Writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer is developing a very specific artistic aesthetic after only three full length features. The first, Another Kind of Hate (2015), appears to explore bullying with a supernatural bend. The second, Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), is an exploration of mental health, specifically schizophrenia, which takes a hard turn in the third act into supernatural body horror. Where Hate appears to have a more traditional desert-meets-horror palette, quite a bit of Daniel is neon-coated, brandishing deep purples, violets, blood reds, and inky blacks in costume, set design, and lighting in order to increase the sense of bent reality and growing isolation. Mortimer carries this and more into his latest feature, Archenemy, a deconstructed superhero tale that asks its audience which is more dangerous: believing that a superhero will save you or a superhero actually coming to the rescue.
After a prolonged battle with his longtime enemy Cleo Verntrik (Amy Seimetz), hero Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) sacrifices himself to stop her from using a weapon that would destroy his home; however, in so doing, he is teleported across dimensions to our world where he’s powerless. At least, that’s what the homeless and frequently drunk Max tells anyone who’ll listen. Budding crime reporter Hamster (Skylan Brooks), fresh off of getting a new Trendible Media account with the promise of a full-time job if he can bring the goods, begins to follow and get to know Max, partially because he believes him and partially because Max’s story is gaining traction online. When Hamster’s enterprising sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) gets in trouble with her drug-dealing boss The Manager (Glenn Howerton), Max intervenes, saving her life in the immediate but putting targets on their back in the long run. If Max still had his powers, none of this would be an issue, but the more time they spend with Max, the more the siblings wonder if he ever had them at all.
With nary a mention in the production notes, it’s difficult to confirm at this point, but it certainly feels like Mortimer is developing his own universe, his own playground with which to create stories, beyond just individual films. The link is the swirling vortex featured prominently in the marketing for Archenemy, showed briefly at the start, and mentioned in passing by Max himself. That vortex is described as a gateway between dimensions and its existence within Archenemy could very simply be a visual flourish to make physical an aspect of Max’s story. Where it seems more than that is that it appeared in Daniel as well, appearing as a gateway between whatever hell the specter Daniel comes from and our plane of existence. Having not seen Hate or any of Moritmer’s shorts, it’s hard to say if this is a new development, intentional or otherwise, but it’s a fascinating approach. If Tarantino can have his interconnected worlds, why not Mortimer? Certainly, today’s comic book films are focused on interconnectedness in order to make the individual tales more rich, more defined, and more actualized, so why not do the same with a horror bend? If the sole connection is a swirling, menacing vortex, that’s enough because we know now, between both Daniel and Archenemy, that the vortex provides enormous possibilities from which to mine matters concrete and theoretical. The side effect being that, after two films, a certain pattern presents itself, requiring Mortimer to find a different approach in future projects, should the vortex appear again.
With this in mind, what Mortimer and co-writer Luke Passmore (writer of surprisingly good fun Slaughterhouse Rulez) create is equal parts action-adventure and psychological thriller, wrapped up in a superhero deconstruction. Max is a bit like Batman in the Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns, grizzled, frustrated, and almost past the point of caring. The relationship he develops with Hamster is very much built on the same material as Jimmy Olsen with Superman of DC Comics — Jimmy being a photojournalist whose “best pal” is the boy from Smallville — even down to the locator wristwatch Supes gives Jimmy should he get in trouble. Using these familiar notes enables Mortimer and Passmore to shorthand the character journey because, as expressed in the production notes, “We’ve let origin stories run like cosmic blood in our veins for the past decade and a half or so. We’re all experts now — and that means we can start to see all this shit in brand ways.” This is where things get fun for the audience as Mortimer jumps straight in to the wild and weird with nary a set-up, presuming that the audience will fill in the gaps with their pre-existing knowledge. On the one hand, this makes Archenemy extraordinarily niche, trusting the audience to come with enough of a background to be all-in from the jump. On the other, considering the influx of superheros and superhero-esque stories in all forms of media today, who isn’t an arm chair expert on superhero origin stories? The deconstruction is what makes Archenemy compelling by asking whether or not Max is for real, what does it mean if he is, why does it matter if he’s not. Mortimer and Passmore certainly lay the groundwork for Max being as true to his word as he may be absolutely full of bullshit and, within that space, comes the nagging question of why we look to heroes at all.
