There is a League of Fake Superheroes, and it has a long and storied history in the annals of cinema. Way back in 1980, which is the same year "talkies" were invented, there was a slight but somehow memorable John Ritter comedy called Hero at Large, which was about an actor who dons a superhero costume and roams around the city doing good. Needless to say, real danger gets in the way of the fun. Films as varied as Watchmen, Kick Ass, Mystery Men, and Special have all touched upon the fascinating issue of "everyman superheroism," although none have done it quite as ... oddly as Peter Stebbings' Defendor.
Here we have a protagonist (played powerfully well -- as usual -- by Woody Harrelson) who is clearly a few cards short in the full deck department. Good-natured and entirely likable, Arthur Poppington is also the sort of guy who dons a crazy costume and thwarts little crimes all across the city at night. One such patrol forces "Defendor" to cross paths with a dirty cop (Elias Koteas) and a wounded runaway (Kat Dennings), which kicks off a series of events that vaults the goofy vigilante into the media spotlight. Oh, and don't call him "Defender."
So in many ways Defendor sounds like a typical "high-concept" Hollywood pitch, but thankfully the finished product has an indie-flick spirit to go along with a handful of impressively high-end components. The ensemble cast helps a whole lot, of course. Harrelson plays the character as proud, wounded, confused, and angry -- yet still remains completely believable. Koteas and Dennings provide fantastic -- if decidedly different -- support, as do Michael Kelly (as Arthur's only real friend), Clark Johnson (as a surprisingly patient police chief), and Sandra Oh, playing the psychologist who pulls most of Defendor's more interesting stories to the surface.
Stebbings' script is a cleverly multi-faceted one: at one point we're "rooting for the goofy underdog," which is fun, and then we're able to enjoy the basic-but-satisfying "one guy can make a difference" sub-plot ... all while quietly appreciating what feels (a lot) like a relatively lighter take on the old Taxi Driver theme. Maybe all the oddballs and weirdos who have "had enough" aren't all that different from you and I -- only when they go out and do something about the decline of society, they do it in rather extreme ways. Meanwhile, you and I do very little.
What some may see as a schizophrenic little tale that wants to have its superhero cake and deflate it too, I see a tightly-wound, well-paced, nicely-shot, and (again) resoundingly well-acted Canadian indie that has a few compelling things to say, and says them in an unexpectedly entertaining way.
Oh, and the John Rowley score is really quite excellent.
[Defendor played in limited release this past February and is, as of today, now available on various home video formats.]