There are a lot of mentally unstable superheros out there. Most realize Batman wouldn’t be half the goddamn Batman he is if he weren’t a little bit (or a lot, depending who’s writing him) crazy. But Bruce Wayne’s only the most famous example, and at least he knows who and what the hell he is (again, depending on the writer). Heroes like Rose/Thorn or Moon Knight, who actually are dealing with multiple personality disorders, have been hanging around since the 70s, never popular enough to attract any real attention.
Looks like Defendor‘s joined their ranks. I only heard about it two weeks ago though the good graces of After Movie Diner host Jon Cross. I guess it fell through the cracks a weak Terminator sequel, weaker Star Trek reboot, and Bayformers 2 left in the floor of 2009. I missed this “sharp suberversion of Nolan’s Batman reboots…” whatever the hell that means. Who said that, anyway…? Now Magazine…? Well, what the fuck do they know? Are they going to namedrop Rose/Thorn? Or Moon Knight? I don’t think so.
Comic book knowledge allows me to go into these DIY superhero movies with the proper air of critical suspicion. Who’s this Peter Stebbings, I thought going into Defendor, playing in our sandbox? What, this is his first time in the director’s chair? Well, at least he wrote the script. What else did he write…a PG-13 Rom Com from 2008? Aww, hell…
I mention this so you’ll know the film eventually won me over. Apparently, it sat on a shelf since 2005, when Stebbings finished the script, only managing to get it filmed in January, 2009 through generous financial donations from himself, to himself. Just the thought of shooting a movie in Canada, in January, makes my blood retreat from my extremities. I’d like to salute Stebbings and everyone else involved with that. They made the movie, and that’s no small potatoes. Question being, did they make it well?
The first two thirds of Defendor are framed by scenes of Woody Harrleson talking to his court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Park (Sandra Oh). Not that I blame him. Surviving a zombie apocalypse’ll fuck anybody up…ever mind catching a supervolcano blast with your face…Damn, 2009 was a tough ol’ year for our Micky Knox. No wonder he’s finally gone off the deep end.
Actually, Harrelson plays Arthur Poppington, and this is his psych evaluation. The court would like to know why he threw one Mr. Debrofkowitz (Bryan Renfro) through a store window. By way of answer, we flash back to Arthur in his superhero identity as Defendor, assaulting an undercover police officer named Doony (Elias Koteas…better known to you as “Casey Jones from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and III“). He tells the crack-smoking hooker in Doony’s car to “make like a rocket and take off,” in the best Stan Lee tradition before giving Doony a lesson in respecting your hooker’s wishes (wrap it up before you put it in, idiots).
By day, Arthur’s a sign holder for a road crew, bossed around by his “friend” Paul (Michael Kelly…speaking of zombie apocalypse survivors…it’s like a Veteran’s Day reunion up in here). By night, Arthur battles the criminal element that’s claimed his (unnamed) city’s streets for itself, always seeking out the location of his arch rival, Captain Industry.
This lands him right into a police holding cell, but that’s okay. It allows him to form a bond with Captain Fairbanks, (Clark Johnson). A very Jim Gordon-ish bond, if you know what I mean (allowing lazy critics to just compare this to Batman and call it good). He even calls Fairbanks “Commissioner.” The two really hit it off after the “Commissioner” recognizes Defendor’s weapon of choice – a trench club. Fairbanks claims his grandfather used one just like in “The War.” Arthur gets all weepy and the mention of grandpas and we learn two very important things: (1) Arthur’s granddad is at least twenty-six years dead, and (2) Arthur’s not exactly the most emotionally stable person in the world.
For one thing, he’s evidently filled those intervening years alone in a garage, outfitting himself for a crime fighter’s life by (what else?) reading metric tons comic books. This does not, unfortunately, preparing him for physical confrontations with thugs…like Doony’s, who soon ambush and whup Defendor’s ass something fierce. That crack ho from earlier (Kat Dennings), who introduces herself as “Angel” (of course), takes pity on Our fallen Hero, keeping him conscious long enough to make it back to the Defendor…cave? Can’t really call it that and be accurate, can I?
Either way, with Doony mad at her, Angel has no where else to stay. Initially reticent, our noble-but-daft Hero agrees to go Pretty Woman on Angel…if she’ll help him find Captain Industry. Despite the…ya know…crack and all…Angel manages to negotiate circles around Arthur, eventually conning him out of room, board and a $40-a-day information fee. In exchange, she directs Arthur towards one of the various drug kingpins she knows by professional association. This places Arthur and Angel in the middle of an undercover sting operation, endangering their lives, the lives of several undercover cops…and inadvertently inspiring The City with Defendor’s daft-by-well-meaning heroics.
The critics who saw this all took their time to praise Woody’s performance, and I’m going to join them in that soon. But for me, Kat Dennings is the real heart of this flick. Her Angel (who eventually confesses her real name is Katerina “Kat” Debrofkowitz) is the best Hooker with a Heart of Gold I’ve seen in years, and the first one I’ve honestly believed in since Morena Baccarin’s Inara Serra. Angel/Kat’s as cynical, dishonest and bubbly as she needs to be, gradually recovering her humanity through contact with Arthur…and Arthur’s stubborn refusal to take advantage of her. (Much like the Joker, crackheads are always flabbergasted by other people’s altruism.)
Damnit, people: even crack ho’s agree with me! Living with a superhero is awesome. What’s wrong with the rest of you? Sitting on your couches, letting Crime go unpunished? You get the heroes you deserve. Do you know there are whole message boards full of fools announcing themselves to the world as Real Life Superheroes? If Bruce Wayne were real he’d be shitting his tights at the thought of all these amateurs running around, getting themselves into trouble.
