The first 45 minutes of Super are fantastic. Childish everyman Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) leads an everyday existence as a short-order cook at a diner. He tries to keep his addict wife (Liv Tyler) on the straight and narrow, but slowly loses her to a vicious drug dealer, expertly played by Kevin Bacon. Touched by the finger of God and guided by The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), Frank dons a homemade red suit and tells crime to "Shut up" as the Crimson Bolt. Ellen Page is masterful as Frank’s ADD-plagued kid sidekick.
Director James Gunn pays close attention to the little details that make up Frank’s eroding world: a bad guy placidly munches on Good ‘N Plenty, Frank consistently draws hands too big in his elementary sketches of his visions and Kevin Bacon really likes brown-shelled eggs. Indeed, Super is at its best with Frank crouching behind a Dumpster, justifying to his audio diary that he will clean up a drifting cardboard box later, as he doesn’t want to give away his crime-fighting position.
Gunn has a unique take on the superhero dialogue. The Crimson Bolt’s birth story is poignant, realistic and indelibly funny. If the attitude of Scott Pilgrim vs The World tied the knot with Kick-Ass in a good old-fashioned Christian ceremony, their offspring would probably grow up to be Frank D’Arbo. Wilson proves, without a doubt, that he’s an actor worth considering beyond The Office. With a charming opening animated sequence and an Adaptation-reminiscent voiceover, Gunn toes the delicate line between the humorous and the macabre with aplomb— until the 45-minute mark.
At that point, a highly enjoyable, darkly funny movie takes a distinct turn. Gunn has fully explored our cultural obsession with superheroes, taken his amateur crime fighter pro and found and trained a zany sidekick. So Gunn does what any writer/director with no opposing force would do: He continues past the point of interest. What could have been an interesting, soulful and sadly funny film becomes borderline offensive and distinctly disturbing. The violence loses its playfulness, transforming into a fullblown assault on a villain’s lair, complete with guns, bombs, Wolverine knives and swelling orchestral music. The pat ending is accompanied by a purpose-filled voiceover similar to the opening one, but utterly lacking in the underlying snark that made the first one so successful.
Gunn cannot have it both ways, and loses viewers with his less-then-skillful genre-blending. As Frank explains to a soon-to-be-deceased Kevin Bacon, "The rules were written a long time ago."
Directed by James Gunn
At IFC Center Runtime: 96 min.