‘Real-life’ superhero movies: a closer look

Kick-Ass, Super, Unbreakable - Tim takes a look at what happens when superheroes enter the real world in movies...

The success of superhero films in recent years has led to an upswing in movies about people in the ‘real’ world who dress up to fight crime. In contrast to their higher profile counterparts, these films are generally smaller in scale and made by independent filmmakers. In another divergence with their mainstream cousins, most of these films’ protagonists take on the role of superhero in order to work out some kind of psychological trauma not directly related to crime.

Since these films are more character studies than ‘slam bang’ entertainments, they are more idiosyncratic and offbeat in execution. Most of the films on this list are, admittedly, not great, but they make up for their flaws with fresh ideas and spins on the tropes associated with comic book heroes that you would probably not get in a more mainstream production.

To take a musical analogy, if Marvel and DC are Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, then these films should be regarded as the punk-like reaction to the status quo. As the superhero genre continues to develop, it will be equally interesting to see how the ‘real-life hero’ sub-genre progresses in step with the more high profile studio offerings.

Hero At Large (Martin Davidson, 1980)

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Steve Nicholls (John Ritter) is a would-be thespian who cannot catch a break. One of life’s nice guys, Steve passes on a potentially lucrative beer commercial so that a fellow actor can get paid. His only current job is a promotional gig posing as ‘Captain Avenger’, a big screen superhero. The struggling actor finds a new calling when he takes on the persona of the fictional crime fighter to foil a robbery. When Steve’s antics cause the movie’s grosses to sky-rocket, the film’s promoter, Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), believes that he can use Steve to help with another job — getting the unpopular Mayor (Leonard Harris) re-elected.

The first film based around a ‘real life’ superhero (if anyone can think of an earlier one, pop it in the comments), Hero At Large establishes many of the tropes that later films would develop. Compared to the other films covered in this feature, it is pretty simple and rather toothless (in his review, Roger Ebert repeatedly calls it ‘dumb’). It’s amiable enough, and Ritter’s chemistry with co-star Anne Archer (as Steve’s object of affection) gives it a lot of charm, but Hero At Large lacks that special something to make it stand out.

Partially, this may have to do with the portrayal of our ‘hero’. Steve is not deranged like other protagonists — he’s just incredibly earnest and naive. While this characterisation has possibilities, little is made in terms of juxtaposing Steve’s idealism against the gritty backdrop of late 70s NYC (a time of blackouts, drugs, crime and the Son of Sam, to name a few ‘attractions’ of the era). There is a great scene where Steve awkwardly tries to chase down a pair of drug pushers while changing into his Captain Avenger garb. After he runs their car off the road, he gets a taste of mortality when one of the drug pushers shoots him in the arm. If only the film had more sequences like this, Hero At Large may have risen above the cookie cutter rom com it winds up being.

The other problem is that the basic premise demands a more cynical take: Steve’s alliance with Reeves’ unscrupulous PR man involves him taking part in staged crimes to build up his rep as a real crime fighter. There are certain aspects of the film which recall Taxi Driver (the New York locations, Steve’s job as cabbie, Leonard Harris as a political candidate), but these homages only reinforce how lightweight the film’s attempts at social commentary are. Ultimately, Hero At Large needed more bite — a deficiency later films would seek to remedy.

Unbreakable (M. Night Shymalan, 2000)

Average joe David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is the lone survivor of a train disaster. When eccentric comic book store owner Elijah Price (Sameul L. Jackson) enters his life, Dunn begins to realise that his survival is more unique than he originally thought…

Enough words have already been written on this movie, so I’ll keep this one brief. This is the one movie which stretches the parameters of this feature, and yet it is probably the best of the sub-genre. Bruce Willis has arguably never been better, Shymalan’s slow reveal of the film’s genre is brilliant, and the film builds to a climax that is as emotionally satisfying as the better known Sixth Sense.

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In an effectively manic performance Samuel L. Jackson rides the line of going over the top but always stays the right side of ham. It also features one of Shymalan’s best set pieces in Dunn’s claustrophobic struggle with the home intruder at the climax. Shymalan’s control of the film’s tone is exemplary here — years before ‘realism’ overtook genre cinema, Shymalan adopts an understated, lo-fi approach to its comic book conventions which is highly effective.

Over 15 years after its release, Unbreakable remains a riveting dramatic thriller that just happens to also be a superhero origin story.

Special (Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore, 2006)

“I’m important and I keep this city running”

Les (Michael Rapaport) is a shy meter maid who takes part in a study for a new drug. After he has a bad reaction to the medication, he begins to believe that he has gained superpowers.

