Directors: Michael Barnett and Theodore James
There’s an odd and easygoing charm to Superheroes, a colorful new documentary which enjoys its world broadcast premiere on HBO on Monday, August 8. While in the narrative realm James Gunn’s “Super”, Peter Stebbings’ “Defendor” and Matthew Vaughn’s ultra-stylized Kick-Ass, among others, have examined the worlds and worldviews of those who take on a superhero guise without any particular special powers, “Superheroes” is a nonfiction look at those who don self-made spandex costumes along with alter egos, patrolling city streets at night to stop evildoers and protect the innocent. An engaging if ultimately intellectually lightweight sub-cultural safari, the movie offers up something for and ultimately connects about equally with clucking gawkers and admiring comic book fanboys alike.
Co-directed by Michael Barnett and Theodore James, “Superheroes” shines a light on a surprisingly robust collection of real-world masked crime-fighters, spanning from New York to San Diego to Orlando. Mr. Xtreme posts homemade flyers with a police sketch of a local serial groper and also recruits for his organization, the Xtreme Justice League, of which he is the only member. Other young superheroes, like Zimmer, Z, T.S.A.F. (an acronym for The Silenced and Forgotten) and Lucid, have moved in together and joined forces under the banner of the New York Initiative, where they patrol the streets of Brooklyn and sometimes take part in more legally questionable “bait” operations, designed to elicit thefts or hate-crime assaults. Dark Guardian, meanwhile, confronts drug peddlers at his local park, with the assistance of a cameraman named, well, Cameraman. Then there’s Master Legend, the founding member of Team Justice, the only superhero group with recognized non-profit status, and a beer-swilling, chatty guy who declares that his self-made bombs “ain’t no funny business.”
Befitting their stature as proactive, pay-it-forward types, almost all of these men (and, yes, women too) are unerringly polite, and of course community-oriented. They trend young, of course, and frequently work low-wage or odd jobs that allow them nights and weekends to themselves. But for the most part they’re not — despite the almost uniformly outlandish costumes — completely off-the-grid fringe-dwellers; amongst their ranks are a martial arts instructor, a teacher, a security guard, an EMT trainee and a stay-at-home dad. These folks also typically share troubled backgrounds — previous problems with addiction or drug abuse, childhood trauma and victimization, and/or past criminal behavior. Clearly their taking of these most unusual stands for “the voiceless and powerless” is motivated by a deep-seated desire to set right what was once wrong in their own lives.
While it includes interviews with behavioral psychologists and law enforcement professionals, Superheroes doesn’t specifically push its subjects too far on questions of their motivations and tactics, instead preferring to take a passive, interrogative tack, and let viewers connect dots and draw their own conclusions. While a push for more forceful and sustained reflection may have made for a stronger and/or potentially more cathartic experience, such is not the mission of Barnett and James’ film. In this regard, the movie suffers a bit. With the possible exception of a couple of extremely young crusaders and the much older Master Legend, who comes off as something of a nutter, the individuals in Superheroes are all rather striking in their level-headedness, and ability to articulate their feelings. They realize the sort of attention their rather radical behavior attracts, and have to embrace it as part of their “mission,” however broadly defined. Pressing these subjects on alternative avenues for these energies, creating a dialogue about their visions for constructive and lasting social change, would have been difficult but also much more rewarding.
Still, a movie like this would have been perhaps cruel and insufferable if it didn’t treat its subjects’ goals and aims sincerely, which Superheroes most assuredly does. None of the people showcased here seem to be merely aggrandizing attention-seekers; they each legitimately want to help people, and regard current institutions and bureaucracies as either failing or lacking somehow in their ability to adequately solve people’s problems and needs. Barnett and James wish to merely chronicle this subculture, and then let viewers of their curio ruminate as much or less little as they wish about the varying degrees of mental illness and/or bold, iconoclastic bravery they have just witnessed.
Written by: Brent Simon