Superhero movies have become so pervasive since the turn of the millennium that they’ve spurred a whole subgenre of films subverting their formulas — primarily low-budget efforts like “Special,” “Super” and “Defendor,” but also major-studio projects “Joker” and “Hancock.” All share an interest in peeling back the mask, exploring the antisocial, delusional-fantasy side of superpowers (and by extension, superfandom).
Adam Egypt Mortimer’s third feature “Archenemy” occupies similar terrain, resourcefully using modest means to create a gritty yet stylized comic-book world in which a supposed fallen superhero may really just be some homeless guy with mental issues. However, that colorful surface is more successfully drawn than the characters and complications meant to fill it, leaving this noirish, (mostly) live-action cartoon feeling less like a dissection of superhero origin stories than an underdeveloped prologue to one.
It has its own prologue, marking the first of several sharp animated sequences credited to Sunando, Kevin Finnegan and Danny Perez. The bluntly named Max Fist rasps narrated recall of his downfall, saving metropolis Chromium from destruction at the hands of his female archnemesis. But in the process, both were plunged into a vortex “between space and time.” He somehow landed on Earth, his line-drawn supermagnificence reduced to the disempowered flesh of Joe Manganiello, those “Magic Mike” muscles buried under shaggy hair and scavenged clothing. Now Max is a grousing, limping barfly offering his ridiculous supposed backstory to anyone who’ll buy him drinks.
Meanwhile, orphaned siblings Indigo (Zolee Griggs) and Hamster (Skylan Brooks) are trying to make it in the mean urban jungle. She’s hoping to better their lot via the unpleasant hustle of dealing drugs or whatever else is required by a smirking local crime boss known only as “The Manager” (Glen Howerton). Her younger brother has photojournalistic aspirations he hawks to clickbait website Trendible.
To everyone’s surprise, he does actually generate some traffic by chronicling the adventures of neighborhood weirdo Max, whose sometimes violent, usually drunken deeds are seldom heroic and considerably less than super. Nonetheless, he proves a valuable friend to have when the Manager’s goons discover that the money Indigo was sent to retrieve from drugged-out loon Krieg (Paul Scheer, making the most of his single scene) goes missing. Whether she and Hamster like it or not, Max declares war on their behalf against the bad guys. This eventually draws the attention of one Cleo Ventrix (Amy Seimetz), a mystery woman who may actually corroborate his claim that “I fell through a black hole to get here.”
Seimetz’s late arrival kicks up the character dynamics a notch. But despite game performances, Mortimer’s script doesn’t really give the actors a lot to chew on — beyond those supporting thugs encouraged to chew scenery. Manganiello certainly looks the fallen-superhero part, but allowed neither real depth on one hand or satirical intent on the other, he’s stuck playing a fairly uninteresting surly drunk who can occasionally, unreliably kick arse. Meant to be streetwise, Griggs and Brooks instead come off as unironically old-school ingenue types.
“Archenemy” aims for complexity by opening a door between worlds, but neither of them have any dimension. Ultimately there’s too little contrast or commentary between the “super” plane and an earthly one that itself feels artificially composed of genre tropes. While this film ends with a sequel-ready new beginning, it hasn’t accrued enough narrative or thematic heft to sign off yet; we’re still waiting for some missing depth or point that never arrives. The director’s prior features, “Some Kind of Hate” and “Daniel Isn’t Real,” both similarly tinkered with different genre conventions to more satisfactory sum effect.
All the same, viewers whose celluloid diet consists largely of the far more expensive franchises Mortimer echoes here will likely find “Archenemy” different and entertaining enough as a small-scale homage — particularly in a year when forces stronger than kryptonite have kept superheroes off the big screen. The packaging that one would imagine the biggest hurdle in such a venture is actually its strongest suit. Halyna Hutchins’ cinematography and Ariel Vida’s production design provide the right Gotham-esque mix of lurid color and grunge. The original score by Umberto (aka Matt Hill) hits an apt retro-futurist tenor, while two editors keep things moving briskly even when you wish there were a little more to this story than meets the eye.