Director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy adds an unexpected nuance to the notion of what superhero movies can be after numerous, formulaic takes. The gritty crime thriller packs a confusing punch that will leave many audiences in awe of its aesthetic, but confounded as to what just happened by the time the credits roll. Archenemy stars Joe Manganiello (True Blood, Magic Mike) as a rundown, homeless man who claims to be from another planet, and not just that, but its savior. The mysterious man, who is later revealed to be named Max Fist, is the centerpiece of Archenemy‘s story, and focuses on his new purpose on Earth after he meets two rather remarkable humans. However, the movie’s superhero-laden backbone is meant to support a deeper message. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy is a painful reminder of how society fails people, and bleeds colorful nuance and thematic messaging in every frame.
In Archenemy, an aspiring writer named Hamster (Skylan Brooks) is hoping to put some real, hard-hitting stories out into a nameless city that’s teeming with crime. His sister, Indigo (Zolee Griggs), is immersed in the crime world, trying to make a place for herself in the good graces of a syndicate leader called The Manager (Glenn Howerton). Indigo’s intentions are to do whatever it takes to ensure she and her brother have a roof over their heads, food on the table, and the means to survive. Yet Hamster is enamored by the prospects of making a difference in the city by bringing some of its shadows to light. In his search for an enthralling story, Hamster discovers Max Fist, a man who nobody believes would be a hero: he drinks too much, is spontaneously violent, has a brash persona, and tends to keep to himself (partially because other people avoid him). However, Max Fist has a story and, despite how unbelievable it may seem, Hamster decides it needs to be told.
Hamster sees in Max Fist not only opportunity, but the chance to step up to be someone that Max – who he wordlessly seems to think is in need – can confide in and tell his stories to without fear of judgment. For Max, his strange friendship with Hamster also seems to be steeped in opportunity. Before, he seemed to be bogged down by his fate, tethered to Earth and separated from his home planet and the life he once knew. There’s still a bitterness in him and lingering resentment that he hadn’t been able to save his people or stop his sworn enemy, Cleo (Amy Seimetz), from causing him to become trapped outside of their alternate dimension. However, Max seems to be open to the notion of someone wanting to listen to him and really listen. This dichotomy of Max’s personality and the relationship between him and Hamster is perhaps Archenemy‘s most exciting facet. For the longest time, Mortimer’s script teases a “is he or isn’t he” conundrum that volleys back and forth as the movie continues and clutches its cards firmly to its chest, ignoring the audience’s burning questions until it’s good and ready to answer them.
Max Fist is nowhere near a boilerplate hero. In fact, he’s the opposite – he’s more of an antihero, and seems to have a self-serving mentality despite being (supposedly) the chosen savior of his people. Archenemy posits questions regarding whether hero traditions are as well-meaning as they seem, and combines these sentiments with an ongoing discussion about mental illness and society’s forgotten citizens. Max is a stand-in for these individuals. His harsh demeanor, unpredictability, and the way others treat him with disdain douse his stories in doubt to anyone who may wish to listen, or disregard him entirely. This aspect of Archenemy is its most poignant because Max may not have been Earth’s savior, but if his story is real, nobody is willing to give him credit for the heroic actions he did, presumably, commit somewhere else. It holds an uncomfortable mirror up to the way American heroes are discarded and forgotten; the population of homeless veterans has increased significantly. People have short memories, and while Max’s don’t exist outside of his own head, they’re no less important to him, as they’re a reminder of his identity. This is a bold choice by Mortimer, who is known for weaving deeper meaning into his stories, such as with Daniel Isn’t Real and its underlying commentary on identity, self, and mental illness.
Aesthetically, the neon-soaked scenes of Max’s alien planet and intergalactic adventures are stunning. The stark juxtaposition between ethereal, almost dream-like sequences throughout the movie are punctuated with gritty crime and a seedy underbelly to great effect. Manganiello’s portrayal of Max Fist is the perfect hero for this story, one that’s steeped in tragic realism. Physically, the actor is a force to be reckoned with, which is a must for these types of characters. However, the fact that Max is lacking in traditional superhero everyman charm and charisma like a Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne is imperative to the movie’s success. Archenemy is a superhero story for a different generation, one who knows the cruelties of the world and still believe there’s good in it; this concept is reflected through Hamster and Indigo’s characters.
Archenemy does expose its weak spot by dwelling too long on the reality vs. fiction element of Max Fist’s story. While it’s fascinating at first, and Mortimer does well to assure there’s not too many clues that point in one direction or another, it leaves the narrative feeling murky and even nonsensical at times. This confusing turn can easily lose audiences who have been previously engaged up until that point, but the overall performances by the talent are strong enough to navigate these gaps in the more underdeveloped points of Archenemy‘s story. All in all, the movie is a solid watch for those who long for superhero tales to have more balanced realism and enjoy the thrill of social commentary in an unwaveringly dark, violent – and not even that fictional – world.
Archenemy releases on VOD/Digital and in theaters on December 11, 2020. It is Not Rated, and is 90 minutes long.
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