‘Super’ squanders its power for good

May 3, 2011

Super is a film currently featured prominently atop On Demand services, featuring “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon. Viewers may wonder how a film with such a cast and dealing with the potentially comedic plot of self-made superheroes may have bypassed them in the theaters, and they may be tempted to plop down the $5 for an evening viewing.

Or, they may just want to watch “The Dark Knight” again, followed by an episode of “The Office” as a chaser.

Thematically similar to last year’s “Kick-Ass,” and even closer to 2009’s “Defendor” with Woody Harrelson as the schlub with delusions of superheroism, “Super” suffers the vary same fate as its protagonist - a severe identity crisis.

It begins in its disguise as a mild-mannered indie comedy, with Wilson playing a subdued version of his Dwight character. Here, he is Frank, a God-fearing cook who stumbled into a relationship with his damaged-goods wife Sarah (played by Tyler). From the opening scenes, we can see his love for her is unrequited (no real suspension of disbelief there). She married him after he helped her kick a nasty drug habit, but the haze has certainly worn off, and she’s keeping him at arm’s length.

Her former pusher, Jacques (played by Bacon), re-enters their life, and she vanishes to her former world. This sends Frank into a tailspin, complete with visions of divine interventions and a desire to rid the world of scourge by transforming himself into a caped crusader - The Crimson Bolt. This quest leads him to the local comic store to brush up on the lore. There, he encounters an overzealous young clerk named Libby (played by Page), who is anxious to join him in his battles.

But sooner than you can say “SHAZAM!” the picture turns into a bloody mess, and turns its put-upon lead into an obnoxious bully. He goes from attempting to rid the streets of crime (drug dealers, pedophiles, thieves) to brutally smacking about citizens who merely butt in line. “That’s the rule!” he righteously declares, as though it’s some 11th Commandment that was left off the tablet.

“Super’s” largest irritant is that writer/director James Gunn doesn't know what to make of his lead vigilante. Is he a Travis-Bickle-like loser who transforms himself into a shoddy costumed rogue defender of the neighborhood? Or is he just a simple, decent man pushed too far? We see his quick rise from an awkward bungler to wrench-wielding wayfarer without much real consequence by the film’s conclusion. If “Super” were to turn dark and stay true to its vision, it may have made for a more believable story arc. Bun Gunn totally undermines himself and Frank in the third act when he begins preaching that this was all about family or some such nonsense and is completely content with the result of his endeavors.

Script issues aside, “Super” is just plain ugly. Gunn directed the cult hit “Slither,” which was a refreshingly creepy update on the monster movies of the ‘50s, which earned him credibility and, presumably, a budget so that he could get, I don’t know, half-decent lighting? Colorful sets? A script doctor? As it stands, “Super” looks as though it’s been slung through the mud and polished with a blowtorch. And its biggest offense is that it’s not funny enough in its attempts at humor, and it drops the ball on every deeper aspect of the story that it unearths (there are elements of Frank’s religious fanaticism that are completely abandoned, and just why is Libby so attracted to him?).

Even the actors within seem to have been grafted from separate films altogether. As mentioned, Wilson is merely a more sullen version of Dwight, Tyler decides to make a stab at serious drama, painting Sarah as a delicate, faded flower, and Bacon does his best Dennis Farina impersonation as a comical crime boss. And Page, as good as she is here, comes closer to a character in one of her store’s comics than an actual human.

While it pretends to look into the culture of superhero envy, “Super” reveals that, behind its cape and mask, it holds no special power whatsoever.

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