Early on in Super Ellen Page's enthusiastic comic book store clerk Libby professes that she's always wondered why regular people didn't get out there and become superheroes themselves. That may be true, but apparently Hollywood has only started to wonder about it recently, as evidenced by Kick-Ass and Defendor and now Super, three movies playing on the theme that with no power comes no responsibility. And while Super is even darker and weirder and more cynical than Kick-Ass, its tonal inconsistencies and a whopper of a terrible ending hamper it all the same. The TIFF Midnight Madess crowd ate it up when I saw it last night, but I suspect they had the same experience I did of coming home and realizing how much of the film didn't work once all the pieces were in place.
To start with the good, Rainn Wilson is excellent in the central role of Frank, a sad sack whose wife (Liv Tyler) runs off with local drug kingpin Jacques (Kevin Bacon) and is left with pretty much nothing in her wake. It's not a love of comic books or desire for fame that leads Frank to rename himself the Crimson Bolt and hit the streets fighting crime, but a religious revelation complete with a bright light from the sky and a very graphically depicted lobotomy of sorts. It takes him a while to find any crime to fight-- he spends a lot of time hiding behind a dumpster in a dodgy neighborhood, waiting for something to happen-- but once he does he doesn't discriminate, beating with a wrench everyone from petty drug dealers to a guy who cuts in line at the movies.
Even more prone to violence is Page's Libby, who styles herself as Boltie and picks for her first evildoer a guy who may or may not have keyed her friend's car a few years back. Her manic love of violence makes Frank seem downright reasonable by comparison, and as the two take on increasingly more significant bad guys in preparation for that final battle with Jacques, they develop into a bizarre but oddly effective and affectionate superhero team. But just as writer-director James Gunn relishes shocking the audience with extreme, unexpected violence, he takes Libby and Frank's relationship into some dark territory as well, getting you on board to root for these nutjobs and then testing your association with them over and over again. Page is incredibly funny and downright unhinged as Libby, but the characters gets so crazy at times that she slips away from being a human being at all.
Even with limited CGI and not particularly strong action directing skills, Gunn keeps Super at a brisk and entertaining pace, and deftly balances the extreme violence with the feeling that Frank, on some level, speaks for us all. But at the same time a lot of things don't pay off, from the costumed Christian TV superhero (Nathan Fillion) who inspires Frank to Liv Tyler's utterly valueless wife character to the fact that the city eventually accepts Crimson Bolt and Boltie as heroes, even though their violence is always disproportionate to the actual crimes. The movie never quite manages its constant shifts between extreme violence, physical comedy and pathos, particularly when it takes a hard turn toward the sentimental in the final scenes that's neither earned nor in keeping with what came before it. It's as if Gunn came up with a lot of good ideas and then put the movie together before he realized he couldn't follow through on them.
Especially on the heels of the underperforming Kick-Ass, it's unclear what kind of future there can be for Super, which doesn't yet have a distributor. Not only is it far more violent and cynical than that film but it treats its characters far worse, allowing only hollow redemption for some and none at all for others. That cynicism isn't necessarily a bad thing-- the movie worked for me overall, though others I saw it with were generally appalled-- but it's a tough sell outside the bloodthirsty midnight movie crowd. I enjoyed the time I spent with Super for the most part, but I may wind up just glad I caught it before it gets stuck in distribution limbo.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.