Friday, August 05, 2011


Look! Down on the ground! It's a man!
In a costume! Calling himself a superhero!

By Edward Copeland
Within Superheroes, the latest film in HBO Documentary Films summer series, lurks several ideas for how to approach its subject — everyday people who assume roles similar to those who fight evil in comic books and movies, only in real life, right down to the costumes and secret identities. The problem with Superheroes lies with its filmmakers' inability to settle on which way to use and how it lumps all the people we meet into the same crime-fighting/pseudo-vigilante camp when wide gulfs separate what some of them try to do from what others seek to accomplish. It results in a scattershot, at times incoherent, documentary that plays as if it is an unfinished work.

The film starts on a serious note with a quote from Albert Einstein:

"The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil
but because of those who look on and do nothing."

Then we head to San Diego where we meet Mr. XTreme, one of supposedly 300 or so registered "superheroes" nationwide. Unlike their comic book inspirations, they don't have special powers, but they do have costumes. Mr. XTreme makes nightly patrols of his hometown, aiming to stop violence before it occurs. He has other heroes who work with him in what they call the XTreme Justice League. The League's work actually does end up stopping a serial criminal we eventually learn, but it's difficult to tell pulling any part of the movie out at random what director Michael Barnett's attitude toward them is.

For example, much of the time, you get the idea that the movie is making fun of these people such as Vigilante Spider, a member of the XTreme Justice League. In a section where they talk about how all the heroes have day jobs, Spider says he gets up, says hi to his girlfriend and goes off to work. Off camera, a voice, trying not to giggle, asks, "So you have a girlfriend" to which Vigilante Spider responds that he was speaking metaphorically. The same voice asks Mr. XTreme at one point why he doesn't become a cop and he says he doesn't want to do it "as a job and have to work for some crappy ass boss."

We know from frequent inserts of an interview with Lt. Andra Brown of the San Diego Police Department, that the police have very mixed feelings about these superheroes, worrying that they might get themselves or someone else hurt, especially during a montage of all the weapons the different people across the country have that comes later in the film that then seems to be a fraud when you realize what some of the superheroes really do. (They also stick it to poor Vigilante Spider again who admits to accidentally tasing himself with his own stun gun.)

Superheroes has been constructed as such a jumbled mess that it makes it difficult to write about. I'm reading the preceding paragraph and realizing that it only makes sense if I've talked about Master Legend in Orlando, Fla., and gone on to explain that by the end of the film we realize that Master Legend and his Team Justice (which he brags is the only registered nonprofit agency of superheroes), as well as several other heroes the film shows with weapons, really don't chase down evildoers but simply are kind-hearted humanitarians who help feed and clothe the needy and homeless while wearing costumes. Why the documentarian felt the need to try to mislead the viewer into thinking they are all crime fighters such as Mr. XTreme tries to be or, the really most purposeful person covered, Zimmer in Brooklyn, is, I don't know.

The person that probably would have been worth building the whole film around is Zimmer, the only superhero who doesn't wear a mask because he's gay and equates that with returning to the closet. He's the one person we see that's really committed to making his world better. He's getting EMT training and helps an injured man. He stops a drunk driver and when police don't show after repeated calls, he takes it upon himself to calm the man down enough that he surrenders his vehicle's keys to Zimmer.

Zimmer also works with other members of the New York Initiative in Brooklyn as "bait" to lure would-be criminals so they can get them. Another member of the Brooklyn branch is Lucid, who is large and tattooed and admits to doing bad things in his past, including committing crimes and hurting others, but says he feels that it's time to make up for his misdeeds.

If the documentary had picked a tone and a focus, especially concentrating on the Brooklyn N.Y.I., Superheroes might have been something. Instead, it's all over the map in style, tone and substance and chooses Comic-Con as the perfect place for its ending. The more serious people in the film talk about the toll apathy has taken on this country. Somehow, I fear it took hold of the filmmakers as well.

Superheroes premieres Monday on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 8 p.m. Central.

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