The superhero genre is an obvious and easy target for a spoof. When an even semi-realistic view is taken of a nocturnal, mask-wearing hero, the absurdities pile up faster than guano in the Bat Cave. But what Peter Stebbings does with “Defendor” is to hint at a send-up and then shift the focus to the sad life of a mentally-challenged individual. While it is at turns both funny and touching, it is also more than a little disconcerting that we gradually realize that we have been laughing at a very disturbed, unhappy man.
Woody Harrelson is Arthur Poppington, a.k.a Defendor, whose goal is to take down “Captain Industry”, who killed his mother. Poppington the man is a homeless loser whose job is to hold up traffic signs on a construction site. As Defendor the superhero, he is confident, devious and armed with marbles and lime juice. One cannot help but laugh at the first few encounters of Defendor in action. He tosses his marbles into the faces of his enemies, falls miserably into a garbage compactor devoid of trash bags (“Garbage day! I hate garbage day! I’ve got to keep track of garbage day,”) and his long-range weaponry consists of a glass jar of wasps which he tosses at the feet of a gang of thugs. He is not super. But is he still a hero?
During his adventures, a prostitute named Angel (played predictably but passably well by Kat Dennings) latches on to him. He stands up for her when a dirty cop is treating her roughly. She stays with him and gives him “information” (at forty bucks a day, an unlikely sum to entice a working girl) and stays with him in his secret hideout. At first, she uses him simply because he is gullible, has a bit of cash, and treats her nicely. Of course, like so many other (movie) whores, she is actually a talented, good person, just waiting for the right person to come along and point in her in the right direction. Despite her chronic crack smoking (which she falsely “quits” by simply tossing the pipe to the ground when she realizes Arthur needs her), she comes around to seeing Arthur for what he truly is, a man in need of (and worthy of) help.
The story consists of three main lines, moving from Defendor to Arthur during a psychological examination to following the dirty activities of the corrupt cop Chuck Dooney (played by Elias Koteas, who is one of those actors who probably looks gruff and dishonest when he rolls out of bed in the morning). By chance and then by intent, Defendor and Dooney keep crossing paths, much to the frustration of Dooney. Unfortunately, like the kind-hearted prostitute character, the corrupt cop sideline is dull and ordinary, which is too bad because the concept of the Defendor character glows (if not sparkles) with originality. The examination scenes are sharp in their deliberate pacing and unoffensive swathes of exposition.
The bright spot of the film is Woody Harrelson’s performance. While Nicholas Cage has the corner on the Crazy Guy market, Harrelson might just own the Looney Idiot. His charismatic smile is a chameleon, though its effects are powerful whatever the intent. When he smiles in films like “Natural Born Killers” or “No Country For Old Men”, your hackles rise as if confronted with a rattle snake. But in a role where he is supposed to be a good guy (which most of us saw for the first time in Woody Boyd, his character in “Cheers”), his smile brims with innocence and sympathy.
As nutty as it is, the concept of Defendor feels unforced when Harrelson is able to reveal to us the deeper pain which triggers his actions. He is not simply an overgrown child who has read too many comic books (though that is a big part of it). There is an anger and sadness carved deep inside him, scars left by his drug-addict mother and verbally abusive grandfather. His inferior intellect cannot cope with these feelings, and it manifests in the only way he can handle it: by hiding it behind a mask and an alter ego.
As the story comes to an end, a new question arises: Is there a fine line between being a hero and being a fool? Defendor in particular has plenty of foolish traits: he believes that he is bulletproof and that there is an arch criminal named Captain Industry. Yet his actions can easily be defined as heroic. He fights crime. He saves the girl. He never gives up, even in the face of defeat.
What rings a bit false is the societal praise in the newspapers, radio shows and graffiti art for Defendor as a hero. The concept that we might “need more like him” is a horrifying one. His successes are driven by a mania, fueled by a disassociation with reality. That he happened to help the police take down a drug lord is beside the point; banking on a repeat performance is wishful thinking at best, but more likely dangerous. Arthur Poppington’s heart is in the right place, but the next looney-tune hero might not be so innocent.