“You know you’re not the only fucked up person in the world” — Nick
The above statement conveys the attempt at connection between two men adrift in life. Superheroes is not a superhero film, but an anti-war story about a wounded veteran and a young filmmaker. It’s a very understated film with many long silent shots wherein everything is shown rather than told. The mood ranges from somber to grim, with precious few moments of humor and ease.
Spencer Treat Clark plays Nick, the young filmmaker and Dash Mihok plays Ben, the wounded veteran. Ben was a reservist, never intended to be on the front lines. He was injured on a patrol in Iraq, when his jeep was taken out by a bomb planted in a dead dog. He blames himself for not figuring out the trap, and has survivor’s guilt combined with PTSD and depression from being left by his wife while he was deployed as well as guilt for a tragic accident. So basically, this is a perfect recipe for being messed up.
Nick meanwhile, video tapes his ex-girlfriend’s dance rehearsals, and his unresolved emotions come through without being said just as Ben’s issues emerge through action and reaction to stimuli. The dance scenes are a silent counter-point to the story of the two men’s slow-burn friendship.
Moments of emotional breakthrough emerge at seemingly random intervals, with several traumatic flashbacks where Ben believes himself back in Iraq. Other moments come from Kelly, a fellow soldier in the VA meetings who rants about how her injuries have made her unattractive to her husband. In one scene in the woods outside the country home which is the film’s primary set, a pine cone is equated to a mine, as Ben delivers an expose into the feeling of paranoia that developed while on patrol.
Some of the shots are from third-person traditional camera angles, and some are first-person handheld, as recorded by Nick’s camera. The doc-within-a-film quality allows for shaky focus and zooms when one of the characters in filming, which adds a raw quality to many of the more emotional shots. There are a number of sequences comprised of seemingly unrelated shots, shifting in and out of focus, shots of the woods around the house, cutting back and forth with little regard to cotinuity. The pseudo-documentary is intermittent, mediating several of the scenes of emotional breakthrough — Nick’s presence is notable because of cutting back and forth between cameraman first-person perspective shots and more traditional third person shots.
Narratively, I found the ending lacking as far as characterization, even if it was emotionally true to what happened leading up to the end. Without a meta-textual or self-referential quality, the ending might have been much more of a disappointment, a frustrating violation of narrative expectations.
There have been a number of anti-war films about veterans of the second Gulf War and US military action in Afghanistan, but Superheroes is notable for being a quiet, self-contained work that is skillfully understated, with powerful performances, especially from Dash Mihok as the wounded warrior. In the commentary, writer/director Alan Brown mentions that some of the initial response to the film concept was that even in 2005, the topic had already become passé for Hollywood, though we’ve seen another wave of such films in the last couple of years (including Brothers, The Hurt Locker, and Dear John).
The DVD includes a commentary track by Alan Brown and Dash Mihok. Alan talks about casting the two leading men, including Alan and Dash relating the story of their conversations that lead into Dash coming on to the project. Alan also discusses the short shooting schedule, the editing, Dash’s process in preparing for the role, the reason for the dance scenes’ inclusion in the film (the dance rehearsals were originally a larger part of the story, but was cut down to being a Greek Chorus-style series of interludes to comment on the main plot without words).