Cut from the same cloth as Matthew Vaughn's hyperactive deathwish fantasy "Kick-Ass," James Gunn's new film "Super" retains and ups all of the violence found in "Kick-Ass" while deviating even further from the horrific consequences of average people taking up the crime fighting, superhero mantle. Vaughn gave us a vision of adolescent angst and anxiety turned outward, a letting loose of years of pent-up aggression and geekery diluted into a hyperrealistic illustration of what happens when someone thinks they can do what Batman does. Gunn takes that same theme and takes it to a more psychologically driven place, a deep hole of personal self-hatred that manifests as religious delusion, sexual aberration and beating after brutal beating.
"Super" is an incredibly disturbing piece of work centered on pathetic line cook Frank (Rainn Wilson), a bland and unassuming nobody whose life amounts to two triumphant moments: pointing a police officer in a criminal's direction, and marrying recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler.) When Sarah relapses and takes up with a low-level druglord (Kevin Bacon), Frank finds himself totally lost, spiraling into sad nights of tears, tentacle-porn and no-budget religious programming for teens featuring a morally uncompromised superhero fighting off the influence of Satan in everyday life. These disparate sources of inspiration coalesce into an epiphanic vision wherein Frank is touched (literally and grotesquely) by the finger of god and fitted into a red mask, told that "Some of his children are chosen." From there Frank becomes the Crimson Bolt, an everyman "superhero" determined to enforce a very narrow and rigid idea of right and wrong on the town's criminal element.
Gunn mines a lot of this territory for laughs (and rightly so, because Frank's unsuitability for this is obvious) but it quickly becomes clear that the point of "Super" isn't awkward comic book posturing or the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Frank is driven by an aching need to win Sarah back, to rescue her from herself and get back everything she represents to him-without the normalcy that his marriage to Sarah offers, Frank becomes another piece of background landscaping, worthless and unnoticed. Whereas "Kick-Ass" concerned itself with superheroism for mostly altruistic motives, "Super" stems from the most selfish and virulent of all drives: revenge. Frank is out for blood, needing to take out all of his humiliations and emasculations on the society that failed him, and becoming a superhero grants him the moral superiority he needs to issue one bloody beating after another.
And the beatings are bloody. This is easily one of the most violent films to come out of the underground in some time, made all the more terrifying by the reality in which it's portrayed. There's no stylization here; instead we're treated to tire irons cracking open foreheads in small bloody blooms, shards of glass slivering deep into the sides of faces, heads blown clean off or beaten to a raw and soupy pulp, or the simple, chilling vision of a knife being stabbed into a chest again and again. Gunn's make-up effects are superb (no surprise, coming from Troma) and his focus on harsh naturalism only drives home the idea that being a superhero is bloody, unglamorous work, a conclusion also arrived at in "Kick-Ass" but with a lot more reward for the caped crusader in question.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with the exception of Liv Tyler, who isn't given much to work with; Sarah's lost in a drugged out daze for the majority of the film. Rainn Wilson does superb work here, beginning to finally distance himself from the ugly shadow of Dwight Schrute, giving Frank a believability and an empathy without letting us forget that he's out there beating the shit out of people for some very dubious reasons. Kevin Bacon slithers into his role as Sarah's abductor with gleeful, squealy aplomb, portraying sleaze better than he ever has, the nihilistic Yin to Frank's moralistic Yang. His exchanges with Frank have the air of a Socratic dialogue gone seriously wrong. Bacon could easily have phoned this one in, but here he absolutely inhabits the character and it's a joy to see him onscreen. Ellen Page, though, fares best, cast as Frank's obviously disturbed sidekick Boltie, a comic book obessionista living the dream who gets equally turned on sliding into her costume as she does inflicting tremendous violence on any asshole in her vicinity. Watching Page writhe around in her cheap uniform is almost erotic until it culminates in one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever committed to film; Gunn should be congratulated for trying to obliterate the gender lines of sexual assault. This is seriously fearless filmmaking at its best.
At the end of it all we're left grappling with the problem of delusion; we know that Page's Boltie was too far gone to ever come back, but Frank's mental condition remains something of a mystery. For all of his affectations and encounters with religious vision and mysticism, as well as the incredible acts of violence he commits, we'd be forgiven for thinking Frank too is way in the deep end. But Gunn doesn't let us off so easily; we have to either accept that Frank was truly touched by god and sent on a divine mission or, perhaps more troubling, that the ends justify the means (the film's touching final shots seem to suggest the latter.) I'm reminded of another film that dealt with vigilantism and revenge, "Falling Down." Even though Michael Douglas creates another empathic protagonist struggling against the red tape and bullshit of society, we never lose sight of the overarching moral framework: life has dealt him a crap hand, but Foster's actions are wrong, no matter how justified they seem. In "Super" that framework is obliterated, torn apart by a menagerie of characters who have no idea what they're really getting into or where it's going to lead. Gunn's film is a challenge and provocation, deserving mention alongside (and perhaps even trumping) "Kick-Ass" as well as its thematic forebear "Taxi Driver." As a portrait of alienation and self-loathing, it's a near flawless piece of work.