Superhero flicks are a dime-a-dozen these days, with a character seemingly getting the Hollywood treatment every day. While I’m certainly not a hater (heck, I used to own a comic book store, damnit), I can see that the shine’s starting to wear off of the genre for some, especially those who like their supermen a little more human. So it is for those jaded viewers that I present Defendor – a hero driven by revenge against a villain who doesn’t even exist, and whose only special ability is his tenuous grasp on reality.
Meet Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) . By day, Arthur is a shy, mentally challenged middle-aged DPW worker, looked after by his boss, Paul (the criminally underrated Michael Kelly), and completely overlooked by the rest of society. When night falls, however, Arthur becomes something else; a trench-club swinging, jar-full-of-wasps slinging vigilante known as Defendor (yes, with an “O”. And, yes, he knows how it’s REALLY spelled). Defendor prowls the streets, seeking out injustice, and protecting the innocent from the criminal mastermind that is Captain Industry – a faceless villain Arthur holds responsible for the death of his drug addict mother when he was a young boy.
On one of his nightly patrols, Defendor happens upon a man roughing up a young hooker. The man identifies himself as an undercover cop named Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas), but, to Defendor, a cop who breaks the law is just a punk with a badge, and he proceeds to beat the bejesus out of Dooney, while the young hooker, Angel (Kat Dennings), flees the scene. Later, when he once again encounters the corrupt cop – this time roughing up a graffiti artist with a couple of his cronies – Dooney and his boys beat Defendor to unconsciousness, where Angel finds him and spirits him back to his “hideout” (aka; the DPW garage).
While Arthur bandages his wounds, he tells Angel about his search for Captain Industry, and the young girl, sensing Arthur’s vulnerability, decides to use his vendetta to her advantage. She tells him she not only knows who Captain Industry is, but how Arthur can find him, pointing him in the direction of aKristic (A.C. Peterson), a human trafficker/gun runner for whom Dooney works. Now, with a new sense of misguided purpose, Defendor takes his fantastical fight to an all-too-real villain, blissfully unaware of the trouble he’s gotten himself into.
Written and helmed by first time director, Peter Stebbings, Defendor is a welcome twist on well-trodden conventions, and serves as one of the most inspired, laugh-out-loud-funny, and surprisingly touching “superhero” movies I’ve ever seen. Harrelson, as always, thoroughly inhabits his role, creating a character that is at once comical and entirely tragic; a victim of circumstances too real for his fragile mind to comprehend, so, instead, he’s retreated into the realm of fantasy – a place where he’s most at home and best able to rationalize the things that went wrong in his life. Dennings’ Angel/Kat serves as the perfect foil for Arthur’s gullible-yet-wholly-invested alter-ego, at first using him to make her former “employers” miserable, but, ultimately, growing to care for Arthur in a way she’d not thought herself capable. Yes, we’ve seen the “hooker with a heart of gold” routine done a thousand times, but Dennings puts a nice spin on it here, imbuing Angel/Kat with an acerbic wit and swagger, yet there’s a constant sense of the vulnerable, shattered young girl beneath, and the charming actress’ unique look and style makes this oft-used character device seem fresh. The same can be said for the performance of Michael Kelly, who is given a somewhat underwritten role as Arthur’s boss and caring friend, Paul. Kelly, an enormously gifted actor who I’ve been a fan of since his turn in Dawn of the Dead, does wonders with the somewhat lacking material he’s given, and turns in the film’s most heartfelt performance. Last, but not least, Elias Koteas simply nails the role of Dooney. He’s slimy and corrupt, but there’s a palpable undercurrent of sadness and remorse in his actions. He’s a villain, but a sympathetic and wholly tragic one, and it’s a brilliant performance that, in my opinion, stands out in a film full of them.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the performances and not a whole heck of a lot on the action, and that’s because there’s really not that much action to speak of. Sure, we get a few fight scenes, but the onus is squarely on these characters and how they relate to one another, and director, Stebbings, helms the film with the sort of restraint usually reserved for character-centric dramas , making Defendor a truly unique and compelling entry into the superhero sweeps. It’s a visually appealing and colorful film, but, ultimately, it’s all about the actors, and Stebbings, an actor, himself, wisely lets his exceptional cast do the heavy lifting, here. The film does lose its way for a bit in the third act, but, once it regains its footing, Stebbing steers us to a sad-yet-satisfying conclusion that is, once again, completely out-of-step with the de rigueur tights-and-fights films we’ve become accustomed to.
Sony unleashes Defendor on DVD with a solid 2.35:1 transfer that is both sharp and well-defined, and recreates the film’s dark color palette wonderfully. Much of the action takes place at night, in shadowy alleyways and dimly lit interiors, but the transfer holds up nicely, with lush, true blacks and solid contrast. The 5.1 DTS soundtrack is well-mixed and immersive, with the film’s delightfully retro-style score (think Dragnet) sounding full and expressive, while dialogue is crisp, clean, and up front.
Sony loads up Defendor with an impressive array of extras, including a commentary track featuring Stebbings, Harrelson, and Dennings, amongst others, a beefy five-part featurette that documents the making of the film from inception to post-production, a host of deleted scenes, and a short outtakes reel. It’s a nice haul, especially considering that this is, essentially, a small, indie-style production, and not the sort of blockbuster flick usually given this sort of treatment.
Defendor is a funny, touching, and hugely entertaining spin on the superhero genre that packs a surprising amount of punch thanks to great performances by the film’s leads, and a subtle-yet-assured directorial debut from Stebbings. Fans of the more eccentric comic book offerings (such as Mystery Men and, to an extent, even Watchmen) will appreciate Defendor’s decidedly human take on the genre, while casual viewers will be drawn in by plentiful laughs, relatable characters, and a truly engrossing storyline. Definitely one worth checking out.