Documentary film director Matt Ogens’ Confessions Of A Superhero is a remarkable piece of work, taking under its gaze the community of wannabe actors and odd kooks that dress up as movie stars, classic characters and superheroes, and wander along Hollywood Boulevard, trading photographs with passers-by for tips. It is a subculture that treads the line between legitimate tourist trap and begging, but a strange code of conduct keeps most of them on the good side of the tolerant local law enforcement.
The film focuses on four such caped street entertainers – a Superman (Christopher Dennis), a Batman (Maxwell Allen), a Wonder Woman (Jennifer Wenger) and an Incredible Hulk (Joseph McQueen) – and takes a look at their lives through candid footage of their daily routines, and long talking head interviews.
While some of the situations are, in essence, comic (such as the Batman impersonator having both a dark past and anger issues), the film treats its subjects with a certain pathos, an intimacy that treads the line between respect and voyeurism with often brutal frankness.
They are not scrutinised for laughs. They instead become a warped refraction of our dreams, be they the ambition to be a movie star, or the fantasy and obsession of pop culture.
When Superman stands in his apartment, which has become his own geeky fortress, stuffed with memorabilia, toys, comics and posters wallpapering each room, he becomes a symbol for the ageing obsessive, investing time and endless energy into their chosen hobby.
They are all failed actors, driven to their calling by the promise of relative fame and opportunity to rack up hundreds of dollars a day, if punters are generous. Their work is bizarre, both completely undignified, yet still greeted with warmth from a majority of pedestrians, perfectly presented as Superman poses with a lady tourist, only for her hand to travel south towards his red overpants. He can only smile, but he revels in the attention, meticulously twirling the curl in his fringe to mimic Christopher Reeve and treating potential customers with the poise of a big blue Boy Scout.
We delve into their pasts: Superman claims to be the son of Oscar-winning actress Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), but her family denies it; Batman admits to previously being a strong-man for the mob, yet even his wife casts doubt on half his assertions; the Incredible Hulk came to Hollywood in the middle of the riots inspired by the Rodney King incident, and spent years sleeping rough on the streets before finding his true calling, dressing up in a green suit in the baking California sun.
These people are engrossing, fascinating, and in some cases quite pathetic, especially as the film develops their stories against a backdrop of time: as Superman travels to Metropolis, Illinois in order to compete in a lookalike contest, as Wonder Woman goes through a divorce, and as Batman is arrested for aggressive behaviour on The Strip.
It is a deeply moving progression, with moments of debatable exploitation as their luck hits rock bottom. To its credit, the film’s heart is always behind these hopeful outsiders, never trotting them out as sideshow freaks, unlike the Jimmy Kimmel show, which stages the Superhero Olympics, with Batman and Superman wrestling before a guffawing, pre-taped Late Show crowd. That the latter hero views this as his big break is quite devastating.
These factors make Confessions Of A Superhero a conflicted viewing experience. It is visually stunning, as Ogens mixes up candid fly-on-the-wall observational camerawork with evocative still images and more overtly beautiful segments framed by cinematographer Charlie Gruet. The Superman interview sequences are filmed on a studio set, with turquoise wallpaper and a vomit-green leather sofa that warps the colour palate into a moody, jaundiced hue.
This isn’t a zippy, fun documentary. It is meditative, poignant and quite brilliant. Its release on DVD is well timed, coming as it does a handful of weeks after Kick-Ass. Where that film imagines a world where comic geeks and freaks find their calling in crime fighting, Confessions Of A Superhero shows that, in our world, there is a melancholic mania to our fantasies.
None of the special features have been brought over from the American release. This is the barest of bones and the slimmest of pickings.
Unfortunately, an introduction by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who had no direct involvement in the film’s production, yet ‘presents’ this DVD release, is hard-wired into the film, marring the beginning with his dopey humour-documentary tone.
Confessions Of A Superhero is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.