'Superheroes' Review: Hilarity and Humanity Abound in this Real Life 'Kick-Ass'

From the 2011 Slamdance Film Festival, Christopher Campbell reviews Michael Barnett's documentary about real-life superheroes.

Superheroes documentary
Theodore James Productions

This review of Michael Barnett’s Superheroes was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on January 22, 2011, during coverage of the Slamdance Film Festival.

There are a few John C. Reilly movies in Park City this year, but I’m certain the best is the Slamdance documentary Superheroes, a humorous and well-rounded look at the current national phenomenon of real-life superheroes. Technically, Reilly is not actually in the film, but there is a hilarious Orlando-based crime-fighter named “Master Legend” who I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is actually just the actor doing one of his oddball characters. The guy, a self-proclaimed superhero since the age of seven, is like Steve Brule in an armored costume who seems to spend more time hitting on young ladies and drinking beer out of his van than actually fighting crime.

As you can imagine, many of the real-life superheroes (RLSH) are totally ridiculous and potentially insane, but they are all apparently very nice guys and girls — even those who look like villainous GWAR and Insane Clown Posse fans — who are trying to do good, positive things, whether thwarting burglaries or bringing food and toiletries to the homeless. And director Michael Barnett treats them with more respect than movies like Kick-Ass and news coverage of recent media sensation Phoenix Jones do.

The film doesn’t exactly mean to make fun of the characters, but it is easy to laugh at much of what they do and say in the film. Some, like Master Legend, are sillier and less intelligent than others. But I have to admit to feeling guilty in finding humor in their idiocy, just as I’m led to feel at the end of Dinner for Schmucks. It’s okay, though, since a lot of the RLSH represented don’t seem to mind being viewed as a joke as long as they’re visible and can thereby bring awareness to the causes they’re fighting for.

Often Superheroes comes off as also being more about the problems of the world than the costumed crusaders on screen. Through people like “Zetaman,” “Life,” “Mr. Extreme,” and the simply named “Super Hero,” we are made to think about the issues of homelessness and violent crime, as well as police corruption and bureaucracy that lead to the necessity for these RLSHs to pop up in cities across the nation.

One thing I found especially fascinating is the backgrounds and origins of these heroes, for the most part unlike the humdrum or fantastical sorts of movies and comic books. Many of them come from bad homes and histories of gang life, depression, and/or addiction. Others are inspired by tragedies that could have been averted if the majority of people weren’t such apathetic cowards — another serious concern the documentary addresses.

And not all of the superheroes are easily accepted or appreciated as actually doing good. The Brooklyn-based gay superhero Zimmer (who doesn’t wear a mask, since he equates it with being in the closet) does a thing called “bait patrol,” in which he dresses up in stereotypically gay clothing and walks the streets with exaggerated flamboyancy in an attempt to try to get beaten up by homophobes. If he’s in trouble, his nearby teammates swoop in and come to his aid. It’s all in the name of fighting for LGBT justice, but as an interviewed police lieutenant notes, it’s also a form of entrapment.

It’s great that the lieutenant and other officers are given time to comment on the good, bad and tolerable aspects of RLSH from the perspective of official law enforcement. Other non-costumed interviewees include clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg, known for her writings on superheroes, and comic book legend Stan Lee, who exhibits concern for wannabe heroes who don’t have any superpowers (Mister Legend, by the way, claims to have some).

Superheroes will surely be a big hit with the RLSH crowd, of which there are hundreds more than the selected few in the film, as well as the Comic-Con/fanboy types. Plus it’s a well-made, albeit fairly standard doc, without many flaws or bumps. If anything, it definitely needs to be distributed through VOD and online platforms, where it should be quite popular.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.