To be perfectly honest, I put off watching Superheroes, a new documentary about the real-life superhero (RLSH) movement, because I was concerned about how these amateur heroes would be portrayed. Despite the growing power of geeks in pop culture, the media still tends to take a “point and laugh” approach to most anything fandom related. So, a documentary about people who dress up in costumes and patrol the streets of their cities and neighborhoods really could have been unnecessarily mean-spirited.
To its credit, Superheroes, directed by Michael Barnett, keeps its snarkiness to a minimum. Most of the awkward moments are provided by the subjects themselves. (Whether there were alternative clips the director could have used is another story.) The only egregious example of directorial nastiness is when the director inserts himself into the documentary for the first and only time in the film, to ask one of the heroes if he has a girlfriend. Har-har.
Thankfully, the spirit of the movement and the passion of the people involved elevate Superheroes above its baser instincts. The parallels between the RLSH and their comic book inspirations are clear. Several of the heroes featured have dark and violent origin stories that could rival any you’d read in DC or Marvel. Whether it was child abuse, violent crime or being a witness to violent crime, it’s easy to accept, in the pages of comics, at least, that any of these things could create a Batman. So, why not in real life?
Save me, Zimmer!
Bartlett follows heroes stationed all over the US while they patrol, train or assemble costumes. At one point, Zimmer, a superhero with the Brooklyn-based New York Initiative, says, “Being openly gay is something that is very important to me. It’s very near and dear to my heart. So I never patrolled in a mask, because wearing a mask and having a different name and a different life felt too much like being in the closet.” The film takes a “no big deal” approach to Zimmer’s sexuality and the New York Initiative even use it to bait homophobes. Zimmer is definitely a stand-out in the documentary, and there is a decidedly different tone to the New York heroes than, say, the Orlando heroes.
Uniting them all, though, are two main commonalities: 1.) A desire to help people and to do it outside the traditional systems; and 2.) Danger.
Make no mistake. These people are in danger, and everyone from Stan Lee to cops on the beat to a relentlessly negative lieutenant at the San Diego Police Department agree: “Don’t go looking for trouble.” But our heroes do, and that’s what differentiates them from your traditional neighborhood watch group. However, despite the adrenaline rush of encountering actual criminals, the most powerful moments in Superheroes come when the various supes help people in need, whether it’s an injured victim of a hit and run, a drunk driver who needs to sleep it off for a while, or a homeless man who just needs to know that someone, anyone, cares.
Ultimately, those are the moments that make the most impact and instill as much hope and inspiration as seeing Superman fly or Spider-Man swing. Whether the RLSH movement will grow and benefit from the documentary, or if it’s just a passing fad, the actions of the people involved remind us that anyone can be a more caring and thoughtful citizen of the world.
Superheroes is currently airing on HBO. Check local listings for air times or watch anytime on HBO GO.
Zimmer to the rescue!