James Gunn got his start at the legendary B-movie house Troma Entertainment, then went on to write and direct the 2006 horror film "Slither," his feature debut, which married his loves of comedy and gore.
Now, he's followed that up with "Super." But the movie that really comes to mind while watching it is the brilliant "Shaun of the Dead," which began life as a funny, loving homage to zombie flicks, then slowly, steadily became a really suspenseful, and really violent, zombie flick in its own right.
"Super" starts out toying with the idea of the self-made vigilante superhero, someone with no special powers who nonetheless feels the need to fight crime. But by the end, Gunn's film has morphed into an intense and bloody exploration of a man on a quest, one who's hell-bent on vengeance - with a perky pixie by his side.
"The Office" star Rainn Wilson plays it deadly straight as Frank, a sad-sack short-order cook whose wife, a waitress and former junkie named Sarah (Liv Tyler), is using again. In no time, she's also fallen into the creepy, skinny arms of Jacques (Kevin Bacon), an amusingly evil drug dealer. All this is more than one mild-mannered guy can stand, so the doughy Frank - with a little push from the hand of God and some programming on the All-Jesus Network - reinvents himself as a crime fighter. He goes by the name The Crimson Bolt, complete with a makeshift red costume, mask and weapon: a wrench, which he uses to unceremoniously bash people's heads in.
"Super" has a cheeky, geeky sense of humor when it comes to Frank's awkward attacks: It's sweet and earnest, but also raunchy and fearless. Wilson finds the comedy in his character's sadness - he's funny precisely because he isn't funny - which makes you feel for him, too. He's got more than a little Travis Bickle in him, but he's also just pathetic.
But Ellen Page pretty much steals the show as Libby, the comic book store clerk who figures out who he is and insists on serving as his sidekick, even though she turns out to be not-so trusty. She reinvents herself as Boltie (after going through a series of possible nicknames and poses in a hilarious, breathless bit) and just goes gonzo.
Page is a complete joy, albeit in a dangerously volatile way, and it's so much fun to see the "Juno" star in such a different kind of role. She's not the coolest girl in the room, she just doesn't have all the answers or just the right, poignant zinger. She's a giddy goofball, and unabashedly so. But she's such a cute little thing, you can't help but adore her, even as she's reveling in the carnage she's created.
Gunn himself gets some laughs, appearing as the Devil in a couple of scenes alongside "Slither" star Nathan Fillion, who's unrecognizable and delightfully subversive as The Holy Avenger, the superhero of a super-judgmental Christian television program.
It may sound like "Super" is trying too hard to shock, trying too hard to be edgy or weird. But it has such a low-budget charm, it's pretty hard to resist. Besides, if you don't, you risk incurring the wrath of The Crimson Bolt. And you don't want that.
"Super," an IFC Films release, is unrated but contains violence, language and drug use. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.