We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)
Bottom Line: A deconstruction of the superhero tale used as a powerful character study, this counts as one of the best superhero movies of all time even if it may not count in that genre at all.
Superhero movies have been all the rage with the Marvel Universe dominating the Box Office and the DC films trying to stake their claim as well. But while the big budget capers have given us plenty of senses-dazzling, popcorn-munching moments, it’s worth taking the time to recognize a superhero film of sorts from several years ago made on a much smaller scale but that delivered a grand, moving story. Defendor (misspelling intentional and explained in the film) comes to us from writer/director Peter Stebbings and stars Woody Harrelson and it flew very much under the radar getting a limited release in theaters in February 2010 and a quiet debut on DVD a few months later. But this is a must-see for genre fans even if it does take a major detour from what you would expect for a superhero film.
The movie focuses on Arthur Poppington (Harrelson), a person with no superpowers who dons a costume and gear to take on the criminals who seem to run unchecked in his city, and he has a particular vendetta against a super villain known as Captain Industry. And that’s about as much as you should know going in. I could provide a bit more detail (and I will to a small extent below), but this movie is best viewed spoiler-free to experience its full impact.
Now many reading that brief synopsis will immediately think of 2009’s Kick-Ass (or 2008’s Special or this 2011’s Super). And it’s worth comparing Defendor to Kick-Ass because they definitely have their similarities but the former takes a very different approach and delivers a far superior film. Both have normal people putting on a superhero disguise and trying to act like the comic book characters that inspired them. But Kick-Ass takes this idea to the extreme if not the absurd whereas Defendor remains grounded in reality. In fact, Defendor really counts more as a drama than a superhero film. Very little that happens in the movie is not plausible, and it has almost nothing in the way of science fiction and/or fantasy elements, whereas Kick-Ass definitely embraces its genre much more heavily. But Defendor still gives plenty of nods to the superhero tropes (though in an angular sense) and should be embraced warmly by genre fans. Kick-Ass also verged on torture-porn at times, though intentionally as it winked to its audience and brought to life elements only implied in the comics that inspired it. Defendor steers in a different direction (though it has plenty of violence), as it delivers more in the way of a dramatic character study. It also has a gut wrenching quality about it, something present in Kick-Ass as well, but the latter film actually makes you feel creepy at times, almost like you need to go take a shower afterwards. Defendor has moments that make you cringe and/or feel uncomfortable, but ultimately these help bring out the true pathos in the film’s hero.
And you can’t accuse writer/director Peter Stebbings of stealing the basic premise from the Mark Millar comic book series. Stebbings wrote the screenplay in 2005, three years before the comic hit the stands, and he filmed the movie in 2009 (though it did not get its release until February 19, 2010, one month before Kick-Ass hit the big screen). And if the name Peter Stebbings rings a bell, he is an actor/writer/director who has had frequent guest appearances on genre shows like The X-Files, The Outer Limits (the 90’s remake), and Stargate SG-1. He also played Markus Alexander across the two seasons of J. Michael Straczynski’s excellent but underrated post-apocalyptic series Jeremiah. But with Defendor he has demonstrated that he can do much more than act. He has shown himself to be a highly talented filmmaker, handling a grand story on an intimate scale while expertly working in such nuances as the misspelling of the title character’s moniker and the Captain Industry reference (no explanations, watch the movie).
It’s not like we haven’t seen the idea of normal people dressing up as superheroes played out before in comics, on television, and in the cinema. But Stebbings manages to give the concept a fresh spin and ultimately taps into its full potential to deliver an engrossing and moving film. It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that he works in many of the expected standards from the darker, grittier comics that this film draws its influence from. Defendor gives us the troubled, driven central character with a motivation from his past to strike out against crime. And of course, the city is riddled with the criminal element and the people feel helpless and insecure. Then we have the corrupt cop on the take and the jaded hooker with a good side she tries to suppress. Stebbings even throws in the overly melodramatic–even a bit campy–theme music just for good measure.
All of this could have led to a muddled, contrived affair and even descended into bad camp if not handled properly. But Stebbings meshes these elements together masterfully without reverting to cliché so that it feels new and vital instead of tired and stale. Reworking old ideas is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when you regurgitate what has come before that you deliver an ersatz product. Stebbings avoids the latter and instead takes a well-tread idea to new heights (and you can hear him talk more about this in the short film “Origin Stories – The Genesis of Defendor” available for free viewing at Amazon Instant Video). And with this relatively simple, grounded story that he put together on very little money (about $3.5 million) which relies on little in the way of special effects, he succeeds in delivering that grand tale that high profile genre productions typically strive for yet too often come up lacking. That’s story-telling and that’s filmcraft and that’s what makes this a film fans should seek out.
And of course I would be remiss if I did not mention the outstanding performance delivered by Woody Harrelson. Woody is one of my all-time favorite actors and one of Hollywood’s best character performers. Unfortunately, he has rarely received the material equal to his talent, even though he manages to make almost any role given to him shine. But with Defendor, Harrelson finally gets his Magnus Opus, even if few have recognized it as such. He delivers a career performance and expertly interprets the nuances of the scripts. From the one-liners that aren’t quite as witty as you’d expect (there’s a reason for that, and don’t worry because he does get some zingers in there), to his less than heroic run-ins with bad guys, to the moments when he reveals the inner turmoils that haunt Arthur Poppington, Harrelson is at the top of his game from start to finish. And he gets a pretty impressive supporting cast that includes Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), Elias Koteas (The Prophecy, Fallen), Michael Kelly (The Sopranos, Fringe), and Kat Dennings (who seems to be everywhere these days), each of whom fully immerse themselves into their roles and help elevate this movie to that next level.
Defendor unfortunately suffered from little to no marketing, and what did exist misrepresented the film. The movie is played up as a comedy in its promos, and while it does have its humorous elements (a few times it had me rolling on the floor laughing) it’s in truth a drama through and through. And that unfortunately seemed to hamper it in more ways than one. The movie industry, which prefers an easily labeled product, couldn’t quite peg down this drama with genre trappings which ultimately resulted in it falling through the cracks. It got little attention upon its release, and no recognition from the Academy. And while the Oscars often shy away from genre films in the non-technical categories anyway, this indy film definitely deserved at least nominations for Harrelson’s acting as well as Stebbings’ writing and directing. Unfortunately it received no attention from the organization that supposedly recognizes the best examples of filmmaking.
If you missed out on this film, which is quite likely, you need to check it out and soon. And spread the word. I consider this one of the best superhero movies ever even though you could make an argument that it’s not a superhero movie at all. In any case, it’s a must-see for all genre fans as well as anybody who appreciates true filmcraft.
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