When I was a kid, more than anything, I wanted to be a superhero. This desire was fueled by syndicated reruns of Batman starring Adam West, and my inability to comprehend that what I saw on television wasn’t necessarily real. But then I turned five, and reality set in, and I knew that not only was I not going to be a superhero, I probably wasn’t going to be bionic either (which only left me the possibility of being a kung fu master). I know that many other people wanted to be superheroes as well—inspired by the same comic books and television shows and movies that sparked my imagination. And most people let the bitter pill of reality shatter their childhood dreams and squash their hopes of someday putting on a costume to right the wrongs perpetrated by evildoers on the innocent and weak. But then there are those who were not deterred by common sense, laws against vigilantism, and, in some cases, a healthy dose of reality; and these people are the subject of the new documentary Superheroes.
With the immense popularity of superhero movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, I suppose it was only a matter of time before we saw people dressing up in homemade costumes and taking to the streets to fight crime. And that’s what filmmaker Michael Barnett’s documentary is all about—the everyday, “normal” people who have decided to take a stand against the crime that eats away at our society. I say “normal” because, let’s be honest, it really does take a special kind of person to put on a suit that is semi-ridiculous in nature, and face off against serial sex offenders, drug dealers, and drunk drivers. Some of these self-styled superheroes do it better than others, and some to be a bit more cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, but all are resolute in their convictions.
Barnett traverses the United States to profile costumed crime fighters practicing their craft in Florida, California, Utah, New York, and Oregon. Some, like the various crusaders in New York, seem like they might actually know what they’re doing and could probably beat some serious ass, while one guy in another state—whom I won’t mention—seems to be at least three types of crazy. At least one person is well-intentioned, completely delusional, and seems like an accident waiting to happen, while another—who dresses up with his wife—seems to have found a fairly safe niche, handing out care packages to the homeless. But when push comes to shove, everyone in this movie is not exactly what pops into mind when thinking of a superhero, and that’s because real life is nothing like the movies. Even a film like Kick-Assis make-believe in that it makes you believe dressing up like a crime fighter to fight crime is more action-packed than it is.
Superheroesis an entertaining and charming film, though it’s probably not what some might be expecting. For one thing, there’s not much real crime fighting captured by Barnett and his crew, which might be a good thing, considering the fact that it could probably be used against any one of these vigilantes. But the other aspect of the film that is likely to defy some expectations is the fact that Barnett never casts judgment on his subjects, never mocks them, and never takes the film to obvious levels that would leave some people looking like losers or lunatics, or both. And to be sure, there are some people in this film who come across looking like a special breed of delusional dunderhead, but it has nothing to do with the film itself—it’s all about traipsing around in a stupid-looking costume and opening their mouths to speak.
Without much action or mocking of its subjects, Superheroes presents itself as a respectful examination of small cross-section of the population committed to doing good by making poor fashion choices. Some of the people are actually inspiring, and don’t need their costumes to make a difference. It is simply a symbolic gesture that gives them some greater sense of purpose, as if confronting drug dealers and helping the homeless isn’t good enough. And then there are those who are a few cans short of a six-pack. But both types are compelling enough to make Superheroes engaging and worth watching, even though the film itself does not make me want to put on a costume and fight crime.