Is SUPER HEROES a DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION for the Nerd Age? This more-interesting-than-I-expected documentary takes a look at the burgeoning subculture of “Real Life Super Heroes,” people who create their own comic book inspired personas and costumes and “fight crime” (which seems to mostly mean walking around at night with other Real Life Super Heroes).
Seattle’s own Phoenix Jones is not represented. I’m not sure if this was filmed before his time or if he was too mysterious to be caught on camera. They do have a couple guys from Seattle, but one is just a fat guy in a t-shirt that says “Sky Man” on it. Another one carries a bow and arrow – what the fuck are you gonna do with that, shoot an arrow at some drunk guys fighting outside a club? Phoenix Jones got in trouble just using pepper spray. I don’t know about other cities, but I feel that Seattle is not bow-appropriate.
The main subject of SUPER HEROES is a guy in San Diego called Mr. Xtreme. He’s a tubby guy with a helmet, vest and goggles covered in stickers, like the word “evil” crossed out and stuff like that. He kind of has the appearance of a mall security guard and sounds like a rejected COPS narrator as he talks about his mission to stop what he variously calls “thugs,” “bad apples,” “slime buckets,” “sleaze balls,” “villains” or “evildoers.” We see him passing out flyers for “The Xtreme Justice League” (actual slogan: “it’s not the NFL, it’s the XJL”). He talks about “what we’re doing out here today” but when pressed admits that “we” is currently only him. We later see him with a younger sidekick called Vigilante Spider, whose mouthless mask gets a wet spot from his breath or his spit or something. They don’t tell you about that in the comic books.
I will say this about Mr. Xtreme – they follow him to a Brazilian Jiujitsu competition where he’s trying to earn his blue belt. And okay, he does lose, but he does put up a fight against an opponent that looks more intimidating than him. It’s not a completely one-sided fight. So give him that at least. But if he’s scary to criminals it’s because “holy shit, who is this weirdo?” He’s not exactly the Punisher, more like a local weirdo that decides to be a crossing guard or something.
A little bit more credible is The New York Initiative, a group who live together in Brooklyn. They actually moved to New York for the crime fighting possibilities. There’s a masked woman, an angry skateboard punk and an openly gay parkour guy named Zimmer. Inside their scrappy apartment they train in martial arts and have strategy meetings, taking notes and holding clipboards.
Zimmer sort of seems to be their leader, but he’s near the back on the movie poster (second from left) because his costume looks more like a bike messenger than a batman. He says he doesn’t wear a mask because it’s important to him to be out of the closet. He talks about his first patrol on the anniversary of the death of Kitty Genovese in 1964. An animated scene shows how 38 witnesses in an apartment building failed to intervene as she was raped and killed in plain view. This seems to be a touchstone or a rallying cry for the Real Life Super Hero community – Mr. Xtreme has a picture of Genovese on his armor.
But wait a minute, we’re supposed to believe these people had had enough and had to start doing something… because of an incident that happened 15 or 20 years before they were born? And you know, from what I’ve read the legend of the 38 witnesses wasn’t true at all. That was claimed in a New York Times article but a study in 2007 found it to be false. Apparently there were really only about a dozen people who heard any part of the attack, and almost all of them didn’t realize it was an attack. I can believe this because I hear indiscernible yelling and loud noises outside of my apartment pretty much every night, and I only live in Seattle. There was also a guy who yelled out the window at the killer and scared him away, although unfortunately he later came back and attacked her in another location that was out of view.
I mean I’m not denying that there is some callousness and cowardice in the world. You see something going down maybe you just hope somebody else is gonna get involved, not you. But what they’re repeating is basically an urban legend, so it makes their super hero origin stories kinda weak. It’s like if Batman’s parents weren’t ever killed but he trained to fight crime because of a story he read in The Enquirer. Or if Harvey Dent decided to quit law because he heard about that lady who sued McDonalds just because she spilled some hot coffee on herself. He never heard the part about how it was a 79 year old woman and the coffee was served so hot she suffered third degree burns on her groin, was in the hospital for 8 days getting skin grafts and had to be treated for 2 years afterwards. Silly old gal.
Oh shit, I just got to the “In popular culture” part of the Wikipedia entry and it says that the Genovese murder was what inspired Rorschach to fight crime in Watchmen. Okay, so that explains it. Apparently it’s also mentioned in THE BOONDOCK SAINTS.
Zimmer seems very sincere about his desire to make the world a better place, but no matter how sincere they are you can’t deny there is an element of nerd play time in this. I mean they show him leaping across roof tops and doing hand stand pushups and shit, but of course none of that is ever relevant to what he does in the field. What, is he gonna chase a mugger up a fire escape and have to do a flip to catch him? No, when Zimmer actually goes on patrol all he does is dress “flamboyant” and hang out by a pay phone for hours hoping homophobes well do something to him. They don’t, but he does get to use his EMT training when an old (drunk?) dude gets clipped by a passing minivan.
That’s why I gotta respect this guy with the unimaginative name “Super Hero,” because he’s the only guy that admits he just likes to do it because it’s fun. He wears a tight uniform to showoff his giant pecs, and does the interview in front of his Corvette “The Supermobile.”
There’s another team that operates out of a tattoo parlor, those guys definitely seem more above creating elaborate masks than anything else. The leader also has a fake dreadlock wig. It’s weird, he looks way more threatening without all that shit on. I don’t know what he thinks it’s helping.
Maybe the most convincing guy is Dark Guardian. He’s a martial arts instructor with the balls to chase a much-larger-than-him drug dealer out of a park. But he only wears a motorcycle jacket, I don’t think anybody knows he’s supposed to be a super hero. Calling himself “The Dark Guardian” is clearly a detriment to his work. He even looks kind of ashamed when he says it to some beat cops, who just laugh at him.
