James Gunn’s "Super" is a movie about an ordinary loser, Frank (Rainn Wilson), who turns himself into a superhero called the Crimson Bolt. Sound familiar? It’s a recognizable premise to those who have seen "Kick-Ass," "The Green Hornet" or Hollywood’s countless other do-it-yourself superhero films. But the comparisons end there, because while films like "Kick Ass" are redeemed by their zany fun, "Super" is just plain dark. Though its offbeat humor is as polished as one would expect from its cast, which boasts Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon and Liv Tyler, it is not enough to make up for the film’s unlikeable protagonist and its inability to balance gravity and comedy.
The name of the movie is "Super," not "Superhero," and for good reason: the Crimson Bolt is not a hero. His actions are often more demented than noble. In one particularly gruesome scene, Frank is waiting in line for a movie when he is cut by a husband and wife who ignore his repeated protestations. He runs to his car, changes into his Crimson Bolt costume, and then, quite matter-of-factly, takes out his monkey wrench and bashes the head of the husband until blood gushes from him—and then hits the wife for good measure.
The problem is that this sort of gratuitous violence—as well as the pride the ‘heroes’ take in it—provokes a visceral negative reaction in viewers that even humor and later character development cannot overcome. This persistent failing in characterization repels all attempts to empathize with or appreciate the film’s hero, and thus greatly undermines audience investment in the movie and its proceedings.
None of this is to say that "Super" isn’t funny—the film certainly has its amusing moments. Kevin Bacon is delightfully mercurial as the sleazy drug dealer who steals Frank’s wife, one moment complimenting Frank’s cooking at breakfast and the next moment making off with his spouse, Sarah (Liv Tyler). As Libby—the enthusiastic comic-book store worker who becomes the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie—Ellen Page is in scene-stealing form, and manages to accomplish something Wilson never does by making her psychopathic character sympathetic. That Libby/Boltie is both relatable and likeable is a credit to Page’s acting, given that she contributes several of the film’s most shocking scenes—in one case laughing hysterically at a kid after she nearly kills him for having possibly keyed her friend’s car.
Like Page’s Libby, Frank is clearly meant to be not only a comic hero, but also a lovable loser. Several more serious scenes—Frank weeping after his wife leaves, flashbacks to his and Sarah’s first meeting—make halfhearted attempts to deepen his character. But these are insufficient to change the audience’s perception of him. Gunn—who also wrote the script—seems to want to present both a serious commentary on one man’s suffering as well as a satirical superhero movie but cannot quite pull off the necessary balancing act. Even when the Crimson Bolt redeems himself in the eyes of the local populace, we cannot come to terms with him. Hearing others call Frank a hero has no effect because we have seen his brutality firsthand.
For all its flaws, or perhaps because of them, "Super" ultimately conveys an important lesson. The real takeaway from the film—which it likely did not intend—is that taking the law into one’s own hands is crazy, dangerous, and just plain stupid. Moreover, the kind of deranged personality who would actually take such vigilante action is not the sort of individual we would want making judgments about who is good and who is evil. Intentionally or not, "Super" is not a movie about a hero; it is rather about the impossibility of one. The movie illustrates what a superhero would really be like in the modern world, and the harm to society that would result from someone stepping into such a role.
"Maybe you thought there was something wrong with me," Frank wonders at the end of the film. To which we can only reply: yes. And it’s a flaw disturbing enough to transform a movie filled to the brim with comic potential into a grossly unsympathetic affair, albeit one with an unwittingly redeeming message.