By CHRIS HALLOCK
Directed and Written by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Starring Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Amy Seimetz
Subversive re-imaginings of comic book superheroes aren’t exactly revolutionary these days, but are still a welcome antidote to the bombastic and superficial product churned out by mainstream Hollywood. Director and screenwriter Adam Egypt Mortimer’s love for the genre is apparent in his newest venture ARCHENEMY, a gritty cinematic vision of a fallen superhero adorned with splashes of neon, and drenched in bloody ultraviolence. Mortimer is no stranger to the form, having collaborated with prolific artist Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, The Boys) on Ballistic, their face-melting sci-fi pulp comic series. His provocative third feature is cut from the same cloth, inspired by the literary work of Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison, but bearing the imprint of its visionary director.
The story follows Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), a homeless alcoholic who claims to be a superhero from another dimension. Powerless on Earth, the destitute Max spins tales of his heroic past to whoever will buy his next drink. Wannabe content creator Hamster (Skylan Brooks) is eager to make a name for himself and believes documenting Max on social media is his ticket to fame. The two form an unlikely alliance, with Hamster recording Max’s inebriated exploits which are usually more destructive than heroic. Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister and guardian Indigo (Zolee Griggs) tangles with a crime lord called The Manager (Glenn Howerton) who oversees the vast crime syndicate from which she seeks to escape. Max sees an opportunity to redeem himself by rescuing the young siblings and vanquishing The Manager and his mysterious boss.
ARCHENEMY is small in scale but fueled by ambition, rich characterizations, and plenty of heart. It may lack the epic world-building of the Marvel Universe, but succeeds on its plentiful strengths, chiefly a strong visual identity and clever writing, both of which are bolstered by a strong cast. It’s set in a world that feels genuinely grimy and desperate, with Matt Hill’s (aka Umberto) pulsing score coursing through the crumbling arenas, piss-soaked back alleys, seedy motel rooms, and abandoned warehouses where its combatants are set loose. Mortimer doesn’t lean on spectacular explosions or hyperkinetic fight scenes to hold our interest, trusting that the story itself is compelling enough to keep the audience engaged. This strategy allows the film to breathe with dramatic life, rather than pummel us with an onslaught of impersonal action sequences. When he does let Max’s fists fly, it’s equally an emotional punch as a sensory one.
The film’s true power resides with an electrifying cast, who embrace their flawed characters and draw us into their struggles. Manganiello owns every ounce of his grizzled anti-hero Max, charging his persona with intense physicality, but grounded with enough vulnerable pathos to endear us to his challenges. “I used to punch holes in space-time,” he laments, shitfaced in a dive bar, and we want to believe it’s true. Skylan Brooks and Zolee Griggs sparkle as cunning inner-city kids trying to achieve a life outside of their crime-riddled environment, which is complicated in the sudden aftermath of Max’s vigilante violence. They each hold their own sharing the screen with their larger-than-life counterpart, and the three function exceptionally well as vessels through which Mortimer filters the film’s underlying themes of overcoming adversity, letting go of the past, and finding a purpose in life.
ARCHENEMY is also notable for several animated sequences interspersed throughout the narrative. These nearly static images resemble comic panels and are used to bridge Max’s alleged past to his hopeless present. This stylistic choice serves the story by keeping us connected to its comic book roots, and emphasizes the ambiguity surrounding Max’s abilities and true nature. Are these stylized images revealing the truth about Max’s past, or are we witnessing the delusions of a deranged mind locked in a fantasy world? While some may find these interludes distracting, others will find that this technique renders Max literally torn from the pages of his own comic book origins.
While ARCHENEMY doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s a swaggering, punk rock addition to the pantheon of provocative and hyper-violent superhero riffs alongside Super (2010), Kick-Ass (2010), Brightburn (2018), or streaming series, The Boys (2019). As evident in his prior work Some Kind of Hate (2015) and Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), Mortimer is clearly a champion of society’s neglected and mistreated, and uses his stories as platforms for damaged people to cope with trauma and reclaim their lives, even if that path is through alliances with deadly otherworldly beings. The film is a stunning leap forward for an artist who continues to dazzle with his versatile talents and encourages his audience to unleash their own inner hero.
Archenemy is now available in Theaters, On Demand and Digital from RLJE Films.