“The ingredients to being a superhero really varies, but if you’re looking to be a crime fighter, to really do patrols, you have to be in shape. I think you need martial arts training,” observes Dark Guardian while you watch him work out in a martial arts facility, kicking a heavy bag. “You can’t just throw on a mask and go out and think you’re gonna do something. You’ll get yourself killed.”
Dark Guardian lives in New York, where he patrols in a costume that features a black jacket with red stripes on the shoulders, plus a utility belt. When he spots criminals, say, drug dealers in Washington Square Park, he suggests they stop what they’re doing. Though he takes a risk—at least one offender has pulled a gun—Dark Guardian feels sure that his mission is righteous. “The thing is,” he says, “I’ve never backed down and the people I work with have never backed down.” Among his coworkers is the Cameraman, who wears a white t-shirt emblazoned with an image of a masked man. His job is to record crimes, on audio and video.
The Cameraman looks like any kid in a baseball cap. He didn’t plan on being part of Dark Guardian’s team. “I started off just sort of filming the movement because there was just something about the topic that drew me to it,” he says. “But eventually I got sucked into the world.”
This world is comprised of superheroes, ordinary people frustrated by corruption and violence and apathy. According to Superheroes, the movement includes members all over the U.S., people who mean to make a difference. Some wear masks, they patrol on foot or by car, they train and they organize. The real-life superheroes who appear in Michael Barnett’s documentary, which premieres on HBO 8 August, are well aware that their neighbors—and even their families—might see what they’re doing as silly. But they persist, some working multiple jobs to pay rent, as well as equipment and costume accessories. They take themselves seriously.
Not everyone else does. Dark Guardian admits that cops say they appreciate his efforts, but also warn him to be careful. The film includes other cautions, voiced repeatedly by Andra Brown, of the San Diego PD. She first appears in her office, checking files in a file cabinet. The real life superhero movement is made up of amateurs, she notes. “They’re doing it for maybe noble reasons, but because they’re impassioned by something. And because of that, perhaps they’re not using the most clear judgment or the most common sense. And anytime someone acts without common sense or without good judgment, good things rarely happen.”
As she speaks, seated behind her desk in her glasses, Brown looks much like the superheroes in Superheroes. Each faces the camera to explain his or her thinking, all assume that their view is righteous and sensible. The film invites you to consider the multiple realities that shape perceptions. More than one superhero recalls the 1964 Kitty Genovese case, and many base their alter-egos on comic book heroes or other fictional characters. It’s true they don’t have super powers, and many don’t carry weapons (some carry mace or tasers). For the most part they see their roles as helping the homeless (offering food, guidance, and supplies) or “standing up” for the vulnerable during moments of crisis. The premise is not only that criminals are preying on the weak, but also that law enforcement, the trained professionals, are unable or unwilling to do the job.
Some real life superheroes plainly enjoy the attention of Barnett’s crew. Master Legend, described by an associate as “one of those people who, when you meet him, he just has ‘awesome’ written all over him,” tells a story that’s similar to the backgrounds of other members of the movement. He had a difficult childhood, suffering abuse and abandonment. He directs the camera to the back of his van, where he stores his equipment, he says, including an old air conditioner he means to use to replace someone’s broken unit. In a cooler, he carries a bag of chips, “in case I run into some kids and stuff like that, but y’all can have some of these too,” he says, waving the bag at the camera. “They’re flavorful treats.” He goes on to describe and demonstrate his fondness for a cold beer, a point the film underlines later, when he heads into an Orlando bar before a night’s work. “Master Legend,” he says, “works up a whopping thirst wherever I go.”
If the film doesn’t judge Master Legend or other real life superheroes, it frames their self-assessments with comments from experts who appear grounded in a life that’s even more real, like Brown, psychologist Robin S. Rosenberg (“We all have alter egos. We don’t all dress in costume”), and even Stan Lee, who advises, “Superheroes come in all sizes shapes and types, but I’d be a little bit worried about someone with no actual superpower who puts on a costume and then runs around challenging criminals who might be armed. I figure that person could get hurt.”
No one in the film does get hurt, though it’s plain that even those who train vigorously, understand their own limits. Whether they’re instructed by police or bullied by bad guys, the superheroes find ways around what any cynicism regarding their chosen avocation. Zimmer of Brooklyn lives with three other superheroes: as the New York Initiative, they ponder their moral imperatives, work out routes and plans of action, and patrol together. Zetaman and his wife, Apocalypse Meow, prepare and hand out (at their own expense) Zeta-packs, ziplock baggies with useful supplies for the homeless in Portland.
Mr. Xtreme of San Diego hasn’t quite convinced his parents that living out of his car so he can use his money (earned as a security guard) to support his patrolling and xeroxing is a good idea. But he is committed to the good fight, and, says the deputy mayor, the many flyers he posted when the Chula Vista Groper was at large “certainly contributed to an awareness that could possibly have had something to do with” the Groper’s capture and arrest.
This is the world of real life superheroes, one of possibilities. The film underlines their sense of difference from the fantasy world of movies and TV characters. (As soon as Andra Brown concedes that superheroes and cops both wear uniforms, she insists on the difference, for instance, that cops inspire confidence, a point that might not always hold.) Whether they do it to work out past traumas or act out desires, the real life superheroes look forward and backward at once. If they rationalize their costumes or alter egos, their mission seems self-evident. Asked by a homeless woman if they’re in town for Comic-Con, Mr. Xtreme and his San Diego team assure her, “No, we’re actually the real deal.” She turns to the camera after they’ve left to confirm what they’ve said. They give out water, they offer help. They’re real enough.