Defendor is not what you expect it to be at first glance. Everything from the packaging to the plot synopsis on the back of the DVD case screams “this is a comedy I’ve seen before”. While there are funny moments, this is definitely a drama, not a comedy. I’m afraid that because of this marketing misstep, many people are going to miss out on something special.
Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is marginalized to say the least. He walks a thin line between functional adult and complete schizophrenic wreck. In many ways, he is a child. Abandoned by his prostitute mother, raised by his one-armed, World War II vet grandfather, he clings to the fantasy world of heroes and villains that he discovered in the comic books of his youth.
The City of Anvil, aka Hammer Town, is drowning in crime and blight. Taking his cues from his chosen medium, Arthur fights back, creating his own superhero identity, Defendor, a black-clad vigilante who stalks the night with a duct-tape D on his chest, who fights crime with jars full of angry wasps, handfuls of marbles, and his grandfather’s trench club. Defendor is all of the things that Arthur is not: smart, daring, brave, and unafraid in his quest to bring down the imaginary kingpin, “Captain Industry”.
This is not The Dark Knight. This is not a romanticized champion for justice in tights and a utility belt.This is not Batman swooping in, clobbering the bad guys, and saving the day. Arthur comes home after each adventure, brutalized and beaten down by the criminals he’s faced, and spits out his own teeth. This is what would happen if a mentally handicapped man in a place like Gotham City actually tried to be a superhero, he would be beaten within an inch of his life.
Along the way, Arthur encounters crack-smoking teenage prostitute, Kat (Kat Dennings). He saves her from a rough john that she doesn’t want to be saved from, and she peels him off of the concrete after being viciously beaten by a corrupt cop, Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas). The two form an uneasy alliance, where Arthur takes care of Kat, and she bilks him for every cent he has, which she blows on drugs.
First time writer/director Peter Stebbings, makes use of all the usual conventions of the superhero genre. As Defendor, Arthur talks in a husky approximation of Batman, tortures bad guys for information, invents crime-fighting gadgets, and banters with his foes. All of the standards are turned on their ears. Since Arthur is mentally a child, everything is filtered through a child’s consciousness. He uses a wad of gum and a firecracker to “blow up” a lock and make an escape from the police station he has already been released from. His banter rarely rises above the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I level of rhetoric. He talks into his watch. Arthur is delusional, and forces his perception of the world around him to fit his delusions.
It would have been easy for the filmmakers to play this set up for cheap laughs, but that is precisely what they avoid. They recognize the inherent sadness and despair at the heart of Arthur’s situation. He has been abandoned, neglected, and pushed to the outside his entire life. In reality, if you saw an obviously mentally handicapped man running around dressed like a superhero you might laugh at first, but beyond that you would see something deeply tragic. This is the aspect of the story that Stebbings and crew choose to explore, not the comedy, but the touching, human side of the drama.
Woody Harrelson is on a roll right now. He was pitch-perfect as the redneck zombie hunter in Zombieland, nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Messenger, where he acted circles around the rest of the cast, and is terrific here in Defendor from end to end. He doesn’t miss a note. He has an innate likability that carries through to Arthur. The other characters are drawn to his simple honesty, to his warmth, and so is the audience. It’s easy to root for him, which makes it that much more difficult to watch Arthur be continually violated by crime, society, and his own delusions.
The actors in Defendor are what really make the movie. Every single role could easily have fallen into cliché, but none of them do. Kat could have been nothing more than the standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, but she isn’t. Dennings doesn’t let us off that easily. Try to watch her smoke crack and not feel something. Dooney could have been a standard corrupt cop, but Koteas brings an unusual complexity to his role. Michael Kelly as Paul, Arthur’s boss and friend, is sympathetic and real as a man doing everything he can to help a friend, but failing. It’s truly heartbreaking to watch him watch Arthur slip away.
Even actors I don’t like do a good job in Defendor. I can’t stand Sandra Oh—I don’t like Grey’s Anatomy, and I hated everything about Sideways. Her role is a therapist who primarily listens to Arthur tell his story, and only has a handful of her own lines. Yet somehow she takes a minuscule, almost throwaway part, and creates an emotional depth and a well-rounded character.
Despite the fact that the DVD release comes on a single disc, there are a decent amount of special features. The outtakes, which, as outtakes always are, are completely pointless and should be avoided. Five short production featurettes deal with everything from the script to shooting. For what they are, these are as good or better than most. There are some good stories from the set, like a shot being interrupted by a real knife fight breaking out, and the one that introduces the actors and has them talk about their roles is worth watching.
There is a commentary track with Harrelson, Dennings, Stebbings, and producer Nicholas Tabarrok that is full of the usual behind the scenes insight. If nothing else, the commentary is demonstrative of the great camaraderie and affection between the actors and filmmakers that comes through on screen.
Here is the shocker of the DVD extras, and this may be the first time I’ve ever said this: the deleted scenes are actually worth watching. Most of the time it’s obvious why a scene wound up on the cutting room floor. Here, however, they seem to have been cut simply due to time constraints. I wish at least two of them had been included in the main body of the film. One gives a deeper glimpse into the relationship between Paul and Arthur, and the other helps to build the burgeoning connection between Arthur and Kat.
I think that most people are going to look at Defendor and see something that it is not–a comedic superhero movie. Because of that, I doubt a lot of people will give it a chance, and that’s a shame.