I love superheroes. I love them in comics, in movies and, yes, even in real life. Superheroes represent a distillment of all the greatest human values, focusing on the desire to help others and make the world a better place. A superhero is someone who is making these ideals his own personal responsibility, because governments and other authorities are not doing a good enough job of it. What is heroism? Heroism is the ability to extend your feelings of empathy beyond your own family and friends, and do your utmost to provide the same protection and care for all people that you do for your loved ones. Not many people have the surplus empathy to do that.
You can practice heroism in many ways: You can do volunteer charity work, you can produce art with progressive messages, you can choose a profession that is all about helping people – or you can put on a costume and look for wrongs to right on the street.
In the past decade or more, as this movie documents, real-life superheroes have started to crop up all over the United States, and a few in other countries as well. They have different backgrounds, different motivations and very different styles and costumes. They range from the obese to the well-toned martial artists. Some focus on charity work, others on stopping crime. Some look a bit clueless and bumbling, others are the epitome of cool. Although some have histories of crime and abuse, all are driven to live up to high ideals of fighting the good fight; fighting the evils of crime and poverty, and protecting the innocent.
Stylewise, the real-life superheroes more or less come in two varieties: the one dressed in colorful costumes inspired by the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Captain America, and the one dressed in very dark, usually black, costumes along the lines of Batman. The latter kind seems to be more driven and intense, more martial arts oriented; more serious about fighting actual crime. They will even do something called “bait patrolling” where they set one of their own up as a target for criminals to accost – entrapment, almost.
The superheroes in colorful costumes also come in several varieties. Some are simple-minded folk who use the hero vocation as a way of imbuing their lives with meaning in the absence of better alternatives. Others are a bit like show-men dedicated to perfect style (like having a cool car) or even to good hygiene (distributing toiletries among the homeless). While this may sound a bit silly and superficial, it actually isn’t. These latter guys, too, with names like Super Hero and Zetaman, are completely dedicated to actual heroism, doing great charity work and being generally awesome.
One of the darker heroes, a martial arts instructor calling himself Dark Guardian, has made it his specialty to expose drug dealers and ruin their business. He doesn’t get violent; he just tells them (sometimes with a megaphone! And with a large group of fellow superheroes making noise) that they are unwanted. Seems like slightly dangerous business, but then again, the high stakes are precisely what makes it a worthy job for a superhero: no one else will do it.
This documentary also showcases one of the great problems with being a real-life superhero: the difficulty of actually finding some crime to fight. Patrolling the streets, even at night, will rarely make you stumble on a crime in progress. If you’re lucky, you might encounter a drunk driver or a homeless person needing help. Other than that, the best thing you can do is outright charity work. And you don’t really need a costume for that – but wearing one anyway sends a message to the community, namely the message that here is someone highly dedicated who is willing to put himself on the line for a greater cause, even if most of the time there is no real opportunity to make that sacrifice. But he is ready to make it; ready to help anyone in need; he will be the first to step in when intervention is needed, as opposed to the lamentable Kitty Genovese case, where a bunch of people witnessed a terrible sexual assault and murder without stepping in to stop it. A superhero is someone who wants human beings to be better than that, and makes himself a living proof of it.
Some of the darker heroes, like a group based in Salt Lake City, choose scary and halloween-like costumes, which I find a bit problematic. Yes, it is good camouflage at night, but I wonder if it doesn’t scare more people than it saves. One guy is actually dressed up as Death, and both he and others can easily be mistaken (visually) for super-villains rather than heroes. But, that is the way that feels right to them.
At ComiCon International in San Diego, most of the real-life superheroes gather together, and rather than partake in the grand multimedia entertainment expo, they take to the streets to help some of the many homeless and poor people in San Diego. Because these heroes are the real deal, as they say. And I am ready to believe them.
The movie features interviews with a psychologist and author (Robin S. Rosenberg), a police lieutenant and superhero creator par excellence, Stan Lee. Rosenberg is basically delighted with the real-life superheroes, while the police lieutenant is critical of their lack of proper training and mental stability. Stan Lee wishes them success in whatever they set out to do. So do I. As a long-time superhero fan who owns thousands of superhero comics, I can only enthuse about the people who are trying to transfer the lofty ideals from the pop culture pages and to the real world. Also on the strength of the great success of the Avengers movie, I honestly would not be surprised if this is the shape of things to come; if this is but the meager beginnings of a huge trend that will end up becoming a flourishing community of real-life superheroes. I think that would be deeply admirable – as well as thoroughly and wonderfully entertaining.
Director: Michael Barnett
Cast: Mr. Xtreme, Master Legend, Dark Guardian, Life, Z, Zimmer, Super Hero, Zetaman, Apocalypse Meow, Amazonia and others.
Runtime: 78 min.