“Look Out, Termites. It’s Squishing Time.”

19+ Film and TV Average Joes Who Don’t Let a Lack of Powers or Training Keep Them From Heeding the Call of Justice

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1. Dave Lizewski a.k.a. Kick-Ass (Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2)
Superheroing is a much easier gig when you have powers to back you up, though a surprisingly large number of heroes do fine without them. Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Black Widow, the Phantom — they all manage to save the day despite lacking heat vision or super-strength. Then again, you could argue “massive wealth,” “genius intellect” and “the time to undertake the years of training it takes to become a fighting machine” are just powers by a different name. No, today we’re talking about the really average superheroes out there, those working-class Joes who wake up one day and decide to fight crime because, as Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Dave Lizewski puts it, “Eventually fantasizing just doesn’t do it for you anymore.” Based on the 2008 comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., 2010’s Kick-Ass is a brutal look at what might happen if a comic geek in the real world decided to go fight crime as a masked vigilante (spoiler: it would hurt). Kick-Ass 2 upped the ante by introducing a league of wannabe heroes inspired by Kick-Ass’s exploits, as well as criminal “super-villains” who make a very good case for why any normal person would be insane to fight crime as a hobby. While an incident early in his vigilante career leaves Kick-Ass with pain-deadening nerve damage that kind of qualifies as a “super power,” he’s still not immune to the many ways in which being a superhero can mess up your life, and the film makes it clear why we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Kick-Ass 3: “Superheroes can’t exist in the real world for a reason. It’s because the real world needs real heroes. Not some punk in a wetsuit playing dress-up, but a genuine badass who can really kick ass.” (In other words: Kids, please don’t try this at home.)

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2. Frank Darbo a.k.a. The Crimson Bolt (Super)
How a movie starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler and Nathan Fillion as a Jesus-inspired superhero didn’t win everything is one of those mysteries of the ages. Premiering the same year as Kick-Ass, Super introduces Wilson as Frank Darbo, a short-order cook who can count exactly two happy memories in his life: his wedding day and that one time he helped a cop catch a purse snatcher. When his ex-junkie wife leaves him for a local strip-club owner (Bacon, who only gets more awesome with age), Darbo has a vision in which he is touched by the finger of God (actually Rob Zombie) and believes he has been chosen to become a superhero. And so is born the Crimson Bolt, a wrench-wielding warrior for justice whose battle cry (“Shut up, crime!”) strikes fear in the hearts of drug dealers, child molesters, people who cut in line, you name it. Super was directed by James Gunn, the same fellow who would later helm Marvel’s mega-successful Guardians of the Galaxy, and also one of those rare directors who intuitively gets how all this superhero stuff is at its heart a little bit ridiculous, and it’s okay to like ridiculous things. Like the sight of the Crimson Bolt crouched behind a Dumpster, dictating into a voice recorder: “Crimson Bolt’s Journal, Night 2. There was no crime last night. I did however see a few suspicious characters who might have been planning something — hold on! (hears a noise; runs offscreen; returns to recording) It was just a box. The wind was pushing it down the street. (defensively) I’m not going to leave it there! I’ll pick it up later. I don’t want to give away my position.”

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3. Steve Nichols a.k.a. Captain Avenger (Hero at Large)
The almost-simultaneous release of Kick-Ass and Super was a coincidence, and Gunn took media questions about one ripping off the other in stride — though he did have one thing to say about the critics who assumed Kick-Ass was a trailblazer: “What bums me out is people who pretend like Kick-Ass was the first superheroes-without-powers movie, when that’s obviously the classic John Ritter film Hero at Large.” Was this 1980 film the first to tell the story of a superhero without powers? I’m too lazy to do the research, so let’s all agree that it is. The late, great John Ritter stars as Steve Nichols, a struggling New York City actor who takes a gig promoting an upcoming Captain Avenger film. When he averts a grocery-store robbery while in costume, he becomes a media sensation and decides to continue posing as a symbol of truth and justice. Hi-jinks ensue. Released at the height of Three’s Company-mania (that was a thing, right?), Ritter’s character is pretty much his Jack Tripper character in tights: earnest, eager to please, and in way over his head. If Bert Convy’s disco-era ‘fro or shots of a pre-Giuliani New York City aren’t enough to pique your interest, here’s Roger Ebert’s lukewarm endorsement from his 1980 review: “It’s not really possible to dislike Hero at Large. It’s dumb, but it’s harmless.” Sounds about right.

