Superheroes unmasks real-life crime fighters

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A documentary by Mike Barnett. Unrated. Opens Friday, November 18, at the Pacific Cinémathèque

Watching Mike Barnett’s bizarre new documentary, you move from shocked disbelief at the people who masquerade as superheroes to squeamishness at their semidelusional games of pretend.

Barnett profiles some of the more than 300 registered superheroes around the U.S. who work by day then pull on outlandish homemade costumes to patrol the mean streets at night. I shit you not.

There’s Mr. Xtreme, who lives in a house littered with comic books and guards the good folk of San Diego wearing ski goggles, studded cuffs, an army helmet, and a flowing purple cape. There’s also Master Legend, who sports silver padding and loves to dash through traffic almost as much as he likes to guzzle the cold beer he stashes in his van. And then there are the slightly more sinister caped crusaders: the New York Initiative, who spar with each other and practise parkour and roam Brooklyn’s streets in masks that would scare the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth; or New York’s Dark Guardian, a martial-arts expert who takes on Washington Square Park’s drug dealers wearing red-and-black motorcycle leathers. (The Downtown Eastside’s own Thanatos makes an all-too-brief appearance.)

As if his subjects weren’t colourful enough in themselves, Barnett cranks up his material with rad comic drawings by Syd Garon: at times, our superhero leagues morph into cartoon versions of themselves. There are also interviews with a cop, a psychologist, and former Marvel Comics’ president Stan Lee, who, in a moment of extreme understatement, admits that these masked vigilantes leave him “a little bit worried”.

Barnett isn’t out to mock these guys, exactly, and he reveals that a lot of them are products of some genuinely sad, violent upbringings. It’s also clear from much of his footage that the so-called Real Life Superheroes movement is a reaction to the corruption and gross inadequacy of urban U.S. police.

Still, it’s hard not to cringe when one nerd in a red-masked bodysuit refers to his double life as a superhero: of fighting crime on the streets, then coming home to watch TV with his girlfriend. “So you have a girlfriend?” the director asks. “Uh, that was just metaphorically speaking,” the guy admits.


Watch the trailer for Superheroes.

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Amy "Evil Genius" Fox
The Superheroes documentary overstates the vigilante angle. Near as I can tell, most Real Life Superheroes are involved with other fields, and even those who are involved in "crime fighting" aren't knocking heads as much as putting up posters.

Also: how is the New York Initiative threatening? Their actions seems to include trolling for gay-bashers, reporting drunk drivers and calling the ambulance for someone who gets injured on the street?
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