ordinary people

defendor graffito Let’s face it.  Superhero movies in general suck.  They are all flashbang and sizzle, lots of of explosions and magic tricks, but in the end they are as empty as a vacant lot.  The superheroes themselves are  one-dimensional and fairly uninteresting apart from their mutation, or superhuman power, or fancy armor gimmicks.   This of course may not be the fault of the superheroes (I understand that actual comic books can be full of all sorts of character development and complicated storytelling) but rather of a movie industry that figures lots of explosions and pretty girls is the only way to get young males and their money into the movie theaters.  I go see these movies and I enjoy them while they happen (well, the last two Spider-Man movies were uniformly awful) and then I forget all about them.  If you think about them too much you come fairly quickly to an understanding that there is no there there.

I’ve always been partial to the superheroes who aren’t really super.  The ones that have no space alien parentage, no mutation, no radioactive spider bite, no superpowers at all.  The ones that are just regular guys (or girls) who think they can do something about the world’s problems and who put on a cape and tights to do it.  The ur-example of this is probably Batman, whose only real “superpowers” are the Wayne family fortune and his own finely honed sense of Justice.  The recent Kick Ass is along the same lines (haven’t seen it yet though so I have no idea if it’s any good), as is Special, another small scale movie about an ordinary superhero.  And now, slipping in under the radar is Defendor, a small and rather enjoyable film about a decent man looking for the evil mastermind that he believes killed his mother.


Defendor was Woody Harrelson’s second 2009 movie (although not released until 2010) and I imagine it got lost in all the hype surrounding Zombieland.   However, it is definitely worth a look.  Harrelson plays Arthur, a construction worker who dresses up as Defendor (the misspelling is important) to fight crime.  His mother died when he was young, most likely from drug abuse, and he believes that “Captain Industry” (a misunderstanding of something his grandfather told him) killed her.  The movie is told in partial flashback as he sits in a psychiatrist’s office for a court-ordered mental assessment after an apparently pointless attack on the owner of a dry cleaning store.

During one of his nightly  patrols Defendor assaults an undercover police officer who is smoking crack in his car with a young hooker.   Arthur is arrested but the captain on duty takes a liking to him and lets him go (it’s also obvious that the captain has his doubts about the undercover officer).   Arthur believes the crooked cop works for Captain Industry and goes after him again.  He is severely beaten and the hooker, Kat, nurses him back to health.  Since she is now in trouble with the cop (who was trading her crack for sex) she moves in with Arthur and, in exchange for drug money, she helps him track down “Captain Industry” (in reality, just some small scale local crime boss).   Eventually Kat is taken hostage and in rescuing her Defendor comes to his final confrontation with his archenemy.

This is not a typical superhero movie.  There is only a little gunfire and no explosions.  Defendor’s bag of tricks is simple but effective:  lime juice squirted in the eyes of a suspect he is interrogating, marbles that make the bad guys fall down, a jar of angry wasps (my favorite) to confuse them during his getaway, road flares to alert the police.  He doesn’t carry a gun and believes that bullets can’t hurt him.   Nor does  he, as he explains to a  judge, wear a cape. Capes are for flying and he doesn’t fly.   The movie is a bit scattered, as if it were unable to decide whether it’s a comedy or something darker, satire or an exploration of mental illness.   The movie doesn’t gloss over Arthur’s illness but it does go to remarkable lengths to protect him from the brutal realities of the psychiatric care industry.   When one considers that he is 1) convinced he is a superhero on a quest and 2) armed it stretches credibility quite a bit that no one suggests medicating him.  Basically all the people he comes into contact with, the psychiatrist, his friends, Kat, the police, the judge, enable him in his delusions.  But hey, other superhero movies aren’t realistic either.

The movie rests on the strength of Harrelson in the title role and he does not disappoint.  In some respects, Defendor is the other side of Tallahassee, the character he played in Zombieland.    In that movie,  he played a man who had lost his son; in this one he plays a boy who has lost his mother.  In both cases, the loss is still obviously palpable to the characters and lends poignancy and dignity to their actions.  The other actors in the movie are fine but not remarkable.  I particularly liked Michael Kelly in the role of Arthur’s best friend Paul.   Paul loves Arthur for the very simple reason that Arthur once saved his son’s life.  Paul does not understand his friend’s obsession but it makes not a bit of difference in how he interacts with Arthur.  It  is a simple and true depiction of friendship.

The movie is full of cliches, perhaps deliberately, since it does intend to overturn the usual superhero movie conventions.  There are the crooked cop, the hooker with a heart of gold, and the  penny ante crook with a generic eastern Europe accent.   There is a send-up of the “crowd goes wild” scene from other superhero movies, when a local reporter does a small story about Defendor and he suddenly becomes a local hero.   But there are some graceful touches as well, including the police captain who bonds with Arthur over grandfathers who both served in WWII, Arthur’s friend Paul who passionately defends him, the psychiatrist who patiently listens to Arthur’s tale and then doesn’t recommend hardcore antipsychotic medication.   And that  hooker?  She turns out to be Lois Lane.

Arthur is no superhero.  He is clearly deluded.  Just as clearly, he makes a real difference for the better in his world.  In the end he saves everything that matters, just by being an ordinary guy who believes he can do extraordinary things.

Score:  On the good side of Meh.


~ by gun street girl on May 18, 2010.

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