Super looks great… as a trailer… but the moment you expand that two minutes of awesomeness (“Shut up, Crime!”) and pad it with a rather surreal tale of madness and vigilantism gone mostly wrong/somewhat right, what I was left feeling turned out to be cold and lonely instead of pumped and amused.
The titular Super in this not-quite-deconstruction comic movie (see Kick-Ass and Defendor for more sterling examples) is The Crimson Bolt, played by Rainn Wilson, whose perhaps not-so-secret identity of Frank d’Arbo is suffering a major personal crisis. See, his ex-drug addict wife (played here by Liv Tyler) is not so big on the “ex” part of the equation and relapses into the arms of her dealer Jacques/Jock (Kevin Bacon).
In what I can only assume is a psychotic break, where Frank sees the finger of God touch his exposed brain, Frank decides that the only way to save his errant wife is to bring the criminal she’s sleeping with (and countless other lowlifes) to justice. To do so, he enlists the advice of the hilariously hot comic geek Libby (played by the lovely Ellen Page) on creating The Crimson Bolt and starts beating any criminal he finds over the head with a heavy pipe wrench.
Along for the ride are Michael Rooker as Jacques’ right hand henchman, Gregg Henry as a police detective Frank has a few run-ins with and geek hero Nathan Fillion as the fictional Christian superhero, The Holy Avenger whom Frank fixates on as a role model for moral justice. It was good to see all three as the trio all have great acting chops, but whether it was due to the writing or the direction (both done by the same man), none of their characters seemed to be all there.
I couldn’t quite decide whether Rooker was supposed to be menacing or wacked out of his mind the entire time he was onscreen. Gregg Henry’s Det. Felkner kind of worked as the suspicious investigator whenever he’s talking with Frank, but he makes an unceremonious exit from the film halfway through and is a loose end that is never resolved. The same can be said for Fillion’s The Holy Avenger, who shows up not only on a small screen Christian after school special, not only in a much abused comic book Frank buys from Libby on their first meeting, but also in several of Frank’s hallucinations/visions to impart wisdom or divine favor. It’s great to see him pop up every now and again to fight James Gunn’s cameo role of Demonswill, but there’s no sense of closure to the character, whether as a TV personality or a hallucination.
Getting back to the leads, Rainn goes a great job of portraying a mentally ill man who takes his delusions and mission entirely too seriously. His manic glee as he drops a cinderblock on the head of a criminal is both amusing and disturbing, and his out of costume moral conflict is well plotted, especially when Libby forces her way on him, both as The Crimson Bolt’s sidekick Boltie and as a horribly inappropriate love interest. Seeing his reactions to her awkward attempts at seduction really work well, but he’s held back as a character by several clumsy scenes, particularly the tentacle/brain touch sequence and his overly awkward “I know nothing about The Crimson Bolt” scenes with Libby and his frycook coworker Hamilton (Andre Royo).
Liv and Kevin do pretty well in their scenes, especially since Liv’s character Sarah is high on something for the majority of the movie. Her zoned out demeanor and off-beat reactions are very believable. And Kevin has great smarm as the drug dealer Jacques. He had me in pretty much every scene save for his last when he and the Crimson Bolt confront each other/negotiate over Sarah.
I think the most disappointing role for me was Ellen Page’s Libby. As cute as she is and as uncomfortably tight my jeans got whenever she turned on her smolder while wearing her Boltie outfit, her manic cackling and overzealous application of force on criminals (both real and assumed) never came off as authentic. Additionally, the casual blow off of her implied boyfriend and the other party goers to deal with Frank was an awkward scene that really didn’t belong.
Sadly, that’s a complaint that could be said about quite a few unnecessary scenes in the film. From news reports featuring a different detective than Gregg Henry’s to Sarah’s friend trying to talk her out of marrying Frank in a flashback, a good portion of the movie is weighted down by segments that should have hit the cutting room floor. And to balance there being too many extra scenes going nowhere, there are plenty of loose plot threads that are never tied up in the conclusion. We never find out the fallout from Det. Felkner’s disappearance, the body that The Crimson Bolt takes from Jacques’ field is never dealt with, and Frank’s own denouement is more a montage of Sarah’s end than his own. In fact the only thing that seems to have come full circle in this movie is the thread of the companion bunny and, really, if that’s all we’ve got… the audience is in trouble.
I want to say that this was an admirable attempt at a superhero deconstruction movie and, on some levels, it is, but overall James Gunn fails. From the overly long cartoon dance number during the credits… to his clumsy TV specials that are too clean and shiny to be believable… to his reliance on gags like the pipebombs and awkward squib explosions. Sure, some leeway should be given due to how small a budget he was working with, but no amount of geek star power (Page, Fillion, Bacon) can overcome the sophomoric feeling the writing and cinematography exudes.
Really, if you’re in the mood to see a deranged man (or father/child combo) show what it might be like for a mundane to emulate comic books, you’re much better off with Defendor (and, to a lesser extent, Kick-Ass). Still, problems aside, Super is worth seeing if only to watch Ellen Page mew her “it’s all gushy” line and see Nathan Fillion defeat Demonswill with the power of Christ.
I recommend a rental, with the caveat that while there are better examples of the trope out there, it’s still better than Superhero Movie… by far.
I miss you Leslie Nielsen.