At this point, the superhero genre has been so thoroughly worked over that the lesser lights of the DC and Marvel universes are getting their own nine-figure blockbusters and even meta-critiques have become a subgenre all their own. Just in the last five years alone, there have been four films—Kick-Ass, Defendor, Special, and the new psycho-comedy Super—about ordinary people who decide to fight crime in silly homemade costumes. (And in each one, there’s inevitably a scene where the hero asks, “Why hasn’t anyone thought to do that before?!”) For as long as its thin conceit can hold out, Super stands out from the pack for its brash, spiky, horrific real-world violence, which provides a welcome antidote to the more conventional, comic-book-y (yet still grotesque) mayhem found in the equally irreverent Kick-Ass. It’s ugly to the core.
Importing his Dwight Schrute pallor from The Office, sans the false bravado, Rainn Wilson stars as a lowly short-order cook who can count two great moments in his life: marrying a woman (Liv Tyler) above his social station and aiding the cops in chasing down a fleeing criminal. That heroism and heart come together when a sleazy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) takes his wife away from him for good. Using comic books as a guide, Wilson decides to reinvent himself as a superhero called Crimson Bolt, whose crude crime-fighting technique involves waiting behind a dumpster for a crime to happen and then clocking the perpetrator in the head with a pipe wrench. When the clerk at the local comic bookshop, played by Ellen Page, catches wind of his activities, she forces him to bring her on as Boltie, his enthusiastic and sexually aggressive sidekick.
The dark joke that drives Super isn’t quite enough to sustain it, but it’s a good one: Crimson Bolt fights crime with bruised nobility, but zero sense of proportion. The nature of the crimes themselves doesn’t matter—whether the perpetrators are murderous henchmen or petty purse-snatchers, they all get brained. Gunn, who previously directed the underrated horror-comedy Slither, loses that movie’s studio slickness and returns to the blunt-force nastiness of his days writing scripts for Troma. Gunn doesn’t have enough control over the film’s wavering tone—Wilson’s remote, unidentifiable performance doesn’t help, either—but that same unsteadiness gives it a charge, too. Super exists in the no-man’s land between indie quirk and raw exploitation, and when it works, it’s thrillingly off-balance.