I really don’t like Rainn Wilson, and I get the sense he probably doesn’t like me, either.
Beloved by dozens as hulking nerd Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, Wilson always seems to exist in a sour alternate universe, segregated from his co-stars. Even in better days—back before that show became the purposeless shell of itself that it is now—Dwight’s subplots were always surreal diversions untethered to the workaday reality that the rest of his cast struggled so hard to create.
In short, Wilson is a problematic choice for a leading man. His screen presence is closed-off, opaque and carries with it an air of bullying. All these factors should theoretically make him perfect for Super , writer-director James Gunn’s grisly super-hero send-up—the kind of movie that sounds great on paper and fails miserably in execution.
Wilson stars as Frank, a pathetic short-order cook married to a recovering alcoholic (Liv Tyler) who is so far out of his league that he gets anxiety attacks. Eventually she up and leaves him for a sleazebag smack dealer (Kevin Bacon, was the gold tooth necessary?) and Frank falls to pieces. After staying up too late one night watching a shockingly unfunny syndicated Christian superhero program on the All Jesus Network, Frank receives a ghastly vision from our Lord, rendered on-screen as an F/X-heavy parody of Japanese tentacle porn, raping his brain with what looks like a corn-dog.
Frank interprets this (gross) message as a sign that he must take to the streets as a costumed avenger. One quick recon mission to the local comic book shop and he’s been reborn as The Crimson Bolt, hiding behind Dumpsters to ambush evildoers in a flimsy, homemade red costume. Sputtering the admittedly hilarious catch phrase: “Shut up, crime,” our hapless hero seeks to redeem himself and win back his love by making the streets safe for decent citizens.
The Crimson Bolt has exactly one move—caving in villain’s skulls with a rusty pipe wrench. Perhaps seeking to parody the over-choreographed fight sequences in comic-book adaptations, Gunn shoots the altercations in flat, painfully matter-of-fact fashion. They’re clumsy and hideously bloody, with awful sound effects.
There’s also a question of proportion. The Crimson Bolt sees all law-breakers as equal, so murderous drug dealers get the same cranium-crushing treatment as arrogant blabbermouths who cut in line at the movies. I think you could find a pretty nifty joke about ideological absolutism in here somewhere, but Super just isn’t smart enough to mine that particular vein.
Instead it plays like a lo-fi, shoddily made take on last year’s Kick-Ass, which also toyed with the idea of a regular dolt making himself over into a costumed superhero. The film was roundly (and perhaps correctly) criticized for having its cake and eating it too, abandoning the central concept early on and spinning-off into a breathtakingly vulgar, ultra-violent version of every other damn superhero movie we have already seen.
Funny thing is, Super does the exact same thing, except it’s missing Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn’s hyperbolic vision and settles instead for a low-rent direct-to-video take on a phony criminal underworld, complete with kingpins in gated mansions parading their contraband goods in front of easily observed picture windows, and even Michael Rooker as a snarling henchman. Super pretends to be “alternative,” but it’s really just a cruder, cheaper version of the regular shit.
Poor Ellen Page. Playing a psychologically disturbed comic book store clerk, she attempts to partner up with The Crimson Bolt as his “kid sidekick” and struggles mightily to give the movie any semblance of energy. (She and Rainn Wilson already shared the worst scene of any movie I’ve seen in at least 10 years, during the opening moments of Juno, so it should have been all uphill from here, home-skillet.)
But she’s acting in a vacuum. Wilson seems constitutionally incapable of engaging with, or even responding to his co-stars. Page overcompensates wildly, trying to sell the hell out of every line with frantic hand gestures, eventually reeking of flop-sweat like Anne Hathaway trying to get James Franco to sober up and pay attention during the Academy Awards.
Writer-director Gunn is an old hand at straight-to-DVD exploitation pictures, and he also wrote Scooby-Doo. But his slyly funny 2006 horror send-up, Slither, suggested he might be able to straddle the line between gross-outs and comedy. Super says otherwise. It’s cruddy-looking and dull, paced like a hangover and dwells on horrifying bursts of unrated violence to jolt the audience into thinking they’re seeing something “transgressive.”
Nope. Super is just ugly and unpleasant. The brazenly hypocritical ending even employs the hack Hollywood trope of an actor mournfully shedding a single tear. If only I hadn’t foolishly gone and seen Sucker Punch, this would be the worst movie of the year so far.
Director: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page and Liv Tyler
Running time: 90 minutes