DefendorReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 04/14/10 21:06:00
(Worth A Look)
Back in college, I doodled a weird little scenario in one of my notebooks. Two street thugs were beating up a hapless, confused, very non-superpowered man wearing a superhero costume. Writer-director Peter Stebbings has now made an entire film out of my idle sketch. I hope he has excellent lawyers.Actually, Defendor is far from the first film to strand a superhero in the squalid real world (Blankman and Special were there first, to name but two), and it won't be the last (Kick-Ass looms on the horizon). But I imagine it's the most stinging and heartfelt. Whatever methods Stebbings used to peer into my college notebook eighteen years ago, he has found considerable pathos, and not a little heroism, in the image of a forlorn mouth-breather in a costume discovering that fighting is easier in the comics.
Woody Harrelson's Arthur Poppington, who likes to call himself Defendor when on the prowl, is a cross between Woody Boyd and Mickey Knox: a simple, good-hearted man who nevertheless has reserves of razory madness. Flotsam from an awful childhood, Arthur tries to make sense of the world by dressing up and dedicating himself to defeating "Captain Industry," an imaginary kingpin he thinks killed his slatternly mom with drugs. When Arthur meets Angel (Kat Dennings), a young crack whore, his manner around her is stiff and uncomfortable — he won't let her arouse him — until he develops protective feelings towards her. It's pretty obvious he sees Angel as his mother, and doesn't want her to die all over again. Without going over the top, Harrelson commits himself to the reality of Arthur and the fantasy of Defendor, letting us see each in the other. It's full and generous work from an often-underrated actor.
Defendor, which went straight to DVD in America (it's a shoestring Canadian production), will alienate some because it seems to start out funny and then takes a turn into tragedy. But a closer look reveals that it's never really all that funny. An addled, emotionally damaged man who needs to climb into a get-up and fight crime is not, in the real world, fodder for comedy or even escapism. I believe it was Alan Moore, or perhaps Frank Miller, who once said that someone like Batman in the real world would simply be sad and scary, a lunatic in a cape.
Moore and Miller, of course, were responsible for deconstructing the superhero in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. They were influenced by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood's Mad parody "Superduperman," and that goes back to 1953. Four-color heroes have been mocked for almost as long as they've existed. But Defendor doesn't really mock Arthur (though almost everyone in the film does). Other than the outright scumbags, like Elias Koteas as a dirty cop, people look askance at Defendor at first but then get to know Arthur; they respond to the cracked folly of his mission, his essential kindness. Stebbings shows genuine compassion and affection for the man, and the film, for me, works for that reason — it's not just "Hey, get a load of the tard in the costume." The movie is unexpectedly gentle; by subjecting the superhero trope to harsh, cruel reality, it ends up restoring its sense of wonder. Arthur works like hell just to stay alive in those fights; he might not understand that he can get killed, but we do.The film has its flaws; it's a little poky, and the prohibitive budget puts a cap on how persuasive the urban milieu can be (as others have noted, there seem to be about ten people in the city). But this is a small, decent triumph with real shades of feeling. It'd be a shame if it got lost in the backwash of hype for movies like "Kick-Ass" and the similar movies sure to follow.
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