So earlier this year I saw the excellent Super from king of the cult directors James Gunn. When Super came out people lazily compared it to Kick-Ass, partly because it was on the surface about a guy wanting to become a super hero, but mostly because they hadn’t seen Defendor. Defendor is a much more accurate parallel to Super than Kick-Ass ever would be. See Kick-Ass is about a guy that wants to be a super hero, Super and Defendor is about a guy that has more complex real life problems to deal with that happens to fight crime in his spare time. They’re more about the internal conflict and mental stability of their main characters than they are about telling crime to shut up. Is Defendor as good as Super though? click the jump to find out.
So as stated Defendor is more about the man behind the mask than what he does with it. The man in this case being one Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) who is not your typical hero. He has a genuine origin that sets him up for a life of crime fighting, that being the loss of his mother to a life of drugs and prostitution when he was a child. What makes him different though is that he in no way should be out fighting crime. See Arthur is what we’d call in these politically correct times as being “Special needs”. He’s slow, struggles to function and withdraws when confronted with real life. That is unless he’s currently dressed as Defendor. He uses Defendor as a conduit to show his true strength through. When he is Defendor he’s more coherent, more focused and brave to the point of being unable to realise when he has to stop. Remember how Kick-Ass got given some merit for showing it’s title character getting beaten down quite often. Well that’s pretty much what happens every time Defendor gets into a fight. That’s not to say he doesn’t succeed in his goals at times.
When the film opens Arthur is being evaluated by psychiatrist Dr Ellen Park (Sandra Oh). From the very start we see that he isn’t fully there. These interviews crop up over the course of the film to frame the action, told largely in flashback, where we learn just what brought him to the psychiatrists couch. Defendor is in pursuit of a crime lord known as Captain Industry, a crime lord no-one has heard of. Along the way he makes an enemy of undercover and very unscrupulous cop Sgt Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas) and becomes a friend to a drug addicted hooker in the form of Kat Dennings. I mean Katerina Debrofkowitz played by Kat Dennings. Kat Dennings isn’t actually a hooker. As Defendor goes on his search for Captain Industry these two characters become the focus of his hunt and the source of much pain.
See people cotton on that he’s not all there and they abuse that knowledge. Dooney goads him and enjoys any chance to cause Arthur pain while Katerina gives Defendor false information so he’ll believe that her former pimp was Captain Industry. Arthur has one true friend in the world from his day job at a construction site. Paul Carter (Michael Kelly) is the one person that doesn’t take advantage of Arthur. In a sense he is our representative in the film, asking Arthur to stop his crusade against crime for his own good. At time Defendor can become a little bit of an awkward film to enjoy as we see Arthur be beaten and taken advantage of. Now in some films this can be a pretty good sign. It helps if a film makes you feel the right emotions at the right time. The trouble with Defendor though is that it’s a tonal mess that occasionally leaves you conflicted about the situations.
Whilst on the one hand you have a mentally unstable man in the lead who requires our sympathy on his quest he is occasionally played for laughs when really playing it straight would have helped better. For example, Defendor’s arsenal includes such weapons as marbles and a jar of bees. He also carries a VCR on his back to record his escapades. All funny little quirks of his character, but when coupled with a realistically portrayed hooker and a generally grim naturalistic tone these elements feel very out of place. A tonally mixed film is very difficult to pull off. Super managed it with great skill because it managed to play both tones at once and switch smoothly from one to the other when needed. Here the visual tone is always dark and gritty. The humour though ranges from subtle to the wacky and then suddenly, without warning, we’re back to gritty drama. It also commits the cardinal sin of (SPOILERS!!) the pointless dead hero scene. When will a movie told in flashback learn that these don’t work if the hero is telling the story himself after the event?
The film is, for the large part, competently shot and acted. In fact the central performances are actually very good, particularly Harrelson’s who manages to avoid going full re…special needs whilst giving a very subtly brilliant performance. Actor turned Director Peter Stebbings appears to have a skill for presenting a very down to Earth tone and getting a naturalistic performance from his actors. I think given the chance to to make something more tonally focused he could put out quite a good drama. He also wrote the film and worked for years to bring it to the screen and his passion for the story shows as he is clearly not messing around here. This is the sort of Director who’s at least willing to tell a slightly different story and take a few risks.
Overall Defendor is a decent little film but it really needed a bit more guidance to point it in the right direction. Whilst they were assembling the strong cast they had they really should have been trying to get a well practised Writer or Producer on board to help refine the films tone and style. There is a good, intelligently made film in here though and I would believe that a some viewers will love it for it’s cult appeal and gritty approach to the costumed crime-fighter genre. There has been a real spate of these sorts of films recently. It’s a sign of just how much influence comic books and super heroes have had on the generation of Writers and Directors coming into the industry these days. this year (in the UK at least) sees the releases of Chronicle, a story about a group of super powered teens and how they use/abuse their powers, and Griff the Invisible, office worker by day, super hero by night. Both show a lot of promise and I shall be planning to see both. Although I’ll be honest, the Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers are first on my list of super hero movies to geek over this year.