Big screen superhero parodies tend to be as terrible and over-caffeinated as the films that they target, so it comes as a mild surprise that James Gunn’s Super manages at least some level of storytelling coherence. Focusing on Frank (Rainn Wilson), a sad sack short order cook who experiences a religious epiphany after his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), Super surpasses recent attempts such as Kick-Ass in its efforts to make the superhero movie look ignorant. Wilson’s character here adopts the moniker The Crimson Bolt, and soon takes to the streets, fighting crime, wherever he finds it (even if that entails hiding behind a dumpster for hours, waiting for it).
Probably as a result of its modest budget, Super has an indie film feel. Gunn uses a great deal of handheld camerawork and natural lighting, which helps to ground the absurd plot in some level of reality. The film’s gross-out moments, which are myriad, actually do a good job of reminding audiences of the latent psychopathic tendencies that exist in the superhero genre. Watching a petty criminal get hit in the head with a wrench might be funny once, but watching it happen repeatedly, in gory detail is a definite buzz kill. Things get amplified on this front once Ellen Page, who has a manic energy here that she’s not shown before, shows up as a sidekick, and pushes the Bolt to greater levels of mayhem. Her too-brief time on screen energizes the film. Whether Page is bashing a possibly innocent young man’s head in with a statue or rubbing her crotch through her spandex, telling Frank that “it’s all gushy,” she gives a fearless performance.
It’s a shame that Wilson himself isn’t working at that level. His brand of self-deprecating humor soon runs out of targets (he can only make fun of his fat ass so many times…), and Gunn has nowhere to go but toward unwelcome sincerity. As Super winds to a close, it seems to forget that it’s a parody, and wants us to endorse the character it’s created. Such a miscalculation is unfortunate. Super offers less than its title implies, but it’s better than most of its ilk.