James Gunn may just be the last of the irreverent indie filmmakers. In fact, his work seems entirely resistant to studio-level success. He's much better loved for his weird projects like the cult horror flick Slither and the Spike-sponsored comedy shorts PG Porn than he is for his deconstructive, almost hateful live-action takes on Scooby Doo. Winding in and out of notoriety, Gunn appears more comfortable on the fringes where he can make an alternately amusing and off-putting film like Super, the most recent in the "real life super hero" genre. Like its contemporaries in Kick Ass and Defendor, Super juxtaposes the inherent comedy of an everyday schlub donning a costume to fight crime with a queasy take on the ultra-violence that comes with the role. It would be easy to accuse Gunn of being unoriginal, but with the unstoppable glut of straight-faced super hero movies and the fact that at least a portion of his script dates back to the early 90's, it wouldn't really be fair to do so. Super is a fun but flawed movie that thankfully avoids the excesses so common to its niche while actually serving viewers with a coherent moral that typically gets lost in the bombast of the super hero genre.
Rainn Wilson stars as Frank, a depressive line cook who is sent reeling when his wife, a recovering drug addict played with almost too much pathos by Liv Tyler, leaves him for asleazy drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Caught somewhere between idealism and schizophrenia, Frank takes inspiration from a Christian TV show about a moralizing super hero to create his own masked defender of the innocent: A wrench-wielding vigilante called The Crimson Bolt.
A lot of the early humor in Super comes from the fact that Frank dishes out equal punishment to wrong-doers of every stripe, meeting people who cut in line with the same violence as child molesters. These second-act scenes serve as the most savvy deconstructions of the super hero genre Gunn is lovingly lampooning. There's certainly an air of smart-dumb absurdity to The Crimson Bolt's equation of See Crime, Attack Criminal Mercilessly, Scold Injured Criminal As If That Would Change The World, but it's actually not that far from what "real" super heroes like Batman and Spider-Man do.
Things get more complicated when Frank tries to use his new persona to "rescue" his wife from Jacques, who keeps her high more or less constantly. Guns beat wrenches, so Frank ends up seeking shelter with his first and only fan in Ellen Page's Libby. Libby, in addition to being another aspiring super hero, is also clearly a psychopath. She revels in the violence the role of sidekick "Boltie" brings to her life and effectively steals the movie away from Wilson from the third act on. Her presence tilts the tone hard in the "dark" direction of the dark comedy spectrum and the film never really recovers, especially when Frank and Libby descend on the mansion where Jacques is doing a major drug deal with a violent kingpin.
Similar to the way Slither intentionally leaves both its heroes and its viewers feeling violated and generally awful in its closing moments, Super hits its audience with a sense of sentimentality that's clearly supposed to feel undeserved. It makes for an unusual package that takes the postmodern super hero genre to its logical conclusion. Ultimately, that kind of challenge and unease is what independent film is supposed to do.