Writer-director James Gunn’s latest certainly isn’t the first film about ordinary people who decide to become superheroes. At the same time, I feel confident in promising it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It makes Kick-A*s look like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rainn Wilson stars as Frank, a sad sack burger flipper whose life has had precisely two highpoints: Marrying his improbably hot wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and pointing out a fleeing criminal to a police officer on the street one day. He makes crude, childlike drawings commemorating these events and hangs them on a wall so they’ll be the first things he sees in the morning and will “inform” his day.
As it turns out, they inform the entire movie. When Sarah runs off with Jacques, a local drug lord played by a never funnier Kevin Bacon, Frank’s life is momentarily drained of meaning. A recovering addict, she apparently was drawn to Wilson’s character due to his normalcy but overdosed on the tedium of suburban life with a fry cook.
Frank doesn’t remain normal for long. After lonely weeks of watching a Christian cable channel and coming to a slow psychological boil, he begins to believe god is communicating with him through a low budget show featuring a Satan-battling superhero. Then, in a scene so off-the-charts nutty it could turn David Lynch green with envy, he experiences what he interprets as divine intervention. And that’s all it takes to get him into a homemade costume and a new career of fighting crime.
Reborn as the Crimson Bolt, he doesn’t hit his stride right away. First come highly comical sequences in which he waits in vain behind dumpsters for something nefarious to happen. In time it occurs to him to visit the library and ask the woman at the reference desk where most of the town’s illegal activity takes place. She googles up the name of the street where the largest number of drug arrests are made and, the next thing you know, incredulous thugs are finding themselves tackled in mid-deal by some dork in a tight red outfit.
Several embarrassing thrashings later, it hits Frank that he needs a signature weapon. He visits a comic book shop and asks the sales clerk (Ellen Page) to show him comics about crime fighters who don’t possess actual super powers.
Soon bad guys (and, in some cases, merely rude guys) are tasting the wrath of the Crimson Bolt’s bright red pipe wrench, reports about the vigilante start appearing on TV, Page’s character puts two and two together and Frank finds himself with an adoring-and sexually aggressive-”kid sidekick” by the name of Boltie.
Gunn does something extraordinarily clever in the way he keeps the viewer off balance by switching between tones and genres, messing with expectations. Super starts out like an indie about a small town slacker-a film we’ve seen a hundred times-and shapeshifts from quirky character study to black comedy to exploitation flick to cockeyed romance to ultraviolent revenge drama and, finally, to something so out of left field it would be criminal to even hint at. The movie contains moments of soaring hilarity back to back with developments dark and filled with despair as any in the heaviest of Hollywood dramas.
It’s a riveting cinematic experiment certain to offend as many as it impresses. I thought Wilson and Page brilliant in the way they initially play types for which they’re well known and, without warning, give them a bizarro tweak like pulling a surprise ace out of a sleeve. And, speaking of surprises, who would ever for a second have expected filmmaking this challenging and adventurous from the mind behind 2002’s Scooby-Doo?
This is a picture bristling with originality. How often does such a creation come along? In a season of been there-done that sequels, remakes and kiddie fare that underwhelms in three dimensions all at once, movie lovers have reason to celebrate: Super has come to the rescue.