Directed By: Peter Stebbings
Produced By: Nicholas Tabarrok
Written By: Peter Stebbings
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Michael Kelly, Sandra Oh, Kat Dennings
Original Release: 2009
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)
What Is It? This 2009 indie superhero film starred Woody Harrelson as Arthur Poppington, a person with no superpowers but who dons a costume and gear as Defendor (misspelling intentional and explained in the film) to take on the criminals who seem to run unchecked in his city. He has a particular vendetta against a “super villain” known as Captain Industry and he befriends a young prostitute/junkie who he believes will prove crucial to tracking down his nemesis. And while there’s plenty more to the movie, that bare-bones description provides a sufficient enough setup because this one is best viewed spoiler-free to experience its full impact.
Why It Stands Out: This movie flew very much under the radar when it first came out, but it’s a must-see for superhero fans as it turns that genre on its head (while playing off many of the expected clichés) and delivers a powerful, moving piece of cinema and that could be called one of the best superhero films ever.
Many reading the brief synopsis above will immediately think of 2010’s Kick-Ass (or 2008’s Special or 2010’s Super). And Defendor does share some similarities to Kick-Ass (and the other films), but it takes a very different approach to the same sort of concept and delivers a far superior film. Both Defendor and Kick-Ass have normal people putting on a superhero disguise and trying to act like the comic book characters that inspired them. But the latter film takes this idea to the extreme if not the absurd whereas the former remains grounded in reality. In fact, Defendor really counts more as a drama than anything else. Very little that happens in the movie is not plausible, and it has almost nothing in the way of science fiction and/or fantasy elements, whereas Kick-Ass infused its story with many genre elements. But Defendor still roots its premise heavily in the superhero tale and should be embraced warmly by genre fans. Kick-Ass also verged on torture-porn at times, though intentionally as it winked to its audience and brought to life elements only implied in its comic book source material. Defendor does not take this angle (though it has plenty of violence), as it delivers more in the way of a dramatic character study. It also has a gut wrenching quality about it, which is present in Kick-Ass as well, but that film actually makes you feel creepy at times, almost like you need to go take a shower after watching it. Defendor has moments that make you cringe and/or feel uncomfortable, but ultimately these help bring out the true pathos in the film’s hero.
And you can’t accuse writer/director Peter Stebbings of stealing the basic premise from the Mark Millar comic book series. Stebbings wrote the screenplay in 2005, three years before the comic hit the stands, and he filmed the movie in 2009 (though it did not get its theatrical release beyond its Toronto International Film Festival premiere until February 19, 2010), one month before Kick-Ass hit the big screen. Stebbings is probably better known to genre fans as an actor (more on that below), but with Defendor he demonstrates the full extent of his talent. He shows himself to be an exceptional filmmaker, handling a grand story on an intimate scale while expertly working in such nuances as the misspelling of the title character’s name and the Captain Industry reference (watch the film to understand).
It’s not like we haven’t seen the idea of normal people dressing up as superheroes played out in comics, on television, and in the cinema before. But Stebbings manages to give the concept a fresh spin and ultimately uses it to deliver an engrossing and moving film. It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that he works in many of the expected standards from the darker, grittier comics that this film draws its influence from. Defendor gives us the troubled, driven central character with a motivation from his past to strike out against crime. Of course, the city is riddled with the criminal element and the people feel helpless and insecure. Then we have the corrupt cop on the take and the jaded hooker with a good side she tries to suppress. And all of this could have led to a stale, hackneyed film or a contrived and muddled affair or could have easily descended into camp. But Stebbings meshes all of these elements together without giving in to cliché and makes the familiar seem like a whole new experience. Reworking old ideas is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when you regurgitate what has come before that you deliver an ersatz product, and Stebbings avoids the latter here. And with this relatively simple, grounded story that he put together on very little money (about $3.5 million) and used little in the way of special effects, he succeeds in delivering that grand tale that genre productions often strive for yet all to often fall short of. That’s story-telling and that’s film craft and that’s what makes this a film fans should seek out.
And of course I would be remiss if I did not mention the outstanding performance delivered by Woody Harrelson. Woody is one of my all-time favorite actors and one of Hollywood’s best character performers. Unfortunately, he has rarely received the material equal to his talent, even though he manages to make shine almost any script that he receives. But with Defendor, Harrelson finally gets his Magnus Opus, even if it has not been recognized as such. He delivers a career performance and expertly interprets the nuances of the script. From the one-liners that aren’t as witty as you expect (there’s a reason for that, and don’t worry because he does get some zingers in there), to his less than heroic run-ins with bad guys, to the moments when he reveals the inner turmoils that haunt Arthur Poppington, Harrelson is at the top of his game from start to finish. And he gets a pretty impressive supporting cast that includes Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), Elias Koteas (The Prophecy, Fallen), Michael Kelly (The Sopranos, Fringe), and Kat Dennings (various supporting roles), each of whom fully immerse themselves into their roles and help elevate this movie to that next level.
Defendor unfortunately suffered from little to no marketing, and what did exist misrepresented the film. The movie is played up as a comedy in its promos, and it does have its humorous elements (a few times it had me rolling on the floor laughing), but it’s really a drama through and through. And that unfortunately seemed to hamper it in more ways than one. The movie industry, which prefers an easily labeled product, couldn’t readily peg down this drama with genre trappings and that ultimately resulted in it falling through the cracks. It got little attention upon its release, and no recognition from the Academy which was yet another injustice served upon it. The Academy Awards often shy away from genre films in the non-technical categories anyway, but this indie film definitely deserved at least nominations for Harrelson’s acting as well as Stebbings’ writing and directing. Unfortunately it received no attention from the organization that supposedly recognizes the best examples of film-making.
If you missed out on this one, which is quite likely, you need to check it out and soon. And spread the word. I consider this one of the best ever superhero movies even though you could make an argument that it’s not a superhero movie at all. In any case, it’s a must-see for all genre fans.
Interesting Facts: Genre fans may know writer/director Peter Stebbings for his guest appearances on genre shows like The X-Files, The Outer Limits (the 90’s remake), and Stargate SG-1. He also played Markus Alexander across the two seasons of J. Michael Straczynski’s excellent but underrated post-apocalyptic series Jeremiah.
According to IMDb.com, Ellen Page (Kitty Pride/Shadowcat from X-Men: Last Stand) was considered for a part in Defendor (most likely the role played by Kat Dennings). Page would later go on to play the side-kick to the main character in the similarly-themed Super which hit theaters in 2011.
Stebbings could not sell the script to any of the bigger Hollywood studios claiming that they "didn't want to touch it, but all the actors and their agents wanted to." It's probably best that he went the indie route, though, as he had much more control of the production that way.
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