Film Rave: Superheroes (Dir. Michael Barnett 2011)
By Kathryn Schroeder
August 3, 2011

The Superhero, a modern-day myth of a man, or woman, who protects the innocent.  Or more humorously, according to the Urban Dictionary's number one definition: a person who is looked up to, fights crime and looks good in tights (the latter is not a must).  The image of a person in tights, or some sort of costume that masks their face from public view so they may lead a normal existence outside of the crime fighting world is a common visual for the superhero.  It is also common, and deemed sane, to understand and reason that superhero's do not exist in reality. There are no superpowers, fancy gadgets, cars that can turn into boats at the flip of a switch or palms that shoot spiderwebs so one can swing from building to building.  The man of steel is fictitious.  Even Batman, who has no actual "superpower" cannot be real.  But what if there were superheroes?  What if men and woman, in costumes (or uniform) patrolled the streets at night, thwarting would-be criminals and cleaning up the streets of your very own Gotham City?  In Director Michael Barnett's documentary Superheroes the myth of the superhero becomes a reality, as everyday citizens in cities around the United States of America (and Canada too) are indeed taking on the role of superhero. 

The opening titles of Superheroes begins with a quote, by Albert Einstein: "The World is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing."  A very strong statement, and seemingly the perfect quote for any superhero to use as their mantra.  The titles continue on in a comic book strip fashion, caricaturing the action of the narrator's story--a technique that will be employed throughout the documentary.  This is the backstory to one of the superheroes that will be showcased in the film, Mr. Xtreme from San Diego, California.  Mr. Xtreme quickly admits to not having actual superpowers--he is not delusional, something the Director wants you to know quickly and with good reason.  Xtreme does believe that superpowers exist, in the form of super motivation and super deeds.  In his mind, anyone can be a superhero, they just have to commit to the cause.  Mr. Xtreme is as committed a person can be; he works a full-time job during the day and spends his nights patrolling his Chula Vista neighborhood.  He researches fighting techniques as well as law books.  He does not carry a weapon, has little training in martial arts or any combat skills, but what he does have his motivation and drive.  His presence on the streets is a deterrent, and a helpful voice in the community to make people aware of the crime's being committed and how they can help to stop them.  Mr. Xtreme is not looking for a violent encounter; his goal leaving the house isn't to see how many fights he can get into tonight, or to spill blood.  This is not vigilante justice, this is a sincere concern for his community and a desire to help.  Mr. Xtreme is a superhero, in his home-made neon and camouflage uniform. 

Mr. Xtreme is not alone, many more people across the country are doing what he does as well.  The film introduces us to "The New York Initiative"; a group of men and women who not only try and stop crime but provide bait to would-be criminals.  This may be seen as entrapment, and an interview with a female San Diego Law Enforcement officer makes this quite clear.  This woman will appear time and again, warning about the danger of being a superhero while also mentioning the merits they provide to a society.  It goes to show, as is the case in many of the cities, law enforcement are not against these superheroes, but they do have concern for their safety--as they rightly should.  "The New York Initiative" may have questionable methods for catching their criminals but they also have two things the other groups chronicled do not, a young woman and an openly gay male; two prime targets for rape, hate-crimes, muggings, and even murder.  T.S.A.F. (The Silenced and Forgotten) and Zimmer accept the danger that being a woman, or a gay male, attracts late at night in any city and use it to try and stop the criminals who would harm someone else if they were not there instead.  Call it entrapment, or call it proactive crime fighting, either way they are doing good for a community that desperately needs assistance. 

More briefly touched upon are groups in Salt City Lake City, UT, "The Black Monday Society" and, the "Real Life Superheroes of the Pacific Northwest."  The RLSPN patrol the nights but they also do something for the community that was started by member Zetaman (and his wife).  They take their own money, buy toiletries, package them up into large zip-lock baggies, and go out onto the streets to give them to the homeless and the poor.  The charity they provide is remarkable, and they ask nothing in return for their good deed.  The camera catches them delivering the goods, conversing with people, and you can easily see the thankfulness and gratitude those they help feel.  These are not just crime-fighting superheroes, they are full of heart. 

Zetaman isn't the only superhero with a charitable side,  Master Legend of Orlando, FL, established the "Team Justice" non-profit organization (completely legitimate) in order to accept donations so his group of superheroes may provide food, and even holiday toy-drives for the kids.  He has become a local celebrity where he lives, and while Director Barnett could have gone a little more easy on his depiction of Master Legend the point of his existence remains--to do good for his community.  Barnett just chose to demonstrate his love for a beer (as being a superhero can be quite taxing and make you thirsty), as well as his beliefs that he does indeed have superpowers.  Is Master Legend a little off-kilter?  Perhaps.  But who cares, he is awesome.

Superheroes showcases more than the aforementioned superheroes and each is important in their own special way throughout the documentary.  Certain points are similar with each, giving the entire film a strong sense of fluidity and a constant tone.  Many of these people have had violence touch their lives in specific ways, giving way to the call to help others in need.  A good handful do not believe law enforcement and government in general are doing all they can to protect citizens.  Duly noted is the New York City Police Department scandals of the past.  A common thread is also the case of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and stabbed to death in the middle of the street while 38 witnesses did nothing, resulting in the term for a social psychological phenomenon, the "bystander effect."  Her case, dating back to 1964, remains a prime motivation for a call to action for real-life superheroes (a great book on the case is Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, by A.M. Rosenthalicon).  Each one of these real-life superheroes displays unselfish behavior, in a way seldom seen in public displays of action by people in this modern age.  Superheroes brings to light these brave individuals, giving them a voice that can be heard by the masses. 

Remembering Mr. Xtreme, with his simpleness and complete devotion to being a superhero the tone of the film could easily have gone towards mocking.  It does not.  There is a profound respect felt through the camera lens from Michael Barnett towards Mr. Xtreme and all of his subjects in Superheroes.  This documentary is showing the good in society that exists through these real-life characters.  It is not making fun at, or eluding to mental illness, delusional episodes, the need for medication, or any other ideas one could consider when someone tells you they are a superhero.  It is this careful balance Barnett establishes that makes watching Superheroes incredibly moving.  The documentary makes you wish you had your very own superhero walking your city streets at night (you may even try Googling to see if one does).

Superheroes will be shown on HBO August 8th at 9:00pm as part of the HBO Documentary Films Summer Series.  More information on the film may be found at its website, Superheroes The Movie.  You can also check out the "Real Life Superheroes" website here.