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Comic books have been with us for decades, but no doubt it took the power of Hollywood and movies to convince people to dress up in a costume and go out to “fight crime”. For better or worst, Hollywood has a major impact on how we view ourselves and our lives and the world around us. When anti-American individuals cite our “cultural imperialism”, let’s face it, they have a point. Hollywood, and the entertainment industry as a whole, is that influential in the world. I have no doubt that if you were to ask the participants of Michael Barnett’s documentary “Superheroes”, 9 out of 10 (if not the entire 10) would tell you they decided to become superheroes because Hollywood made it acceptable. I could be wrong, of course, but I’d be willing to put money on this.
“Superheroes” is a documentary that spotlights real-life superheroes. In essence, guys and gals who dress up in costumes and walk the streets to fight crime. Mind you, not that any of them actually manages to stop any crimes-in-progress during the entire time the documentary spotlights them, which probably makes a lot of sense. In the movies or comic books, Spider-Man only need swing over to his local grocery store to find everyday bad guys doing in the middle of a strong-arm robbery. Or the Green Goblin shows up and firebombs his Aunt May’s house and taunts him to meet up for a final throw-down. In the real world, it’s rarely that obvious when a crime is going down, so just patrolling the streets really nets you little more than curious stares from passerbys and hassling from the cops. You are, after all, dressed up in a bulky costume and wearing a mask. If cops didn’t stop to ask what the hell you were doing, then they’re really not doing their jobs.
Of course, that’s not going to stop guys like Mr. Xtreme, a San Diego resident who spends his time living out of a small apartment cluttered with comic books and other junk (at least until he decides to move into his van). Master Legend, an aging superhero in Orlando who has become something of a legend among the real-life superhero underground, thanks to a bombastic personality. During the entire time the documentary follows him, we see Master Legend brag about his past exploits (including a colorful childhood that is, perhaps, a tad over exaggerated for cinematic effect), hit on young college girls in bars, and drink alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.
“Superheroes” spends its time following these people as they patrol their section of the United States. We learn about them and their motivations while intercutting with expert interviews. We get insights from Detectives and, as you might expect, psychologists. What drives a person to dress up as a superhero? Some of the superheroes can point to childhood trauma, while others feel a sense of civic responsibility, a need to be greater than oneself. Zimmer, a New York superhero, is openly gay and spends his nights trying to bait homophobes into attacking him. It’s certainly a laudable crusade on his part, but also brings up a whole bunch of legal issues. Zimmer and his fellow New York-based superheroes call it righting wrongs, but cops call it entrapment. Where’s the line? Maybe we’ll find out one day when Zimmer and his New York Initiative finally succeeds and the case ends up in court.
Without question, some of the film’s more outlandish superheroes (there are three guys in Utah that dresses up as devil-inspired “heroes”) do it for the kicks. I’m not sure how some of them can even see out of their homemade masks, or run in their bulky costumes, much less chase bad guys committing crimes. For every truly genuine superhero like Zimmer that wishes to do good, there is a boastful Master Legend kicking in someone’s door and sneaking in a beer. Yes, Master Legend does plenty of good himself, especially with Orlando’s homeless population, but let’s face it, it’s not all about them. A lot of it is about him. Obviously the more colorful you are, the more attention you get, both on the streets and in the media. And, of course, in documentaries. I personally would have preferred an entire doc focused solely on Zimmer and his crew and the ramifications of their “superheroics”. Maybe we’ll get that in a sequel.
Barnett’s “Superheroes” won’t really tell you anything you don’t probably already know, or at least suspected about this latest, comic book-inspired trend and the people that take part in it. Barnett does a good job of balancing out the realities and the fantasy, the outlandish and the realistic without ever mocking his subjects. At the end of the day, though, the documentary cuts right to the core of what being a superhero means in real life: it’s less about catching bad guys and more about doing good. Maybe intimidating that hulking drug dealer out of the park won’t save the world, but maybe it’ll keep a kid from getting hooked on crack that night, and for the rest of his life. Maybe grabbing that drunken guy’s car keys won’t end all crime in New York City, but it might keep him from killing some housewife crossing the road. And sure, maybe covering yourself in a bright costume and mask isn’t necessary to hand out life’s little essentials to your city’s homeless population, but so what if they decide to dress up first?
Michael Barnett (director)
Cast: Mr. Xtreme