The deconstruction and evaluation of superheroes in cinema and television didn’t begin with Zack Snyder or Eric Kripke, though they are the ones most widely known for it at the moment. Their stories take a darker look at the notion of heroism and the relationship that humanity maintains with its heroes. In Kripe’s The Boys, adapted from the comic written by Garth Ennis and co-created by Darick Robertson, superheroes are frequently more villainous than the people they combat and are revealed to the audience as high off of their own hubris and desperate to maintain their positions of power no matter who they hurt. In Snyder’s approach to DC Comic’s Trinity characters — Man of Steel (2013), Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and the yet released Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) — Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are not the individual symbols of heroism readers recognize from the comics so much as broken individuals who find strength together. Superman doesn’t understand the value of human life, Batman’s loss at the hands of a villain has made him paranoid, and Wonder Woman’s lost faith in humanity makes her cold. Where these characters go we won’t know until the ZSJL is released in March, but it will likely get darker before the Dawn. The point of all this is to set the stage for Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy, an action thriller which does a far greater job in 90 minutes than what others have set out to do in longer periods. His hero, Max Fist, played wonderfully by the versatile Joe Manganiello, is the subject of analysis with the two central questions being (1) why do we put so much faith in superheroes to save us and (2) why do we crave their pain?
If you’ve not yet seen Archenemy and want to learn about the film without the risk of spoilers, please go now to the initial release review. Moving forward, spoiler talk will be rampant.
On the streets of L.A. lives a man who spends his days in bars, rambling on to any who will listen, and his nights on the streets. His name, Max Fist, and, if you believe his tales, he’s a superhero from the planet Chromium who was flung here while battling his archenemy Cleo Verntrik (Amy Seimetz). There is one who believes Max, a budding street reporter named Hamster (Skylan Brooks) whose friendship with the rumored hero will be put to the test when Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) gets in trouble with her drug dealer boss, The Manager (Glenn Howerton). With their backs against the wall, will Max’s stories prove true or is their faith in the dejected hero misplaced?
Week after week, comic fans, television aficionados, bibliophiles, and cinephiles seek entertainment through the adventures of various protagonists or antagonists in their respective quest to uphold or demolish the status quo. These observers spend all their time in-between issues and episodes, novels and sequels, positing theories about what’s to come. What joys, what punishments, will be meted out for the sake of our entertainment. As I write this exploration of Archenemy, conversation online ruminates over what’s the true cause of mayhem in the Disney+ program WandaVision. It’s equal parts mental exercise and a bit of onanism, with a variety of folks trying to one up the other, going back to the text within the oeuvre of Marvel Comics to decipher potential clues and forecast what’s to come. Mortimer’s Archenemy wonders why we are so obsessed with tortured heroes and what it means when you come face to face with the thing you claim to love. Hamster represents us, the masses clamoring for the next superhero fix, elated to discover that there is someone out there fighting to make a difference, someone who may possess the skills to keep his family safe. It’s not until Max has broken his no-kill rule, several times over in fact, that Hamster begins to question Max’s heroics, begins to question whether or not Max is a savior or merely another villain in disguise. What it appears Mortimer wants the audience to ask is, why did Hamster trust Max in the first place? Desperation? Curiosity? Or is it because Hamster’s heard the stories of superheroes his whole life, indoctrinated by popular culture (if our current media landscape is even remotely comparable to the in-film world), that he automatically presumes that anyone with superpowers who claims to be a hero must be one? More than that, what is the line that changes the celebrations of violence into terror? How far is too far?
The lone bonus feature on the home release is a near-seven-minute featurette “The Making of Archenemy.” In this, Manganiello, Brooks, Griggs, and Seimetz discuss their thoughts on their characters and the film. Unfortunately we don’t get to hear from either Mortimer or co-writer Luke Passmore (Slaugherhouse Rulez), which, personally, I would’ve loved especially after Mortimer’s extensive Twitter thread celebrating the various crew members that brought Archenemy to life, as well as the animators who helped bring about the specific look of the motion comic moments. Not everyone uses Twitter and having the opportunity either via featurette or feature-length commentary to hear either of the creators’ thoughts on the film would certainly add to the exploration of the material. What we do get, though, is some compelling notions, specifically from Manganiello and Seimetz. As the rivals of the film, their respective thoughts on who is the real villain— the abusive hero or the scientist trying to stop him — adds some additional dimensions to the film itself. It’s well into Archenemy where the cracks around Max’s superhero façade truly begin to show and, by that point, the film is nearly over. There’s little time to explore how Max’s violent streak made him a great hero, but also made him the destroyer of his own home because of how he lashes out or that his enemy is actually his estranged wife who is trying to safe Chromium from an abuser. She’s not exactly clean herself, the script makes sure the audience knows that, but she’s not totally evil either. As Seimetz’s proclaims, Cleo and Max are the heroes of their own stories. But aren’t we all, right? Heroism and villainy are just a matter of perspective. It’s Manganiello, though, who really brings it home when he brings up the idea of a firefighter who runs into a fire to save people from a burning building, yet is estranged from his wife for being abusive. Is that firefighter still a hero? Depends on who you ask. He goes on to point out that the people who made Archenemy (I presume he means Mortimer and Passmore) love movies and comic books and that Archenemy is a story prominent studios wouldn’t make. Given Manganiello’s experience with WB given his role as Deathstroke in the credit stinger for Justice League (2017), he’s likely had first-hand experience being a part of a film which a studio meddled to unrecognizable heights. Archenemy is very much a niche film and there is a niche for this kind of storytelling, a niche which challenges the audience as it entertains them.
When I signed up for Archenemy for the December theatrical/VOD/digital release, I was expecting a dark superhero tale where the audience would be strung along on a is-he-crazy-or-is-he-for-real narrative for the duration. While the film doesn’t really offer anything concrete in that regard until the final moments, everything up to that point is incredibly rich and challenging. The performances are top notch with Howerton appearing to be having the best time of all and Manganiello demonstrating, again, that he is a force to be reckoned with. (Seriously, the man can jump genres with incredible ease and be just as captivating in any of them.) But what makes Archenemy memorable is how it pushes the audience to reconsider their fandoms, to reconsider why they clamor for their favorite heroes to face greater evils with each turn of the page. Sure, it’s a flight of fancy, an empty escape. But not to the characters. It’s all real to them and we, the audience, bellow for their blood with each issue, each episode, each film. What does that say about society and how they view heroes? Who is the real archenemy?
Archenemy Special Features
- The Making of Archenemy (6:53)
Available digital December 11th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD February 16th, 2021.