With superheroes the designated principal movie protagonists of our era, it’s inevitable that variations should move beyond simply making the formula “darker,” spoofing it, or other safely superficial makeovers. Duane Andersen’s “Superpowerless” isn’t even the first film to weigh in on the inherently unspectacular notion of “super” midlife crisis, though it’s a far cry from the epic fantasy sprawl of “Watchmen” or the even more meta commentary in the margins of “Birdman.” Instead, this effects-free indie seriocomedy focuses on an ex-crimefighter who’s lost his “powers” — and his general mojo — at that classic fortysomething juncture where some men experience panic or depression over the roads not taken.
This erstwhile “Captain Truth” can no longer fly, literally or otherwise. His movie, too, remains a little too stolidly earthbound — just a bit of fantasy liftoff would have been appreciated in a story that finally lands in a predictable place after going nowhere very surprising, especially given the offbeat premise. Still, “Superpowerless” sports enough low-key charm in performance and situation to appeal as a change of pace for more adventurous genre fans. At heart, it’s really a drama about a man going quietly middle-age crazy, but the audience which might relate most closely to that situation are likely to be less attracted by the comic-book conceit.
Bob (Josiah Polhemus) is a mild-mannered San Franciscan who now barely attracts a stray glance on the street. But he used to be a very big deal in his long run as Captain Truth, crusader against crime and corruption. At age 42, however, his super-abilities went into inexplicable hibernation, and along with them his motivation. On the plus side, around the same time three years ago he also re-encountered childhood sweetheart Mimi (Amy Prosser), and they settled into affectionate cohabitation. Domestic stability aside, however, Bob is rudderless: He spends his days drinking and wandering around incognito, confiding his insecurities to sage homeless guy George (Pepe Serna), who advises that he join an AA group — though Bob retains enough super-ego to resist admitting his powerlessness over anything, including alcohol.
Meanwhile, past glories are annoyingly hard to forget when Captain Truth’s erstwhile sidekick Sam aka Liberty Boy (a brightly funny H.P. Mendoza, of “Colma: The Musical”) has just published a book about their dynamic-duo adventures. Reluctantly bowing to the suggestion that perhaps he, too, should write a memoir, Bob realizes he needs an editor to organize his reminiscences in print. He finds Danniell (Natalie Lander), a pretty, ambitious recent college grad who thinks this project might prove her entree into the publishing industry.
As Bob gets a little too distracted by her flattering (and flirtatious) attentions, he neglects Mimi, just as she’s dealing with her own mid-life worries about career advancement at her nondescript office job, childlessness, and their fond but static relationship. For her, the road not taken is exemplified by old art-school friend Marie (Guinevere Turner), who works for a prestigious gallery—even though that seemingly fulfilling job has its own limitations.
Shaggily ingratiating, “Superpowerless” trades in humor of a droll rather than laugh-out-loud nature, with pleasing performances and pleasant use of Bay Area locations. Andersen and Dominic Mah’s screenplay could have used at least a couple higher-energy peaks of incident and imagination, however—the super-heroic angle is ultimately made so little of that it never transcends simple narrative gimmickry. A few small narrative tangents (like Bob’s learning how to make birdhouses in Berkeley) are so poorly developed they seem irrelevant.
Directing his first feature (he’s produced several Bay Area indies over the last decade), Andersen nonetheless sustains an offbeat, warm-centered appeal that’s tonally most reminiscent of early 1970s studio character whimsies like “Slither” and “Harold and Maude,” rather than subsequent, more cynical Amerindie comedies. Accomplished within its modest scale on all assembly levels, “Superpowerless” may not soar, but it does have a sociable vibe that could hardly be more genuine: Andersen and star Polhemus have been pals since first grade, while Prosser was a mutual junior high crush object who re-met and married the actor a couple years ago. While some cinematic friends-and-family projects can seem indulgent, or worse, this one’s offscreen collegiality suffuses its slight but insinuating onscreen content.