Ugly, Unclean Superhero Spoof 'Super' Fails in Nearly Every Way
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Perhaps the biggest sign that superhero movies are cluttering the landscape of cinema isn't just the overly eager and often inept way that big-studio Hollywood churns them out. Maybe it's also the recent number of plucky indie revisionist and ironic versions of the familiar four-color crime-fighting tricks and tropes that litter the landscape like cast-off dung in the wake of big-money leviathans. There's been the negligible "Special," the irrelevant "Defendor," the smug, stupid and inept "Kick-Ass," and now James Gunn's "Super," where unhinged loser Frank (Rainn Wilson) decides to take up cowl and arms in the wake of his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). As The Crimson Bolt, Frank wields a wrench against line-cutters, car-keyers and other people who don't deserve crippling or lethal cranial trauma as retribution. He also gets a sidekick, Boltie (Ellen Page).
Let us simply state for the record that as unclean and irrelevant as "Super" is -- any person who is not an idiot can understand that comic books present a number of faulty ethical and moral premises that don't work in the real world and does not need a lengthy, badly shot film ineffectually jabbing at that concept -- it must be said that Page is a diabolical wonder in it, depraved and deprived and unhinged in her eagerness to work with The Crimson Bolt. (One only wonders if Page is exorcising the bad karma of having appeared in "X-Men: The Last Stand"; if anything would make you hate superheroics, it'd be having to do them under Brett Ratner.)
This is not to say that Page's work -- and the interesting subtheme suggesting Frank's Christianity and his love of superheroics both spring from the same mental and moral basis -- are reasons for seeing "Super." To do so would be like plunging your arms into a horse trough of sewage and broken glass and rooting around in the muck and pain for 96 minutes only to emerge with two shiny quarters in your grasp. Some are suggesting that "Super" is a modern riff on "Taxi Driver," which presents one with the same mental image as when those kids down the block who don't know how to tune their secondhand instruments try to play Nirvana. If Gunn had a sense of how to shape a scene, or how to shoot a scene attractively, then his film would just be dull. As it is, it's criminally inept.
Gunn has made good films before -- "Slither" was a perfectly pitched '80s horror pastiche, and his script for "Dawn of the Dead" -- admittedly with extensive polishes from at least Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank -- was truly inspired. But he seems to be reaching back to his early work for the notorious Z-movie-studio Troma Films here, and that's not a good idea. I'm sure Gunn learned how to shoot fast, cheap and in-control for Troma -- your old high school's senior play had better resources, more talented performers and a better grasp of the art of storytelling than your average Troma movie -- but aspiring to make a film look ugly and cheap means that even if you succeed, you succeed in making an ugly cheap movie. (To be fair, I have a bias against Troma films. To be precise, that bias is called "taste.")
Wilson reprises his meek-to-maniac shtick that has made him a rich man on "The Office," with an additional layer of blood and bile over it. Frank is not just unlikable; he is also uninteresting, and watching him figure out how not to be a psychopath while wandering through a landscape of corpses is somehow as grisly and stupid as it is tedious and exhausting. Gunn gives us a paltry few ideas and one great performance in a sea of banalities and viciousness, but those brief flares of light in the ink-jet night of its foul, graceless banality can't break "Super" out of its stupor.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.