Friday, November 23, 2012

The Cinema File #36: "Alter Egos" Review

After my recent vampire obsession, I thought I'd indulge in one of my other passions for the next set of movie reviews, with a look at two recent straight to DVD superhero movies. First up, an examination of super heroic identity crises - Alter Egos.

Comedic deconstructions of the superhero genre can be sort of hit and miss. One of my favorite superhero movies of the modern era is a little known satire called The Specials, about a team of superheroes on their day off; it's subtle, short on special effects, and just a great character piece starring Thomas Hayden Church before everyone knew how awesome he was. And yet, ten years later, the same writer James Gunn tackled the same subject with Rainn Wilson in Super, and apart from an engaging villain in Kevin Bacon, it really missed the mark for me. It seems a lot of movies follow this latter example of late, with Woody Harrelson's Defendor and Michael Rappaport's Special all taking the tack of the superhero as crazy person, which makes sense, given how insane one must have to be to put on a costume and fight crime, but also rings hollow for me, because of how much the little kid in me always wanted this kind of thing to work out in the real world. I want to embrace the insanity of superheroes, not step away from it and constantly point out how it would never work that way in real life. It's why the movie Kick Ass works so well for me, because it takes on that cynicism head on and plays at validating it, only to cast it aside by the end with a rocket launcher to Mark Strong's face. Today's film Alter Egos, while eschewing the hyper violence of Michael Vaughn's film, is a respectful tribute to comic book superheroes, poking fun at the absurdity of the idea while still maintaining a love for the kind of material that inspired it.

The story follows The Fridge, an ice controlling superhero struggling with the fact that his girlfriend is having an affair with himself, cheating on his secret identity with his super heroic persona. His personal problems come to a head during a routine prisoner transport with his partner, the X ray eyed C-thru, when a conspiracy threatens to ruin both of his lives. The first thing most people will probably notice is the no doubt deliberately chintzy costumes of the two superhero leads, which I took as a nice nod to the bright colors of Silver Age costume designs, though I imagine many will find it distracting. Its only the first indication of this movie's obvious love of the genre, going out of their way to avoid the post X-Men bad-ass leather look, and it sold me right away. The super powered characters look so out of place and alien compared to everything else, which is as it should be, and sets the oddball tone of the film very well. And like The Specials, the comic book elements are always understated. There are no epic battles or effects laden set pieces, and very few demonstrations of supernatural abilities, just enough to establish that they exist and that they are a common place part of this world, so that the characters who have these powers can be explored.

The world of the film is established very quickly, one in which superheroes are maligned and facing government cut backs, thanks to most of the world's super villains being behind bars, and the execution is simpler than I would have thought it could be given all the character relationships involved. None of the characters were instantly likable, and in some cases they were downright unlikable or boring, but for the most part, they all grew on me by the end. Fridge's obsessive division between his identities came off as a little too silly at first, but by the time he has his ridiculous confrontation with his girlfriend over their two person threesome, it works, and is punctuated by perhaps one of the funniest single lines in the film. The conceit of this thread and others hinges on the idea that these cheap costumes are somehow actually concealing their identities, which strains credulity, but no more than Clark Kent's glasses or Oliver Queen's beard.

Alter Egos does what most movies of its type fail to do, going beyond the satirical dimension and setting out to actually tell a solid story about super heroic exploits even as it takes the opportunity to tweak the stereotypes therein. As The Fridge encounters probably the first real super villain he's ever met and learns a terrible secret about his own family's past, the movie jumps from self-aware genre parody to genuine comic drama, gradually building a superhero world rich enough that I want to see it expanded in other films, or at the very least an actual comic book continuation. If I had one major complaint, its that the ending shifts around quite a bit tonally, giving us what I would almost describe as a Whedon-esque unnecessarily tragic ending, and then faking us out with a plot twist that was at once too predictable, and not as well established as it could have been. It by no means ruins the movie, but when so many other things set up in the beginning pay off so well by the end, it was a bit jarring to have it go so far off the rails, and then spring back again.

Overall, if you have any interest in superheroes, genuinely or ironically, I'd say this is a pretty safe bet for a recommendation. Even if you aren't that into superheroes, there's probably enough here in the character relationships and mostly spot on funny dialogue to engage you enough for two hours. Its the kind of small scale indie movie I can get behind, without pretension or the unchallenged celebration of arrested development of, say, Safety Not Guaranteed. If and when you get a chance, check it out.

Next up, a documentary about real life superheroes that will warm the heart of all but the most cynical bastards. See you next time.
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