Friday, November 23, 2012

The Cinema File #37: "Superheroes" Review

I was initially hesitant to review a documentary, because so much of how I judge movies comes from an analysis of narrative and character, and with something like HBO's Superheroes, its hard for me to talk about real people and their real lives as if they are just characters in a movie, and subject to the same criticisms. That being said, if there was any documentary that I think works for this, its this one. Superheroes is all about people play acting and pretending, most with it would seem respectable motives, and while I'd guess that the initial impulse would be to see these people as figures of mockery and derision, I couldn't help feeling that despite the silly costumes, they might just have the right idea.

Superheroes follows the lives of several ordinary people who have been inspired for various reasons to go out on their own or in groups to make their hometowns just a little bit better, donning costumes and alternate identities and fashioning themselves real-life superheroes. We start with Mr. Xtreme, a man who the movie seems to want me to laugh at if not outright pity as we see him in his messy little apartment, watching the Power Rangers and beating up on his man-shaped punching bag Bob, and while I can see the humor in it, I felt a little queasy watching the somewhat mean spirited tone the movie sets up.

The obvious draw of this movie is examining the lives of people as if they are crazy, or at the very least going about things in a way contrary to how normal people should act. Master Legend, a boisterous perpetual optimist and people pleaser, is shown continually drinking beer out of his Justice Van, and another is asked point blank whether or not he has a girlfriend, as if the fact that he doesn't is supposed to be a testament to what a foolish endeavor he's engaging in. One could argue that this is just showcasing who these people are, warts and all, and certainly they do show them in a much better light in other parts of the film which I'll get to later, but the focus always seems to go back to framing these people as abnormal.

And maybe that's right, at least in light of the fact that most people don't go around in costumes and call themselves superheroes. You could do a similar examination of LARPers or Cosplayers and elicit the same sort of unintentionally funny quotes and bizarre personalities. I shouldn't have to say that there's nothing wrong with any of those examples as far as eccentric hobbies go, but at the same time, those are just hobbies, and these real life superheroes have taken it upon themselves, even if perhaps in a misguided way, to help people. And yet despite flatly showing that effort, the tone and flow of the movie still seems to want to conflate them all together, even as it proves these costumed crime fighters to be something more than that.

We see them fail to live up to the idea of what we would think a real life costumed superhero should be, over and over again, and instead see these people as fools or poseurs. There are no Batmans in this group. Their patrol missions often end with no crime found, their weapons often don't work or break upon demonstration, and they seem as concerned with the coolness of their superhero identities as with the stated goal of using them to help. But that all comes off, at least to me, as the spin of the movie, and not the intent of the people being displayed. Weird or not, these people are more engaged with their community in a positive way than I've ever been with mine, and I can't bring myself to say what they are doing is crazy when so many of them are helping the homeless, organizing food drives, and performing what would be done by a neighborhood watch if one existed where they lived. So they do it in costume and ask that you call them by a different name. Why is that so strange?

Some of the ones who are more committed to actually seeking out and fighting crime rather than performing more low key services actually have some pretty sophisticated operations. One group of somewhat gothic superheroes even sets traps for would be bad guys, using their own members as bait to attract the attention of rapists or homophobic attackers, and while they never catch any, they do manage to thwart a different sort of crime on at least two occasions that we see, and through the training they sought out as part of their mission, help the injured after a (admittedly small scale) hit and run. Others are less action oriented, such as one husband and wife team who build overnight kits for the homeless and hand them out in costume. Still others are not demonstrated as doing anything much other than strutting around in their costumes, with the obvious implication that for some of them, that is all this is about. The problem is, the film seems to want to lump all of these people together as if its all just goofy people acting goofy.

When Mr. Xtreme moves out of his apartment and into his van, couching his apparent temporary homelessness as an opportunity to focus more on his crime fighting, I'm clearly supposed to feel sorry for this misguided loser who thinks he's a comic book character and as a result is losing focus on what I guess he should be doing, like working a dead end job and shlubing around the house. Maybe I should feel that way, but I also know that there's nothing in my life that I care about that much to make that sort of sacrifice, and its more than a little noble to keep doing what he's doing even as his normal life seems to break down, even if he's not as effective as you think he should be. These people all seem to have a lot of heart, and it all seems to be in the right place, and despite this movie's attempt to have its cake and eat it too, halfheartedly depicting the commitment of these people while also painting them as deranged and wrongheaded, I'm on their side.

I mean, I'm not going to put on a fucking cape or anything, but, you know, something that requires little to no effort, and I'm there. Definitely give this one a watch if you can track it down, if only to see a lot of really cool characters do shit you probably never do, like feed and clothe poor people, because you're too normal for that. Just ignore the film's obvious attempt at mockery and try to see it through their eyes instead.
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