Now that we’ve had a solid 10 years of big-budget mainstream superhero flicks, it’s about time the independent stories got their due. This year already has two larger-budget films — “Kick Ass” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” — both due out in the summer.
One that may fly under your radar is Peter Stebbings’ “Defendor.” Out in only a few theatres, the Hamilton, Ontario, shot and set film is one that superhero film fans should seek out.
The plot of the film revolves around Woody Harrelson’s character, Arthur Poppington, aka Defendor, trying to take down Hamilton’s crime boss, whom Poppington believes is his archenemy, Captain Industry. Poppington himself is a perpetual child, abandoned at a young age by his mother and clearly exhibiting mental issues. He only finds solace when he is Defendor, a makeshift hero who fights with marbles and jars full of wasps. Kat Dennings plays a prostitute, also named Kat, who bonds with Poppington over their fractured pasts.
The story of the film is in itself nothing special. It takes cues from multiple superheroes, most notably Batman, and lays down a typical path with an ending you will probably guess halfway through the film. At times, the story drags and gets too mired down in a plot about corrupt cops and drugs that is supposed to show you just how terrible Hamilton is. But that really doesn’t matter. Stebbing’s isn’t trying to re-write the book, but rather has crafted an appreciative interpretation of it. Even though you know Poppington really shouldn’t be fighting crime, you want to root for him. And when the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, you still really feel for all the characters involved.
The film’s real strength is Woody Harrelson’s performance. In the hands of any other actor, Arthur Poppington could have come across as too cutesy or maudlin. But Harrelson plays Poppinton with earnestness and a genuine understanding for how a person with a mental disability would act in this situation. Poppington says and does funny things, but they never come across as being played for laughs. Poppington really believes in everything he does and says. It’s a credit to Harrelson’s skill as an actor that he can so convincingly play the role of Poppington. His performance holds the rest of the film together.
Peter Stebbings’ “Defendor” isn’t going to re-define the superhero film genre. It isn’t hugely critical of the genre in the way “Watchmen” is, nor is it as a high energy send up as “Kick Ass” appears to be. But Defendor has a certain charm that reminds you of a time when you felt being a superhero was in the realm of possibility.
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