When I was a kid, anything with live-action superheroes gave me a huge thrill. Reruns of the 1966 Batman series and movie, the 1977 series The Amazing Spider-Man, 1978's Superman: The Movie, even the wretched 1979 Hanna-Barbera TV special Legends of the Superheroes. Nowadays, live-action superhero theatrics are a dime a dozen, so to speak—whether they're glutting multiplexes or running for years on The CW. And yet, in watching Jason Trost's indie flick All Superheroes Must Die (premiered under the title Vs), I'll confess that it stoked the embers of my inner child a bit to see actors dressed in low-rent retro-chic spandex and emoting oh-so-seriously about taking down a supervillain.
It's sort of a shame, then, that kids can't—or shouldn't—enjoy All Superheroes Must Die, which is unrated but, like Kick-Ass would clearly earn an "R" rating for its profanity and gore. While this approach brings its own graphic-novel frisson to superhero material (more on that anon), its dead-seriousness also invites an expectation this micro-budgeted thriller can't live up to. Had the movie been kid-friendly, playful or tongue-in-cheek, flaws of design and execution would no doubt be more easily excused, but as it is, Trost's film is liable to make viewers bemoan its inadequacies as often as they admire its ambition. Much as it might wannabe, this ain't Watchmen.
Writer-director Trost also stars, as Charge, the de facto leader of a superhero team hit hard by arch-nemesis Rickshaw (James Remar of Dexter). Using a seemingly unlimited supply of henchmen, Rickshaw has blindsided the heroes, injecting them with a serum robbing them of their superpowers (whew—those would have been expensive!) and laying a series of deathtraps for innocent civilians and, natch, the good guys themselves. It's a dangerous game, says Rickshaw: "I'm calling it 'Role Reversal'...you get to lose, and I get to win."
Faced with the greatest challenge of their careers and, indeed, their lives, Charge, speedster Cutthroat (Lucas Till of X-Men: First Class), invisible girl Shadow (Sophie Merkley), and rock-hard The Wall (Lee Valmassy) are forced to "hop to" for Rickshaw, who puts them on short-fuse doomsday clocks that create seemingly impossible odds. In their helplessness and frustration, the heroes find themselves at odds with each other, a problem Rickshaw gleefully exacerbates with twist after deadly twist.
Written in four days and shot in fifteen, this homegrown indie shows its seams (perhaps especially in a shockingly short credit scroll), but one has to admire Trost for cultivating his own opportunities. He has to work around an eye patch (which he does cleverly enough with judicious costume choices and camera angles), but when in hero mode, he has kind of a junior Jon Hamm thing going on. He also had the good sense to book Remar (in a role that mostly has him seated behind a desk, talking directly to camera) and another familiar character actor, Sean Whalen (Men in Black), as baddies.
Whalen's character Manpower, a demented Uncle Sam with a flamethrower, shows All Superheroes Must Die has a good sense of the modern comic book aesthetic, which aims to subvert old notions of innocent optimism. Here, testy, potty-mouthed heroes barely keep it together, and there's narrative cachet in the notion (already explored, with a comic edge, in Kick-Ass) that heroes naively expect they will always triumph over evil. Robbed of their powers, Trost's heroes are forced to live life as we know it, with dread of disappointment and fear of failure.
With a bit more conviction and intellectual gusto, Trost might have had something there. But All Superheroes Must Die feels rushed (for obvious reasons), tin-eared in its dialogue, dramatically undernourished (perfunctory flashbacks reveal a necessary minimum, but fail to breathe), and a bit repetitive, arriving at an impatient resolution that's breathtakingly unsatisfying and chased with a post-credits "easter egg" that promises (or, for most, threatens) a sequel. Die-hard fans of caped theatrics may, like me, take some guilty pleasure in All Superheroes Must Die, but even they will have to admit that, in cinematic terms, it's pretty weak sauce.
Image suits up All Superheroes Must Die on Blu-ray in a bare-bones edition entirely lacking in bonus features. A/V specs are solid, though. It seems likely that the disc maximizes the digital source material, with no apparent digital artifacts owed to the transfer. The only real flaw in the image is a bit of aliasing, occasionally spotted in the spandex (and, at one point, in some curtains), but these instances probably owe to the cheaply produced source. Black level and contrast are good, and the hues pleasingly rich. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack gets the job done in much the same way: adequate but, despite the subject matter, not up to the par of expensively produced Hollywood movies. Clarity is good, but there's not much in the way of immersion or potency of effects.
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