Superheroes have captured the collective imagination ever since Superman first lifted a car over his head in Action Comics #1. The idea of a person blessed with extraordinary powers, or a regular citizen who adopts an alter ego to protect humanity, and right the wrongs that the regular justice system fails to address, has resonated with the young and old for decades. And while over the years there have been somewhat random and scattered incidents of people trying to recreate the vigilante hero experience on the streets of their city, today there seems to be a greater movement afoot. Across the country some very organized individuals are suiting up and hitting the streets determined to make a difference with an activity that isn’t just a lark, but one that almost doubles as a full time job. Armed, (mostly) masked and driven by sense of purpose and civic duty, these real life superheroes patrol the streets where the polices sometimes can’t (or more likely, won’t), and now they have their own documentary.
The appropriately titled “Superheroes,” the debut film by Michael Barnett, is a fascinating look at this surprisingly expansive world. Ranging from youths living in Brooklyn to a couple you would expect to find in any suburb in America, Barnett’s film certainly isn’t lacking scope, but unfortunately, it’s often overly polite tone leaves bigger questions about the effectiveness, ethics and even the personal lives of these everyday masked heroes not only unanswered, but more frustratingly, largely unasked.
Let’s take for example, Master Legend. There is no doubt the mysterious forty-something hero has made a huge impact in his native Orlando, Florida. He’s the founding member of Team Justice, an organization of like-minded individuals and notably, the only real life superhero group in America with non-profit status. While he has the Iron Fist and a 1 million volt shock baton among his arsenal, his greatest weapons are the snacks he gives to the homeless and frozen treats he has for children. That’s not to mention the annual Team Justice Christmas Drive, which gives toys to disadvantaged children every year. All of this said, there is a not-so-subtle indication that Master Legend may be an alocholic and/or suffering from some kind of mental illness (at the very least, the guy seems to need a therapist). But Barnett lets these ideas float on by below the surface without ever seriously probing them. Interviews with the rest of the Team Justice members amount to little more than praise for their leader but there is a sense of a big elephant in the room no one wants to talk about.
Which brings us to arguably the most serious and sophisticated group, the New York Initiative. Comprised of four young people — Zimmer, Lucid, Z and the lone woman of the group T.S.A.F. (The Silenced And Forgotten) — they train routinely, and patrol nightly eager to make up for the NYPD’s ineffective adherence to quotas and delivering numbers to show a drop in crime (remember season 3 of “The Wire“?). But their earnest desire to catch criminals raises some questionable flags. In what could easily be called entrapment, the NYI use themselves as bait to create scenarios in which they are the “victims” of “crimes.” Openly gay member Zimmer (who doesn’t wear a mask) puts himself on the street as a much more flamboyant version of himself hoping a raging homophobe will come along that they can apprehend. When that doesn’t work, T.S.A.F. goes out the next night in an effort to attract a different sort of crook. There is a question that discerning viewers will ask and its whether or not crime is being prevented if you are the person that is out there (to an extent) creating it. Again, Barnett remains silent and never questions their motives or tactics used to reach those goals.
And this becomes a constant theme throughout the film. Two more New York based crime fighters are profiled and Barnett stays far too quiet behind the camera. There is the ridiculously named Life, who looks not unlike Justin Timberlake wearing a Green Hornet mask who admirably spends most of his time looking in on the ignored homeless in his neighborhood. But it begs the question on why he bothers protecting his identity particularly when it’s readily apparent that human connection and attention is one of the biggest things the people he’s helping are looking for. And then there is Dark Guardian, who brings on the appropriately named Cameraman on his outings to capture everything on video, who rousts drug dealers from Washington Square Park. Again, it’s a commendable action but next obvious question — what happens when they set up somewhere else — is also never broached.
If there is one common thread running throughout most of the stories of these ordinary folks fashioning themselves into crusaders for good, it’s that many come from broken or damaged backgrounds. Master Legend was raised in the KKK and suffered horrible abuse, the entirety of the NYI come from very hard backgrounds and Mr. Xtreme, with whom we spend most of our time during the film, also has had a terrible lot cast for him in his life. And we know we’re beginning to sound like a broken record, but Barnett seems too shy to ask probing questions of any of his subjects about their journey to putting on the masks and hitting the streets.
Running a little under ninety minutes, and despite its approach which leaves you wishing the film were another half hour longer, “Superheroes” is nonetheless a compelling overview at a fast growing underground effort that is beginning to make a mainstream impression. But it’s the story of husband and wife team Zetaman and Apocalypse Meow (awesome name) that will linger with you. The former suddenly announced one day he was going to hit the streets in an effort to affect change and the latter proposed an ultimatum: take her along or don’t go at all. The result? Together they put together and deliver packages with their own money with basic essentials for the homeless and disenfranchised in their town. It’s something many of the heroes we meet during the film begin to realize — that simple acts of humanity are just as meaningful (and in some cases more so) as trying to catch a master criminal. As a viewer you’ll realize this is something you can do too. And you know what? You don’t even need a mask. [B-]
“Superheroes” premieres tonight at 9 PM on HBO.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.