If the description of Super sounds a lot like last year's Kick-Ass, well, it's essentially the same movie, with a slightly different sensibility.
Kick-Ass, based on a comic-book series, was about a teen who decided that he was going to be a super-hero, made himself a costume and quickly discovered that the bad guys punch hard and use real bullets.
Super, written and directed by James Gunn, is about a loser of a fry cook named Frank (Rainn Wilson), who decides that he has to fight crime. So he makes himself a costume and goes out to fight crime - and quickly discovers that the bad guys punch hard and use real bullets.
But where Kick-Ass had a fantasy-laced comic-book vibe (one in which a little girl could whip grown men with a little martial-arts know-how and the city was ruled by a crime lord with an army of henchmen), "Super" is alternately gritty and operatic, a movie in which the stoic, stiff-backed Frank is given to fits of tears and operates out of anger and revenge - and the crime lord is a lowly strip-club owner who commands a couple of goons.
It's meant to be funny in a pathetic way, though Gunn's comic writing lacks, well, wit. His idea of a joke is to have a street-dealer knock Frank into a garbage pile - and have Frank rise with a dirty diaper taped to his rear end, flapping in the breeze as Frank retreats.
Frank is the archetypal little guy, who is driven to this point of madness by his wife's desertion. Sarah (Liv Tyler) is obviously way out of his league; she's also a recovering alcoholic who gets involved with drugs and bad company, in the form of Jock (Kevin Bacon, the best thing about this movie). When Frank pushes Jock too far, Jock has his thugs give Frank a beatdown. And from that humiliation, the Crimson Bolt is born.
It takes a while for Frank to find his crime-fighting groove. First, he can't seem to find any crime, hiding behind dumpsters in an alley waiting for lawlessness to break out. Finally, he researches drug-dealing arrests in the newspaper and goes to the notorious Euclid Street - but after wrestling the drug dealer to the ground, Frank discovers that, in fact, criminals tend to fight back. "No fair," Frank cries as the bad guy grabs Frank's mask, twisting it so Frank is blinded.
So Frank researches heroes without powers who use weapons and, after some consideration, decides on a large wrench as his blunt object of choice. Which is fine - until someone pulls a gun on him.
Meanwhile, Frank has drawn the attention of a comic-store clerk named Libby (Ellen Page), who figures out that he's the Crimson Bolt and wants in on the action. She fashions herself as his sidekick, Boltie. But she's a bit too hyper, crowing triumphantly after taking down a guy who keyed her friend's car ("I'm pretty sure he did it," she says after nearly killing the guy).
There's more, of course, with Frank eventually coming after Jock and his thugs. But by then, Super has gone both too far and not far enough. Even if you buy into its premise, you lose patience with its flabby pacing - and its eventual violent overkill.
Gunn's point is that violence is ghastly and nothing to play around with - on both sides of the law. But it's all so ham-handed that you've stopped caring by the time something really bad happens to Frank.
Wilson is one of the great deadpan comics acting today, with his permanent scowl and pug-like face. Page is his opposite: open, fresh-faced, excitable. They should make a funny team. They don't.
Super is an interesting attempt but only that. It's meant to alternately shock you and provoke laughs. At best, however, you nod and think, "OK, I get it." And that's not good enough.