How far is too far? As I watched James Gunn's weirdly schizophrenic black comedy Super, I wondered where exactly the film had crossed the line that divides an enjoyably twisted film from a repellently nasty one. It's hard to ascertain for sure, because the film is constantly pushing at boundaries and surprising us with its unapologetic blend of humour and violence, but by the time it reaches its blood-soaked climax, it has grown very wearisome. Heads get smashed, limbs get blown off and – in one sickening moment – a face destroyed by a shotgun blast is shown in lingering close-up. Generous viewers may well praise Gunn for refusing to compromise on the darkness of his vision, but others will be repulsed and dismayed by Super's nihilistic finale, which betrays some of the virtues this superhero parody displays before losing its way.
Super might be best described as the grubby flipside to Kick-Ass. While Matthew Vaughn's take on an ordinary guy becoming a self-made superhero was glossy and slick, Gunn's approach wears its low-budget indie edge on its sleeve and it has more in common thematically with Taxi Driver than other comic book movies. The central character of Frank (played by Rainn Wilson) is certainly nobody's idea of a crimefighter. Gunn quickly establishes him as a loser, pathetically clinging onto what he describes as the "two perfect moments" in his life – the day he helped a policeman chase down a criminal, and the day he married his wife Sarah (Live Tyler, so that's where she's been). We sense that these isolated bright spots are the only things keeping Frank together, and when Sarah leaves him – having fallen under the spell of sleazy drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon) – he sinks into depression.
Frank is eventually hauled out of his abyss of self-pity by a combination of a strange visions and a pious religious superhero (played by Nathan Fillion) that he stumbles across on a Christian TV channel. These experiences suggest to Frank's unhinged mind that fighting back as a masked avenger is the path that has been chosen for him, and so the wrench-wielding Crimson Bolt is born. He starts dispensing justice on drug dealers, muggers and child molesters, cracking skulls first and not hanging around to ask questions. He attacks his new role with a manic, unhinged fervour, taking his wrench to people who dare to cut ahead of him in a cinema queue as forcefully as he does to those breaking the law. The some amusement to be had in watching the energetic but ungainly Wilson launch himself into action with such conviction (shouting his nonsensical catchphrase "Shut up, crime!"), but it's hard to keep laughing as we see him violently bring his wrench down on somebody's head with a horrible crunch.
To say that Super's tone is all over the place is an understatement. Gunn opens his film with a jaunty, brightly animated opening credits sequence, and subsequently veers between scenes of comic book spoofery, extreme violence (with cartoonish, Batman-like sound effects) and mawkish sentimentality. The film's one unqualified success is a stellar performance from Ellen Page as the comic book geek determined to become the Crimson Bolt's sidekick (whether he likes it or not), but her character is kind of thrown away by the movie as it enters its divisive final third. This climactic section feels disconnected from much of what went before and it feels like Gunn has lost his grip on his material. What started as an interesting fresh take on superhero movies has, through the director's constant desire to make us choke on our own laughter, ended up as something ugly and unsatisfying. Super is fast, cheap and out of control.