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4. Arthur Poppington a.k.a. Defendor (Defendor)
“Weird” doesn’t begin to describe either Defendor the movie or Defendor the character. It’s a hard film to love; on the one hand, it’s constantly shifting between a comic-book spoof and a gritty urban crime story and a poignant mental-health drama, so it’s hard to pin down exactly what the filmmakers were trying to do. On the other hand… my God, does Woody Harrelson know how to act the shit out of this character. By day, Arthur Poppington holds up traffic signs at construction sites, but by night he’s Defendor (not “Defender,” and you better pronounce it right), a duct-taped avenger cleansing the streets of “punks” and “termites” with the help of marbles, jars of wasps and other homemade weapons. He’s on a quest to find “Captain Industry,” the person he blames for his mother’s disappearance, and while doing so he unwittingly exposes police corruption and other unpleasantness in “The Hammer” (a nickname for Hamilton, Ont., the steel-mill town where this 2009 film was shot). The plot creaks near the end, but it’s worth watching for the performances, including Sandra Oh as Arthur’s psychiatrist and Kat Dennings as an opportunistic prostitute. And then there’s Harrelson: never once breaking character or throwing a wink at the audience, he completely and utterly nails the essence of Defendor — a lonely and damaged man clinging to a moral code gleaned from the comics in his grandfather’s store.

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5. Les Franken a.k.a. Himself (Special)
It’s a tale as old as time. Comic-reading nerd is depressed. Comic-reading nerd signs up for experimental anti-depressant drug trials. Comic reading-nerd has adverse reaction to drug and develops super powers — or so he thinks. While we the audience see the “reality” that Michael Rapaport’s character experiences, it’s pretty clear from the reactions of everyone around him that his sudden spate of super powers is all in his head… or is it? And even if it is, does that make him any less special? This 2006 low-budget indie makes the most of its limitations, using clever effects and storytelling techniques to flip the script between what Les thinks is happening and what his observers actually see (the scene where he demonstrates his phasing-through-walls power is worth the price of admission alone). Also in the “nice touch” category is Les’s slightly pathetic homemade suit that he wears while running full speed into walls. The film doesn’t quite go as far into social commentary as it could, nor does it show much interest in exploring the psychology that allow Les to believe he’s a superhero, instead focusing more on a plot involving shady pharmaceutical executives. Still, Rapaport gives this performance everything he’s got — you might not believe a man can fly, but you’ll sure as hell believe that he believes it.

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6. Griff a.k.a. Griff the Invisible (Griff the Invisible)
Best known to North American audiences from his role on HBO’s True Blood, Ryan Kwanten plays an almost unrecognizable office drone in this 2011 Australian film. Griff (no other name offered) is a shy bloke working in a dead-end job and bearing the brunt of the office bully’s abuse. But this awkward Aussie has a dark secret; at night, he patrols his Sydney neighborhood as a rubber-suited vigilante. Unlike the heroes in Super or Kick-Ass, there are no super-villains or crime lords here; in fact, for much of the film he spends most of his time building invisibility suits that don’t actually work. And then there’s Melody, the equally awkward and metaphysics-obsessed woman (her discussion with her dad about how phasing through walls is theoretically possible is a hoot) who drops into Griff’s life; together, they help bring each other out of their self-imposed shells. Their blossoming relationship anchors this 2011 film, more of a romantic comedy than an action film or superhero spoof. Anyone looking for large doses of comic-book violence will walk away disappointed, but there’s a sweetness to the script that makes it worth a look. Griff may long to become truly invisible, but it’s plain as day that his struggle to be seen is shared by many modern-day men (almost all of whom don’t wear rubber bodysuits under their clothes).

