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Movie Review

Super

Subversive ‘Super’ takes on the dark side of fantasy

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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Of all the entries in the average-schmo-tries-to-be-a-superhero genre — and that would certainly include last year’s “Kick-Ass’’ — “Super’’ succeeds the best by putting its audience in the most uncomfortable position. Of course anyone who puts on Spandex to fight crime would have to be a psychotic need-freak, and so writer-director James Gunn gives us Frank (Rainn Wilson). Frank’s an insecure short-order chef who hears voices every once in a while and whose remaining tether to reality is snapped when his stripper-addict wife (Liv Tyler) dumps him for her dealer (Kevin Bacon). Bruce Wayne he ain’t.

But the Crimson Bolt he becomes, after watching a Christian superhero show on cable TV (a deadpan Nathan Fillion plays the Holy Avenger) and getting a divine message that he’s one of the chosen few. The bad guys may have guns, but Frank has a 12-inch pipe wrench with which to dissuade evildoers. If he can’t find evildoers, he’ll take out the guy who butts in line at the movies or the kid who keyed your car.

Wilson’s Frank is so deranged, and the violence he dishes out so bruisingly realistic compared to the blow-dried wham-bam of most superhero movies, that we cringe and ask ourselves why we’re rooting this man on. At the same time, there’s something almost noble about the Crimson Bolt’s insistence on going up against heavily armed thugs with only a wrench, a poorly stitched union suit, and the battle cry “Shut up, crime!’’

The hero’s in it for arguably better reasons (passion, dementia) than Libby (Ellen Page), the hyperneurotic comics-store clerk who joins the cause as Frank’s sidekick, Boltie. Page goes the discomfiting distance as a fangirl desperate to escape her boring life, to the point of trying to seduce her costumed partner in a scene so awe-inspiringly wrong that you watch it between your fingers.

Filmmaker Gunn last played genre games with 2006’s “Slither,’’ a wicked little zombies-from-outer-space horror-comedy. Here he goes a few steps further, risking alienating his audience by suggesting that what fuels any superhero fantasy is just the pathetic need for attention. “Super’’ has no interest in moralizing, though, and it loves its pulpy roots right down to the bright comic-book graphics that — holy ripoff, Batman! — erupt during the fights. Yet the movie’s rigorous about taking us to the dark side of the power trip, and it makes sure we stay and look.

“Slither’’ returnees include Fillion, Gregg Henry as an unlucky detective, and Michael Rooker as the drug dealer’s head thug. Bacon has fun chewing the scenery and Tyler looks convincingly narcotized, but the heart of “Super’’ is in the twisted codependency of its costumed leads, with Page jumping up and down like a caffeinated spider monkey and Wilson hitting such bass notes of sadness and rage that you have to look away. Smart, sick, and subversive, “Super’’ gives you what you want only to make you wonder why you want it.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

SUPER

Written and directed by: James Gunn

Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 96 minutes

Unrated (as R: graphic violence, sexual situations, language, drug abuse, flagrant misuse of a pipe wrench)

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