Modern Hollywood views itself as little more than a theme park ride manufacturer, unconcerned with telling stories because a two hour toy commercial will net them way more money than a two hour…God, what’s the word…? Ah, right: “movie.” That’s it. No surprise our recent superhero “movies” have felt more like commercials for themselves (or commercials for upcoming titles that promise to be “real” movies). I’m even less surprised that indy superhero films keeping popping out of the woodwork, or garnering such universal praise…from the few who’ve managed to see them.
Seekers of “realistic” superhero movies are, more likely than not, nerds struggling with big budget burnout. Sick of CGI body doubles and empty explosion fests, they seize upon something like Defendor and call it “realistic” because they can’t think of a better way to praise what, for them, must seem like a rare treat: a superhero movie they can actually call “good” without a flurry of Film Snob Cred-maintaining qualifications.
We comic book fans, on the other hand, have seen all this before, back in the oh-so-traumatizing Dark Age of modern comics. It was an annoying time, extending (roughly) from the late-80s to the late-90s, when Action Movie cliches invaded our superhero stories to a degree unseen since James Bond’s golden age. All the non-powered heroes and antiheroes of the 70s (like the Punisher) celebrated their Platinum anniversaries. And you couldn’t throw a batarang in Gotham, Central, Star City, or Metropolis without hitting some new DIY costumed avenger. Gangbuster, The Question, Dr. Mid-Nite, The Huntress, The Night Thrasher…the field became crowded with ’em. And they were all perceived as more “grounded” and/or “relate-able” than, say, “Award-Winning Journalist Clark Kent” or “Billionaire Industrialist Tony Stark.”
I say all that so you’ll know what Defendor felt like: an unintentional (?) recreation of a Dark Age comic book. It even uses radio call-in show and news anchor voice-overs the same way Todd McFarland used them in the first year’s worth of Spawn comics, cutting away from the main action to lend the story scope and verisimilitude. Defendor‘s not as obsessed with Nu Media as its more famous counterpart, Kick-Ass, but that’s okay because the two have different goals. Kick-Ass is all about the Millennial Generation’s view of superheroics. Defendor is about heroics, period. It asks us which takes more courage: facing down Captain Industry, or sharing the milk of human kindness with a crack-addled street kid?
If you answered “Fuck that ‘or’ shit; why can’t I do both?” congratulations. As Superman keeps telling people (not that they listen…but, hey, it’s called a “the never-ending battle” for a reason) simple human compassion is all you really need to be a superhero. Everything else – the powers, the gadgets, the costumes – is window dressing. As The Rocketeer‘s Mr. Bigelow put it, “It’s all part of the show!”
Knowing this, I can’t help but stand in awe of Woody Harrleson’s performance. His Arthur is nuanced to all hell. You look at him and think, Okay. So we’re back in the 90s and here’s Defendor, the Man Without Self-Respect. But as the film unfolds and we see how Arthur interacts with those around him (in both his identities), we get the impression Arthur’s a lot smarter than Paul, Dr. Park or the court give him credit for.
Defendor is Arthur’s ultimate defense mechanism, a mental place where he is all the things the day-world tells him he can’t be. As Arthur he’s halting, uncomfortable, constantly made aware of his mental inadequacies. Only Paul’s nine-year-old son, Jack (Dakota Goyo), treats Arthur like an equal and only Kat/Angel treats him like an adult human being. Behind his greasepaint mask and duct-tape-D sweatshirt, Arthur becomes a tactician, a level-headed cool customer, able to face down armed thugs without a bead of sweat or a stuttered consonant. He’s inventive by necessity, augmenting his arsenal with a truck he names Defen-dog, marbles, and swarms of wasps.
Dr. Park even backs me up on this, once the framing device ends. Making Defendor’s doomed quest sad, really. Kinda touching. Perhaps not enough to earn the love and respect of a modern city…but this was filmed in Canada, so I’ll forgive the movie its optimism. As with most “grim n’ gritty” settings, Defendor‘s attempts at realism come off feeling contrived. Defendor‘s world appears composed entirely of dark alleys and docks, with the occasional stop over in court or a police precinct. This is a location list from any given TV Cop Drama and that’s the worst thing I can say about Defendor. Like its protagonist, it does the best with what it has.
And it has, at its core, a perfectly good superhero story that subverts absolutely nothing. Like Kick-Ass, it reaffirms all the genre’s staple tropes while appearing to make light of them. Arthur believes Captain Industry killed his mother, meaning he’s yet another hero who turned a personal quest for vengeance into a socially beneficial quest to make sure no one else’s mom dies. No matter how crazy he might be, or how much his crazy grandfather warped his worldview, Defendor becomes exactly the kind of uncorruptable, everlasting symbol Bruce Wayne talked about in Batman Begins.
I think this film fell through the cracks because it looks like an odd duck without actually being one. With a big studio behind it, Defendor could’ve grossed eight hundred million and become a late night talk show punchline. Better than being an unknown…though superhero work isn’t about recognition. It’s about doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds. So I’m going to do what’s right and recommend Defendor to you. Buy six copies of the DVD and, if your friends refuse them, fling them and random passersby.
On second thought, cancel the flinging. Defendor‘s not perfect, shows its budget it spots, and isn’t all that pretty, given the constraints of its setting. Nor is it the rip-roaring action and/or special effects fiesta The Norms have come to expect from their superhero films (which is why all the Normal critics flung themselves at its feet). Still, if you see one “realist” superhero drama, and if you grasp the difference between “realistic” (which this isn’t) and “realist,” then this film should give you a good time at no extra charge.