'Superheroes': We're Actually the Real Deals

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.


Director: Michael Barnett
Cast: Mr. Xtreme, Dark Guardian, Thanatos, Master Legend, Zimmer
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentaries
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-08-08 (HBO)

"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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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