James Gunn, the man behind the script for the Dawn of the Dead remake and the writer/director of bizarre B-movie horror Slither turns his dark sense of humour to the super hero genre next in black comedy gore-a-thon Super. Its 2010 UK release was reportedly postponed to avoid comparisons with Matthew Vaughn's fanboy favourite Kick-Ass, but there's no escaping the similar subject matter, goals and audience of these two films.
Like Mark Millar's original Kick-Ass comics, Super tells the story of a downtrodden man pushed to the limit by a society rife with crime. It tells of his sudden turn to vigilantism to change this, and of all the unfortunate stuff that happens in the process. The difference between Super and Vaughn's adaptation of Kick-Ass, however, is that James Gunn has the guts to do the material properly.
The story of small-town diner chef Frank D'Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is one of borderline mental breakdown. He begins by telling us how his life would be meaningless if not for rehabilitated drug and booze addict wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), only for us to immediately see her swept away in a haze of drugs and debauchery by slimy club owner/drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon).
Lost and end the end of his tether, Frank has a vision, a vision made all the more potent when backed up by a TV show about a Jesus-inspired hero: he must become a crime-fighting superman.
His first outing as The Crimson Bolt involved sitting around in a poorly tailored red suit. The second, getting beaten up and chased away. But then he discovers weaponry. Or, more precisely a wrench. And this is where the brilliance kicks in.
The wrench is intrinsically funny as a weapon because it's the lazy choice of a moron, but also kind of effective when battering unsuspecting victims. From this moment on, the whole film is spent unsettling you with darkly funny moments as he bludgeons criminals and queue-cutters alike. Is he insane? Is he a hero? Is this funny? Am I even allowed to laugh?! All of these questions come up as you chuckle, cringe and squirm through this most bizarre of movies.
The boundaries of comedy and morality are further stretched when Frank encounters highly-strung comic book store assistant Libby (Ellen Page), who is desperate to join Frank on his crusade on crime. She's ultra violent, ultra naive and led by incredibly poor judgement. The result is razor sharp black humour with some blood-curdling moments.
The actors deserve much of the credit for this. Wilson is an expert in the borderline mental patient schtick, and he strikes the perfect balance in Frank. We're never allowed to feel sorry for him, and can alternately cheer and chastise the unlikely vigilante as the tone lurches around in a deliberately unsettling way. And the conviction Ellen Page brings to the role of Libby is frightening. There's an acid intensity that underlies her obsession with superheroes, and it makes every moment of her story compelling.
Meanwhile antagonist-extraordinaire Jacques is another fantastic performance from Kevin Bacon who, after his turn in X-Men: First Class, might start getting typecast as the 'sleazy bad guy'. And that'd be no bad thing either.
Let's face it, Kick-Ass was not the success it could have been because the studio forced Vaughn to pander to wider audiences. Violence was more cartoony, less consequential and the story far less dark. Super knows it can't hit every demographic, and goes all out in its bizarre, frightening world of violence and borderline mental disorder.
In short, this should be a delight for any fans of jet-black comedy and disturbing filmmaking.
Super is out now in the U.K.