Directed by James Gunn
Popular culture and/or studio executives may be fascinated by comics, but smartass geek-savvy directors are just as fascinated with attempting to deconstruct the genre with movies like Kick Ass, Watchmen, and now James Gunn's Super, another movie about a (cartoonish) real guy becoming a (quite violent) "real-life" superhero. Kick Ass and Watchmen, of course, were semi-native riffs in that they come from comic books about comic books, while Super springs from Gunn's geeky imagination. What Super has in common with those movies (and not Watchmen the book, though I can't speak to the page version of Kick Ass) is the way it can't resist reveling in the violence it's supposed to be exaggerating.
Gunn combines his interest in downmarket superheroes (he made the little-seen, fairly amusing The Specials; it's no Mystery Men, but it does have Thomas Haden Church and Judy Greer!) and splatter (he also made the squishy horror-comedy Slither, and wrote the Dawn of the Dead remake for fellow smartass geek Zack Snyder) with this story of Frank (Rainn Wilson), a pent-up sad-sack who dons a homemade superhero costume when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer and sleaze merchant (Kevin Bacon). Frank's low-rent alter ego The Crimson Bolt—he speaks awkwardly and carries a big wrench—has a consistently amusing clumsiness, but Gunn's equally low-rent real world comes off just as cartoony, if not moreso. Frank's marriage to Sarah is more conceit than convincing relationship, and Frank's Schrute-firm sense of justice is similarly caricatured: when Sarah leaves, he first goes to the cops, essentially demanding that they restore his life's fairness.
In other words, Gunn lays the deluded-loner schtick on a little thick, and game, earnest Wilson has to play along. Ellen Page doesn't necessarily have more to work with as Libby, the comics-store clerk who decides she wants to tag along the Crimson Bolt as his "kid sidekick" Boltie —she basically plays Hit Girl from Kick Ass minus the guiding father figure and some of the creepiest overtones (though the movie, like Sucker Punch last week, is careful to assure the audience that its faux-jailbait is of age). But it's a lot of fun to watch her profane hyperactivity bounce off of the stoic, nerdy Wilson, and their team-up gives the movie its best, weirdest passages.
Gunn also has a talent for offhand dialogue —almost every character gets a few exchanges that would normally happen, as Libby says, "between the panels." Despite those references, though, Super isn't so much a parody of comics culture as it is a marriage of genre elements and a deranged-loner thriller like Taxi Driver (or a comic variation like Observe and Report, a more successful merger of psychodrama and dark comedy). In fact, the idea of the ultraviolent comic-book unaware of (or smug about) its depravity seems vaguely retro at this point; Super seems to consider itself at least in part a satire, but I'm not sure what it's satirizing. The grandiose psychosis of vigilantes, I guess, but half a dozen incarnations of Batman have more depth than this dorm-room-poster imitation of Travis Bickle. I hate to accuse a movie of trying to have it both ways —sometimes having it both ways is great! —so I'll say that Gunn doesn't quite know how.
Opens April 1