James Gunn has had an interesting career and one I’ve been following since I fell in love with his film “Slither.” He got his start working with Lloyd Kaufman and the Troma crew and then later went on to direct “Tromeo and Juliet,” his first feature film. From there Gunn made his first super hero movie, “The Specials” in 2000, which takes a look at the lives behind the scenes of a group of super-powered humans as they argue with each other, have sex and bitch about their jobs. Gunn is also known for writing the two “Scooby Doo” movies, the second having a stroke of genius by featuring an evil Scrappy Doo, and then a series of hilarious and sexy online shorts he titled “PG Porn,” where he took the porn out of pornography. It’s clear that Gunn has a knack for taking the popular and twisting it on its a*s, trying to expose the dark underside. “Super,” his latest effort continues this tradition and quite successfully.
“Super” is the story of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), who has been beat down on his entire life. He’s an everyman, but one that never gets any respect. One day, after losing his beautiful wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), who leaves to live with a local drug dealer and strip club owner Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank has a spiritual awakening and decides to become a force of good as the Crimson Bolt, his version of a super hero. Donning a red scuba outfit of his design, Frank heads out to fight crime using a pipe wrench to deal justice to the child molesters, drug dealers and line cutters, later looking for assistance from local comic book clerk and eventual companion Libby (Ellen Page).
There are going to be inevitable comparisons to “Kick-A*s,” but just as Gunn stood out in the super hero genre with “The Specials” a year after “Mystery Men” was made, “Super” stands on its own. Yes, we have a normal human dressing up like a hero and going out and fighting crime, but what sets Gunn’s film apart from the other is it is far less glossy and explores a more human side of the story rather than rely on comic book imagery to succeed. There is no little girl kicking the crap out of a dozen bad guys in a flurry of near super human kung-fu and gunplay. Instead we have a grown man, upset at the world, yelling “Shut up crime!” and clocking a line cutter in the head with a pipe wrench, like the maniac you’d report to the police if you witnessed such an occurrence.
Very few people could play a character that is believable as someone who was beat up in school and picked on in life but still be imposing once he has a costume on. And during the Q&A that followed, this was something that Gunn said held him back the when originally planning on making “Super.” After a call from his ex-wife Jenna Fisher (“The Office”), she asked if he thought Rainn Wilson would be good for “Super.” And he is. Wilson had two excellent films at SXSW this year (“Hesher” being the other) but his strongest role is that of The Crimson Bolt, a “hero” that throws pipe bombs at his enemies and is a mentor for the young Libby, played by Ellen Page. She herself is also quite unhinged; playing a young comic book fan that goes headfirst into danger, not thinking about the consequences of her actions, because she’s so drawn into the idea of becoming one of the characters she’s surrounded herself with in her life. Her role is pretty fearless, running the gamut from showing off some embarrassing moves as an attempt to be the Robin to Frank’s Batman, to the most awkward sex scene since “MacGruber.” While Liv Tyler is decent as Frank’s drug-addled wife, there’s little in the script for her to chew on, so she offers no much more than a beautiful face. Kevin Bacon is always a stand out as the foil, walking the line somewhere between that evil bad guy you can’t help but love but also one you want to see get his comeuppance. Beyond the leads, Gunn has recruited an outstanding bunch of supporting characters. Nathan Fillion dressed as the Christian super hero The Holy Avenger is nothing short of hilarious, Linda Cardellini (“Scooby Doo,” “ER”) is cute as the pet shop employee, and Michael Rooker (“Mallrats”) as one of Bacon’s right hand men has a strong presence every time he’s on screen.
“Super,” a movie that Gunn claims he didn’t make for celebrity or even to appease any audience, seems to be very personal. He chuckled when asked if he had been touched by God, as Frank has, but said that while it wasn’t exactly the same, he is a spiritual guy and really related to Rainn’s character. When a director/writer has such a personal project, it tends to shine and “Super” does. The movie is a thrill ride from the opening animated credits (which garnered applause from the audience) to the closing moments. Likable characters, over the top violence, a rocking soundtrack and a clever script that turns the comic book character mythos on its tail all add up to a movie that, even if it doesn’t garner a theatrical audience, will certainly find an audience on the home market or in cult showings at midnight shows.