While superheroes on the page have the benefit of accumulated decades of convention and canon from around which a storyteller can craft something subversive, superhero films are only just now entering an era in which a costumed vigilante isn’t necessarily a novel, massively expensive proposal. With people accustomed to seeing spandexed assholes running around on screen and superheros pretty much the default for studio action films, we’re now seeing the reactionary material hit the screen. VS is definitely a part of the new wave of comic book-style movies that are willing to point the camera on real violence or toss out a “fuck” where appropriate, but unlike Kick-Ass there’s no sense of smug self-awareness, and contrary to Super there’s no real attempt at detached deconstruction. Instead VS is an unwinking, entirely self-serious superhero tale willing to force its heroes to do, and have done to them, very fucked up things. This isn’t a satirical effort: VS doesn’t deconstruct superhero conventions, it tears them to shreds.
The story of VS is extraordinarily simple: an estranged superhero team finds themselves forced back together by an arch-rival they thought defeated. Rickshaw, played with villainous glee by James Remar, has stripped the heroes of their powers and isolated them in a desolate town filled with individual traps endangering innocent people. Charge (played by Trost), Cutthroat (played by Lucas Till of X-Men: First Class), Shadow, and The Wall all quickly learn that Rickshaw has absolute control of the town by virtue of a crude but ominpresent network of cameras, televisions, and remotely controlled bombs.
From the very beginning of the film, which wastes virtually no time on backstory or typical first act build-up, it’s made clear that Rickshaw is in absolute control, is willing and eager to obliterate innocent people, and has set up traps that are deliberately impossible for the heroes to overcome. He states outright that the point of the endeavor is simply to make his enemies feel the constant pain of loss, as he has over the years. This comes in the form of “challenges” and “rounds” all impossibly timed and constantly changing, which lends the film a manic energy that powers it through an exercise in atypical structure.
It is this set-up that makes VS an interesting film. and the ballsy structure of the whole thing that allows it to do things that most superhero movies wouldn’t dare. This is not a winning scenario for anyone, and investing you in the characters is not the film’s primary goal. There are flashbacks to the group before everything went to hell, but frankly they’re pretty much superfluous as we already “know” these characters. At this point we’re well acquainted with the idea of a sidekick full of resentment for his mentor, or the jealousy a hero feels when he isolates himself and “the girl” turns to someone else. These are common tropes that we understand and by exploiting them VS is able to get straight into the gooey stuff that you wouldn’t typically expect from superheros, and I mean more than simply seeing actual blood when they beat someone up or having them go too far when punishing a criminal. By forcing these “super” people, which are clearly screwed up with very human issues, into Saw-like scenarios we get a chance to see things play out messier than they ever would in another film concerned with fan service, sequels, or focus groups.
That’s not to say VS is a pure transgressive masterpiece: it’s very small and sometimes saddled by the melodramatic dialogue of a indie action flick (or perhaps more in character: a comic book). And while it is undoubtedly fucked up at times, it doesn’t necessarily plunge head on into the dark rabbit hole of the scenario it raises. Instead, it gets a little distracted with thin additions of mythology onto the characters and paying off relationships that we’ve only glimpsed. It never gets sandbagged for too long by any of this, but you may often find yourself wishing everyone involved had realized just how gloriously free the film was from any constraints and pushed a little harder with certain ideas it brings up. That said, it ends on perhaps the perfect note: one which has something severely bleak to say about the idea of superheroes and supervillains duking it out in the real world.
Another minor issue is a few moments when the film attempts a traditional thrilling action scene that betrays the production’s limited means. The film does itself a favor by removing the character’s powers before it even starts, so there aren’t a lot of cheap special effects wasted on embarrassing visualizations of super speed or whatever. Beyond that the film is extremely well shot and often gorgeous, but obviously a truly micro-budget superhero film can’t compete with the $200m spectacle we’ve come to expect. Trost shows real chops behind the camera, but the bandwidth of the film is better spent with the small, morally troubling moments than with full on action scenes. It’s enough to make you wish the film had ditched the pretense of “action” altogether and stuck with mind games and impossible decisions.
The actors involved all give their best, and Trost and Till in particular make for convincing action leads and fine superheroes (obviously Till has managed to wrangle himself another supergroup already). Sophie Merkley is given very little to do in the group beyond typical romantic interest duties, but her charming demeanor and genuine spirit do her character more justice than the script has time for. The chewiest role is naturally given to Remar as the villain who is a mix of equal parts Joker, Riddler, and Jigsaw. Cackling his way through monologue after monologue all delivered through televisions from behind a desk, Remar invests Rickshaw with that subtle hint of pathetic impetuousness present in many of the great supervillains. It’s to Remar’s credit that his (seemingly) dozens of into-the-camera solo scenes don’t grow tired by the end.
What I do love about this kind of independent film is that even with fewer resources at their disposal than on even the modestly budgeted The FP, the production still does a good job of creating a disconcerting feeling of isolation. Like the vaguely post-apocalyptic, alcohol-and-DDR-based ecosystem of the team’s other film, VS feels self-contained in the sense that you can’t imagine this world being fully populated or scaling up to actual civilization as we know it. All the edges fall off to black in this town and this moment that exist purely for the story at hand. One assumes that’s partly the unintentionally ethereal effect of independent film sparseness, but I sense a touch of design here as well. It makes the film feel even more like a one-off comic with no rules and some truly dark things to say about the genre.
A true burn-everything-to-the-ground superhero movie, VS goes to dark places in which the Dark Knight would have no business. It’s a small film freed by its limited scale to do nasty things to its characters, and to imply something nastier about the heroes that inspired them. If only other superhero films would take this “little from a lot” attitude of VS and apply it to their massive budgets. Failing that, they would at least do well with borrowing a little bit of VS‘s balls.