Regular people dressing up as superheroes is a subegenre now. A couple of years ago the film Special, starring Michael Rapaport, examined this idea, and in a couple of months Kick-Ass will come at it from another extreme. Then there’s James Gunn’s Super, which is in post-production right now. 

Another entry in this burgeoning subgenre is Defendor, which is like right in the middle between Special and Kick-Ass. A mentally challenged guy – in this case Woody Harrelson – dresses up like a superhero and battles crime, searching for the elusive Captain Industry, who killed his mother. It’s one part character study (a la Special) and one part examination of how much a guy doing this would get beat to shit (a la Kick-Ass). Unlike Special, Defendor manages to make its lead not annoying, but unlike Kick-Ass, Defendor strives for realism in the violence. 

An honest up front caveat: I really didn’t expect much from Defendor. Nothing I had seen about the film gave me that much hope, despite a very good cast that also includes Elias Koteas as a scumbag cop and Kat Dennings as the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold. And while I wouldn’t say that Defendor truly won me over – it’s missing something right in the middle of itself – it was much, much better than I expected and featured some really excellent moments.

Unfortunately what it was missing was Arthur Poppington – aka Defendor’s real life identity. Poppington is ‘slow’ in some way, and he had a pretty rough childhood, but there seems to be nothing else to his character. I found myself not particularly caring about Poppington and really wanting him to get into the Defendor outfit – at least as Defendor Harrelson isn’t playing some saintly retard schtick. Actually, I’m not entirely sure why Poppington needs to be a vaguely defined special ed kid, as plain old delusional would probably work better and allow him to be a fuller character. 

Despite the fact that I didn’t really like the character and the fact that he’s way too old to play him, I liked Harrelson in the role. He’s got a good physicality and there’s something about his features when he’s playing dumb that’s so likable – which I guess is why we loved him so much back on Cheers. Also outshining her role is Kat Dennings; despite being tasked to play little more than the standard heart of gold hooker, Dennings brings layers upon layers of empathy and humanity to the film. It’s a pity that Dennings hasn’t quite made the jump to the next level because I think she’s an exceptionally talented actress who could be doing big, great work.

Also overcoming the material is director Peter Stebbings – which is saying something since he wrote the movie. He gives the first two acts a flashback structure that ends when the third begins; it’s slightly disorienting and makes the entire third act feel like a really extended epilogue. The flashback structure has Poppington in custody and talking with Sandra Oh, a court-assigned psychiatrist, and in these scenes he seems to be an entirely different character than he is in the flashbacks. Oh is touted as one of the leads, but she’s really barely in the film. 

What Stebbings does best is get plenty of value out of dank back alleys and fight scenes with what seem to be the same handful of guys. The movie’s obviously very low budget, but Stebbings gets the most for his money and he manages to create an entire city out of about ten actors. Stebbings stages his fights well, and he sketches the world of Defendor nicely, making it feel like a real place while keeping it vague and made up at the same time. It’s just his script that lets him down, mixing its messages and trotting out lots and lots of stock characters. Every now and again Stebbings plays against those types in funny ways, but mostly it’s the stuff you would expect. 

One thing that stands out in Defendor is the film’s excellent score. The main Defendor theme riffs subtly on the Superman theme, but John Rowley’s work is great in the way it evokes superheroic imagery while also feeling gritty and street level, giving a counterpoint to the reality on screen. The music is what Defendor must be hearing in his head.

There’s plenty to like in Defendor, especially the actors, but also lots of room for Stebbings to grow as a writer. Stebbings is an actor making the transition to feature film director, and I would say that his prognosis is much better than many of his peers, but this seems like a weird subject for him to tackle, as nothing about Defendor screams out to me that it was made by someone with a deep love or even understanding of the superhero. There’s a scene where Defendor tortures a bad guy that especially jars simply because it seems informed only by a Batman movie-esque view of the superhero and not the comic book view, which Poppington supposedly follows. I think this is the sort of thing that would only bother a dweeb like me, and obviously Defendor exists as a result of the wave of superhero movies, so it makes sense that it would be influenced by them. 

Intriguing but flawed, Defendor manages to overcome the stuff that doesn’t work. While it never seems to really thematically gel and while I would have liked a better script, the actors and vision on display make this a better entry in the teeniest superhero subgenre yet.

7 out of 10