Airing tonight on HBO is the new documentary Superheroes, a look inside the real life superhero movement taking the US by storm. Or to be a little more accurate, with only 300 registered (Registered? Captain America would be so disappointed), taking the US by light drizzle. The doc most specifically profiles Mr Xtreme, a dumpy but dedicated San Diegan security officer, the New York Initiative, a group of legitimately badass crime fighters who attempt to keep Brooklyn safe one patrol at a time, Master Legend, based out of Orlando, a bridging on alcoholic local celebrity who may or may not have a few screws loose and to a lesser extent, Zetaman and Life (Chaim), who focus mostly on charity and good will, and Dark Guardian, who shows no fear in the face of the Washington Square drug dealers he tries to eliminate.
Apparently getting this film made was not easy for director Michael Barnett and producer Theodore James. Most media coverage of Real Life Superheros - RLSH - had been unflattering, ridiculing these folks whenever possible, so initially, none of them wanted to participate. As soon as Barnett and James made it clear that this was to be an accurate portrayal of their cause, more and more RLSH started to come around and eventually Superheroes, featuring a wide array of interviews and footage of the subjects in action, all topped off with some fun comic book graphics, was born.
When the doc began however, I felt rather uneasy, as I was laughing more than anything else. Laughing in particular at Mr Xtreme and his "Xtreme Cave", a tiny, disheveled apartment filled with comic books as well as texts on law and civil rights, where beside an Iron Man poster is a dummy intended for combat practice and on a small television lined with action figures play episodes of Power Rangers. I began to wonder if this film would be making fun of its subjects after all and started to get uncomfortable, especially when interviews with Stan Lee and a member of the San Diego Police Department put forth the idea that no one but the police should be putting themselves in danger's way or taking the law into their own hands. How is this helping the cause of RLSH?
But things quickly turn around when we meet the New York Initiative, a group of twentysomethings from Brooklyn who are as fit as they are committed, truly as professional as it gets. Led by the superhero Zimmer, an openly gay man who doesn't hide behind a mask because it feels too reminiscent of being in the closet, the New York Initiative regularly patrols the streets of Brooklyn, often using one of their own members as "bait." Don't worry - as much as the SDPD employee on hand would like us to believe - it's not entrapment to walk around a neighborhood, tailed by crime fighters in case someone mugs you. The New York Initiative trains, they patrol, they take this as seriously as anyone could take it. One of my favorite parts in the whole documentary involves this group stumbling upon a situation that needs handling and handling it.
Another RLSH who falls more into the crime fighting category is Dark Guardian, who regularly goes into Washington Square Park to discover who the drug dealers are and get them to leave the park. We get to see him too succeed, although perhaps not in the exciting way we may have initially hoped.
As the doc goes on, we see more and more types of superheroes. The most inspiring are the true crime fighters at first, while Master Legend and Mr Xtreme fall more on the side of sad jokes - men from unfortunate circumstances who now think they are making a difference, but are unfortunately nothing more than boys in costumes. And while the jury is still out on Master Legend for me, who seems worshipped by those in town, but who I never saw truly do anything wonderful, Mr Xtreme ended up winning me over completely. With a look into his family life, his dedication to the cause and ultimately, his small, but important success in catching his nemesis, his story becomes the most poignant, his dreams the ones you most want to see fulfilled.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the documentary comes at the end, when we take a trip to Comic-Con. A chance for the RLSH to all be in the same city presents itself and although they are ostensibly there to enjoy the convention (because pretty much everyone featured in the doc IS a fan), instead of waiting in line for a panel or perusing the floor every hour of every day, they take some time to travel a mile away to a place in need. Their acts here got my tear ducts going, especially as those they were helping offered to the camera that while people may not think superheros exist, they clearly do, and here they are. "We need them more than they will ever know," one woman says. This final sequence which I don't wish to completely spoil points out that some of these RLSH are simply good people who choose to give back in more of a unique way than anyone else. Instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen or joining Habitat for Humanity, they dress up in costumes and go help the homeless on a one on one basis, whether it's by giving them a bottle of water or simply talking to them about their hardships. And they probably make more of an impact in the process.
But this doc engendered yet another unexpected emotion in me - frustration. The aforementioned police officer from San Diego who was interviewed seems to really have a distaste for the RLSH. All the cops in the film seem to simply tolerate them, some are nicer than others, sure, but each and every one carries a weight of pretension, of condescension, as if the constant subtext reads "This is cute and all, but obviously only I am the real thing. Only I can do anything about these problems." And to a certain extent, in this real world, the police are correct. In every situation where a RLSH does make a difference, at some point they do have to call the cops. And watching it, I'm not necessarily sure I'd want it any other way. When Dark Guardian confronts a drug dealer, we as the audience, are begging him not to physically engage. Because in the real world, Dark Guardian too would have to be arrested. He isn't Batman. He can't jump into his Batmobile and go hideaway in the Batcave. He doesn't have the police commissioner on his side, supporting his efforts. It really puts things into perspective and makes us understand to a deeper degree why superheros are considered vigilantes, why cops would distrust them, why people would be afraid of them. Because technically, they aren't the law, and when you aren't the law, you can't, by our rules, enforce the law. But because we end up believing in these folks so much, we can't help but feel a bit of disgust seeing the way they are treated by the police.
I was not expected to be moved by Superheroes. I was not expected to inspired. I was not expected to be frustrated. I was not expecting something so mentally stimulating. And I certainly wasn't expecting to find myself having a good cry. But Barnett and James pull off something pretty phenomenal here. Yes we learn the basics of around fifteen RLSH - their history (most have incredibly dark back grounds, as is the case with most of comics' best), their weapons of choice (the Zimmer's equipment is the most impressive), their day jobs, their motivations, but we also get truly inside these people and this movement. We debate with ourselves - are some of them mentally unstable or are they simply on a different level than the rest of us? You might look at the RLSH and think they are less evolved, that they don't have a basic understanding of how the world works, when in fact, they are further along in the evolutionary process, wholly and truly devoted to helping others in a large and impactful way, willing to go further to protect their fellow man than most anyone else.
I encourage you to check this film out tonight, airing at 9pm on HBO, and decide for yourselves. It's a fantastic peak into a world we rarely, if ever, get to see taken seriously and portrayed accurately, with respect. Frankly, it's what this noble, odd, persevering group deserves. So do yourself and them a favor and check it out.