“Superheroes” (9 p.m. Monday on HBO) – There’s a sincerity I wasn’t expecting behind all the real-life superheroes whose stories are chronicled in the new documentary “Superheroes,” which will be debuting Monday on HBO.
Yes, superheroes are real, and they’re patrolling cities around the world to help folks the police seemingly ignore — or just to give the police a helping hand. They don’t have superpowers, of course, but they do have a drive to make their cities a better place to live.
Michael Barnett’s documentary follows a handful of them across the country, including Z and T.S.A.F., two former Detroiters who are part of the New York Initiative in Brooklyn.
The heroes interviewed have day jobs ranging from security guard, to teacher to tattoo artist. Some have extensive martial arts training, one is just his last class away from full EMT certification, and others just hide pepper spray and stun guns in their costumes.
“Having superpowers does not make you a superhero,” says Mr. Xtreme of San Diego, Calif. “I think it’s having super motivation and super deeds.”
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss these folks as nutjobs. After all, Mr. Xtreme gives up his apartment to live in his van (to save his money for equipment), and Master Legend likes his beer a bit too much. And to another extreme, Dark Guardian takes on drug dealers directly at parks in New York.
But the documentary does a great job of showing the real good they’re doing. On his rounds, Master Legend passes out food to the homeless, and his Team Justice is a registered nonprofit that does a big Christmas toy drive. On camera, Dark Guardian gets one drug dealer to take off. And the New York Initiative’s Zimmer, the one studying to be an EMT, is able to help a man in a minor hit-and-run accident and later convinces a drunk driver to hand over his keys and sleep it off in his truck.
“Taking the risks I do,it’s about making a difference,” Dark Guardian says. “The costume is a symbol of somebody who’s going to stand up and make a difference.”
They may be small things, but they can mean a lot to the people they affect.
Like many comic book heroes, some of these real-life superheroes have traumatic pasts. If you take their stories at face value, some came from abusive homes or were the victims of violent crimes. Some were criminals themselves and had a moment of epiphany.
“I’ve hurt enough people where I feel like I need to give back,” says the New York Initiative’s Lucid, who admits to selling drugs in the past.
And it seems the biggest villain they’re out there to fight is apathy, using their costumes to bring awareness to the plights of those they help. Zimmer and Mr. Xtreme, on opposite coasts, both mention finding inspiration in the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered in New York in 1964. Newspapers at the time reported many people saw or heard at least something, if not the attack itself, but never acted.
Barnett doesn’t just talk to the heroes. He also brings in some experts.
Even comics legend Stan Lee has a few things to say about the phenomenon. But the ones with the most weight are San Diego police officer Lt. Andra Brown and psychologist and author Robin S. Rosenberg. Brown talks about the heroes’ lack of training and how much trouble they could get themselves into. She loses me a bit, though, when she calls the practice of bait patrolling (putting yourself out as an enticing victim with the rest of the team on standby) potentially illegal “entrapment” when it sounds exactly like the sting operations police routinely carry out.
Rosenberg sees the positive side, calling it a gift that can turn trauma into motivation to do good.
If there’s one thing the documentary is missing, it’s information on how people can get involved. The press materials that accompanied my preview DVD mention a vast online network of real-life superheroes, but it’s not mentioned onscreen at all.
It looks like there are a few main websites where real-life superheroes gather online. Check out the Real Life Super Hero Project, www.reallifesuperheroes.org and www.worldsuperheroregistry.com. Michigan heroes mentioned include Foxfire and Captain Jackson.
“I think of late we’ve been losing our heroes,” says Life, who also helps the homeless in New York.
It’s great that some people are stepping up to fill the gap.
Just stay safe.