The strange, sour comedy Super gives the film industry a chance to purge its resentment toward superhero fandom. In a few weeks, Hollywood will pander to the geeky audience in an effort to hype the likes of Thor, Green Lantern and other would-be summer blockbusters. Where comedies like Greg Mottola's Paul suck up to Comic-Con attendees and Star Wars obsessives, Super shows the "hate" side of the love-hate relationship. It's as if filmmakers are fed up with catering to the power fantasies of a fickle constituency.
As Dwight Schrute on "The Office," Rainn Wilson puts an amusingly prickly face on the faithful followers of shows like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica." In Super Wilson plays Frank, a shlubby short-order cook married to Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict who's out of his league. Sarah backslides and leaves Frank for a cheerful, sleazy drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Bacon plays Jacques with an amiable condescension that makes the character more infuriating than if he were just a bully.
Glumly channel surfing past Japanese tentacle porn one night, Frank notices a Christian superhero show called "The Holy Avenger" (with "Firefly's" Nathan Fillion as the title character) and soon has an epiphany. In a fit of imaginative, icky special effects, Frank has a vision of the finger of God literally touching his brain, and he resolves to battle evil as a masked hero called the Crimson Bolt. With the catch-phrase "Shut up, crime!" and a huge pipe wrench, Frank not only clobbers drug dealers and child molesters, he also fractures the skull of a guy who butts in line at a movie theater.
Frank seeks advice from a pretty comic book store employee named Libby (Ellen Page), who seems to be Super's only character capable of joy. When the Crimson Bolt's rampage starts making the news, Libby shows the thrill of a groupie: "Are you the guy? It's cool if you are," she whispers to Frank, investing the words with sexual invitation. Page's effervescence enlivens her every scene. She turns childish cartwheels in an attempt to show off her "fight moves," and practically gets off on beating the crap out of people. "Can I get claws like Wolverine?" she asks.
Writer/director James Gunn scripted Dawn of the Dead and helmed the energetic, tongue-in-cheek horror flick Slither. If the tone of Super followed Libby's hyperactive lead, the film could've popped as a bright, complicated commentary on violent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Instead, Frank's self-loathing sets the tone in a film that's drably photographed and predictably plotted. Wilson conveys the vulnerability and suffering between his roles' antisocial exteriors, but makes an awkward, rather pathetic presence as the Crimson Bolt, his red-cowled, lumpy head like an inflamed wart.
When Super begins with childlike animated credits, or includes Wild West-style "Bang!" visual sound effects during the finale's orgy of violence, it's hard to discern the target of the film's irony. Does Gunn want to illustrate the real-world consequences of escapist revenge fantasies? Put religious faith and the "higher power" of the recovery movement on the same level of superhero worship?
The film's seemingly sincere resolution rings so false that Super's intentions become impossible to read. Self-defeating and cynical, Super is like watching the Crimson Bolt beat himself to a pulp with his own wrench.