Super / James Gunn / 2011 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Strong characters; Acting; Edginess
Side Effects: Comic book elements; Narration

“Is the violence in this film funny to you,” one perturbed viewer asked director James Gunn at a screening of Super at Cambridge, MA’s Brattle Theater. “Uh, some of it,” was his dismissive reply. The morality of the extreme violence in Gunn’s darkly comic real-life superhero film is sure to drive its critical discussion (and repulse many viewers), but it’s not a conversation Gunn is interested in. Blood is spilled very cavalierly in Super, and while it may be a missed opportunity, little is made of its consequences. Gunn is clearly more interested in satisfying the audience’s bloodlust than condemning it, and when it’s done with as much wit and fun as this, that’s alright with me.

Super dances between humor and darker tones much more nimbly than 2010’s Kick Ass. Kick Ass disingenuously dressed a standard superhero movie in the tattered costume of a satire. Super, on the other hand, knows its strength is in delivering righteous violence, and it complies unabashedly. In fact, the film is so sure of itself that a few late flourishes of comic-book-style art seem lazy and misguided. I guess Gunn couldn’t help himself.

While the justice that The Crimson Bolt metes out drew whoops and cheers from the audience, the most refreshing element of the film was its sharp and honest characterizations. Gunn understands and loves his characters, particularly Rainn Wilson’s Frank, whom he claims is a version of himself. His screenplay is attentive to Frank’s humanity and fragility as well as his serious psychological flaws, and for the most part he avoids exaggeration. Rainn Wilson’s level-headed performance also helps steer Frank away from caricature. In a nice supporting turn, Ellen Page is totally game and adds some spunk and energy to the film.

Analysing the violence in Super is a dead end, but approach the film on its own terms and it’s sure to deliver the same kicks that any good, less self-aware superhero movie should.