Peter Stebbings’ feature directing debut Defendor doesn’t actually feature any super powers, and the vigilantism is far from the visual spectacle comic-hero work we’re used to seeing. Shot in Canada on a small budget, the film has a small-scale design but more heart and underdog courage than any caped crusader you’ve ever seen onscreen before.
Woody Harrelson stars as Arthur Poppington, a lonely middle-aged man with several undiagnosed learning and behavioral disabilities, who fights crime under the moniker Defendor. With no billionaire trust fund to tap for resources, Arthur uses shoe polish to paint a black mask over his eyes, wears a big "D" made from duct tape across his chest and wears an old WWII helmet that belonged to his father.
The best part of the getup is, undoubtedly, his tendency to speak with the same gruff whispers that Christian Bale does as Batman. Arthur’s a tragic figure, still grieving the childhood loss of his mother, using his grandfather’s WWII relics as weapons (along with a fanny pack full of marbles) and sleeping in a utility shed. What first strikes the eye as a humorous portrayal quickly becomes a sense of heartfelt compassion, as the loneliness and simple-minded devotion to purpose Arthur emanates makes it impossible to laugh at his Home Alone-style crime-fighting tactics. Mostly.
What initially seems like a comedy quickly becomes a suspense-drama as very real danger is established in the fact that Arthur’s not all there, but the criminals are. He befriends a crack-addicted prostitute named Kat (Kat Dennings, not entirely convincingly), a moocher who claims to have information on how to find “Captain Industry,” the villainous mastermind Arthur’s been pursuing his entire life. She’s on the run from Officer Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas), a cracked-out corrupt cop with ties to the gang boss, and entertains Arthur’s super-villain fantasies enough to get some cash and a safe place to crash.
When Kat, not realizing his mental incapacity, sends him after a real-life gangster, the man responsible for running the drugs and women into the city, Arthur fully believes that he’s found Captain Industry. With Kat’s help, he infiltrates their operation, with disastrous results.
With the characters and premise established, the last third of the film takes a turn for the far more dramatic. Your heart breaks when the "Captain Industry" origin story is finally told, as does Kat’s as she realizes that she can’t convince Arthur that he’s not bulletproof before going up against a whole crew of guys packing serious heat. But he’s not defenseless, and just because he’s got afflictions doesn’t mean he’s retarded. He holds his own valiantly with a MacGuyver-esque assortment of homemade traps and weaponry, making desperate improvisation look like a funhouse of pain to the bad guys.
Not only is it great to see a superhero film made outside of the Marvel/DC Hollywood juggernaut, the humanity and tragedy in Arthur’s character, beautifully portrayed by Harrelson, raises the film to a higher level. Devoted entirely to the tics and minor mechanics of someone with serious untreated afflictions, his passion for the character effortlessly carries the film at times when the others’ performances run thin.
As a direct result, the flaws are easily forgivable and we’re left with a refreshingly realistic spin on the superhero genre.
Defendor opens Friday, February 26. Go see it.
CraveOnline’s Rating: 8 out of 10