Monday, September 13, 2010

TIFF 2010: "Super"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 90 minutes)
Written and directed by: James Gunn
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Liv Tyler, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, and Rob Zombie as “God”

James Gunn's demented "Super" pretty much is--and considering there hasn't exactly been a shortage of "home-made superhero" yarns lately, and especially with this year's Marvel adaptation "Kick-Ass" offering up some mighty, twisted tights to fill, following equally ambitious and mostly successful efforts like the Hamilton-shot "Defendor", and the sadly-mostly-forgotten "Special" with Michael Rappaport. Gunn's followup to his delightful 80s creature feature spoof "Slither" shows his Troma roots loud and proud, albeit with better production values, sustained comic tone, and performances (but there is a Lloyd Kaufman cameo).

Once again, an anonymous schlub finds his calling via four-colours: doughy Frank D'Arbo ("The Office"s Wilson) cooks in a diner and clings to a mere two pleasant memories from his otherwise unremarkable life: an incident where he pointed a police officer in the direction of a suspect, and more significantly, his brief marriage to Sarah (Tyler). When Sarah, a reformed junkie/stripper who has clearly failed in the "reformed" column, leaves him for her drug dealer Jacques (Bacon), Frank receives a spectral visitation from TV-personality Jesus Man (Fillion), who, via no less an authority than God (Zombi), anoints him a new role as the superhero The Crimson Bolt.

No actual powers come with the honour, so Frank must improvise. Embracing the life as a would-be superhero is not without its growing pains--Frank has a hard time with the nuances of what constitutes a "criminal offence". To The Crimson Bolt, butting in line at a movie is as worthy of his wrath (in the form of a pipe wrench) as drug dealing or child molestation.

Thankfully, there's a comic book shop nearby with fetching Libby (Page) more than willing to coach Frank on superhero lore. As The Crimson Bolt's curious public appearances become the stuff of local news and YouTube, Libby becomes suspicious of Frank's regular "research" into non-super-powered crime fighters, and offers her assistance as the sidekick "Boltie"...

Well-worn terrain by now, sure, but Gunn's take lacks the lugubriousness and brow-furrowing that bogs down a lot of latter-day superhero vehicles as their reluctant do-gooders wrestle with morals, responsibility, and blah blah blah. But while he gleefully cranks up the gory violence and outrageous fantasy sequences (Fillion's "Jesus Man" deserves his own series of web shorts at the very least), the characterizations are strong, thanks to pitch-perfect casting. Wilson reels in the broad strokes of his Dwight character from "The Office" and creates a broken man as pitiable as that found in any non-genre drama, and current indie "It-girl" Page (who shared a memorable exchange with Wilson in "Juno") invests what could have been a stock character--charming comic book geek--with just the right touch of reckless, pathological delusion (Frank's desire to right wrongs is obvious, but what's her motivation?). Reliable character actors Henry, Rooker, and even Kevin Bacon anchor reality with brief, memorable turns.

"Super" was one of the first big sales of TIFF 2010, and should be in wide release from IFC in early 2011.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis