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Super

From Zero to Hero

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Superheroes come in all sizes, shapes, and genders. Some, true to their name, have superpowers; others don’t. Batman remains the best-known, non-super-powered costumed vigilante, but many others, on comic book panels, on television, and on the big-screen have followed.

The latest costumed vigilante, the Crimson Bolt, arrives in movie theaters courtesy of writer-director James Gunn (Slither, Dawn of the Dead, The Specials). An indie take on the genre heavily influenced by Gunn’s apprenticeship with writer-director-producer Lloyd Kaufman and Kaufman’s low-rent exploitation flicks under his Troma banner (e.g., Tromeo and Juliet, The Toxic Avenger), Super is a dark comedy that functions, at its best, as a deeply disturbing, insightful, character study of mental illness and as a unrestrained satire of the superhero genre so many of us love uncritically.

Via voice over, Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) describes the two happiest moments in his abjectly anonymous life, his marriage to Sarah Helgeland (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict who married Frank weeks after completing her last stint in rehab and helping a cop apprehend a fleeing felon. Frank doesn’t intervene physically to stop or slow the felon. He simply points the cop in the right direction. For Frank, doing good, however marginally, made him briefly happy. When he loses Sarah to a strip club-owning drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), he’s forced to confront his own powerlessness and passivity.

Saving Sarah by becoming a crime-busting, costumed vigilante doesn’t come naturally to Frank. He has a religious vision of the Finger of God, who convinces Frank to put on red tights and go out into the world as the “Crimson Bolt.”

Knowing little about the superhero lifestyle, Frank heads to the local comic book store where he meets a superhero-obsessed employee, Libby (Ellen Page, in a perception-altering performance), over-eager to share everything she knows. Frank embarks on his crime-fighting career slowly, attempting to take out a low-end drug dealer, and fails miserably.

Undeterred, Frank decides he needs a weapon. He settles on a pipe wrench and acquires a catchphrase, “Shut up, crime!” The local media quickly picks up on Frank’s crime-fighting misadventures, and turn to his side. The media approval feeds Frank’s delusions of superhero grandeur.

Not content to explore the downside of costumed vigilantism (criticizing vigilantism and its exalted place in American culture), Gunn also takes on desire-denying Christian extremism and also upends the superhero-sidekick convention that’s been a part of comic books since Robin joined Batman.

Guessing Frank’s superhero identity, Libby convinces him to let her join his crime-fighting enterprise as his “kid sidekick,” Boltie. Excited by power fantasies, Libby sees costumed crime-fighting less as the perfect opportunity to exact revenge for minor slights. She also uses Boltie to indulge her crush on the age-inappropriate Frank.

When delusions of superhero grandeur meet the “real” world (i.e., guns, bullets, sharp and otherwise deadly objects), they generally don’t stand a chance. Gunn, however, gives the Crimson Bolt his Taxi Driver moment, the vigilante’s against-the-odds last stand where he squares off against the well-armed villain and his henchmen.

Gunn stages the subsequent scene to maximize the carnage. It’s bloody, brutal, and even, at times, blackly comic; but disgust and repulsion are never far away. Gunn shifts from triumph to tragedy, in effect foregrounding the hollowness of any victory. An epilogue reiterates this point, leaving Frank possibly more enlightened, none the happier for his new found self-awareness of his personal failings and failures.