-butters can’t prepare Crimson Bolt for the skill and fury of Jacques’ merciless henchmen. While doing a little reconnaissance at the kingpin’s mansion, he discovers that his worst fears have come true: Sarah has once again become addicted to drugs, and from the looks of things, it’s all Jacques’ fault. Frank freaks out, gets shot, and finds himself seeking help from a unbalanced comic book shop employee (Ellen Page), a girl who desperately wants to join the fight against evil. Despite his better judgment, Frank allows her to tag along for the ride. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for the situation to get really ugly, forcing Crimson Bolt and his sidekick Boltie to drastically intensify their crime-fighting tactics.
I don’t want to slight the rest of the cast by making this declaration — because everyone on-board does a truly fantastic job with Gunn’s script — but Rainn Wilson is easily the picture’s strongest asset. It’s his heartfelt performance that carries the entire premise, allowing for Gunn to execute the sort of action set-pieces that are as emotional as they are violent. Wilson and Page make for a great team; Boltie is the perfect yin to Crimson Bolt’s yang, and their relationship feels oddly natural. Their partnership helps drive by the second half of the movie, and by the time you’ve come to grips with what goes down during the film’s adrenaline-fueled finale, you might be on the verge of tears. If not, you’re a heartless, unfeeling bastard. A bold statement, I know, but it’s probably the truth.
“Super” is an amazing comedy, and Gunn and company should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. It’s the middle-aged version of “Kick-Ass”, a superhero fantasy that the over-30 set can appreciate. You’ll be surprised by how well Gunn handles the material, as it’s nowhere near as extreme or offensive as I thought it would be. Not all of the jokes on-display are zingers — Nathan Fillion’s bit as The Holy Avenger might be the picture’s biggest blunder — and the climax is decidedly brutal, but you have to admit that the director of “Tromeo and Juliet” has matured quite a bit since his early days at Troma. “Super” will be Gunn’s calling card for many years to come, and I certainly hope he continues this surprisingly cinematic evolution. It might not dethrone “Special” as the king of quirky superhero flicks, but it’s certainly a member of the royal family.
James Gunn (director) / James Gunn (screenplay)
CAST: Rainn Wilson … Frank D’Arbo / The Crimson Bolt
Ellen Page … Libby / Boltie
Liv Tyler … Sarah Helgeland
Kevin Bacon … Jacques
Michael Rooker … Abe
Sean Gun … Toby
Nathan Fillion … The Holy Avenger