Kudos to those who want to establish their own superhero mythology in 2012. The storytelling has evolved beyond the echoes of Greek myth since Superman burst upon the scene in the 1930s, to the point where thousands of these characters have existed in multiple mediums. Filmgoers used to consider the origins of Batman as cinematic shorthand; now, they’re often deeply familiar with the deconstructionism of “Watchmen.” So forgive the crudeness — “Alter Egos” writer-director Jordan Galland has some big brass ones.
Shot on what looks to be a fairly restrictive budget, “Alter Egos” concerns Brendan (Kris Lemche), a sheepish urbanite who moonlights as costumed crime fighter The Refrigerator. Fridge, as the “F” on his chest signifies, is having a serious identity crisis, seducing his girlfriend both as his costumed identity and his mild-mannered alter ego. The line separating the two personae has nearly vanished. Our introduction to the character is him flailing out of bed still in costume; fraught with concern, he has no idea as to why Brendan’s girlfriend would cheat on him with Fridge, despite a mask hiding what is clearly the exact same person.
What we soon learn is bizarre about this arrangement is that superheroes are passé. Ten years have passed since every supervillain has been eliminated, cutting government funding for the Super Corps, run by Captain Amazingness, a name perilously close to copyright infringement. The idea of a unionized superhero battalion is somewhat ripe in a post-”Watchmen” era, though it also necessitates some world building of which Galland isn’t capable, given that the budget restricts most of the action to a tiny Hamptons getaway.
Fridge reports for duty under the aegis of C-Thru (Joey Kern), a good-looking all-American type whose abilities begin and end with x-ray vision. Fridge’s neuroses seem to get in the way of how C-Thru is clearly utilizing him in a long con, and the drama soon becomes preoccupied with Brendan’s need to email his girlfriend to break it off, given that she’s had relations with his costumed identity. His intentions are furthered by Claudel (Brook Nevin), a pretty blond clerk at a resort that seems to have no other customers. Claudel can’t seem to avoid superhero-hating local cop Jimmy (Danny Masterson), a one-time fling harboring resentment towards the Super Corps for not allowing him membership because his invisibility powers last exactly 2.3 seconds.
The cape-based humor in “Alter Egos” isn’t exactly all that superior to any number of independent comics that can be found at your (likely scarcely populated) comic store. Brendan’s personal struggle with the Fridge identity is strictly dime store psychology, and the ensuing romance with Claudel is devoid of any spark or invention: she hates superheroes so much that you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop in regards to the secrets she keeps. As a cheap floppy at your local comic shop, “Alter Egos” would be worth a quick flip through for these elements, but not much more.
As “Alter Egos” progresses, however, the spoofy elements fall away as Galland genuinely re-directs this film towards the gravity of the situation. There’s clearly something amusing about superheroes, the film argues, but the stories possible within a superhero universe can work as straight drama. Even if, in this case, the performances are sometimes slack, the pacing is deadening, and the budget crunch creates a repetition of locations that proves cinematically stagnant. The introduction of Shrink, a mind-controlling villain played by veteran John Ventimiglia, is one that challenges the narrative suitably, allowing Galland to push all his chips in this particular storyline forward. Lemche and Kern are middling comic actors, but when asked to fulfill the human element of their familiar archetypes, the two deliver — particularly as their goals diverge violently.
“Alter Egos” earns some cred from a score and original songs by Sean Lennon. This is more of a case of a favor being called-in, however, as the operatic superhero cues (aside from a clever co-opting of Danny Eflman’s iconic “Batman” theme) don’t exactly hum and whir, and are often ladled on thick in the early scenes to provide momentum where there is little. “Alter Egos” comes across initially as a low budget co-opting of superhero tropes with little to add to it (aside from a crude joke, there’s no insight into Fridge’s powers comedic or otherwise, never mind the costume’s similarity to Frozone of “The Incredibles”). As it moves forward, there’s a deepening of the mythology that provides dramatic fruit, though Galland curtails this with third act dramatic shortcuts that cheapen the characters’ journey, not least of which is Masterson’s unconvincing heel turn. It’s impossible to avoid thinking that, somewhere in Galland’s head, there was a more exciting, funnier, and more ambitious version of “Alter Egos,” killed by unfortunate compromise. [C]
“Alter Egos” is now available On Demand and on iTunes.