While hordes of movie fans were drooling over the fortuitous timing of trailers for remakes of horror classics "Evil Dead" and "Carrie" at New York Comic Con, another example of a mainstream genre surfaced to considerably less exposure though it provides more room for discussion. Released online just a few days ahead of its limited theatrical release Friday, Oct. 19, the low-budget superhero comedy "Alter Egos" marks the first occasion that Kevin Smith's SModcast Pictures banner has associated itself with a movie not written and directed by Smith.
Despite Smith's fanboy clout, "Alter Egos" has seen minimal exposure since its under-the-radar July premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, where it received a handful of generally appreciative reviews. I have yet to see the movie, but the trailer presents an enjoyably snarky riff on the ethos driving the superhero phenomenon.
Writer-director Jordan Galland, whose previous satire "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" threw a few gleeful jabs at theater and horror-movie clichés, has turned for his sophomore effort to a contemporary comedic subgenre nearly as prevalent as the mainstream superhero trend it riffs on: the bumbling costumed crusader whose heroic ambitions never quite pan out. Early stirrings of this self-conscious story mold can be traced back to William Klein's wry deconstruction of superhero patriotism in 1968's "Mr. Freedom," while 1994's "Blankman" provided one of the first modern examples.
More recently, each year is dominated by a handful of superhero tentpoles that arrive accompanied by a smattering of comparatively ramshackle tales that usually center on whiny dudes in tights; examples range from the zany violence of "Super" and "Kick-Ass" to the surrealist masterpiece "Big Man Japan." While "The Avengers" and its ilk turn the notion of the superhero into galvanizing wish-fulfillment, these other works take the opposite tack by exploring the fragile relationship between the fantasy of heroism and its clumsier manifestation in the real world. It's a playground for directors attracted to that concept, so it's no surprise that even Leos Carax is interested in adding to the genre.
Since the mainstream superhero narrative generally takes the form of an action movie, it naturally focuses (for better or worse) on male characters, which explains why the spin-offs often center on suffering libidos. Along with "Super," Woody Harrelson's "Defendor" and the ironically titled "Special" both revolve around men who wish they were a lot tougher. The trailer for "Alter Egos" falls squarely into this dynamic, revealing the plight of ice-powered superhero "Fridge" (Kris Lemche), who grows jealous of his girlfriend's attraction to his costumed self. It's a paradox that the whole Spiderman-Mary Jane-Peter Parker love triangle may have pushed up against but never fully explored. In "Alter Egos," the Fridge character is described as a man with a "fragile and even tenuous grasp on reality," which might correlate with any number of heartbroken archetypes whether or not they play dress up to express their neuroses.
According to the Wikipedia page for "Alter Egos," the movie's trailer was cut by filmmaker Daniel Schecter, the director of the recent festival hit "Supporting Characters," in which Alex Karpovsky plays a wily New York City film editor enmeshed in a dysfunctional relationship. The "Alter Egos" trailer amusingly reveals a similarly frantic young man caught between his perception of professional responsibility and his efforts to keep his romance in check. The soundtrack, which features the twangy blues single "My Hero" (co-written by Sean Lennon, who also plays a supervillain in the movie), plays against images of Lemche dressed up in his shiny blue outfit, mocking the inherent absurdity of trying to overcome personal issues by wearing a mask.
The movie certainly fits the Kevin Smith brand. Smith's debut feature "Clerks" turned chubby blue-collar nerds into the heroes of their eternally drab lives; the blatantly silly universe of "Alter Egos" (in which all superheroes have lost government funding, relegating them to lower-class status) positions its characters in a similarly marginalized position, which forces them to fight against issues that matter more for themselves than anyone else.
The very title of the movie engages with the concept of superheroism as little more than a construct. As one character points out, the superhero/supervillain dichotomy is nothing more than an illusion. "Those are just labels, man." That's the ultimate takeaway from this consistently engaging subgenre, which eagerly wrestles a soaring pop culture phenomena and brings it crashing back down to earth.