Some superhero stories not in DC or Marvel continuity use their outsider perspective to comment on the genre in oblique or interesting ways.
The Boys is a bleak satire of superheroes as fascist, misogynist corporate schlock. Encanto asks what it means when we only value or love those with power. Bollywood’s Bhavesh Joshi Superhero is less about cosmic battles or supervillains than about the super faith in democracy. They don’t have to hit the usual superhero beats, and so they take some steps in different directions.
And then there are independent superhero films like Julius Avery’s predictable, reactionary, joyless Samaritan.
Yep, Seen That Before
Samaritan starts with a familiar exposition backstory dump. Some years ago there were two super-brothers whose powers scared the normies. Their parents were killed, leading one (that’s Samaritan) to devote his life to fighting justice while the other (Nemesis) sought revenge by being evil and setting fires and stuff. They had a last climactic battle and then they both disappeared.
Some years later a familiar spunky scrappy 13-year-old named Sam (Javon Walton) is convinced Samaritan still lives somewhere nearby in his rundown neighborhood in Granite City.
Eventually, his attention focuses on Joe Smith. Smith is played by Sylvester Stallone as a crusty shuffling oldster who pushes you away, but then turns out to have a heart of gold. The two of them banter because old guys bantering with kids and teaching them to fight is cute, in theory.
Also, obviously, he’s Sylvester Stallone, so he’s the hero. So yeah, he’s got superpowers.
Sam’s a good kid, but (as you probably guessed) he sometimes gets into trouble thanks to his devilish curiosity and his need for money to help his mom (Dascha Polanco). Soon he’s stumbled into the more or less incoherent plots of the wild-eyed, wannabe-Joker analog Cyrus (Pilou Asbaek) and his would-be Harley Quinn analog girlfriend (Natasche Karam).
The heavies try to come for Joe/Stallone, which turns out poorly for them. Sam gets in too deep. There are threats. Joe doesn’t want to fight. But then he has to fight because that’s what superheroes do. Lots of stunt people fly through walls as Joe mutters grim quips. “Have a blast!” Ha ha.
There’s also one big twist reveal which I guess I shouldn’t spoil, though it’s hard to see how any of this is spoilable. In any case, the twist is meant to make you question who is good and who is bad. But it does not. And probably you’ll figure it out 75 minutes before the 95 minute movie coughs it up.
Some of you have already figured it out. If you think you have? You have.
Bland Reactionary Mush
The numbing thud of tropes falling like bags of putrifying bratwurst on the way to the conclusion is reason enough to avoid this movie. But then there’s the politics.
Cyrus, the villain, spouts vaguely populist, leftist rhetoric. He claims that Samaritan is just a cop, and that Nemesis fought for poor people and “punched up” rather than down.
You might initially think that the film is trying to critique simplistic superhero justice. Perhaps it is suggesting that the bad guys have legitimate grievances, a la Black Panther.
But it isn’t doing anything like that. Cyrus is transparently full of crap; he doesn’t care about justice even as much as Killmonger. He’s just a megalomaniac sadist who loves chaos. He urges poor people to riot because he likes riots
More, those rioters are themselves either dupes or violent thugs. Most street protest is sparked in the real world by police violence. Anger over specific injustice sparks resistance.
But the police aren’t even on the scene when Cyrus stages his insurrection. He just sets off an explosion and starts chanting “Nemesis! Nemesis!” and everybody decides to start looting. It’s a right-wing fantasy of left protest in which marginalized people are violent, greedy, easily led rabble, who destroy stuff without reason, just because.
The concluding scenes of the film are a very violent special effects montage in which Stallone bashes and shoots and flat out murders his way through a bunch of young poor gang members, many of whom aren’t white. It strongly recalls the conclusion of the last Stallone movie I saw, the somehow even worse Last Blood, in which Stallone bashes, shoots, and murders his way through the members of a Mexican gang.
One movie dead-ending in an orgy of law-and-order carnage out of a Bernard Goetz fever dream could be an accident. Two starts to look like carelessness. For whatever reason, Stallone at this late stage of his career really likes scripts where he gets to play a crotchety aging vigilante killing foreigners or members of the urban underclass.
There’s an obligatory scene in which Joe tells Sam that everyone is capable of good and evil. But this movie is not in any way interested in nuance. It’s an empowerment fantasy for those who want Stallone to come back and make cities great again. And it’s a superhero story for people who think Marvel and DC are too subtle. And that they’re not formulaic enough.
Rating: 2/10 SPECS
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.