In Super, Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, a washed-up loser whose wife is stolen from him by a drug lord. By means of revenge he dreams up the Crimson Bolt, a superhero alter-ego who will help him face his sense of worthlessness.
As Kevin Bacon’s Jacques mistreats Frank’s wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and reintroduces her to the drugs she has tried to put behind her, Frank goes about beating drug dealers over the head with a wrench in a crusade against “evil”. All this is training, of course, for the final showdown. Along the way he runs into Libby (Ellen Page) who, after working out his not-so-secret identity, tags along as his sidekick, Boltie. Wilson plays Frank fairly straight and doesn’t go for obvious laughs – which helps the film’s deadpan sensibility – and Ellen Page turns it up to eleven in her supporting role.
Unfortunately, Super has a fair few issues. Most damagingly, it’s tonally all over the place. Wilson’s everyman performance is almost touching at times, but doesn’t sit well with the violent acts he’s committing, while much of the comedy is hit-and-miss. It’s all very well making a piece that plays with audience expectations, and I’m sure that’s what writer-director James Gunn was going for, but Super rarely justifies those intentions. The stark violence, intended to be darkly comic, is at first amusing and later just deadening; watching our leads brutally murder and wound people (and, in Boltie’s case, genuinely enjoy it) becomes tiresome. We get the joke first time around, and while Gunn finds chuckle-worthy ways to play on his theme, it gets tired long before the final reel. And by that point the violence gauge is notched up and the whole thing feels redundant.
It just doesn’t sit quite right. Subverting comic book conventions and playing with the depiction of on-screen violence is one thing, but in the end the film doesn’t have much to offer other than that. Its lead characters are kind of likable but kind of repulsive; the film’s story is kind of funny but kind of boring, and that feeling of not quite hitting the nail on the head persists throughout. The lurching tone doesn’t help. A sex scene later on manages to be erotic, amusing and disturbing all at once; I can’t decide if it was enjoyable or not.
The best way I can describe Super is as an experiment that seems noteworthy for a while but ultimately produces no results. Decent performances are jaded by a hit-and-miss script and are stretched too thin over a high-concept film that doesn’t quite manage to find its feet. Its closest companion p iece is obviously Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, but that film actually ended up a more successful piece because it aimed more broadly for comedy and hit the beats more often.