Defendor is a dark comedy about a real life superhero, Defendor, who roams around the city looking for his nemesis Captain Industry. Meanwhile, the police try to make sense of what is happening. In flash forwards we see the same guy at a psychiatrist. Clearly, underneath the mask is a troubled individual.
Woody Harrelson plays Defendor, a real life superhero. He has a black helmet with black eye shade and a “D” taped on his shirt. At night, he stalks industrial areas and hijacks crooked cops to question them about a so-called “Captain Industry”, his nemesis. It is quickly clear that Mr Defendor is a bit crazy in the head. A bit confused perhaps. But he takes his job has an underground superhero very seriously, although even he sometimes takes a break to have some pancakes at a diner, sitting there in his costume with his black eye shade.
Yep, there is definitely something wrong with Arthur Poppington. He thinks he is living inside a superhero comic book while the rest of the world is normal. He is quickly apprehended by the police and you see him struggling to fit these experiences inside his world of Defendor. At first, it is played for laughs. Exciting music pumps when he dons his uniform. But there is a second storyline interweaving with his superhero adventures, and that is of him talking with a psychiatrist.
The film gets darker as we go along and it makes you feel a bit sad. Arthur Poppington clearly has been through something traumatic and his superhero alter ego is a coping mechanism. Or maybe he has always been a bit mental and something made him flip. In any case, being Defendor helps him deal with something and his actions are all a bit pathetic. His superhero dialogue is bad and he can’t fight well. It makes you wonder about superheroes in general. Super (2010) also featured an alienated man who decided to become a superhero. In real life, mentally stable people don’t end up as vigilantes.
So yes, this film is part of a trend in Hollywood about real life superheroes, like Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010) and Chronicle (2012). It cruises in the wake of the Marvel movies. But if Kick-Ass is a real life Marvel movie, Defendor is a real-life DC Comics movie, in that it is darker in tone, and loves to dive into that emotionally heavier stuff. You also see this in Defendor’s black outfit. He is a creature of the night.
It is a black comedy too with quite some droll puns. It is simultaneously funny and sad. Woody Harrelson does a great job here. He is always good in whatever he does. He has this confusion on his face and vulnerability in his eyes while he tries to be a confident superhero for his own sake. What’s not so good are some of the side-characters, who are a bit shoved in like Defendor’s sidekick Katerina (Kat Dennings), and the acting and voice work wasn’t all that good. Some effects also look unrealistic.
Defendor is entertaining but you also feel its rather low budget and a naiveté behind the plot. The story starts growing in scale in the second half, involving the whole city and court. But while the film worked well on street level with the comedy and small tragedy, as it grows it starts to feel amateurish and stitched together, and it tries to make bigger points and reach some higher philosophical ground that it doesn’t quite reach.
Defendor tries to be a bigger movie than it eventually is. The characters are not solid enough and the story isn’t involving enough to stick in the mind. Especially in the second half, it is in danger of losing our attention. But it tries hard and is frequently funny and still worth seeing.