If you heard about a superhero film where the lead character went under the name Max Fist, and he had a sidekick called Hamster, you might be inclined to think it was a send-up, or a parody. However, you would be wise to put aside any such thoughts, as Archenemy is a gritty, intense thriller, which is both gripping and visually arresting, wearing all of its comic book-style vestments lightly throughout.
Hamster (Skylan Brooks) is a teen looking to make a better life for himself, by documenting the true life of his city, and using it to create social media content which will help bring people’s stories to a wider audience. He crosses paths with Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), a drunken vagrant who tries to convince anybody who will listen that he actually used to be a superhero – although he hates the word – but fell through a vortex from another dimension, and since arriving on our Earth, he has lost all of his powers.
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In another life, Max insists, he was protector of Chromium City, fighting against sworn archenemy Cleo Ventrik (Amy Seimetz), who devised The Void Machine, which she would use in order to destroy him. While fighting to stop her, Max claims that he took the device with him into a dimensional vortex in order to save the city, and ended up in our reality, with no way to get back home. So far, everyone has simply dismissed his story as the rantings of a lunatic, but Hamster is the first person to listen, and also try to help.
Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) is working to look after the two of them, acting as main breadwinner, in the absence of their father; this has resulted in her running errands for a local drug lord, The Manager (Glenn Howerton), and his mysterious, unseen boss. Max becomes increasingly tangled up in Hamster and Indigo’s lives, leading inexorably towards him becoming the siblings’ protector as things start to spiral out of control, and he has to define what it is to be a hero, despite being powerless.
Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been mostly a smörgåsbord of different tones and styles, it has yet to veer into earthier, darker territory, with their films chiefly being more family-friendly popcorn fare, and there is nothing at all wrong with that, as they do it very well. However, on the other side of the coin has been the ‘Snyderverse’, following director Zack Snyder’s awfully bleak, unremittingly joyless vision for DC Comics’ movies, although a ‘course correction’ of sorts has since started to happen.
It means there has been a lot of territory left to be explored by independent filmmakers, outside the tightly-controlled exploits of the franchised properties; for example, in David Yarovesky’s 2019 melding of superheroes and horror films in Brightburn, which took things into far more adult-oriented themes and subject matter. In Archenemy, filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer – who previously made 2020 horror Daniel Isn’t Real – has similarly looked to do something distinctive and different in a field which, whilst not at saturation point, is getting evermore crowded by the day.
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Where the main feature of superhero flicks tends to be folks in Lycra punching things hard repeatedly, it is easy to drift into the realms of the ludicrous when getting tangled up in the typical trappings which are part and parcel of the genre. Mortimer manages to split things up rather neatly here, by restricting all of Max’s heroic exploits to animated visions, brightly coloured with vivid neon pinks, purples and blues; by doing so, it means that these events are separated from our ‘reality’, and you can question whether or not these are flashbacks, instead of just delusional imaginings.
Manganiello is no stranger to these sorts of movies, having appeared as Flash Thompson in both Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3, and – albeit very briefly – turning up as Slade Wilson / Deathstroke in Justice League. Here, he manages to convincingly convey a broken, vulnerable man, who is not easy to like through all of his deep-rooted anger and bitterness, yet still manages to somehow make you root for him, in spite of all his flaws. His unlikely friendship with Hamster has some depth to it, with Manganiello and Brooks working well together.
The script, combined with Manganiello‘s portrayal and the use of comic book-style visuals for his tales of previous life as Chromium City’s self-proclaimed guardian, means that you are kept guessing for most of the picture as to what the reality of his situation actually is; even when things start to coalesce in the final act and move in a particular direction, it still manages to deliver a few unexpected twists. Whether or not you find the film’s resolution completely satisfying may hinge on whether you believe Max to be telling the truth, or just a deeply damaged individual.
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Taking a superhero and turning him into a drunk is a notion which has been attempted previously, both in the 2008 Will Smith vehicle Hancock, as well as 1983’s Australian musical comedy The Return Of Captain Invincible, with Alan Arkin. Both of those were played strictly for laughs, however, and you knew for certain both those characters were actually the real deal, having retained their powers. With Max Fist, there is genuine ambiguity, and a real seriousness to proceedings, which makes it feel significantly different, and breathes life into what could have simply been the latest outing of a tired old trope.
Mortimer has gone on record as saying both Archenemy and Daniel Isn’t Real occur in the same fictional universe, and he is planning his next movie to be the final part of what he has called his “Vortex Trilogy”; although both of the films work as standalones, the idea of combining them for a grand finale is an intriguing prospect indeed. Subverting genre cliches and expectations seems to be rapidly becoming Mortimer’s main hallmark, and he manages to deliver a diverting piece, which should appeal equally to both superhero fans and those who are wary of those men (and women) in tights.