It takes an incredibly courageous filmmaker to even attempt to balance sentimentality with psychosis the way that James Gunn does in Super -- his second feature as a writer/director -- and, for the most part, he succeeds. Some may find the tone of Super a bit too erratic to make the film an unmitigated success, but the characters he creates are endearing enough, and the questions he raises challenging enough, to give the film a lasting impact. Likewise, the creative flourishes scattered throughout Super succeed both in bringing a welcome sense of levity to the proceedings and serving up some enticing eye candy at the same time.
Frank (Rainn Wilson) is husband to former alcoholic and drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler), and he loves her with all his heart. Their wedding day was one of just two perfect moments in Frank's life, but when Sarah runs away with charismatic drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon), the loss is just too much for her mild-mannered husband to take. Subsequently transforming himself into the vigilante crime-fighter "Crimson Bolt," Frank reasons that if he can take down Jacques along with the rest of the city's scum, his beloved wife will soon come running back. With his homemade suit and handy pipe wrench, Frank goes to work cleaning up the streets and making headlines. However, just as the Crimson Bolt is becoming the talk of the town, sociopathic comic-store clerk Libby (Ellen Page) reinvents herself as "Boltie" and makes a play to become the controversial street hero's trusted sidekick. Working together, the Crimson Bolt and Boltie aim to make an example of Jacques, and keep the streets safe for average citizens. But real life isn't like comic books, and sometimes when an average person tries to be a superhero, things can go very bad, very fast.
Super isn't for everyone, but that's precisely what fans will cite as the film's greatest asset as Gunn stubbornly refuses to compromise his singular vision. Given that the harsher elements of Super are equally as effective as the humorous ones, it's incredibly difficult to even classify the film in any one particular genre. Still, some of the most memorable movies are the ones that defy categorization, and by refusing to adhere to the rules of one specific genre or explicitly condemn Frank's maniacal actions, Gunn delivers a film that gets under our skin while challenging our concepts of what it really means to be a hero. Gunn's direction is stripped down yet stylized; the religious implications of Frank's transformation lend the film a disturbingly surreal edge; and unlike many movies of its ilk, the violence in Super has real-world repercussions. Frank is an incredibly earnest character, but the more determined he becomes to defeat Jacques, the less certain we are if we should laugh or recoil at his increasingly savage do-gooder zealotry. Later, when Boltie takes her place by Frank's side, Gunn uses the opportunity to delve even deeper into the self-made superhero's damaged psyche as the ripple effect of his actions begins to have unanticipated consequences. While Wilson's portrayal of Frank is reverent to the extreme, Page flirts with feral in a way that's simultaneously erotic and revolting -- especially when she finally gets her cherished vigilante all to herself.
Other primary cast members, for the most part, fare equally well. As the drug-dealing criminal kingpin who steals Frank's wife, Bacon is delectably slimy; Tyler elicits just the right amount of vulnerability as the deeply troubled Sarah; and Slither veteran Gregg Henry displays fantastic comic timing in a scene where his suspicions about Frank start to bubble to the surface. Nathan Fillion is unrecognizable yet hilarious as the Bibleman-like television character who inspires Frank to take action, and a smart cameo by William Katt is both amusing and incidental. With precious little more to do than eat candy and get his head bashed in, the talented Michael Rooker is the only cast member who feels completely wasted, though it's always a welcome pleasure just to see his face, regardless of how minor his role may be.
In the final moments of Super -- when the true stakes of what Frank has been fighting for are finally revealed -- the film gets its heart, and the drama truly resonates. The reason it works is not only because Frank earns it -- but by sticking with the film through all of its graphic violence, disturbing psychology, and twisted humor, the audience does as well.
Super on AllMovie