Superheroes (2011) (DVD)

I’m super, thanks for asking.

Thanks to all kinds of big-budget blockbusters released over the last few years, superheroes are no longer relegated to dingy little comic book shops, but have instead gone mainstream as the world is taken by larger-than-life crimefighters with their colorful outfits and personalities. What you might not know is there’s a small but growing subculture of folks who are trying it for real. Real life superheroes (RLSH—they even have their own acronym) are patrolling for crime in not-so-nice neighborhoods of major cities. Who are these people? Are they good Samaritans with an odd fashion sense? Are they thrillseekers starved for attention? Are they emotionally troubled vigilantes taking the law into their own hands? Here you’ll meet several superheroes, but—like masked strangers disappearing into the night—answers about who they really are will be fleeting.

In Superheroes, the filmmakers travel from one side of the country to the other, documenting would-be caped crusaders. While we meet a bunch, we basically follow three stories. First is San Diego’s Mr. Xtreme, a young man who patrols bad neighborhoods at night, often having more run-ins with the police than with criminals. The second is Florida’s Master Legend, a young man with a tough upbringing, now charming the ladies and downing the occasional beer while searching for evildoers in the night. Finally, there are the four-members of Brooklyn’s New York Initiative who head out into the seedy parts of the city at night hoping to make a difference. The rest of the heroes are shown mostly in brief interview snippets, acting as something of Greek chorus (pantheon?) for the RLSH community.

The two big questions posed by Superheroes: Who are these people, and why do they do this? These are followed by other queries, such as why do they think they need outrageous costumes to deliver donations to the homeless, and where they’re drawing the line between “superhero” and the less glamorous moniker of “vigilante.” Director Michael Barnett almost never chimes in from behind the camera, so almost the entire movie is the superheroes in their element, doing their thing. It’s up to viewer to draw their own conclusions. This is easier said than done, because there are several layers of story at work here.

Will you find these people funny? That’s a very real possibility. The costumes/uniforms vary from cheap to all-out silly. Only a few of the outfits are made with functionality in mind, while the rest are clearly created to make a statement, with bright colors, Halloween masks, and, of course, capes. They talk about training to achieve physical and mental perfection in their fight against crime, while living in tiny, cluttered apartments and swilling beer the whole time. I like comic books as much as the next guy, but it’s kind of hard to take a full grown man seriously when he’s wearing bright green tights and using phrases like “evildoers.”

Any laughs generated by the movie are guilty ones. Anytime it starts to get too silly, that’s when we go deeper into the heroes’ lives. When Master Legend is on patrol, it seems the entirety of his “patrol” consists of flirting with hot girls and swilling beer at every opportunity. But then, things get uncomfortably honest and he opens up about his troubled, violent childhood. Mr. Xtreme looks about as unheroic as you can imagine, and yet your heart will break when you learn how dire his personal finances are, and you’ll want him to succeed when he attends a martial arts tournament as part of his “training.” The RLSH have tenuous relationships with police at best. A law enforcement official interviewed on camera makes a good case for police, saying their many rules and procedures not only keep people safe, but maintain citizens’ constitutional rights. The superheroes, on the other hand, argue there are not enough police, with some going so far as to criticize the cops for not doing enough.

Superheroes takes another turn in its final act; against all odds, these superheroes actually do something heroic. Zimmer and his buddies in the New York Initiative head into skeezy streets and alleyways hoping to find a crime in progress. They might not be battling Galactus with the Ultimate Nullifier, but when a need arises, we actually get to see these heroes in action.

Filmed in a gritty, you-are-there style, the film’s standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen visuals are not flashy, but clean and clear nonetheless. The Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is decent, all dialogue coming through just fine. A collection of deleted scenes and the trailer are it for extras.

Superheroes won’t change the world, but it’s a documentary with a lot of personality and some intriguing food for thought. Check it out. Oh, and you guys with the capes, be careful out there.

The Verdict

Super not guilty.

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