Screenwriter James Gunn is a queer one. As per his credits on IMDb.com, he has written movies at opposite ends of the establishment spectrum. He has ventured into realms of ultimate kitsch and tastelessness with Tromeo and Juliet (1996), indie superhero fare with The Specials (2000), Hollywood docility with both Scooby-Doo movies (2002 and 2004), script man for Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), fairly original sci-fi horror with Slither (2006), and now, again, indie superhero material with Super.
I think “bemused” is the right word for my reaction to his filmography. Being a pathological and abnormally great Shakespeare appreciator, Tromeo and Juliet still falls below the threshold of what I can justify wasting my time on. It should not be necessary to add that so does Scooby-Doo (bleurgh!). However, Dawn of the Dead was effective entertainment, and I really enjoyed Slither. As a superhero comic collector, I was quick to get the DVD for The Specials, but just as quick to get rid of it again, as it was nothing but disgustingly profane nastiness. With Super, Gunn returns to the superheroic arena – and as director, too – but thankfully he’s got his act cleaned up this time around (he only uses the C-word once, can ya believe it?!), allowing more people – people like me – to find the material palatable.
Super is a story from the real world (well, kind of). There are no superheroes and no superpowers, but forty-ish average guy Frank D’Arbo (a chubby Rainn Wilson) is losing his hot wife (Liv Tyler) and asking God for advice on what to do. God – or possibly Frank’s remote control – directs him to a Christian TV channel where the Christian superhero Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) is fighting sinfulness. Taking this as a sign, Frank goes to a comic shop to pick up the Holy Avenger comic book, which has the very cheesiest of art and dialogue, and is lambasted by everyone in the shop (hence the C-word). The shop keeper is none other than Ellen Page (calling herself Libby), who’s deeply into superheroes and inspires Frank to actually become one.
The story is actually quite complex. How did a loser like Frank ever hook up with a babe like Liv Tyler (or Sarah, as she’s called here)? Well, Sarah was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and Frank was her way out of that life. Only, now this asshole of a shady nightclub owner, Jock (Kevin Bacon), is pulling Sarah back into her old habits, and Frank is just way too timid and boring to keep that girl. But, not about to give up, Frank becomes The Crimson Bolt, complete with a snazzy red costume, and starts fighting crime on the city streets! In the beginning, he can’t find any, though. It’s only when he begins taking on Jock and his hardboiled drug-dealing cohorts at their big mansion that things start coming to a head.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What happens first is of the utmost importance: Ellen Page (sorry: Libby) shows up at the diner where Frank works, and ends up insisting that she become his kid sidekick, Boltie! She’s got a sexy costume ready, and throws herself into the role with more than a little relish. If you’re a fan of superheroes, Ellen Page, or both, then you have got to get a load of this! I kid you not.
Anyway, let’s talk weapons. The movie is a comedy, but it has elements of undeniable realism. If you want to be a superhero and take on some real bad guys, then things are going to escalate until lives are hanging in the balance. As we also know from Batman, a dedicated vigilante cannot stay Spider-Man forever; he will eventually turn into the Punisher. The first weapon of The Crimson Bolt is a heavy wrench – itself quite a fearsome tool! This, of course, turns out to be insufficient against guns, so in a scene that must be a tribute to Commando, Frank and Libby go to a “massive gun sale” and stock up on everything. Lock and load!
The climax is pretty cool. Neither overdone nor underdone but just right, and consistent with the genre. The story treads a fine line between the classic superheroics of the old school and the edgy postmodern gritty realism of the new, to a great extent managing to capture the best of both worlds. And have I mentioned how hot Ellen Page is behind this camera? There are some very flattering shots indeed of her in this movie, and her crazy obsession with superhero (sex and) violence does add flavor to the fatal proceedings. This sort of thing is usually not my style, but if the right line of comedy is toed, as it is here, and it isn’t presented as too serious, well, then it works as very neat entertainment. Catch it if you can. I will definitely want this on Blu-ray.
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Ellen Page, Rainn Wilson, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion and others
Runtime: 96 min