Special is an odd beast — it has an intriguing premise, but it never feels like a feature. The premise feels more suited to a short film, its low budget is frequently obvious and it quickly runs out of steam. Even at a trim 81 minutes, the film feels padded out. The filmmakers are trying to engage with the theme of an everyman trying to stand out, but the film never builds in a consistent way toward a recognisable conclusion. The story is more of a series of set pieces then a fully developed narrative.

The tone does not help. This film is incredibly dark but one-note. There is so little variation in tone that the film feels incredibly slow, and not in a good way.

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The cast are all solid (Paul Blackthorne from TV’s Arrow pops up as Les’ nemesis, an unscrupulous businessman), but the movie as whole winds up less than sum of its parts.

However, if you are willing to take a chance, Special does have one truly exceptional element — Rapaport is truly great as Les. The veteran character actor takes this film on his shoulders and elevates every second he is onscreen. He is truly touching, playing a meek schlub who finally finds a reason to make himself feel ‘special’ in a world that ignores or marginalises him. Rapaport is so good, it only highlights how half-baked the rest of the film is.

Noise (Henry Bean, 2007)

Starring Tim Robbins, Noise is more of a political satire than a straight ‘hero in spandex’ picture — even though he does have a code name and a costume. Or is it a character study? As you can tell buy this confusing opening, I’m still trying to figure out what this film is.

Like most of the movies on this list, Noise has flaws, chiefly a lack of a strong central idea. it is not that the film is bereft of meaty ideas — it just has so many that it is hard to pin down exactly what this movie is trying to say.

Robbins plays petty vigilante ‘The Rectifier’, who seeks to rid NYC of noise pollution by sabotaging car alarms. It is a bizarrely mundane concept and in the hands of a gifted minimalist like Jim Jarmusch, it could have been a comic gem — an eccentric David and Goliath story — yet writer-director Henry Bean seems to have no confidence in this premise, and clogs it up with so many other ideas and left field plot developments that the film loses its way.

Ultimately, Noise feels like a couple different ideas for films stapled together. The Rectifier is such a minor league agitator that these narrative digressions make his mission and motives feel incredibly pointless and petty.

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Noise is an interesting curio, and has a great cast (including Susan Sarandon and William Hurt), but it is a misfire nevertheless.

Defendor (2009)

There is an underlying theme of mental illness and heroism-as-therapy running through the genre of ‘real life’ hero films, and Defendor highlights this by framing its story as a literal therapy session.

Woody Harrelson stars as Defendor, a mysterious, child-like vigilante out to take down his nemesis ‘Captain Industry’, the man who he believes killed his mother. Aided by a street-wise hooker (Kat Dennings), he attempts to hunt down his imaginary foe while his friends (played by Michael Kelly and Clark Johnson) and a psychologist (Sandra Oh) try to bring him back to reality.

This is a movie filled with strong performances (particularly from Harrelson and Elias Koreas as a corrupt cop Defendor targets), but the script does not quite deliver enough on the premise. The first half of the movie is great, but then it feels like the filmmakers ran out of ideas (which is true of a lot of superhero movies in general).

The biggest strike against Defendor may ultimately be its marketing, which pitches it as a dark comedy. The film is more gentle than that — this is a film about a man struggling with mental illness. There are a few laughs, but the film does not try to make fun of Defendor/Arthur. The problem is, while it does a good job of fleshing him out, it does not know how to move the character forward. A character locked in an endless loop can be interesting if there is some kind of progression, even if it is retrograde, but Defendor is stuck in neutral.

In a strange way, the film feels like an embryonic form of 2010’s releases — almost like a teaser fort the madness to come. However, the film as a whole, does not quite reach the same level. Your best bet might be to watch it in a double-bill with Super — its sweet may balance out the sour of Gunn’s film.

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Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

A prime example of how strong direction and powerhouse performances can overcome wobbly story structure, Kick-Ass is one of the most well-known films in the ‘real life’ hero genre. As with Unbreakable, I will keep this one brief.

I will also have to be honest. When this movie first came out, I thought it was amazing. Subsequent viewings have led me to revise my opinion a little — its impact is somewhat diluted by a third act of escalating absurdity, but for the first two thirds this is fairly grounded. It’s the story of how a nerdy little nobody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) decides to try out being a superhero because he wants to. Refreshingly compared with the damaged souls of past films, there’s no big emotional shift that turns him down this path. He just wants to be a ‘somebody’, rather than the wallflower he actually is.

As I stated at the outset, this movie does not rank as high for me as it once did. The main reason is Kick-Ass himself — as an emotional anchor he is a black hole. The more interesting (and frankly disturbing) story is Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) — it is basically the tale of a deranged man and how he has turned his daughter into a child soldier. Vaughn does not explore the implications of this scenario (which is odd, considering how far he is willing to go in other areas), perhaps recognising that escapist fun and psychological abuse do not go well together.

