Studio: RLJE Films
Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Writer: Adam Egypt Mortimer, Lucas Passmore
Producer: Daniel Noah, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood, Kim Sherman, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Joe Manganiello, Nick Manganiello
Stars: Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Paul Scheer, Amy Seimetz, Glenn Howerton
Two siblings and a homeless alcoholic who believes he is a superhero from another dimension become entangled in an underground crime ring.
Writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer whips a Frisbee full of backstory at your face in ¡°Archenemy¡¯s¡± first three minutes. You might want to be ready to hit the rewind button, in case you don¡¯t grab with both hands on the first pass.
Supposed superhero Max Fist comes from a city called Chromium in a parallel dimension. Chromium had a halo, but it was also full of devils. Powered by The Crystal Caves, Max scoured the cosmos in search of light for his city. Max¡¯s archenemy Cleo Ventrik was determined to destroy him. She almost did it, and would have killed the entirety of Chromium too, with a device called The Void Machine. Except Max stopped Cleo by creating a molecular vortex where he detonated the device in the silence between space and time. Grabbing at the only reality he could, Max ended up on Earth in the resulting rip, but arrived as a depowered human being.
Got all that?
Being a modestly budgeted indie endeavor, ¡°Archenemy¡± doesn¡¯t actually show what was just described, or anything that takes place on Chromium in other flashbacks either. Not in live action anyway. Animation comprises the visual portion of these ¡®Show and Mostly Tell¡¯ bits. It¡¯s an economic measure to be sure, as ¡°Archenemy¡± doesn¡¯t have Marvel money to depict explosive otherworldly action. Yet these interludes are smooth and stylish, and their animated panels fit well to frame the Stan Lee sense of storytelling.
In our reality, Max is a homeless drug addict recounting his tall tale in a bar. No one really believes Max. Why would they? Still, his wild stories make for interesting amusement, even if they are only figments of a drunkard¡¯s imagination.
Hamster certainly thinks Max is entertaining. He¡¯s a streetwise kid anxious to use his urban expertise as a content creator for a digital media company. Thinking Max might be his meal ticket, Hamster befriends the burnout and pumps up Max¡¯s fantasies while chronicling the man¡¯s crazy claims on camera.
Meanwhile, Hamster¡¯s older sister Indigo makes ends meet by begrudgingly working for a local crime boss. When the kingpin sends Indigo on an errand that ends in an unexpected death, Indigo lands on the wrong side of a scheme involving stolen money and dangerous thugs determined to retrieve the stash. It¡¯s getting to be put up or shut up time for Max. If he is who he says, Max has to summon the strength to save the siblings. If he isn¡¯t a hero, then Max¡¯s delusions about his archenemy coming to Earth might move everyone out of the frying pan and into an even deadlier fire.
My interests as a comic book reader often lean toward the ¡®Marvel Knights¡¯ lineup, which focuses on characters grounded closer to reality like Daredevil and The Punisher as opposed to Superman or Thor. I appreciate ¡°Archenemy¡± for being a similarly ¡°street level¡± superhero story. The film fills up on exaggerated criminal archetypes including an underworld drug lord with a sharp suit and big ring, quivering lackeys who grin and bear the brunt of their boss¡¯s violent outbursts, a tattooed tweaker whose paranoia inspires an impromptu game of Russian roulette, you get the picture.
If you¡¯re still not seeing the scope, imagine a dark downtown with a sheen of sleaze that still pops with color, both from glowing lights and from cartoony people bounding around. ¡°Archenemy¡± taps a vein of postmodern superhero deconstruction a la ¡°Watchmen,¡± taking on real world themes that skim subjects such as mental illness, social media as a journalism medium, systemic subjugation of minorities, and more. At the same time, ¡°Archenemy¡¯s¡± action/thriller bent limits how seriously topics can be taken in the midst of trappings like psychopaths singing while hunting their targets or villains dropping ponderous monologues while holding hostages at gunpoint.
Here¡¯s where I get predictive about what this adds up to for you. ¡°Archenemy¡± rates a reasonable 65/100 for its collective value as entertainment, artistic achievement, and slight social essay. You¡¯d be challenged to justify a higher rating. If anything, you¡¯re liable to score the film lower, no matter how your personal tastes take to comic book-related media.
¡°Archenemy¡± is too slow, too indulgent in the limited allure of its dialed-down fantasy, and too redundant in its depictions of alleyway-oriented crime. The movie has an inventive slant on the common ¡°is he or isn¡¯t he crazy¡± concept. But there¡¯s little mystery regarding where the plot will go. Intense focus on side players restricts the time Joe Manganiello has to turn Max Fist into a truly scorching, conflicted antihero. Scenes such as a fight filmed in excruciating slow-motion further prolong the pace with spotty momentum drags that could have been mitigated in the editing room.
Although ¡°Archenemy¡± flocks its arrow with intentions to be on the cutting edge of indie cinema, it misses the center target of poignant personality dissection. The movie might have made a wetter splash had Mortimer kept the truth about Max vaguer instead of taking a predictable turn into graphic novel clich¨¦s. While its contemporary relevance can be questioned, ¡°Archenemy¡± at least has enough gas in its tank to be enjoyable, even if goofiness sometimes waters down grittiness.
Review Score: 65