“What I’m doing is more important than who I am.”

The words of a man wearing a cloth skeleton mask over his face, a fedora, and a full length trench coat that hides every inch of skin. He is inhuman. Completely anonymous. And yet, his words ring true. His actions speak louder than what he’s wearing and who he defines himself as.

He’s a real-life superhero.

In a cinema world saturated by them, Michael Barnett chose to turn the cameras on those among us who don a cape and cowl in order to patrol the streets. The documentary Superheroes gets to the very heart of noble intentions, dangerous work, and a complex sense of humanity that comes from trying to be something beyond human.

On one level, this is a silly documentary about silly people. They are stuffing themselves into the tropes of the comic books they’re obsessed with and removing themselves from reality. Fortunately, there are more than a handful of levels to this story, a rewarding real-life exploration of why anyone would want to enforce the law from the outside.

Those levels can be summed up best perhaps by looking at three important figures: the constantly-drinking, larger-than-life Master Legend who patrols Orlando, a group of young supers that all live together in Brooklyn, and Mr. Xtreme who is security guard by day and masked avenger by night. The doc spends a bulk of its time on these real-life superheroes, and they each trade off different mantels: the fools, the saviors, the reckless, and the helpful.

Thus, once you think you know what’s going on inside the brain behind the mask (or even in the minds of the public that perceives it), you have to think again. Just as one hero postpones his nightly patrols for beers and flamboyant flirtation at bars, the realization that his non-profit organization donates a ton of toys to needy children at Christmas comes to light. Just when a group of bold young people on patrol seems the fiercest, they can also seem the most troublesome. In other words, when you peel back the latex, there’s more underneath.

To that end, Barnett and company have done their homework. They’ve talked to dozens of real-life superheroes, but they’ve also given an opportunity for a psychologist who specializes in the subject matter and a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department to weigh in on the phenomenon. What results is a kind of conversation between entities that aren’t in the room together – sometimes the superheroes get to defend themselves, sometimes they have enough rope to hang.

And really, that’s the multi-colored triumph of this film. Instead of plainly mocking or boldly deifying these unique people, Superheroes gives as rounded a look as there could be – focusing on the personal ups and downs, the noble and ignoble reasons, and the annoying and triumphant results of strapping on a costume (or uniform if you prefer) and trying to fight crime. Are the real-life superheroes grown up children who get in the way, or compassionate people who want (and do) make a difference?

This film is a Rorschach Test that only the viewer can decipher.

If there are any failings, it’s that the movie drags a bit at the end and that it doesn’t focus enough on female heroes. It has (maybe appropriately for a superhero movie) several points that it could end on, yet it keeps going, trying to give every hero a chance to say one or two poignant tag lines. As to the second issue, there are women in the movie, but all of the main heroes are men, and it would have been great to get a more vibrant insight into what it’s like for the ladies of the night patrol.

Silly, dangerous, and sweet, this documentary satisfies at a basic level with compelling people who can’t be easily pinned down (either psychologically or physically*).

Superheroes premieres tonight (8/8) on HBO at 9pm EST/PST.

*Although, yes, one of the superheroes demonstrates that he can definitely be pinned physically. And it does seem pretty easy. Sadly.


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