Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cinema File #147: "All Superheroes Must Die (aka Vs.)" Review

You know, I'm a sucker for superheroes. Despite what you may think based on my reviews for the two highest grossing superhero movies of 2012, it actually takes a lot for me to outright dislike one. As hit and miss as the last fifteen or so years of the comic book movie renaissance have been, I still have to consider it a net positive, if only because it has shifted the realm of possibility to allow for movies like All Superheroes Must Die to exist. A movie this esoteric, a superhero horror thriller not based on any established franchise or character (that I know of), would never have been made twenty years ago, and while it has its flaws, my appreciation for the effort and the care taken with it is illustrative of a true labor of comic book love, and I found it to be highly enjoyable.

All Superheroes Must Die, also known as Vs., finds a group of twenty something superheroes formerly part of a team until an implied bitter breakup, waking up in a town filled with innocent victims strapped to explosives, their powers gone, forced to go through a series of deadly games designed by their greatest enemy to test their morality and ultimately kill them. Right away I like how the movie throws you right into the action, only gaining more background through dialogue and in a few scant flashbacks, and everything from how these characters relate to one another to what powers they used to have is revealed in a blink and you'll miss it fashion that assumes you are paying attention. Characters are established as they face hardships and showcase who they are, and nothing is spoonfed to us or beaten over our heads.

The limitations of the budget result in a strange but ultimately effective sort of proto-punk 60's Adam West Batman feel, with very simple costumes that look like they were homemade (because they most likely were), which enriches the story as we learn how and why these people became superheroes in the first place. The only actor I recognized among the heroes was the kid who played Havoc in X-Men: First Class, here playing a similarly rough around the edges character called Cutthroat, and while the cast of relative unknowns aren't always necessarily the best actors, they all get a moment or two to shine and any less than stellar performances are made up for with the better ones. Jason Trost, who also wrote and directed the film, plays the team's de facto leader Charge, and his stalwart good guy brought to the breaking point is surprisingly effective in a way that sneaks up on you, and its certainly a major highlight.

James Remar from Dexter plays the villain, a seemingly crippled supervillain named Rickshaw who appears mostly via video camera set ups to inform his victims of the rules he's devised for each game. He definitely chews the scenery quite a bit and his take on the character might be too over the top for some, but especially in the context of a comic book sensibility, I thought it worked. Rickshaw comes off as a kooky Silver Age villain who probably never caused too much trouble, complete with an askew bowtie, until one day he apparently just lost it and decided to stop playing around with the people who keep putting him in jail. Driven homicidally insane by his constant failure, he maintains the goofy accoutrements of a C-List bad guy like henchmen dressed in bear suits, but shows no mercy as he makes his enemies helplessly watch him destroy innocent life and put them in danger at every turn.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the ages of the characters. This is a story that seems to be more appropriate for an older group of heroes coming out of retirement rather then a group just out of the teen sidekick age range. Their history never seems as rich as it could be because of this, and where they would be grizzled and resolute if they were older, sometimes our main heroes come off as annoyingly snotty or naive. The movie appears to recognize this at one point by going out of its way to address their youthful appearances, implying that they are older than they look because their powers keep them young, but this didn't really make it better. There's enough to the movie that it never outright feels like a bunch of nerdy cosplayers, but there are moments that come close, only because I find it hard to believe just on a physical level that these people are superheroes.

I can't help but forgive the film's flaws knowing the restrictions surrounding the production. Evidently the movie was made for $20,000 in only two months, and just the fact that they were able to make it look this good and come up with anything written this well in that time frame and budget is astonishing. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a masterpiece or one of the best superhero movies I've ever seen, but it does what it sets out to do very well, marrying two genres that I would not have considered compatible before seeing the final product. Its at times grim, maudlin, hopeful, and kickass, and easily exceeded my expectations. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.

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