Few movies have won me over as suddenly, and so late in the game, as Super (IFC Midnight), a comedy about a loser who aspires to transform himself into a superhero. This quirky feature directed by James Gunn (who also wrote its screenplay) starts in predictable territory, leading characters around like marionettes and trading in the blandest flavors of twee irony. Then, all at once, something shifts, and the movie crescendos to a tone of innovative, dark, and daring filmmaking. The most distinctive moments of Super are not charming and comic, as its premise might suggest, but strange and raw—an odd encounter over scrambled eggs, a casual act of horrific violence, and what I believe to be the only instance of bad couch sex in superhero costumes ever conjured on the big screen. As a movie, Super is unfocused and bafflingly inconsistent. It is also the most genuinely surprising new release I’ve seen in a long time.
If you’ve watched an American comedy during the past 10 years, there is a good chance you’ve encountered the movie that Super starts out trying to be. A stocky man-child named Frank (Rainn Wilson, better known as Dwight Schrute on The Office) holds down a day job flipping burgers and, in his spare time, labors over third-grade-level drawings that commemorate “two perfect moments” in his otherwise collapsing life: his nuptials with a recovering addict named Sarah (Liv Tyler) and this one time on the sidewalk when he pointed a cop in the general direction of a fleeing criminal. Little, since then, has gone right. When a local drug trafficker and smooth roué, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), lures Sarah away and toward such evils as booze, promiscuity, and liberally applied eyeliner, Frank’s world comes apart. He seeks out police intervention. He pleads on the hood of the car bearing his wife away. Alone, he watches Christian-channel programming and sobs crouching against his bed. During one such adventure in self-pity, Frank experiences a vision. Tentacles surround him, pinion him, and open up his skull. A giant finger from the heavens reaches down to poke his brain. He takes this as a sign that God has chosen him to fight evil—and reclaim Sarah—in the guise of a 21st-century superhero.
Frank recasts himself as the Crimson Bolt, a fearless soldier for good in a Flash-type * face mask and tight, handmade red suit. In trying to fight crime, however, he encounters two immediate problems. First, he has no superpowers. Frank solves this issue by carrying a wrench and hitting people with it. Second, and more crucially, true perfidy is hard to come by. The Crimson Bolt passes a lot of his crime-fighting time perched behind dumpsters, waiting for bad things to happen. He eventually earns a slight reputation—and a protégée. Libby, a 22-year-old fangirl who works at the local comics store (Ellen Page), suspects there is a connection between the mild-mannered Frank and the almost-impressive Bolt. With plans (and a handmade costume) of her own, she tries to work her way into the rhythms of his bizarre superhero life.
A premise like this seems a hard one to play down, but for its first 30 or 40 minutes, Super is a strangely, almost exasperatingly rote movie. The film follows a tradition of indie comedy that prizes idiosyncratic screenwriting and attention to ironic detail (think Napoleon Dynamite, Be Kind Rewind, Juno); yet the script’s quirkinesscomes across as flat and studied, and its sense of irony is cloyingly imitative. Faced with Frank’s textbook loserdom, his nerdy hobbies, and the wood-paneled suburban drabness of his home, it’s difficult to shake the sense that we have seen this all before, and better, and maybe even twice during a lengthy airplane flight. The mechanics of Frank’s unlikely heroism make for moderately funny gags, helped by Wilson’s effective but seemingly narrow skill set as a comic actor. (One scene finds the aspiring vigilante donning his suit in the back seat of his parked sedan, his dingy-underwear-clad buttocks looming in the window and in the sightlines of several nearby pedestrians.) But the jokes in Gunn’s script otherwise have a canned, obligatory flavor more reminiscent of Saturday-morning cartoons than the auteur wits he wants to emulate. When characters ought to be fresh and fleshed-out—this is, after all, a movie whose outlandish plot rests on its protagonist’s emotional life—they are either walking cutouts or enigmas of the dullest kind: It is at no point clear whether Frank, who spells Jacques “Jock” and has the social awareness of a large newt, is supposed to be a true-of-heart nerd or simply a moron.
My mind began to wander halfway through Super and might have ended up on grocery lists if the movie hadn’t, all at once, swerved from this dusty path. As Frank’s exploits continue, it becomes clear that he’s not interested in fighting crime as much as he is interested in getting back his wife and vindicating himself, and at any cost. And as the Crimson Bolt’s odd rationalizations mount, so does the film’s threshold for violence. All at once, and stridently, the whole movie turns dark. Gunn plays grimly with comic-book fight scenes—a cartoon “Bang!” appears as a character is gunned down—but the biting irony of his style at its best exceeds those glib touches. Super is a gruesome picture, all the more so because its sudden brutality is not Tarantino-style cartoon excess or combat-movie smatterings. Instead, Gunn excels at conjuring a sense of violated human physicality, a violence that you feel not just in your nerve endings but throughout your ethical wiring as well.
You can’t help wondering, during the final minutes of this movie, whether Super’s early drabness was, in fact, deliberate—an effort to lower the baseline and make this late-in-the-game turn seem doubly surprising. If you are a viewer of a certain disposition, you may even entertain the notion that Super is meant to be a kind of metaphor. (The movielends itself to easy reading as an anti-military allegory.) Both of these interpretations may give Gunn, who composed the script very quickly and who’s known for work on such movies as Slither and Scooby-Doo, too much burden and credit. In the end, this diffuse and off-balance film—one that weirdly combines cardboard characters and emotional urgency, high conceptualism and visceral rawness—does come together, albeit in a strange, and strangely fitting, way. Super is the slacker comedy that ends up an unflinching essay about human cruelty.
Correction, April 4, 2011: This article originally referred to the character “the Flash” as Flash Gordon. (Return to the corrected sentence.)