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Things go BAM!, SPLAT!, and KA-POW! numerous times in Super, but rarely as innocuously as a Batpunch. In the world of the Crimson Bolt, heads are bashed and bloodied, and sometimes enemies are blown up completely. The film, written and directed by Slither’s James Gunn, doesn’t shy from violence, but don’t assume it’s just another Kick-Ass: For all that movie’s love of guns and little-girl assassins, Super is like its darker, more twisted, utterly gleeful older sibling. Even the Crimson Bolt’s eager sidekick, Boltie, is angrier (if more sloppily lethal) than Kick-Ass’ Hit-Girl. “I could get claws like Wolverine,” Boltie gushes. “And then I could cut up people’s faces!”
The story of the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson) is a familiar one, born of heartache. The film opens with our hero, at first simply known as Frank, admitting he’s had only two perfect moments in his life—his marriage to Sarah (Liv Tyler) being the first. But Sarah, a recovering addict, walked out on Frank for a dealer and all-around scumbag named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). What follows is pretty wrenching stuff: Frank begs God to bring Sarah back, blubbering as he questions why he was born so charmless and “idiotic.” (Later, in a calmer moment, Frank remarks, “People look stupid when they cry.”)
After this outpouring, Frank’s roof parts and giant red tentacles creep in, slicing his skull open so that the “finger of God” can touch his brain. (Yes, you see it all.) Frank doesn’t know what it means until he catches a PSA from the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) warning kids to ignore the temptations of Satan and not slack off or give in to their horniness. A couple of visits to a comic-book store later, and Frank’s armed with examples of superheros without powers, as well as an unwanted friendship with a young clerk named Libby (Ellen Page). Libby first questions Frank’s interest in the Holy Avenger—“I have to warn you that this is pretty fucking stupid. I mean, unless you’re laughing at how gay it is. Then it’s awesome”—but once the Crimson Bolt becomes a hot news item, she catches on…and wants in. Boltie is born.
Super’s mix of humor and bloodletting is Pulp Fiction-perfect. “Shut up, crime!” is the Bolt’s catchphrase, and he dispenses advice to criminals like “Don’t deal drugs!” and “Don’t molest kids!” after he beats them to within an inch of their lives with a pipe wrench. Wilson, excepting a crying jag or two, is as deadpan as his character on The Office, Dwight Schrute. But while Page’s hyper (and amusingly ungraceful) Boltie just wants to bludgeon and kill the bad guys, Frank’s mission is to get Sarah back.
The film, like Kick-Ass, builds to a hyperviolent end, but Super doesn’t exchange its heart for shoot-outs and big explosions; it ends on melancholy note, lending the narrative a more realistic, if sinking, oomph. Its sentiment is surprising—almost as much as the first time Gunn counters a laugh with bloodied brains.