The two best things that ever happened to Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) were getting married to his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and that time when he was standing in the street and a criminal rushed past him: Frank pointed the pursuing policeman in the fleeing felon's direction and loved the feeling of being useful, of crimefighting, it gave him. But that was about it for bright moments in his life; he thought happiness was overrated anyway, but didn't like sadness much either, especially when it meant Sarah left him for someone else - but what could he do?
If Super suffered for anything, it was due to the success of another movie, and that movie was Kick-Ass which was released a short time before and put everyone straight in their minds about what a real-life superhero would actually be like. Yet the fact remained Kick-Ass was as much a fantasy as Batman or Spider-Man, and for all its claims to faithfulness to how such things would be if they really did play out, after about half an hour it forgot all that and had such fantastical elements as a little girl beating up a room of fully grown men or a jetpack machine gun massacre put into play, the stuff of far more conventional superheroics than anything in Super.
To the earlier film's writer Mark Millar's credit, he didn't see this as a rip-off as too many others did, as while they may have had similar starting points - ordinary guy decides to be a costumed vigilante - writer and director James Gunn had an ambivalent view of how useful you would be if you did attempt to take up that kind of calling. Indeed, Frank may start out as a put-upon eccentric, but he winds up as a bloodthirsty psychopath, as if answering this nagging feeling that he should be out on the streets is an infection which warped his mind. He loves the feeling of power it gives him, but it comes at too high a cost for his soul.
Essentially what he wants to do is not so much save strangers from lawbreaking, but save Sarah from her new boyfriend Jacques (Kevin Bacon going overboard with the sleazy charm), a drug dealer and gang boss who hooks up with her to get her addicted to drugs once again, which in fact he does all too easily. In this case, Frank is like one of the more enthusiastic cult deprogrammers, except this righteous energy he feels bleeds over into his spare time when he's not working as a short order cook leading him to adopt a costume, a new moniker - The Crimson Bolt - and an ability, the ability to whack baddies over the head with a heavy wrench. Throughout, Wilson played this with a commendable straight face, until you found out the reason why this approach was the most effective.
The clever thing here was that Gunn ensured the clichés of the vigilante flick were wedded to the sort of superhero antics that were presented as wholly admirable elsewhere, yet here were the actions of a maniac. Frank's not the only maniac about as he gets his own sidekick in the form of comic store worker Libby (Ellen Page, excellent), who teams up with him as Boltie, laughing crazily as she doles out the violence and getting turned on by the thought of it all. Frank's calling is a religious one, he has visions where he sees God and believes that is his impetus, but Libby is more in it for a perverse thrill. Both these mindsets converge as the film grows ever more brutal, with the final act boiling over into a welter of savagery, yet crucially none of it is cathartic, it merely promotes more of the same, the old violence breeds violence moral in the framework of a comedy that has stopped laughing. A keen-eyed examination of the superhero appeal, this was brave, troubling and utterly nuts - definitely not for everyone, but gripping for all that. Music by Tyler Bates.