Unless you’ve ignored the film industry for the last decade, you’ve noticed the world completely obsessed with superheroes. Next year alone will see the release of The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot. But while that’s been developing, it has also kicked off an entirely new subgenre: the average costumed hero.
Perhaps born out of fan desire to see characters more like themselves represented on screen, the last few years have produced Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Defendor, three movies that feature normal citizens strapping on homemade suits and going out to fight crime. Fitting snuggly within the parameters of that genre is the new film from writer/director James Gunn, Super. But rather than buckling under the weight of comparison, Super brings enough originality to the table that it’s able to exist independently and benefits as a result.
The story tells the tale of Frank (Rainn Wilson), a homely, dull diner cook who has only one bright spot in his life: his wife and former drug addict, Sarah (Liv Tyler). After she relapses and leaves him for a local drug kingpin, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), his life completely falls apart and he vows to get her back. How does he do this? By making a costume out of spandex and calling himself The Crimson Bolt. Ridding the streets of crime and troublemakers one blow from his trusty pipe wrench at a time, with his trusty and totally deranged sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page) at his side, Crimson slowly works himself up to go after his main target and get his wife back.
When Super is at its best, it’s operating in a state of controlled chaos. Nearly every character suffers from some sort of mental issue, from extreme egotism to sociopathic tendencies, and when reined in the movie can be a great deal of fun. The problem is that when it goes too far, it taints the film in an extreme way. One event late in the film, in particular, effectively creates a black hole in the middle of the theater that sucks all of the energy out of the room. Fortunately these moments are few and far between.
While everyone in the movie puts on a splendid performance, it’s Ellen Page that ends up stealing the show. The young actress has a ball as a comic-obsessed geek who suddenly finds an amazing outlet for her pent up need for violence. Dancing around half-naked after dispatching of an antagonist in a fairly brutal way, the actress handles the part by playing up puppy dog innocence while also being a street-toughened Doberman let off its chain. Removed from the “wise-beyond-her-years” roles performed in films like Juno and Inception, it’s a part that we’ve never seen Page pull off before, but afterwards want to see her do much more.
Replete with bizarre hallucination scenes, extreme punishment for line-cutters and lame religious superheroes, Super is a flawed, but ultimately fun and interesting film. James Gunn, in span of his career, from his work with Troma Entertainment to Slither, has never been one to show a great deal of restraint. That hurts him here, in some cases, but serves him well overall in creating this specific take on superhero movies.