All in all, Kick-Ass is a fun ride, but after six years its flaws become more and more evident.

Super (James Gunn, 2010)

Secretly, this might be my favourite on the list. Objectively, it is pretty shaggy (why haven’t the cops caught this guy?), but Super packs a gonzo energy and vitality that makes up for its occasional misfires.

Developing the theme of super-heroism as therapy, this movie focuses on Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson), a mentally unhinged man who completely falls apart when his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for her ex-drug-dealer/boyfriend Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Following a vision from Jesus (Rob Zombie), Frank believes that he is on a mission from God to rescue his wife and rid crime from the streets. To this end, he takes on the guise of the Crimson Bolt — a wrench-brandishing vigilante.

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To aid him in his quest (whether he likes it or not), he gains a ‘kid’ sidekick — closeted psychopath and comic book fan Libby (Ellen Page). While Frank is unbalanced (he beats a man’s head in for cutting line), Libby is completely insane. In a movie filled with dangerous characters, Libby is the most terrifying. While you could make the argument that Frank’s targets are genuine threats to society (child molesters, drug dealers), Libby targets anyone she does not like. The fact that she is also incredibly incompetent only makes her scarier. And that’s not even the worst part of her character. Not to go into spoilers, but there is a disturbingly sexual dimension to Libby’s personality which takes the psycho-sexual and fetishistic aspects of films like Batman Returns and Watchmen to their darkest extreme.

The rest of the cast are terrific. Liv Tyler is believably pathetic as Frank’s damaged wife, Kevin Bacon is hilariously sleazy as her tempter and Nathan Fillion delivers a gloriously po-faced cameo as the super heroic lead of a Christian TV show that Frank watches.

Super may be James Gunn’s most emotionally naked film. Frank’s transformation into the Crimson Bolt is as sad as it is uplifting (although that may just be a subjective opinion). No matter how crazy it gets, Frank’s journey toward redemption somehow manages to feel achingly real. In the beginning, he is a schlub who found his salvation in someone as damaged as himself, and while the film charts his attempts to save his wife, the film is ultimately about Frank recognising that he is not Sarah’s chosen one, and has to find a reason to live outside of her.

Unlike Matthew Vaughn, who plays his story as an escapist fantasy, Gunn is not afraid to explore the darkness of his character’s mission. And in Ellen Page’s Boltie, he creates a truly disturbing character — someone whose motivations and actions reveal the dark side of vigilantism.

No question, Super is a polarising film. But it is one of the most ambitious films in this sub-genre, and is worth a look for that reason alone.

Boy Wonder (2010)

A fascinating idea let down by uneven execution, Boy Wonder is well worth a look, even if it can be a frustrating viewing experience. No comic book inspiration here — Sean Donovan (Caleb Steinmeyer) is a traumatised kid who works out his pain on the hard streets of Manhattan, intentionally finding the worst members of society, allowing them to beat him up, and then exacting brutal retribution.

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This movie should be great — it certainly looks good, with DP Chris LaVasseur painting the film in noirish shadows. Newcomer Steinmeyer is terrific as Sean — looking like Sam Riley’s more introverted cousin, he gives Sean a mania and nervous energy which often makes up for the script’s deficiencies. He gives a masterclass in underplayed menace — he is both incredibly empathetic and frightening as his paranoia and rage slowly take over. Co-star Zulay Henao is saddled with some pretty bad ‘movie cop’ dialogue, but she is solid as the sympathetic cop who tries to help Sean out.

Ultimately, Boy Wonder is let down by its script: filled with banal, clichéd dialogue and some really ham-fisted exposition, the film’s cast, even Steinmeyer, are fighting a losing battle against its cliches and sloppy plot turns. Any attempt at subtext and nuance is hammered into the ground by the script’s constant attempts to make everything as obvious as possible. There is even a scene in which a pimp who Sean has just beaten up tells him that he is just making things worse because he is going to kill the hooker Sean was trying to save. It is scenes like this one which really blunt the movie’s impact.

What makes it even more frustrating is that there are some truly great scenes trapped in here (Sean’s war-painted assault on the train; his breakdown at a party). Every time the film feels like it is picking up steam, the story suddenly cuts away or jumps forward in time. There are many points where it feels like half the important scenes are missing. All of the characters are missing backstory and development — even Sean feels short-changed —and this lack of depth undermines credibility.

Ultimately, Boy Wonder is a good-looking but underwhelming hodgepodge of ideas. Of all the films on this list, this concept feels perfect for a remake, or even a different medium — Sean’s arc from damaged kid to avenging psycho would make for a unique and intriguing TV series.

Hope you enjoyed this feature. If you think of any other films that you think fit in this subgenere, toss them in the comments!

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