Super (***)

Although never quite sure of its true identity (go figure, right?), Super is a very entertaining action-comedy that is only guilty of perhaps being too ambitious.  In telling the story of a normal guy who is driven to become a superhero, writer/director James Gunn not only wants to turn the superhero genre on its ear, he’s also out to make a satire that targets comics, heroes, and religion as well.  In that field it’s only partially successful, but when it’s just having fun with the premise, it’s on solid ground.  While not as great as Kick-Ass was to me last year, this is almost as good, and contains a different feel.  It has more of a “do it yourself” quality to it, and resembles more closely the other common-man superhero flick from last year Defendor (though it’s better than that one was).  Fueled by a surprisingly touching lead performance by Rainn Wilson and a manic supporting turn by Ellen Page, there’s a lot to like in this sick little flick.

Frank D’Arbo (Wilson) is your average guy, just one with a surprisingly hot wife named Sarah (Liv Tyler).  She was a former drug addict, and he feels protective of her.  When she starts using again and a shady character named Jacques (Kevin Bacon) shows up,

Frank feels like something is up.  Shortly afterwards, Sarah is gone.  Frank is determined to get her back from Jacques, and when he fails as himself, he undergoes a transformation into The Crimson Bolt.  Though lacking any superpowers, he does wield some heavy tools, and proceeds to work on fighting crime, all the while training for a showdown with Jacques and his goons.   His actions inspire a friendship with a psychotic kid named Libby (Page), who soon becomes obsessed with becoming his sidekick “Boltie”.  Eventually, The Crimson Bolt and Boltie are primed for battle, but are they truly ready for what they’re going to face?

I was very surprised by Rainn Wilson’s performance here.  His portrait of a meek man learning to stand up for what’s right is incredibly touching and stays with you after the credits.  He’s just a normal guy pushed to do something abnormal.  Wilson was very impressive.  Continuing her string of great work, Ellen Page does something very different here by essaying a nub job.  She’s a borderline sociopath and a seriously deserved individual, but also strangely lovable…something Page is able to perfectly bring out in the role.  Their chemistry is also very strong, making for a good hero team-up.  The rest of the performances are nothing to write home about, as Bacon chews the scenery and Tyler is pretty much wasted.  Michael Rooker has a small role but doesn’t do much, and Linda Cardellini has a tiny part, but the other supporting role of note goes to Nathan Fillion.  He’s playing a Christian television superhero that seems to be speaking to Frank.  The performance is over the top and silly, but he does a fine job.  It’s just the writing that lets him down (more on that momentarily) a bit.

James Gunn makes the small budget work for him, writing and directing something that’s on a small scale but never feels too small.  The direction is a little shaky, but ultimately effective.  Gunn has always been an interesting writer, and that’s again the case here, though to a degree he tries to do too much with this flick.  The movie sputters a bit when the satire of religion and morals is brought out (it’s clever, but doesn’t add up to much).  That’s really the only thing preventing me from absolutely loving this film.  It wants to be more than just an action comedy…it wants to say something bigger, and while it’s clear that it’s getting at something (the final 10 minutes of the movie are almost a sermon), it’s not 100% clear exactly what that is.  A less murky message would have been welcome.

Super may not be the almost classic that Kick-Ass was last year, but it’s still an entertaining little indie film that I enjoyed a lot.  It’s violent, brash, funny, and unusual…all in equal measure.  If you think a crazy little movie about a would-be hero is your type of thing, then you’re likely to enjoy it as much as I did.