At the tail end of a lively two-and-a-half-minute crayon animation that kicks off the dark comedy Super — the opening-credits montage features bad guys breathing fire and feasting on bunnies and a dance sequence rivaling anything out of Bollywood — we watch as the entire cast of entertaining cartoon characters stands with fists held high. They’re hyperventilating as if they have just run the Boston Marathon. If only their human counterparts in the live-action movie that follows gave as much effort we might’ve actually had an odd superhero adventure to appreciate.
Directed by James Gunn — who returns to the big screen for the first time since his 2006 debut film Slither, a B-movie horror about parasitic alien worms — Super tackles some of the same themes examined in the last couple of years by movies like 2009’s scarcely-seen Defendor, starring two-time Oscar-nominee Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), and last year’s overrated fanboy fantasy Kick-Ass, starring Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy). In both movies, an everyday citizen decides to become a crime fighter.
Taking the lead in Super is comedian Rainn Wilson (The Rocker) who plays Frank D’Arbo, a miserable fry cook with nothing to live for after his recovering addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) relapses and leaves him for Jacques, a douchebag drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) with a posse. In one of the funnier and more revealing scenes of the film, Jacques shows up at Frank’s house looking for Sarah, invites himself in for breakfast, and declares Frank’s “egg-cooking gift” impressive. It’s a scene that not only shows Jacques’ lack of respect for his heartbroken nemesis, but also proves just how spineless Frank is for not even questioning why a strange guy he’s never met is at his front door asking for his wife.
After Frank has a bizarre spiritual experience, which includes God literally reaching in through his ceiling and clearing his mind of all its muck by running a corndog across his brain, he decides to man up and change his life by becoming a costumed superhero vigilante to be known as the Crimson Bolt. Venturing into the city ready to serve up justice with a pipe wrench, Frank is guided by signs from God as well as by a bubbly comic-book store employee named Libby (Ellen Page), who becomes his cute kid sidekick Boltie.
Besides Frank’s feelings of dejection, there’s not much motivation behind his choice to run around breaking peoples’ jaws with a plumbing tool. At least in Defendor, you got a sense of Harrelson’s lack of mental stability, which drove him as an avenger. With Frank and Libby, there’s not much more than character buffoonery and Gunn’s low-budget, ultra-violent gimmickry to seal the deal.
It’s difficult to tell if Gunn really is trying to play for laughs, because so much of the one-liner humor is inconsistent. There’s also no telling what Gunn was trying to get out of a female-on-male rape scene that plays out as awkwardly as a brother-sister make-out session. Whatever his intentions, Gunn has a long way to go before he realizes satire is not the same as shock value.
Dir. and writ. James Gunn; feat. Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Sean Gunn. (R)