To create the aesthetic to convey Max’s origins, his perceived journey from one realm to another, as well as the internal struggle over what Max believes to be true, Mortimer utilizes a mixture of 2D and 3D animation, compelling costume design, art direction, and make-up. The art design and animation from the combined efforts of Sunando C, Danny Perez, and Kevin Finnegan create a beautiful yet tormented artistic style from which the audience peers into Max’s mind. Sometimes it’s in the form of memories, sometimes it’s presented overtop Max as we see him, but in both cases, uncorrupted lines of blue and magenta overlap or collide against achromatic figures. There are no soft edges, no comforting displays, just a recreation of a potentially fractured mind. This blends into the world Mortimer presents to us in small ways, such as Max’s costume, the only thing that remains from his world, which is primarily black with magenta fissures running across the suit and the cape. A hero’s costume is, itself, a representation of the hero, so what does this suit say about Max? What does it say when we trust the person who wears it? Mortimer and his team put these questions before us with few answers. Consider how Brooks is styled as Hamster with the word “Fiction” tattooed under his eye. He’s a reporter with an eye for a story, so the character and the design imply, yet the tattoo declares an affinity for storytelling rather than being able to handle the truth of the world. When all of these pieces are put together, Archenemy is a dark and terrible essay, incriminating those who love superheroes without thinking about what we, the audience, put them through week after week, month after month, just to be entertained.
As much thought went into the design and creation of Archenemy as went into the performances. A typically charming actor, Manganiello brings forth something deeper and darker, using his already large physicality to become more of a force than his presentation of Deathstroke the Terminator at the end of Justice League (2017). There is a soulfulness, a penetrating ache in Manganiello’s eyes and body, so that every act from Max seems under perpetual weight. Is his rage due to his situation or was it always there? The text offers an answer, but the performance from Manganiello can be read either way. As Hamster, Brooks brings a youthful naiveté, presenting someone who is so hungry to rise up that he’s willing to explore and expose the world under the world in an effort to elevate himself out. As Hamster spends more time with Max, Hamster becomes the audience’s proxy, requiring Brooks to convey a believable doubt or sincere fandom, both of which the actor does wonderfully. As his protective older sister Indigo, Zolee Griggs gets to do more than her fair share and offers more depth of character than Hamster. Indigo is Hamster’s caretaker with both of their parents gone, which means being parent and sibling concurrently to her own individual desires. Griggs isn’t offered quite the arc that Max and Hamster are given, but the potential is there, and none of it feels wasted through her performance. For fans of comedians Paul Scheer (The Good Place) and Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), both bring their A-game in portions of relative size but equal significance to the story playing characters so bizarre and oft-kilter that you’ll be pondering their personal backstories for some time.
Archenemy is a fascinating superhero tale wrapped up in a psychological thriller. It doesn’t always land how you’d want (short-handing a little too much, higher concepts being brushed over too quickly, and important aspects seem to go unexplored) and it could certainly benefit from a slightly longer run-time, but it’s no less a thoughtful and engaging watch. Most impressive is how the ideas Mortimer and Passmore present may seem a little dull in the moment, but become a strange puzzle box to examine after some time to mediate on the events of the film. As much as I’ve come to enjoy Mortimer’s particular aesthetic and slow-growing universe, enjoying how each story is its own with no more to tell, I think a revisit to this universe would be enjoyable, to see how this world progresses in the aftermath of Archenemy’s end. Then again, maybe it’s enough to know that the possibilities are endless. Until that vortex appears again, we may never really know.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital December 11th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.