Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer.
Written by Adam Egypt Mortimer, Luke Passmore.
Starring Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Glenn Howerton, Amy Seimetz, Paul Scheer, Mac Brandt, Kieran Gallagher, Joseph D. Reitman, Christopher Guyton
When I’m not watching horror movies, I’m reading comics. Now, I love a comic book movie as much as the next guy, but I also think that this break from the inundation from Marvel and DC has been a wonderful respite against oversaturation. I wasn’t sick of superhero films, but I felt that fatigue approaching. Now that it’s been a pandemic-fueled minute, I find myself eager to watch superhero flicks again and by taking a slightly different route, ARCHENEMY fits the bill quite nicely.
Joe Manganiello plays Max Fist, a homeless drunk who claims he was once a superhero from another dimension. Max is the kind of guy most people walk across the street to avoid, but Hamster (Skylan Brooks) is a storyteller in search for a story and sees one in Max. Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) aspires to rise in world of organized crime and is looked at as an up-and-coming prospect by the Manager (played by IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILLIDELPHIA’s Glenn Howerton). When a drug deal goes sideways, Max is forced to sober up and be the hero he always touts himself to be. But is Max really a superhero or just a sad and delusional man?
SPOILER for this review; I’m not going to reveal the answer to that question. You’ll just have to find out yourself. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer has delved into the supernatural with his previous film DANIEL ISN’T THERE, so he isn’t a stranger to the psychological side of genre cinema. Through ARCHENEMY, Mortimer blends elements from THE FISHER KING, UNBREAKABLE, and THE WRESTLER to deliver a raw and street level superhero tale that really doesn’t matter if the super heroics are all in Max’s head or not. What matters in this film is the evolution of a beaten man into something that matters and what he needs to achieve it. That’s the heart and soul of ARCHENEMY and you can feel it in every painful glimpse of Max’s life. Mortimer pulls no punches in showing how down and out Max really is, taking any kind of drug and alcohol simply to cope with the loss of his previous life. Max may very well be telling the truth, or at least what he believes to be the truth, with his ramblings about being able to punch through molecules, battling arch rivals, and being worshipped by the masses for his heroic deeds. But those days are long gone and the strongest bits of ARCHENEMY map out how far Max has fallen and the difficult climb to try to be something like the marvel he once was.
Joe Manganiello was born to play a superhero. I mean, look at the guy. He’s a monster of a man and while he might have been glimpsed as Deathstroke in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, he deserves to portray some kind of four-color hero ASAP. Manganiello proves it in ARCHENEMY as he delivers a soulful performance as Max. Manganiello is physically imposing and looks mean as hell, but on top of that, the guy can act. What makes ARCHENEMY so watchable are the quiet moments where Max recalls his past heroics and suffers from the inner turmoil of becoming the shell of a man he is now. Manganiello is a big budget action star in the making and this film proves it.
I also really liked the supporting cast Mortimer assembled for ARCHENEMY. Skylan Brooks is likable and relatable as Hamster, who feels like Max’s unofficial Jimmy Olsen. While it is difficult to tell a story from the perspective of the person viewing the action and not necessarily participating in it, Brooks overcomes this storytelling hurdle on sheer likability alone. The real surprise is Zolee Griggs as Indigo, Hamster’s sister. This girl can act and I expect to see a lot of her in the future. She really shines in the limited amount of scenes she’s in. Rounding out the cast is a particularly sinister role for Glenn Howerton. While his role in IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY is always somewhat heartless and cruel, he takes it to a super villain level here. Smaller performances by Paul Scheer as a whacked-out drug dealer and an against-type role of villainess by Amy Seimetz round out an incredibly talented and entertaining cast.
I loved the roto-scope animation that goes on in Max’s head when he thinks back to his high-flying days in the other dimension. The imagery is vivid and dynamic, lauding the comic book roots that secure the foundation of ARCHENEMY. Like UNBREAKABLE, this is a film for comic book fans who have read comics for years and know the wonderful language of image and text. I loved the simple designs of the fantastic city Max used to protect and the goofy design of his costume and all of the monstrosities of science he used to go toe to toe with. While a bigger budgeted film might have attempted to bring these sets in the here and now, ARCHENEMY adds to its gruff and gritty feel by resorting to rudimentary animation to fill in these gaps. This cartoonish representation adds to the charm of ARCHENEMY, but also reflects the unreliable aspects of Max’s wild tales.
ARCHENEMY isn’t without fault. I kind of wanted to see Max struggle a little more to try to right his ship and make the decision to be the hero again. It would have made for a longer runtime, but with this one coming in at a breezy hour and a half, I think there would have been room for a little more development in the shift of Max’s confidence. I also think that while there are some diabolically twisted moments with Scheer and Howerton, a lot of ARCHENEMY is humorless. I kind of wish this film would have gone for all or nothing. Either a stark look at a hero demolished and desperately trying to pick up the pieces or punch up the script with cleverer dialog playing with the concept of whether Max is super powered or not. As is, the humor is there, but it felt uneven and only in bits and pieces. I also think that the ending is fun but came off a little cheesy given the harsh tone of the rest of the movie.
Criticisms aside, this is a low fi, gutter-level Quixotic tale of redemption and hope, covered in alcohol, drugs, and vomit. It’s definitely no squeaky-clean Disney Marvel venture, delivering blood, gore, action, and suspense that hits harder than most big budget super hero flicks combined. If you’re a fan of comics and disillusioned by the polished way superhero films have been made recently, ARCHENEMY is going to be your personal hero.