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7. Roy a.k.a. Mr. Furious (Mystery Men)
I debated including this one, because I seem to recall the climactic fight scene in Mystery Men implying that Ben Stiller’s Roy does have rage-induced powers… but I also recall the film left it vague about whether he demonstrated actual super-strength or just experienced a normal adrenaline surge. What the hell, let’s keep him in. Loosely based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics, 1999’s Mystery Men’s tagline was “They’re not your average superheroes,” and how true that was. While all the heroes I’ve listed so far live in the quote-unquote “real world,” the Mystery Men live in a world where actual superheros like Captain Amazing ply their trade, and guys like the Mystery Men are dismissed as “wannabes” by Champion City police. And yeah — when your roster consists of guys who use shovels, forks and their own flatulence as weapons, you can’t expect anyone to take you too seriously. But at least super-flatulence is better than having no powers at all, which is what Roy admits at a poignant moment in the film. Once an ordinary junkyard worker with a violent temper, Roy became Mr. Furious after rumors spread of him moving a city bus in a fit of rage — but just before heading into battle, he confesses the bus driver had his foot on the gas. But that’s okay, because he learned he did have a super power all along: the power to believe in himself (and the studio audience goes “awww”).

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8. Woodrow Wilkins a.k.a. Condorman (Condorman)
When comic-book artist Woody Wilkins is recruited by a CIA buddy to assist with a simple exchange of information, it starts out easy enough. But after the beautiful KGB agent he contacts is targeted by assassins, she decides to defect and requests the aid of “Condorman” (a CIA code-name Wilkins made up based on a character he created) to help her escape. And so, with the fate of the free world on his shoulders, there’s only one thing for Wilkins to do: demand the CIA make him a flying suit just like the one worn by his superhero creation. That’s… pretty silly. Even sillier? The idea that Wilkins (played by Michael “Phantom of the Opera” Crawford) is an artist so dedicated to realism in his stories that he refuses to depict anything in his comics that he can’t replicate in real life. I hear Steve Ditko practised swinging on ropes around Manhattan in the early ’60s for that very same reason. This being a Disney movie, you can safely assume the non-trained secret agent-slash-superhero survives to see the end credits, and even scores himself another assignment as “Condorman” from his new CIA bosses. Not that any sequels were likely; Condorman was a flop and critics panned the 1981 film, with Siskel & Ebert noting the not-so-special effects like the clearly visible harness and cable in some of the flying scenes. Still, Condorman has gathered a cult following over the years, with a Condorman toy even scoring a cameo in a recent Pixar short. There are worse fates.

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9. Darryl Walker a.k.a. Blankman (Blankman)
From the film’s Rotten Tomatoes write-up: “After his grandmother is killed, Darryl builds a collection of crime-fighting robots from household junk, invents bullet-proof long underwear (made from his grandmother’s old housecoat), and becomes Metro City’s newest crime fighter, Blankman.” It’s the “grandmother’s old housecoat” bit that tell me the guys behind this superhero spoof really sweated over every detail in the script. Damon Wayans wrote the original story for Blankman as well as co-writing the screenplay and playing the title role, which was based in part on his “Handi-Man” character from In Living Color, and God bless you adorable ragamuffins who have no idea what I’m talking about. All I’m saying is in 1994 this was all we had for superhero comedy (well, this and The Mask, so not all hope was lost). Somehow dragging poor Robin Givens and Jason Alexander into this mess, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier — who did much better work on their groundbreaking TV show — spend 96 minutes throwing fart and dick jokes at the screen. Wayans is especially grating as a simple-minded man-child who copes with his grandmother’s murder by retreating into a poor-man’s-Tony-Stark persona who’s out to clean up the city. In its defence, the movie takes a few funny shots at tabloid journalism, a ripe target in the days when we could still tell what bad journalism looked like. On the whole, though, when it comes to Blankman the movie I have to agree with Blankman’s brother: “You’re no Batman.”

