Super is the bleak, crazy, postmodern superhero saga Kick-Ass aspired to be, which doesn’t prevent it from being sluggish, derivative, and beyond obvious. Diligently working from a Taxi Driver template, writer-director James Gunn deconstructs our fixations on caped crusaders (and the crusaders themselves) in ways wholly unnecessary, unless, that is, there are still fanboys out there who truly harbor crime-fighting wet dreams without recognizing them to be juvenile forms of psychosis. Pandering to the geek crowd with a lustiness matched only by its lack of imagination, the film concerns Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a never-was who—after a childhood of spankings from Daddy, being peed on by bullies, and having his prom date screw someone else at the festivities—has only two happy memories: helping point out a fleeing crook to pursuing cops, and marrying Sarah (Liv Tyler). Frank immortalizes these recollections in childish crayon drawings, revealing such blatant immaturity that it comes as no surprise when Sarah, a recovering addict, up and ditches him for strip club owner and drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), who Frank believes stole Sarah via the lure of the needle. Driven by heartbreak and guided by insane visions of having his brain literally exposed by squid tentacles and touched by the finger of God, Frank receives allegedly divine inspiration: He’ll become an actual superhero.
This mission leads him to create a homemade red outfit, wield a pipe wrench as his blunt-force weapon of choice, and assume the nickname the Crimson Bolt. “Shut up, crime!” is his motto, a bit of humorously absurd daffiness to help make up for the legion of DOA gags peppering Gunn’s tale. To witness Wilson semi-competently and viciously combat crime is to relive Kick-Ass‘s opening convenience-store parking-lot fight, except here the thrill of unexpected triumph is overwhelmed by the notion that Frank’s actions are those of a raving lunatic.
This supposed subversion extends to Super‘s aesthetics, which involve shaky camerawork and garish color-filtered cinematography that are light years removed from the professional sheen of comic book-based franchise tent poles. Yet undermining superhero clichés and critiquing their current grip on the cultural imagination is a flimsy and, after Watchmen and its offspring, well-tread modus operandi that Gunn fails to enliven except in those moments when Ellen Page pushes the proceedings into sadistic dementia. A comic store employee enthralled by Frank’s exploits, Page’s Libby soon becomes his confidant and sidekick Boltie, a development that not only leads to a few choice comments about the strange relationship between adult heroes and their teen wards, but also allows Gunn—via Libby’s increasingly unseemly attraction to Frank—to revel in the psychosexual desire and sadism inherent in masked-avenger fantasies.
Erotically posing and touching herself in her revealing mini-skirted costume, and gleefully laughing and screaming obscenities while murdering a gunman, Page’s Libby exudes an unhinged vivacity that Wilson’s Frank never quite manages. This is in large part due to an overriding narrative that remains beholden to its formulaic Scorsesian roots—Frank being a Batman/Travis Bickle wacko destined to find unlikely salvation and victory through madness—rather than substantially shaking up the stale rescue-the-girl-from-rapists-and-killers arc that it embraces with more of a straight face than a smirk. Furthermore, a late bid for pathos rings particularly false, since Gunn couches everything in ironic jokiness (thug killings accompanied by WHAM! effects, copious ‘80s tunes).
Through a spoofy Christian TV program starring righteous do-gooder the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), who teaches kids to fight Satan via abstinence, Super argues that the superhero genre has become so popular that it’s been co-opted by every aspect of the pop-culture landscape. Given the pervasiveness of Marvel and DC properties across movies, TV, and retail shelves, however, that’s an insight so established as to not bear mentioning, leaving the film occasionally amusing in the moment (especially with regards to the choice sight of Libby tending to Frank’s gunshot wound while he lays out on a couch, in his underwear, like an unclothed Renaissance model), but superfluous at its core.