Superheroes - Michael Barnett - Featured

Hot Docs 2011 Review:

Superheroes - Michael Barnett

Bruce Wayne may not have laser vision or super speed, but he does have a force much more potent than any cackling villain can handle. Suspension of belief. In a real world, with accountable gravity, lack of paranormally enriched radiation and the existential crisis of life without a structural narrative, superheroes and vigilantes are far less common than in the realm of comic books. Then again, so are the problems they are typically forced to deal with. In Superheroes, Michael Barnett introduces to a gallery of men and women in North America who take it upon themselves to don masks and capes, lurking the streets for criminals to thwart, or, perhaps just tourists to pose for. But in a subculture that is so much more showmanship than substance, Barnett’s film begins to stumble on almost identical faults.

Displaying a wide range of results and an even wider range of delusion, Superheroes skips along the USA to spots from New York to Orlando that have seemingly attracted like-minded Captain America hopefuls. Mr. Xtreme, a Power Rangers buff smothered in stickers and sports equipment, spends most of his time as a dreamer, patrolling with little incident and with more stories about how ‘cool things could be.’ A group of actively training New York youths are a little bit more pro-active, though admittedly still off target, as they patrol late-night streets with mock-sting operations, baiting predators to attack the female member of the troupe. One Master Legend stands out, not because he’s getting the job done, in fact he’s the furthest off the mark, but he’s the only one under the impression he possesses actual superhuman abilities. He never displays these powers during his adventures, explaining his plight to laughing locals and drinking beer out of the back of his van. Very rarely do you see or even hear mention of successful triumphs against evil, though the most righteous, and thankfully common tactic, is hand delivering care packages and help to the less fortunate. It’s easy to get wrapped up in judging the actions of the subject matter, but what’s really under the knife here is the film itself.

They say that the presence of a photographer has an effect on the subject, but imagine if that subject wore a zebra striped mask and an emblem on their chest. The whole time you get the sensation of a performance underway. Even if Barnett wasn’t encouraging them to make their case as it were, he also wasn’t changing the tide much to siphon more earnest footage. For example, we’re receiving a lot of lines I’m certain these cloaked folks have riddled off before, and Barnett brings us along for a ride divisively constructed by the subjects themselves. Of all of them, the most humble profile is Mr. Xtreme, who’s living condition is a cluttered apartment. Xtreme is too portly for his own custom outfit and fails at a karate tournament he invites the crew to watch.

A question that is never answered, and thus means that it was probably never asked, is why dress up at all? As hypocritical as it is to have Stan Lee voice his concern for these misguided samaritans (the man had his own reality show where he had costumed contestants attempt to out-hero one another) he also brought up the only example of a real-world hero who made sense. According to Stan the Man, one Captain Sticky took to the roads in a glamorously decorated Lincoln using the attention garnered from dressing with a cape to point the spotlight at corrupted landlords and fraudulent practices. Sticky’s approach was decisive, strategic, direct and sound, a lot of things those featured in the film are not.


When Superheroes isn’t trying to excuse the subject, it’s doing the opposite, reaffirming a sad stereotype you were already walking in with. Barnett seemed to stroll into this matter expecting the documentary to create itself, and to a point it does, but with a lot of focus on the glamorization of the production itself bundled with an easy and mildly concerning subject matter, you’re left feeling like you’re missing a whole lot. Like Superman taking down a common thug, the solution for Barnett must have just seemed too easy.