averagejoes-edgruberman10. Ed Gruberman (The Super Capers)
With Kick-Ass and Super premiering in 2010, Special in 2006, Defendor in 2009 and Griff the Invisible in 2011, there’s probably an interesting college thesis to come out of a study of how that particular time period proved to be such fertile ground for the average-guys-as-superheroes genre. If anyone does take on that scholarly challenge, though, they will be forgiven for leaving The Super Capers off their list of required watching. One of the few films to earn a coveted 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it features “the production values of a commercial for a local used-car dealership in Cedar Rapids, Iowa” (New York Post) and is “so inexplicably, aggressively awful that your only possible response is to stare stupefied at the screen and ask yourself how such a fiasco could have come into existence” (New York Times). Justin Whelin — formerly known as Jimmy Olsen from the 1990s Lois & Clark show — steps up from sidekick status to star as Ed Gruberman, a mild-mannered fellow who delivers singing telegrams in a superhero costume and becomes enmeshed in a world of real superheroes when he foils a mugging. Despite his lack of any discernible powers, he joins his new friends — one of whom has the power to blow up like a puffer fish when startled — on a mission because reasons, and just when the whole thing can’t get any more depressing you find out they somehow dragged poor Adam West into this mess. For masochists only.

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11. Shin’ichi Ichikawa a.k.a. Zebraman (Zebraman)
Nice guy Shin’ichi (Sho Aikawa) can’t get any respect, not even at home with his family. His family is on the verge of falling apart, and this milquetoast schoolteacher is sustained only by memories of a TV superhero show he watched as a kid. To escape his depressing reality, he slips into a homemade Zebraman costume inspired by his childhood hero. One thing leads to another, he starts patrolling his Yokohama neighborhood, and before you know it he stumbles across an alien invasion. Will he develop the self-confidence he needs to save the day and fully realize the Zebraman powers that were within him the whole time? Tune in next week, same zebra-time, same zebra-channel! This 2007 comedy by Japanese director Takashi Miike drew mixed reviews from critics, with some praising his loving tribute to the low-budget Japanese TV superheroes of the 1960s and ’70s while others felt the family-friendly film was a bizarre detour for a director better-known for his ultra-violent films. Still, any film that can boast an eggplant attack, inept “Men in Black”-style government agents and a crustacean-themed killer named Crabman sounds completely insane in a good way.

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12. Jared a.k.a. Greenzo (30 Rock)
When ordered by his boss to find a way to make money from “this environmentalism trend,” NBC bigshot Jack Donaghy comes up with Greenzo, an environmentally aware superhero mascot who represents the network’s commitment to the environment (or at least the “making money off of it” part). But Jack unwittingly creates a monster, as Greenzo (played by David Schwimmer of Friends fame) goes mad with slight empowerment and starts shaming Liz’s staff for their wasteful habits (like leaving computers on all night to avoid slow reboots) and railing on the air against “big companies and their two-faced, fat-cat executives” — including Jack’s boss — for their environmental crimes. In the end, Jack has to let him go, but by then it’s clear Greenzo has no intention to stop his crusade as Earth’s chosen protector: “Can you fire the wind, Jack? Can you fire a hurricane?” “We’re developing that technology!”

