Chula Vista police operator: “Police. What can I help you with?
Caller: “Well, there’s some nut wanderin’ around out here”.
Operator: “What do you mean ‘nut’?”
Caller: Some…freakazoid in a costume, can you believe it?
Operator: What sort of costume?
Caller: Like…can’t believe this shit…like a friggin’ superhero!”
Mr. Xtreme may now have an APB out on him, but he’s a man on a mission nevertheless. He claims to be a superhero, and although we never learn his birth name, we see that he’s a portly, 30-something Asian-American prowling the sidewalks of metro San Diego. He, and numerous other self-styled “superheroes”, are the eager subjects of Michael Barnett’s documentary Superheroes, a Docurama Films production, which HBO initially aired before its DVD release.
Xtreme is the first crimefighter Barnett introduces, and giggles aside, he seems dead serious in his goal of keeping his hometown’s streets safe. His eyes are hidden throughout by an enormous pair of flamboyant sunglasses—giving him an insect-like visage—in order to shield his identity, a la Peter Parker, but he’s instantly recognizable to any friend or relative. Not surprisingly, he’s obsessed with super-powered comic book characters—one imagines him being first in line at San Diego’s renowned Comic-Con—and admits to being bullied at school during childhood, and possibly abused physically at home, though that remains unclear. There’s a scene where he manhandles a mannequin designed for self-defense practice, and his own vaguely misogynistic language here seems to echo the cruel taunts of any oafish schoolyard thug.
We soon encounter Zimmer, an earnest, openly gay young man who has relocated from Austin, Texas to the densely-packed concrete-and-brick ‘hoods of Brooklyn. An acrobat and parkour devotee, he now resides with a troupe of “superheroes” who have dubbed themselves “The New York Initiative” (NYI). His teammates are Z, Lucid, and T.S.A.F, and they form a Guardian Angels-like collective, albeit in outfits better suited for October 31st. But, as with Xtreme, these folks are utterly committed to their activi=ism, enough to reference the infamous =- and misunderstood -= 1964 slaying of Kitty Genovese and also slam the NYPD for its zealous focus on minor scofflaws.
However, New York Initiative’s actions—and history—do raise some potentially disturbing questions about justice and the pursuit thereof. Lucid confesses to a criminal past, describing himself as an “adrenaline junkie”. If New York Initiative are self-appointed cops, then a craving for excitement might not be the best attribute to have, as no responsible police officer wants a situation to escalate into violence.
Speaking of which, Z admits to “going overboard” on a few offenders without offering any gory details. You start to wonder if what we have here is really a band of disaffected malcontents keen to live outside society’s strictures. One commentator asserts that costuming, or masking, provides a security blanket for the wearer, allowing prohibitive behavior to emerge. Is donning a superhero outfit and cracking heads merely the X-Games taken to their logical extreme? New York Initiative’s justly controversial “Bait Patrol” outings—denounced by one police detective as entrapment—do seem to encourage lawbreaking where it otherwise might not exist. Who’s watching the Watchmen, indeed?
On that note, perhaps the most bizarre of the film’s heroes is Master Legend, an Orlando resident obviously much older than most of his peers. His attire ranges from Peter Falk raincoats to Star Wars castoffs, and he tools around in a shabby Me Decade panel truck, glamorously recast as the “Justice Van”. His ‘group’ is “Team Justice”, but if any other members exist, they’re never revealed.
I don’t know if Master Legend has any history of substance abuse, but he often seems deranged, and in some respects, the most pathetic of all, if partly because of his age. Shouldn’t he be driving his daughter cross-country to check out colleges? He gets a lot of screen time in Superheroes, so we get to know him intimately. The son of a Klansman(?), Master Legend dismisses the Orlando Courthouse as a “place of evil” and has a ravenous eye for the ladies, as evidenced by several hapless pickup attempts.
Another group, Black Monday Society, hail from Salt Lake City, and their horror-themed costumes—faintly reminiscent of shock-rockers GWAR—are a provocative rebuke to that city’s staid Latter Day Saints reputation. Who knows how successful they’ve been in combating society’s bad boys, but I can’t help seeing them as aging Goths who may have played one too many games of Dungeons & Dragons back in the day. And perhaps this elaborate masquerade is their escape valve from life in a conservative, sun-baked metropolis. Salt Lake City is a more complicated burg than most non-natives realize, but perhaps it seems oppressively wholesome to them. At any rate, their spiritual comrade-in-arms is Vancouver-based Thanatos, a Grim Reaper parody if I’ve ever seen one.
Xtreme later competes in a grappling tournament, and to his dismay, loses badly to an opponent. No costume is a substitute for actual skills, and this point is driven home by a Big Apple-based hero, the lean, athletic Dark Guardian, who insists that training is essential. Dark Guardian later proves his bravery, if not his prowess, by confronting a burly drug dealer at night in a local park, said dealer eventually departing the scene to avoid drawing attention to himself. Would Xtreme ever be so audacious? Who knows, but our chubby champion’s utility belt of Bondian gadgets provokes little but laughter.
Xtreme continues patrolling the boulevards of Chula Vista, stalking a local perv the police have labeled the “Chula Vista Groper”, while recruiting for his “team” Xtreme Justice League. Like Master Legend, his “group” consists only of himself, a sad metaphor, perhaps, for his daily existence. We do meet his parents, who are disapproving, but maybe resigned, to their son’s unconventional lifestyle. Xtreme says that he has no social life, and in one sequence, moves into his van, ostensibly to conceal his address, but it might be that his only other choice is to return to the nest.
The Extras ‘reel’ is rather predictable, but a standout clip features Master Legend in an outrageous…performance?...apprehending a perpetrator—an apparent refugee from COPS—who is apparently holding hostage a friend of Master Legend’s. All I can say about this ridiculous, hopefully tongue-in-cheek sequence is that YouTube is its proper domicile, alongside the shirtless fat guy-dancing videos. It was certainly more compelling viewing—in a train wreckish sort of way—than a demonstration of that soon-to-be jalopy, the Justice Van.
All told, the bonus material amounts to an additional 31 minutes of footage, but we do glean a lot more about our erstwhile heroes. Black Monday Society create their outfits, welcome new recruits, and show off their myriad tattoos. Xtreme, meanwhile, conducts a graduation ceremony for volunteers who actually take him seriously, and Zimmer discusses an accident which has sidelined his newly adopted ‘career’.
Superheroes has countless LMFAO moments, and more than one poster on IMDB has suggested that the film is in fact a mockumentary, which seems plausible to me, with the seamless 1995 mock Dadetown ever-present in my imagination. Still, what begins as a let’s-look-at-all-the-freaks exposé quickly becomes a rather poignant essay about being a Good Samaritan. The heroes—and that’s an apt description here—spend a huge chunk of time aiding the homeless, a task most of us can’t be bothered with.
None of us, to the best of my knowledge, can soar above skyscrapers like Superman, or hurl tanks through the air like the Hulk, but we can tear ourselves away from our smart phones and iPods long enough to lend a hand. Maybe that’s all we can ask of heroes.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article