Superheroes

by Drew Kerr on May 27, 2011

in Documentaries,Film Festivals,Hot Docs

Superheroes

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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