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13. Lone Vengeance (Castle)
“Our killer is a superhero!” Geez, don’t sound too excited there, Castle. When an ex-con’s corpse is found in an alley hacked in half by a sword, Castle and Beckett believe a vigilante is behind the murder. Their efforts to identify the killer hit a snag when they discover their No. 1 suspect roams the city wearing the costume of Lone Vengeance, the popular star of a digital comic book whose writer uses the pseudonym “Sean Elt” (an homage to another comic writer whose heroes get name-dropped a lot throughout the episode). Castle has never been shy about reveling in its geek cred, and Nathan Fillion (a god among geeks) has the time of his life in this 2011 episode portraying Castle as a comic-trope-spouting, proud-Avengers #1-owning detective who believes the key to finding the killer is to figure out his origin story. (“A superhero who’s mild-mannered and somebody killed his parents. Isn’t that all of them?”) By the end of the episode, we learn about the power of love and the importance of letting go of the past. But more importantly? We also learn Beckett’s first comic, which she bought when she was 14, was Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Explains a lot.

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14. Captain Freedom (Hill Street Blues)
Fun coincidence: Castle’s Lone Vengeance episode was directed by Jeff Bleckner, who almost 30 years earlier also directed an episode of Hill Street Blues that introduced Captain Freedom. Played by Dennis Dugan (a frequent player in Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore productions), Freedom popped up in a handful of episodes in 1982 playing an oblivious nut running around the city in a homemade costume. As one of the many oddball characters who interact with the show’s officers, Captain Freedom was prone to giving inspirational speeches about society and the power of the human mind, only to follow them up with statements that suggested he was a little bit crazy. Sane or no, he proves heroic in the end when he’s shot during an armed robbery, and dies in the arms of Det. Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz). It may have seemed strange for a gritty police drama to feature a guy in red tights as a recurring guest star, but Hill Street Blues was a show that delighted in surprising its audience, and the ease with which a kooky character like Captain Freedom fit right in with the more serious elements of the show was just more proof of the excellence of the show’s writing (the episode featuring his death was No. 57 on TV Guide’s 2009 list of the 100 Greatest Episodes).

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15. Julius Goldfarb a.k.a. The Salamander (L.A. Law)
It’s hard to decide which group of professionals ran into more kooky characters during their course of their workday: the police officers clocking in at the Hill Street station, or the partners and associates at the law firm of McKenzie-Brackman. Over its eight seasons, NBC’s legal drama L.A. Law dealt with every hot-button topic in the 1980s and early 1990s, balancing the heavier stuff with cases involving more eccentric clients. For an example of the latter, there’s actor Julius Goldfarb (played by Martin Ferrero, a.k.a. the lawyer from Jurassic Park), who hires Kelsey to represent him when he’s sued by a TV production company that holds the rights to a superhero character he once played. The company has plans for a remake, and they want to stop Goldfarb from making unauthorized appearances as the crime-fighting amphibian that made him a star (it seems he has a habit of making citizen’s arrests in liquor stores while in costume). But as the trial progresses, it becomes clear that Goldfarb’s connection to his character goes a little deeper than an actor playing a role, and he sinks his chances of winning his case by scaling the “walls of justice” to declare he really is the Salamander. Better luck next time, Kelsey.

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16. Homer Simpson a.k.a. The Pie Man (The Simpsons)
“You know, I’ve had a lot of jobs: boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, babyproofer, trucker, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carny, mayor, grifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country-western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe, and missionary — but protecting Springfield, that gives me the best feeling of all.” Wait, being a homophobe pays now? Add “mysterious vigilante” to the list of jobs Homer has taken on over the years; when Lisa is bullied in “Simple Simpson,” he exacts his revenge on the perpetrator with a well-timed pie to the face. This leads to a new career in vigilante justice as “The Pie Man,” dispensing fruit-flavored justice against many well-deserving targets in Springfield… until Mr. Burns learns his secret identity and blackmails him into tossing a pie at the Dalai Lama (“all his talk of peace and love is honking off my Red Chinese masters”). Except Lisa has already found out her dad’s secret and made him promise never to pie anyone again. Will Homer do the right thing and honor his promise to Lisa? Does Grandpa Simpson tell rambling stories about onions tied to belts? Let’s just say Springfieldians in search of a masked hero are once again back to settling for the refreshing brand of justice dished out by Duffman.

