In the 2010 fiction film Kick-Ass the titular character comments, following his defense of an unarmed man being beaten up outside a diner, “…three assholes, laying into one guy while everybody else watches? And you wanna know what’s wrong with me?”. This apathetic attitude and the desire to do something tangible about it is really at the heart of Superheroes, Mike Barnett’s documentary about real world versions of characters like Kick-Ass.
This is clear early in the documentary when the incredibly tragic story of Kitty Genovese is introduced. Kitty Genovese (real name Catherine Susan Genovese) was a woman murdered in 1964, stabbed to death, reportedly in plain view of many people who did nothing or even closed their windows and ignored the attack and cries for help. Whilst reports of this event vary, the mere suggestion that bystanders stood by and let a woman be stabbed to death without interfering is a potent concept and it is one that has galvanised a number of the superheroes in Barnett’s documentary into action. It’s a common thread throughout with all those interviewed either making reference to this apathy to crime present in modern society or directly commenting on the impact of the story of Kitty Genovese.
This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Superheroes, the main impetus for these men and women to dress up in costumes and take to the streets is not a love of comic books or superhero films (although this certainly crops up as a motivation and is undoubtedly an inspiration) it is the belief that they can actually help people and do good. This effort to help people takes many forms with some handing out water, food and clothes to the homeless whilst others confront drug dealers or actively bait criminals in an effort to entrap them. The latter activity leads to a particularly unsettling part in the documentary in which a group go out to rough neighbourhoods dressed in what they believe is a provocative way in order to hopefully provoke someone into criminal behaviour. A Police Lieutenant is interviewed by Barnett and is quick to point out that this kind of behaviour is pretty textbook entrapment, and also very dangerous.
This is the unfortunate side of what the superheroes featured here do, they are not trained police officers but they are attempting to do the same kind of work in their local communities. Some are perhaps more of a danger to themselves than anyone else, the pretty innocuous Master Legend for instance is well liked locally but seemingly always drinking and hanging out in bad areas. Not a great mix. There are also those, including the most heavily profiled superhero Mr. Xtreme, who are more than happy to carry weapons and in a montage at the middle point of the film we see quite how extensive many of their weapon collections are. In a country in which gun ownership is pretty common bear mace may not seem like a big deal but in the UK (and probably the US too, to be honest) the idea that an untrained member of the public is walking down the street with a large cannister of that hardly makes me feel safer.
This balance between the more harmless aspects of the superheroes’ approach, helping the homeless, and the hints at something darker, weapons and the sense that some may have serious and quite dangerous delusional mind sets, is something that Barnett manages to deal with quite effectively. Superheroes never feels sensationalist or exploitative, as it so easily could have been, and for the most part Barnett lets the interviewees tell their own story with only the occasional inter-cut talking head with the aforementioned police lieutenant or a clinical psychologist (Robin Rosenberg), who specialises in the psychology of superheroes.
The information supplied by Rosenberg is interesting but it unfortunately doesn’t go to far beyond the obvious. Like much of the documentary it is simply a surface examination of a much deeper and more fascinating subject. Whilst Barnett ensures that the film never runs out of steam, the addition of some pretty snappy animated sequences break up some of the slightly repetitive footage, he never really gets his teeth into his subjects and the inclusion of Stan Lee, who really has nothing too much to say on the subject. reeks of fan service. Superheroes is enjoyable and quite interesting but never really gets beyond the surface of this interesting phenomenon and the fascinating characters who choose to become superheroes.