‘Alter Egos’: Superheroes Learning to Be Humans

[19 October 2012]

By Cole Waterman

As Confused as the Rest of Us

With superhero movies now ubiquitous and formulaic, it’s fair to wonder how any filmmaker might offer anything new to the pantheon. With Alter Egos, writer-director Jordan Galland takes up the challenge. His anti-superhero flick inverts the clichés: rather than being a slam-bang action movie loaded with special effects and impressive stunts, Alter Egos is an intimate dramedy examining the psychology, personal lives, and cultural alienation of costumed adventurers. As it turns out, they’re just as confused as the rest of us.
The film is set in a world where being a superhero is as commonplace a profession as any other. The sight of a superhero on the street, walking toward a bus stop with a duffle bag over his shoulder, is a mundane occurrence fellow commuters no longer acknowledge. The film’s juxtaposition of the heroes’ bright costumes with the backdrop of a rainy fall day and a muted color palette visually epitomizes this societal sea change, that the heroes have been reduced to a vestigial role, important only to themselves.

They come by their superheroism more or less accidentally: like the mutants of The X-Men, certain people naturally develop fantastic powers and then, just as naturally, don colorful spandex and domino masks and go about fighting crime. Unlike The X-Men, however, in this reality the heroes are government-sponsored, paid salaries just like policemen, firefighters, and garbage collectors. But because the last of the world’s supervillians was locked up 10 years ago, civilians are questioning the need for superheroes and why their tax dollars are footing their salaries. The film addresses this with a series of CNN-style newscasts featuring pundits criticizing the heroes and outlining how the government is considering cutting their funding. When the heroes are interviewed, they lash out like petulant children, complaining about their changing status.
These interviews indicate the film’s wry humor, as does an early scene featuring the two protagonists, Fridge (Kris Lemche) and C-Thru (Joey Kern), in a diner. The pair slump over their breakfast, clad in gaudy and vivid tights, the other customers and wait staff indifferent to or downright displeased by their presence. Fridge is experiencing both an existential crisis and a battle of identities, as his civilian persona’s girlfriend is cheating on him with his costumed self. Here C-Thru serves as a stand-in for the audience, at once sympathetic and disbelieving that his friend can be so confused. We see too that the hero’s golden age is over when C-Thru attempts to pay the tab with his superhero credit card, only to have the proprietress, Claudel (Brooke Nevin), tell him she won’t accept such tender.

The focus on the characters’ fragile psyches is also used as a means for Alter Egos—opening at New York’s Cinema Village on 19 October and available on demand starting 20 November—to address another theme, one that may resonate for many very non-super viewers. Fridge and C-Thru could be any government employees resisting fickle public opinion and changing technologies. At the moment, they’re caught between their employers and the Super Corps, an Avengers/Justice League-type group that’s become more of a labor union than world-saving force. As the heroes consider plans to prove their continued relevance, the question arises: are they serving the public, as they claim, or their own egos?

Alter Egos is hardly the first film to parody superheroes. Kick-Ass may be the most recent example, but it is at heart an action flick, shining a light on the genre’s conventions without breaking from them. The short-lived live action TV adaptation of The Tick likewise poked fun at the cult of superheroes, but it was less subtle than Alter Egos. Here the comedy is more awkward, less broadly winking at the audience—think: The Office with Michael Scott wearing spandex. You may chuckle and cringe at Fridge and C-Thru’s misfortunes and the civilians they disappoint, but you’re not guffawing in response to some slapstick shtick (with the exception of Fridge’s dance moves when controlled by John Ventimiglia’s telepathic villain, Shrink). 

Your chuckling is helped along by Lemche and Kern’s complex performances. Fridge, whose power is—you guessed it—to generate and manipulate ice, is a pathetic figure, indecisive and mopey, but also sympathetic. C-Thru, with his X-ray vision, is his buddy’s seemingly straight-laced foil, and Kern makes him seem especially earnest. Though he initially comes across as steadfast and valiant, if not entirely effective, C-Thru is actually quite morally conflicted, much like any number of once well-intentioned figures who head down the path of corruption.
Still, these emotional nuances are framed by riffs on superhero tropes. When C-Thru announces, “With great power comes great responsibility,” Fridge cuts him off to ask if he can use his cell phone to call his girlfriend. Fridge and Claudel develop a romance in a few hours, reminding us of such contrivances in superhero films. And, while just about every superhero movie focuses on the protagonist’s learning what it means to be a hero, Fridge and C-Thru learn what it means to be merely human.

Similarly, Alter Egos reflects humans’ evolving relationship with superhero movies. If The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises raised the standard for their successors, they also marked a point of market saturation. The superhero movie is on the border of overstaying its welcome, a border the superheroes in Alter Egos have already crossed. And so, even as we sympathize with C-Thru and Fridge, the unimpressed humans of Alter Egos may also reflect the rest of us, increasingly cynical and yawning at the exploits of superhero movies… at least until the next super-hyped sensation arrives.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/164529-alter-egos-superheroes-learning-to-be-humans/