What is this new power, oh puissant one?
— Everett (Robert Baker)
“I used to dream about flying. It went the same way every night. I realized that I could fly. No, that’s not quite right. I realized there was no reason I couldn’t fly. And after that I float off the ground and soar above the city.” In itself, this dream is not unusual. Lots of people fantasize such soaring, whether for good or ill. What makes Les’s (Michael Rapaport) version special, however, is his acute self-awareness. Not only does this lead to self-editing as he tells his story in Special, but it also complicates your part in it, whether you see yourself as believer or skeptic.
That’s not to say that Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s fiction doesn’t reveal the seams in Les’. Even as he introduces his fantasy of flying, he’s staggering on a dark street, his face in close-up and bloodied, his white-ish uniform smudged and raggedy. As he transitions in his narration from then to now — when, he says, “I dream of more ordinary things, like doing my laundry, shopping for groceries, riding in an elevator” — Les’ self-understanding seems more familiar and reassuring. He’s ordinary, not special, in his mind. And that makes him sympathetic, if not strange and thrilling.
When he does imagine flying, Les goes on to remember, he is a superhero. Not because he wants to be, of course, for all righteous superheroes are also reluctant, but because he must be. His moral compass seems a standard one, premised on protecting the weak and beating back the vile. As a meter maid, he’s got some sense of how this system works even before he discovers his powers. His boss, Steve (Christopher Darga) reminds him daily of his mission, making him repeat the mantra of the meter maids (“I’m important and I keep this city running”) whenever Les lapses into crass compassion for a tearful driver who begs him not to write her a ticket. Les’ vulnerability to these exhibitions indicates his sensitivity but also his lack of spine, according to Steve. “I have seen this job snap a lot tougher men than you, champ,” Steve says from the locker room doorway, tall and imposing. “So unless you change your attitude, you’re not gonna last much longer around here.”
Lasting becomes something of a goal for Les, who answers a call for volunteers in a clinical trial. “You’re not just participating in a clinical trial,” explains Dr. Dobson (Jack Kehler), “You’re helping develop a medication that will benefit a great many people.” Queried by the doctor, Les insists on his mental health: even if he’s had a suicidal or homicidal thought, he says, “I would never act on it.” This is enough for Dobson, who delivers unto Les the film’s device, the pills that alter his view of himself and the world, as well as the free t-shirt advertising the drug company. Almost immediately, Les feels the effects — mental telepathy, superstrength, and that flying business. He describes it to his buddies down at the comic book store, Everett (Robert Baker) and his brother Joey (Josh Peck), who regularly discuss the limits of force fields and their relationship to invisibility.
Les’ own understanding of superherodom is earnest and again, self-aware. “I know I’m too old to like comics as much as I do,” he confesses in voiceover as he eats lunch on a park bench. “But in comics, a villain can launch a missile at a superhero and the hero just keeps coming. And then the villain can throw an atom bomb or an asteroid or an entire planet at the hero, but that won’t stop them either. Because a real superhero is like a force of nature, and when I read comics, I get this faint glimpse of not just what it would be not just stronger and faster and smarter than ordinary people, but what it would be like to be, well, to be unstoppable.”
Les performs: he begins knocking down would-be convenience store robbers and people on the sidewalk whose insidious thoughts he overhears. This ability to hear thoughts helps to expand his sympathy for the ordinary folks as well, say, the girl who worries, “It’s like there are two kinds of people in this world, the ones who feel bad when rock stars kill themselves and the ones who think it’s funny.” Soon it becomes clear that Les’ powers are premised on a different sort of too-muchness than most superheroes. Absorbing pain and fear and anxiety, he seeks to alleviate them, to help victims of everyday as well as spectacular brutalities. And his own brutalization — his bloody injuries and bruises resulting from his efforts to fly off desks or run through walls, as well as tackling seeming muggers on the street — are excessively visible (“The more difficult powers, it seems to exact a slight physical toll,” he sighs).
Caught on surveillance cameras, Les is viewed by the local precinct cops as a criminal, and completely stoppable. This trouble is exacerbated when Les sews himself a costume — soon visible on television. Explaining that it is “obviously integral for any superhero,” he says the costume “can protect the hero’s true identity, can inspire fear, curiosity or amazement.” But what goes on the back, he says, is the “most important part. It’s not just the hero’s name, it’s their message to the public. I want my costume to tell people they shouldn’t give up no matter how alone they sometimes feel. Because anything is possible.” That he takes his logo from the drug company t-shirt (“Special”) is patently ironic and grandly thematic, but it is also poignant, especially as the costume wears down — as it represents his battering, his flailing, his effort to be seen and also to fit in. For this is the conundrum of the superhero, the specialness that is both a gift and a curse.
While Les works out this life puzzle, the film winds itself into some knotty plot points involving the drug company owners (Ian Bohen and Paul Blackthorne). These thuggy brothers in suits show up in a limo to force Les to stop taking the pills, and particularly, to stop acting out on cameras wearing their logo. Les finds a pretty supporter in the grocery store clerk (Alexandra Holden), such that his eventual heroism is at least partly wrapped up in asking her out. But until these conventional elements bring Special back to a regular sort of earthly grounding, the questions posed by Les (and Rapaport’s committed performance) are close to valiant.