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17+. The Fog, Hashtag, Ghost Cobra, Superfly, Gray Area, Megafist, Blue Swallow (iZombie)
If you think about it, Liv Moore has a lot in common with superheroes. She has special powers that she uses to fight crime. Her love life is a bit messed up because of her “night job.” She keeps her double life a secret from her loved ones in order to protect them. And she has a weakness (a need to consume brains on a regular basis) that provides a bit of dramatic tension whenever the script needs it. But it wasn’t until Season 2’s “Cape Town,” when she ingested the brain of a murdered real-life superhero and takes on his personality, that we see Liv go into full-on superhero mode. When a local costumed vigilante (“I am The Fog, and tonight I’m thick with justice”) is killed trying to break up a mugging, it’s up to Liz to find the culprit. After meeting some of the (ahem) finer examples of Seattle’s extra-legal law enforcement officers, Liv discovers there’s more to the Fog’s murder than a simple crime gone awry. But as she quickly finds out, she can’t run around in a mask and do whatever she wants just because she knows she’s right; there are rules and procedures for a reason, and her interference costs police the chance to put away a bad guy who gets tipped off when Liv storms his gun-filled warehouse. Superheroes work in comics because decisions in comic stories are a simple matter of choosing right or wrong. But in the complicated real world of police, criminals and crime-solving zombies? It’s not so cut and dried.

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18. Super Dan (Brooklyn Nine Nine)
Exactly why is it so hard for Detectives Diaz and Santiago of Brooklyn’s 99th Precinct to take Super Dan seriously? I’ll let Santiago explain: “Your cape. And your tights. And your name’s Super Dan. And I can sort of see your penis. It’s all just a rich tapestry.” Introduced in Season 1’s “Full Boyle,” Super Dan (played by Nate Torrence) is an earnest citizen who comes into the precinct to give a statement about drug dealers in the area. After Diaz and Santiago dismiss him, Hitchcock and Scully take his statement. (Scully: “I didn’t even notice he was wearing a cape.” Santiago: “You’re a cop. You should have realized that.”) When the ladies are later taken off the case, they find out it’s because Super Dan is upset they won’t work with him — which is too bad, because it turns out he has been sitting on rooftops and taking pictures of local drug dealers that can help the police with their case. But it’s all good in the end, as he accepts their apology and totally geeks out when he’s allowed to see the official case file. The moral of the story: Just because a guy ties a towel around his neck and tapes his initials to his chest doesn’t mean he can’t be useful.

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19+. All the real-life superheroes profiled in HBO’s Superheroes
Speaking of the real world. All of the examples of “real-life superheroes” above come from works of fiction, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn there are a number of real-life superheroes here in the real world working for justice, however they define that word. In some cases, these are people who aren’t necessarily crime fighters, but instead use a colorful costume and/or outsize personality to attract attention to a cause — like Mexico City’s “Superbarrio,” who uses his notoriety to organize labour rallies and help the dispossessed. Then you have guys like Mr. XTreme, a “security guard officer by day but a goon’s worst nightmare by night,” one of several real-life superheroes profiled in HBO’s Superheroes. As the 2011 documentary tells us, there are more than 300 registered superheroes in the United States alone, and they all don their tights for different reasons. Some are clearly attention-seekers, but others are driven by a genuine desire to make their cities safe again (like the New York City vigilantes who record drug dealers in their neighbourhood) or to help the less fortunate (like the husband-and-wife superheroes distributing food and necessities to Portland’s homeless). Filmmaker Mike Barnett’s piece is a straightforward portrait of some of America’s real-life superheroes, and it’s also a funny piece of film — but not funny in the sense that it mocks these costumed do-gooders for what they do. The camera merely records, allowing the viewers to decide on their own if these caped crusaders are forces for good, harmless eccentrics, or people in need of serious help (in some cases, like the awesomely named Master Legend, it might be all three). Me, I came away thinking of a business opportunity: the right tailor would make a killing selling customized costumes to this crowd.

 

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