by Drew Kerr on May 27, 2011

in Documentaries,Film Festivals,Hot Docs


Superheroes (Director: Michael Barnett): Superheroes do exist, even if they come up a little light in the “super” depart­ment (by way of an obvious lack of super­powers). My first exposure to real life super­heroes (referred to as “RLSH”) was a fas­cin­ating 2008 art­icle in Rolling Stone magazine that took a look inside the sub­cul­ture, which is estim­ated to com­prise 700 indi­viduals world­wide who dress up in cos­tumes and attempt to effect some manner of pos­itive change in their com­munities. Director Michael Barnett turns his camera on the sub­ject in Superheroes, zeroing in on dif­ferent pockets of RLSH in a number of major American cities.

Master Legend, with his pudgy frame packed into a tight silver and black cos­tume partly made up of spray painted pro­tective hockey equip­ment and base­ball catcher shin guards, heads up the Orlando, Florida chapter of the Team Justice net­work. He was prom­in­ently fea­tured in the Rolling Stone piece and gets plenty of camera time here as well, due to his col­ourful per­son­ality, including an occa­sional holy roller speech, pro­clam­a­tions that he actu­ally pos­sesses super powers, fre­quent stops for beer breaks, and a habit of trying to pick up women (all while dressed in his cos­tume). It’s a reality TV series waiting to happen. Mr. Extreme, from San Diego, also has a most unsuperhero-like physique and draws inspir­a­tion partly from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, who he seems to have a fas­cin­a­tion with on a level that just isn’t healthy for a grown man. Zimmer, a gay RLSH from Brooklyn, refuses to wear a mask, equating it with someone who is trapped in the closet. The unima­gin­at­ively named Super Hero, from Florida, takes a little too much pride in his sweet crime fighting ride, a flashy red Corvette Stingray. New York City’s Life takes his cos­tume cues from The Green Hornet and his moral code from a Hasidic Jewish upbringing that instilled strong altru­istic values. These are just a few of the numerous RLSH we meet during the film.

Make no mis­take, these people take what they’re doing very ser­i­ously, even if there’s an unavoid­able comedic ele­ment to adults patrolling big city streets while wearing cos­tumes, some of which are, shall we say, of a highly ama­teurish nature; I believe I saw duct tape on one cos­tume and the outfit of a RLSH named The Vigilante Spider looked like some­thing straight out of a grade school play. The common thread is that all of these people are pas­sionate about trying to make a dif­fer­ence in the world, des­pite the per­sonal risks of bodily harm, social ridicule, and some fin­an­cial burden. Mr. Extreme even moves out of the dumpy rented house he inhabits and into his van, just so he can put more money into his cause, which includes offering rewards out of his own pocket for tips that lead to solving crimes. This begs the ques­tion: are these people of sound mind? Clinical psy­cho­lo­gist Robin Rosenberg, an expert on the psy­cho­logy of super­heroes, provides helpful insight into the topic from time to time throughout the film. Also inter­viewed is super­hero creator-icon Stan Lee, who admires the RLSH chutzpah, but wor­ries about their safety.

Where the film fal­ters is in its lack of action and inter­esting scen­arios where the RLSH do, in fact, fight actual crime. We see one stand up to an intim­id­ating drug dealer ped­dling his wares out in the open in a park, while another New York col­lective of RLSH takes a few more risks. On dif­ferent occa­sions we see them car­rying out “bait patrol” oper­a­tions, which entail having one of their female mem­bers dress up in pro­voc­ative clothing and walk the street, trying to lure poten­tial crim­inals into com­mit­ting a sexual assault. Alternately, they dress Zimmer up in a flam­boyant outfit in hopes of attracting a poten­tial gay basher. The rest of the group is always close by to provide quick backup. It’s an eth­ic­ally dubious way of “fighting crime” and, as a police lieu­tenant informs us, bor­ders on entrap­ment. The most excite­ment we get is watching the group take the keys from a drunk driver who is seen sideswiping other parked vehicles (they assure him they’ll mail them back the next day). They also come to the rescue of a man who gets his foot run over by a passing car. Not exactly edge-of-your-seat adven­ture, is it?

So it turns out that the most sig­ni­ficant impact these people make is simply by being Good Samaritans and doing char­it­able things like handing out care pack­ages to the home­less, and organ­izing Christmas toy drives for under­priv­ileged kids. It may not be flashy (other than the cos­tumes they wear), but it’s still highly admir­able and more than most of us can say we do to help our fellow man.

Superheroes will be airing on HBO this summer and receiving a the­at­rical release later this year.

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