Archenemy (2020) Review!!

Synopsis – Max Fist claims to be a hero from another dimension who fell through time and space to earth, where he has no powers. No one believes his stories except for a local teen named Hamster.

My Take – I think we all can agree that the superhero genre, over the past decade, has become the biggest draw box office for every studio. And credit for that largely goes to the Disney owned Marvel Studios, whose interconnected universe strategy built on large scales and led by charismatic actors, wrapped in slick marketing techniques, has turned them into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

A strategy which other studios have been trying to replicate over the past twelve years, with little or no success, though most of them do end up being commercially feasible.

However, with the competition gets stiffer year by year, the genre on the whole, to some extent, has also started to feel a little stale, hence calling for a complete deviate take from the usual superhero formula (a major factor behind the success of 2016’s Deadpool, 2017’s Logan, and 2019’s Joker).

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting takes on the genre can be found in smaller productions. With films like Midnight Special (2016) and Fast Color (2018), proving it’s possible for a film to combine grandiose superhero visions with serious, small-scale stories.

Taking a similarly innovative approach to the genre, writer-director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s 3rd film makes a virtue of its relatively low budget. For here all the spectacle is presented in affordable animated form, in part to acknowledge the comic book origins of the superhero, but also, through its contrast with the live action of the film’s more earthbound scenes, all in order to give the backstory of its hero, Max Fist, the status of otherworldly myth. Resulting in a stylish hybrid of a scuzzy crime thriller and super-heroics, with a gruff leathery Joe Manganiello as the face of its allegedly otherworldly guardian.

But after establishing an intriguing premise and promising start, director Mortimer only manages to undermine the film’s potential by muddled writing and thin characterization, which in the end makes it difficult to buy into the world that he was attempting to create. Sure, the film is constantly engaging and presents a unique message regarding perspective, yet, the film’s story isn’t fleshed out enough to leave an impact like its contemporaries.

It is abundantly clear that director Mortimer wants to create something as mind-bending as a great Grant Morrison comic, but all he’s come up with is a mediocre noir inspired crime thriller with some animated oddities thrown on top of it.

The story follows Hamster (Skylan Brooks), a youngster who wants to be an influencer and create viral videos for a hipster website called Trendible, but all he is missing is an interesting subject. Until he stumbles upon Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), a homeless alcoholic who claims he’s an intergalactic superhero, stranded on Earth after punching a hole in the universe and falling through a vortex, losing his powers along the way.

Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs), a low-level pusher who works for the flashy drug kingpin called The Manager (Glenn Howerton) finds herself in a bad position when a drug-related deal goes wrong, forcing her to enlist Hamster and Fist’s help, with the latter especially convinced his nemesis, Cleo Ventrix (Amy Seimetz), is behind everything.

Like director Mortimer’s most recent film, Daniel Isn’t Real, this film too is as visually-striking, and similarly carried by its central performance. Certain moments are gripping and suspenseful and director Mortimer keeps it engaging from start to finish, and the vibrant cinematography showcased is a great addition.

As a character, Max Fist is a great creation and seems to genuinely miss his far-off home and the person he could be there, without being melodramatic about it, and Manganiello gives the part all the requisite muscle and sincerity. However, the film keeps an ambiguity about him right till the end, by showing us what Max thinks of as his home dimension, in limited animation. This highlights the possibility that Max is fantasizing about a comic book explanation for personal trauma, a feat that’s not easy to pull off.

There’s also a jarring weight and immediacy to the action, although that comes more from Manganiello’s wild-eyed intensity than from the choppy pacing. A crystal-meth-fueled one-man-army assault on a drug den, Max in full body armor shooting and smashing his way through goons – might as well be an actual audition reel for his possibly now dead Deathstroke film.

But, only if, the execution wasn’t so poorly handled, things might have worked better. The biggest issue with this film is that it seems to be all over the place. With so much going on, it is hard to focus on which story is being told. It bounces around between story lines too much. Instead of focusing on the intense crime action thriller that the film sets out to be, director Mortimer bombards us cosmic-hero nonsense and textbook super-hero tropes, without instead the film could have hammered the screen with more comic panels and Max freak-outs about his scheming nemesis.

For all its flashy imagery, the film can only deliver a safe conclusion and sterile attempt at emotional pay-off. Making the uneven film too superficial to be no more than a one-time watchable somewhat trippy sci-fi film that was modestly presented.

Performance wise, Joe Manganiello is literally built for this kind of role i.e. oversized, rough around the edges but capable of embracing his character’s near-manic persona, and he plays it with absolute conviction. Supporting Manganiello in his role, both Skylan Brooks and Zolee Griggs add a level of believability and use it to empower their performance.

Glenn Howerton is lightly comedic and quite scary in about equal measure. Amy Seimetz’s late arrival kicks up the character dynamics a notch. She’s a tremendous actor that typically works in a more serious arena, so to see her chew even a tiny bit of scenery is a treat. On the whole, ‘Archenemy’ is a bizarre superhero film that despite a committed central performance, never commits to its clever premise.

Directed – Adam Egypt Mortimer

Starring – Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Joe Manganiello

Rated – NR

Run Time – 90 minutes

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