Bam! Ka-pow! The exclamatory cartoon balloons that pop up during a scene of gruesome vigilante justice late in James Gunn’s “Super” are supposed to remind us that at heart the movie is a harmless live-action satire of comic-book revenge fantasies. But is it?
Along the way this subversively funny, tonally twisted film morphs from something playful with dark undercurrents into the opposite. This sudden whiplash back to an attitude of false innocence registers as a slap in the face.
The film’s schlubby antihero, Frank (Rainn Wilson), is a glowering short-order cook driven by a lifetime of victimization and curdled outrage. He is a seething mass of righteous self-pity who adopts the persona and costume of a superhero he names the Crimson Bolt.
The type of repressed creep who is often described as “a ticking time bomb,” Frank adopts his avenging alter ego after his wife, Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering drug addict and alcoholic whom he helped lead to sobriety, is stolen from him by her former boyfriend Jacques (Kevin Bacon). The proprietor of a local strip club, Jacques immediately enslaves her to heroin.
One of Frank’s inspirations is a television show, “The Holy Avenger,” a ridiculous superhero series on the fictional All-Jesus Network that suggests a “South Park” parody. In an amusingly outlandish scene Frank has a vision in which his head is attacked by giant sucking worms that irradiate his brain; a moment later he is touched by the finger of God. From then on there is no turning back.
The plot of “Super” has a lot in common with “Kick-Ass,” in which the title character, a high-school dweeb and his sidekick, Hit-Girl, wreak gory havoc. Mr. Gunn, who wrote and directed “Super,” is an alumnus of the B-movie studio Troma, for whom he wrote the screenplay for the midnight cult hit “Tromeo and Juliet.” That movie and his 2006 comic horror movie, “Slither,” have a facetious, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude and fondness for excess; the more splatter is better.
Initially Frank’s attempts to right the world’s wrongs using only his fists and ungainly body are ludicrous, foolhardy exercises that end in cuts and bruises at the hands of stronger and more ruthless foes. Realizing he needs weapons, Frank consults Libby (Ellen Page), an eager, fresh-faced clerk in a comic-book store, for appropriate tools. She guesses his alter ego after news reports of the Crimson Bolt’s antics, and the two become a team.
Frank returns to action wielding a pipe wrench, which he uses to bash people in the face. The smallest rudeness can trigger a violent reaction. A man who cuts in line outside a movie theater winds up in intensive care. An acquaintance of Libby’s who may or may not have defaced a friend’s car is savagely attacked in his home.
“Super” doesn’t pretend to be realistic. Violent acts go unpunished. It thrashes about in a comic-book limbo where basic laws of cause and effect don’t necessarily apply.
The Crimson Bolt eventually commands a formidable arsenal of firepower that includes bombs and grenades as he and Libby, now nicknamed Boltie and appropriately costumed, lay siege to Jacques’s lair.
“Super” rides on the carefully bent performances of its stars. Mr. Wilson’s Frank is a psychotic chip off the blockhead, Dwight, he plays in “The Office.” The film magnifies the quietly fuming, injustice-collecting Dwight into an avenger of monstrous grandiosity. Flashbacks to Frank’s persecution during childhood and adolescence trick you into sympathizing with him long after he has gone around the bend.
A nervous, fidgety crybaby who in moments of abject self-loathing falls on his knees and prays for deliverance from his miserable condition, Frank is ultimately abhorrent despite a mawkish soft ending. You can see exactly why Sarah left him for the loathsome Jacques. There is no getting around the fact that slithery bad boys are sexier than crazy goody-goods. And Mr. Bacon’s sleaze ball oozes an oily reptilian charm.
Even more disturbing is Ms. Page’s transformation from helpful eager beaver to demented vixen whose perky enthusiasm escalates into manical bloodlust. Together Frank and Libby become the newest screen incarnation of those archetypal cinematic lovebirds known as natural-born killers.