First released in 2014 by Mythos Comics, the Samaritan series from Bragi Schut, Marc Olivent, and Renzo Podesta sought to explore what life would be like in a city post-superhero. It’s a series that seems interested in exploring the complex relationship between a populace that comes to rely on a superhero to solve their problems and the moral questions that arise from their methods through the lens of a young boy who looks up to the hero while trying to survive in the aftermath of his absence. In the case of the Julius Avery-directed Samaritan, most of the key pieces from the original storyline appear to be intact, however, the method of exploring this shifts from the narrator, Sam (Javon “Wanna” Walton), to his enigmatic neighbor, Mr. Smith (Sylvester Stallone), making the film feel less like a street-level investigation of classism and power and more of a redemption tale. A tale, sadly, we’ve not only seen before, but with twists and turns so badly telegraphed that there’s neither shock nor suspense in the reveal.
A long time ago lived twin brothers with super abilities whose existence frightened those around them. Fear drove people to try to harm the boys, resulting in their parents being killed instead. This set the pair on divergent paths: one, known as Nemesis, turned to violence, while the other, known as Samaritan, became a protector. The two engaged in a fight 25 years ago that presumably took both their lives as neither was seen after. Yet citizens like Sam cling to the hope that Samaritan is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered; while others, like crime boss Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), try to rally the remnants of Granite City to rebel against the powerful to take back their city in the name of Nemesis. Doing what he can to both stay out of trouble and help his mother, Tiffany (Dascha Polanco), pay the rent, Sam finds himself getting uncomfortably close to Cyrus while also being on the trail of a man who may just be Samaritan.
Because Samaritan is a comic adaptation, one created from an indie house and one I have not read, in preparation for this review, I sought out as much information as possible. Sadly, the Mythos Comics site doesn’t support Flash and wouldn’t work, most searches for “Samaritan” and “comic book” pull up an Image Comics character from 1995, and the best I could discover was a review of the very first issue. Even screenplay writer and original member of the Samaritan team, Bragi Schut, has little in the way of information on his Twitter page. The origin of the film may as well be a mystery to the larger world and, even without having read a full page of the two issues I can confirm exist, I imagine them to be far better than the film releasing on Prime Video. The original comic concept is an examination of superheroes not as gods or monsters, but as people and the wake left in their absence. Using the perspective of regular people, the concept feels like Marvels-type storytelling. Instead, the bulk of the movie is about putting Sam in one situation or another so that the audience can meet the central characters and so that Sam can serve as the emotional catalyst for the finale confrontation. You’d think this would make him the main character of the film, the person we’d follow as they grow or change. Instead, the film is really about Mr. Smith and Sam is just the object that puts Mr. Smith in motion. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult to tell if this is a result of Stallone’s involvement in the film, someone deciding that the biggest star in the production needed to have more of a presence in the film, or if it’s just bad adaptation by Schut. Either way, what could be interesting as a modern superhero deconstruction, like the Joe Manganiello-led Archenemy (2020), shares more in common with the Shaq-led Steel (1997).
This isn’t to imply that Samaritan is cheap-looking (the suit in Steel didn’t age well even upon release) so much as to identify its biggest weakness: there’s very little there beyond the surface-level. The opening is a fairly sleek comic book-inspired sequence that looks nearly rotoscoped as a narration from Sam explains the mythos and backstory of this world, but when it shifts into the “real world,” for an area that’s meant to look dilapidated, the area’s fairly clean. The locations are decorated with buildings in various states of disrepair, there is a scene involving a tent city, and the bad guy/revolutionary works out of a warehouse that’s lacking in menace. Especially as Tiffany watches a news report that declares rising homelessness, lack of support from local government, and rising rent, audiences are told to expect Granite City to be Gotham City’s Crime Alley, except it’s never presented that way. There’s no build-up of garbage, no sense of the area being left-behind or ignored, or any other signs that all the things the audience is told is true. Considering that Cyrus, in another fun performance from Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell (2017); Overlord (2018)), is putting a plan into motion because he believes in Nemesis as a guiding light, someone who uses their power to punch up not down, he speaks a great deal about the Granite City being ignored or cast aside. But it never looks it. This speaks to a larger problem with the film — it has great ideas but never takes the risks required to get there.
Even if Samaritan didn’t telegraph the hell out of itself from the jump, that it never dares to try to show the audience why Granite City residents should believe in a Nemesis zealot and instead tells, exemplifies the film’s desire to use high ideas as a premise and its lack of courage to go for it. Imagine a superhero film that dares to challenge the notion that a superhero is little more than a figurehead for the government, keeping people in line and not questioning who protects them. Frank Miller does this in his famous The Dark Knight Returns comic series, transforming Superman into a government puppet. Imagine a superhero film where the supposed villain is actually trying to shift the status quo in favor of the working or under-represented class? We need only look to the cinematic representations of Magneto (Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in their respective films to see how audiences began to see their heroes in a different light by the credits. Except here, by the end of the film, the script makes plain what it thinks and who it thinks the villain and hero are, thereby maintaining the status quo and keeping things distinct and clean, just like the city itself. It is potential wasted and it’s frustrating, even if it’s fun watching Stallone playing supercop again (minus his iconic “I am the law!” line-delivery). But Stallone aside, the *idea* of the film is so poorly executed that it frustrates over and over.
Coming from the director of the surprisingly fun and gory Overlord, Avery’s Samaritan is more cut-and-paste western-as-superhero film than it is as daring as it so desperately wants to be. You can see the little pieces here and there, the sparks of brilliance from Schut’s concept (like the explanation for how Samaritan’s and Nemesis’s powers work), but then fall apart in the emblematic (like trying to use a metaphysical idea to create something tangible as a weapon). It might work in print where we have to go with things, but, in film, when so much of Samaritan is grounded, your lengthy origins diatribes shouldn’t just create more questions or holes in logic. As one problem or issue piles upon another — the structure reducing tension instead of amplifying, characters doing things out of established personality without apparent cause, the strange cleanliness of the supposed dilapidated city, the very PG-13 language with almost R-rated violence, and the telegraphing that could’ve been avoided by the absence of one word — there’s no way to save Samaritan, no matter how much one might want to.
Available on Prime Video August 26th, 2022.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.