Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer’s sophomore feature Daniel Isn’t Real put him on the genre map in a big way, so fans have been eagerly awaiting his follow-up, the gritty superhero riff Archenemy. Unfortunately there is far less going on in this movie, so despite some stylistic flair, it’s not as fun as one would hope.
The film tells the story of a washed-up man who claims to be a superhero from another dimension who has lost his powers on Earth, finding an unlikely ally in a teenage boy going through an identity crisis of his own. The idea of a “reverse Superman” — a powerful being from another world trying to save us but stripped of his abilities to do so — is promising, but Mortimer barely does anything with it.
Many superhero movies seem to be centered around the same ideas and themes, so it’s only fitting that revisionist superhero flicks would do the same. However, when a film desperately wants to be edgy like this does, and it is simply repeating things that have already been said before, it loses that feeling of authenticity.
Mortimer’s main criticism of the superhero genre seems to be the way in which characters (especially Superman, which so obviously inspired the character) are so unrelatable. What Mortimer fails to realize is that it is not the powerful superhero who is his protagonist — it is the human teenager. And in trying to make the superhero more empathetic, the movie loses track of its emotional core.
The pacing of the film is also very frustrating. Much of the first half is spent world-building, creating the mythology of these characters and setting the rules. This is intriguing, but the third act fumbles any potential that it had early on, devolving into a disappointingly generic and by-the-book crime thriller.
Joe Manganiello’s performance as the once-mighty hero is strong and one of the main reasons that the movie manages to achieve some level of success. Manganiello has the charming but gruff quality that this character demands. Amy Seimetz makes for a great supervillain, although she is disappointingly mostly underused.
Mortimer also has a very strong visual style that he uses to play with the genre. Animated comic-like sequences cement this clearly as a dark take on the tendencies of the genre. However, it is Mortimer’s use of color and the cinematography that is most creative, particularly during the fight sequences, and allows the film to be memorable.
Archenemy has some interesting moments and shows a lot of potential, but for the most part, it never lifts off. Even if it isn’t Adam Egypt Mortimer’s strongest work, it shows that he is still a truly interesting filmmaker.
Archenemy hits theaters and VOD on December 11.