Common sense would seem to tell us that a movie about a real-life or real-world superhero -- one without actual superpowers or a billionaire's resources -- can end only one way: with the abrupt demise of the would-be crimefighter, especially if he or she plays by the conventional comic-book rule and eschews firearms. On that expectation, a "realistic" superhero movie will not be a long one unless the majority of the film builds to the hero's first (and last) night out or his first (and last) confrontation with superior numbers or firepower. Are there such movies? Their absence shouldn't surprise us, since comic books themselves echo the mentality of movies. Both media tap into a common tradition of burlesque slapstick violence as well as universal power fantasies. That aside, who'd want to see a movie that has nothing to say but, "Don't try to be a superhero; you'll be killed?" Yet we do see movies that try to split the difference by showing us ordinary or less-than-ordinary people emulating comic-book heroes and usually, however improbably, succeeding. We want to see someone make an ass of himself in a superhero costume, but then we want to see him win after all, reversing the old comedy formula of rooting for the transgressor against boundaries but also laughing at his inevitable comeuppance. That results in movies like Kick-Ass, in which the cinematic fantasy of a child killing-machine belied the creators' presumed commitment to the "real" world. It also results in James Gunn's Super, which can be seen as a still-more realistic, raunchier version of Kick-Ass, but would be more accurately described as a cross between Taxi Driver and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo.
Instead of a kid, Super has a grown-up loser for a hero. Frank (Rainn Wilson) is traumatized when his wife Sarah, a recovering addict (Liv Tyler) runs off with Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a glib sleazeball with a posse who we can tell right off is more dangerous than Frank initially realizes. Helplessly enraged, he wants the police to arrest Jacques for "stealing" Sarah when it was self-evident that she left of her own (albeit drug-addled) will. Frank is already deeply disturbed and emotionally stunted: he watches tentacle porn and a Christian superhero show as he broods on his loss. He has a mad vision of alien tentacles removing the top of his skull so he can receive a touch from the finger of God, a visit from the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), the TV hero, and the idea for a mask and a logo. He becomes the Crimson Bolt, initially weaponless but soon armed with a pipe wrench after a clumsy first fight. The Bolt simply whales away on an array of malefactors caught in the act -- drug dealers, child molesters, people who butt in a ticket line -- but the news media and the police see his interventions as random attacks on innocent people. His career is endangered by the fact that anyone who's ever met the tall and pathologically awkward Frank will immediately recognize him under his mask, but some simple plot complications serve to put the cop who suspects the truth out of action. One person who doesn't see him as a criminal is Libby (Ellen Page), a comic-shop clerk who proves something of a cosplay fetishist with an untapped violent streak. When Frank is forced to reveal his secret to her -- she had already suspected, given his "research" at her store -- Libby dumps her boyfriend and declares herself the Crimson Bolt's sidekick, Boltie, complete with homemade costume. Together, after much convincing of a wounded and worried Frank, the costumed team escalates their war on crime with a trip to the gun shop before a climactic assault on Jacques's mansion, where Frank has learned that a major drug deal will go down and where Jacques uses Sarah as a test subject for dope and entertainment for the dealers....
Taxi Driver is such a part of our collective movie consciousness that Gunn may not have realized how much he'd imitated its structure here. Super may be the most alarming variation on Taxi Driver to date, thanks to its ultimate assertion that the Crimson Bolt's bloody rampage against crime was somehow therapeutic for Frank. At some point, the script evolved from a mockery of superhero wannabees to something symbolic. When the Bolt tells Boltie that though "we'll never be ready" to assault Jacques's compound, they have to do it sometime and preferably now, the film seems suddenly to be teaching us life lessons about taking chances and accepting risks. Although the ending doesn't prove quite as happy as Frank may have wanted at first, Gunn seems to want us to accept that Frank is a better person for having stood and fought, and even for having loved and lost. The last scene, in which Taxi Driver's news clippings are echoed by Frank's drawings of his modestly happier life, could still be seen as proof that Frank is a profoundly disturbed person -- which would make Super still more an echo of the Scorsese film. But I don't think Gunn means us to see them that way. He might concede that Frank is still weird, but I think we're meant to agree that he's weird now in a way less threatening to himself or others.
Since I don't watch The Office, Super is my first real encounter with Rainn Wilson, and I was impressed. He does the most to make Frank's superpowered evolution from infantile inhibition to relative well-adjustedness plausible and amusing, and as a husky man he makes you believe that the Crimson Bolt starts with a minimal fighting chance against his enemies. Gunn's script helps him out considerably; just when you're asking how a wretch like him could have won a Liv Tyler, Gunn delivers flashbacks illustrating Sarah's emotional neediness as a recovering addict and Frank's availability as a co-worker and AA sidekick. Ellen Page comes off less well; her Libby/Boltie is an unconvincing jumble of impulses. She's undermined a little by the art direction of lack of it that gives no indication in her apartment of how much of a superhero geek the character is, but the script doesn't really do much to motivate her sudden violent streak. Super's dependence on actual living spaces also raises some questions about the economics of Frank's city. He and Sarah were apparently able to afford a house on the salaries of a short-order clerk and a waitress, while Libby has a halfway-decent apartment to herself (she can host parties there) on her earnings as a comics-store clerk. Somehow these details seem nearly as unrealistic as the Crimson Bolt's resilience in action. Finally, regarding actors, I have to say that this was Kevin Bacon's best performance as a comic-book villain in a 2011 release. He was cluelessly miscast as a mutant Bond villain in X-Men First Class, but fills the bill nicely here as a nervy scumbag who only confirms the movie's own essential comic-book nature by taunting an injured Bolt instead of finishing him off.
Super arguably outdoes Kick-Ass on the ultraviolence scale, though the gore and other practical effects are almost always used for laughs. Bolt and Boltie giddily massacre Jacques's bodyguards with fire, bullets, bombs and "Wolverine" claws, and we're always meant to laugh, except when Gunn occasionally reminds us of the severity of the stakes for our heroes. There's at least one moment when a character dies violently when we're clearly not supposed to laugh, and that moment probably best illustrates the contradictory messages sent in Super. It's frequently a very funny film, but sometimes you wonder what you're actually laughing at or laughing with. That's not necessarily a bad way to leave this picture. I'm sure Gunn meant it to be funny and disturbing, and whatever other impressions it makes, he succeeded on both counts.