The biggest clown in the movie is Orlando’s Master Legend, a crazy long-haired ex-hippie or rock no roller type in armor and helmet. He hits on “pretty ladies,” can’t stop pulling beers out of his “Justice Van” and stops in a bar for more alcohol and more hitting on girls. He likes to dramatically kick doors open, and on the DVD extras he punches a bunch of holes through a door while acting out some kind of cartoonish hostage rescue. It’s not clear if he was trying to pass it off as a real incident or not.
But even that nutball does serve a purpose, because he goes around giving protein bars to homeless people. This seems to be what all the “RLSH”s have figured out is a good use of their time, especially Portland’s Zeta Man and his wife/sidkick Apocalypse Meow, who spend alot of money putting together “Zeta Packs” of toiletries, socks and other useful items for the homeless. It seems to me like it’s more of a justification for their weird hobby of dress-up than it is an actual mission in life (Jesus didn’t need to dress up to do shit like that) but it doesn’t matter because the ultimate result is positive and it’s more than most of us are doing.
In one scene, Mr. Xtreme and some friends pass out food and water, supposedly while Comic-Con is going on not far away. “Are you guys from Comic-con?” a homeless woman asks. “No ma’am, we’re the real deal.”
I like this type of documentary. I have to admit it’s a freak show type appeal, I am mystified by these people and want to see them be crazy. But the filmatists are obviously sympathetic and trying to show where they’re coming from, and I do feel like I understand them more as people now even if it’s still their wackiness that I find interesting about them.
There are some sad and uncomfortable moments. In one scene Xtreme Man’s parents are helping him move out of his apartment. He tells the cameras that it’s to avoid retaliation from drug dealers and because living in his van is a better crime fighting strategy. In an easier-to-laugh-at moment Vigilante Spider talks about the life of a super hero, saying goodbye to your girlfriend before going out on patrol, etc. Asked if he really has a girlfriend, he says he meant it “metaphorically.” But that’s a rare moment where it seems like you’re supposed to be laughing at them for being nerds. Mostly it tries to give them a dignity that they sure aren’t giving themselves.
This is a well put together documentary, nicely shot, without narration. It does have shots that turn into comic book panels, a cliche I was just complaining about in my BUNRAKU review, but here the drawings are better so it works pretty well. The opening uses animation to illustrate a story that Mr. Xtreme tells about stopping a guy attacking a woman in an alley. He claims the guy got 34 years. Especially later in the movie after you’ve learned more about Mr. Xtreme it seems like the story can’t possibly be true, but he doesn’t make up any other blatant tall tales. I kinda wish they pressed him more on that story, or tried to find documentation of the alleged criminal case, but I guess that might tip this into too-uncomfortable, sweaty James Frey territory.
I feel like it gets a little repetitious in the middle section, but not too bad, and it’s a good pretty-short length for the subject. I like that it doesn’t really tell you what to think about all this. Obviously the people try to explain where they’re coming from (and you hear from a polite but not-on-board-with-this police officer too), but I felt like the filmatists left it at an appropriate question mark. Like The Riddler, from the comic books.
I was joking about this being the new DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, but I think the comparison almost works. In a world where the punk rock of old has been popularized, commodified and turned into a Broadway musical; where you don’t even have to not know how to play instruments, because many kids can create and distribute professional sounding music using their parents’ computers; where athletes and movie stars can wear mohawks, candy-colored hair, facial piercings and tattoos without anybody blinking an eye; where the director of HATED: GG ALLIN AND THE MURDER JUNKIES‘s most recent movie grossed $581,464,305 worldwide according to Box Office Mojo – none of that punk rock shit is gonna shock anybody ever. But dressing up like a cartoon and trying to put your body in front of criminals is kind of shocking. It’s crazy in both a he’s gonna get himself killed and a that lady is wearing a Star Trek uniform to jury duty on the Whitewater trial type of way, a combination of self delusion, selflessness, extreme nerdiness and probly in some cases mental imbalance. But in all cases they either don’t care about or don’t understand what the larger society thinks about them. And that’s how they’re like the punk rockers. They live with people staring or laughing at them and it doesn’t stop them from doing it, because their way of life is more important them than other people’s opinions of them. They find self-worth in the attention they get, or family in the people they meet who do the same things as them.
So why did this never happen much before? Comic book super heroes and masked vigilantes have existed in drawing form for, what, about 80 years? And I’m sure some people have tried to “patrol” before, but why did it take this long before it was widespread enough to do a documentary like this? Did it take postmodernism? Did there have to be a generation growing up on the movies based on the comic books commenting on the older comic books those comic book makers grew up on? Or was it just the internet? Was it just that people who did this knew they could show their costumes on the internet, and when they did it inspired other people and there were enough people doing it that it became a thing you can do instead of just a common fantasy?
Or was it the related phenomenon of The Nerdening of America (and the world)? The Harry Knowleses took back the word “geek,” younger kids grew up with it as something you want to be, super heroes became more mainstream entertainment as they took over as the primary source of big summer movies, “geeks” started to run parts of the media and Hollywood, other parts of the media and Hollywood started thinking they had to cater to “geeks,” big movie stars started thinking it was important to appear at the comic books convention… did it take that world existing for people to start “fighting crime” wearing crazy masks and shit? What would’ve happened if Death Wish ripoffs were as big as Spider-man?
I don’t really know what it is that caused this, but it’s an interesting phenomenon. I can’t wait until one of these nutballs catches a serious criminal. Hopefully that happens before one of them catches a bullet.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.