Most films that we describe as "shocking" fall within the realm of dark drama (Irreversible), serious horror (Martyrs) or creepy thrillers (A Serbian Film). Broad slapstick satires generally don't cross the line into truly disturbing material, but James Gunn's Super does -- and it does so with a good deal of vim, vigor, and uniquely twisted jokes. My good pal Matt Dentler described the film as "Paul Schrader's Kick-Ass," and I've stolen that description because it really fits to a tee. This is a flick that wants you to laugh at some seriously dark and weird material, but it also has the audacity to challenge the viewer to delve a little deeper. In other words, Super felt like a (very funny) comedy while I was watching it -- but after a few hours had passed, I found myself contemplating the flick's darker and considerably more serious side.
Not everything that writer/director James Gunn tries here works like a charm, but the guy deserves serious credit for trying to add a bizarre new wrinkle to the "everyman turned fake superhero" concept. Yes, you'll definitely be reminded of films like Special, Defendor, and Kick-Ass as Super unspools, but to be fair, James Gunn was one of the first out of the gate with the superhero comedies. (His 2000 comedy The Specials shows a guy with a weird but palpable affection for superheroes and the things they do.) Moreso than Slither (which was a kooky horror/comedy, but still basically conventional), this film shows off Mr. Gunn's Troma training, and the result is a slightly uneven but thoroughly engaging piece of pitch-black comedy. As such, Super is not for all tastes ... but it worked pretty damn well for me.
As is often the case with weird indie comedies, Super benefits from a fantastic cast, all of whom seem gleefully willing to dive into Gunn's dementia. Rainn Wilson plays a sad-sack loser who just had his wife (Liv Tyler) seduced by a sleazebag drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), so he gets the idea (in a truly amusing / disturbing sequence involving the finger of God) to dress up as "The Crimson Bolt," and also to whack criminals across the forehead with a massive wrench. Along the way we're treated to clueless cops (Gregg Henry), evil henchmen (Michael Rooker), and (best of all) an enthusiastically giddy sidekick in the form of Ellen Page. (The little gal's never been weirdly funnier.) Nathan Fillion also contributes a funny cameo as The Holy Avenger, a Christian-themed TV superhero who inspires our anti-hero to go, well, super.
If the flick suffers from one main shortcoming, it's that Gunn tries to wedge some truly atonal material together. This definitely keeps a viewer on his toes, but scenes of "broad" brutal violence are followed by moments of ostensible sincerity, and the movie threatens to go off the rails a few times -- most notably in Act III. But this is a minor gripe to make in the face of a film that's willing to go to virtually any length to get a laugh. Even more interesting than the funny stuff are the moments that make us wonder how much we should really LIKE our self-made superhero. On one level,he's a funny weirdo who smacks bad people with a wrench (and that's always fun), but on another, he's a deeply, darkly disturbed man. As Super ramps up to its big finale, one begins to feel a little ... dirty for cheering this guy. It's this sort of ambiguity that makes it all so interesting. Gunn and Wilson seem intent on keeping The Crimson Bolt as both a heroic and tragic figure, and that's a hard gig for a screenwriter and an actor to pull off.
Chock full of insanely graphic violence, awash in thoroughly un-PC perspectives, and more than willing to keep on punching long after the audience is virtually incredulous, Super is fun and funny, dark and twisted, semi-schizophrenic and certifiably insane. What I liked most was its simple audacity. And Ellen Page.