A low-budget superhero movie taking place on the streets of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Defendor is an oddball black comedy about a mentally ill man who dresses up and fights crime down on the streets. No, he’s not Batman; Batman has more money and is a fictional character, guys. The lead in this film is Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson). He dresses up as “Defendor” at night and beats up bad guys on the street … with varying success. His goal is to find and kill Captain Industry, because he is under the delusion that (1) Captain Industry is one person and (2) Captain Industry killed his mother when he was a child.
He actually begins the film in an interview environment, meaning most of the film is a flashback as he tells his story to a psychiatrist (Sandra Oh) who is trying to determine if he belongs in jail of back out on the streets. His tale isn’t a particularly long or interesting one, but it does do something different for the superhero genre. He meets some fun, if stereotypical, supporting characters — a crack-addicted prostitute named Angel (Kat Dennings); a corrupt undercover cop (Elias Koteas); and his only friend, Paul (Michael Kelly), among others — and gets a couple of action scenes.
What’s surprising about Defendor is how it portrays its hero. Arthur is a naive but good-hearted person who is suffering from severe mental problems. In order to escape from his life, which isn’t particularly great, he assumes this Defendor persona, retreating to a comic book world where he is the most important person and the only one making a difference.
I suppose that says something about the writer-director, Peter Stebbings, who must feel that we can’t fully buy the idea that someone completely sane would don a costume and fight crime. There’s a reason that real-life vigilantes like this are rarities. Most people know that it’s not going to work out. Going out to fight gangsters (who have guns) with a handful of marbles — literally, not just the common idiom about marbles and brain matter — and hockey pads isn’t a smart move most of the time.
Defendor doesn’t quite work as a superhero deconstruction. It tries but it plays more to the tropes than it really should in order to work in this light. Its heroism is a strong focus, and you’ll root for Arthur throughout even though we know that he’s probably digging himself into deep trouble. Arthur gets beat up more frequently than he does the same to others, and while his quest is noble, any sane person would realize that it’s not going to work out. Arthur, not being that sane person, keeps going.
That makes the film kind of sad, in a way. It takes a couple of darker turns later on, and it would be hard to call much of it “fun,” but it’s just depressing to watch Arthur, this kind but mentally ill person, go through the trials and tribulations that come from trying to fight crime. He’s manipulated by most people he encounters, he often fails at his goals, but he keeps going. This gives him a purpose and a reason to live. It’s awful but it also makes for a compelling story of determination.
Where Defendor goes wrong is when it comes to tone and pacing. Tonally, the film moves back and forth between mediocre drama and somewhat successful black comedy. “Mediocre” and “somewhat successful” aren’t the same thing as “bad,” but it’s true that neither means “good,” either. It doesn’t blend the elements and it doesn’t do a great job at using either of them. A couple of points are truly funny and one or two scenes work as strong drama, but the rest is relatively bland.
Defendor also feels far longer than its 100-minute running time would suggest. Watch it and jot down all of the important scenes and plot points, and then figure out how they managed to stretch out over 100 minutes. I’m not about to say that there’s a lot of filler, but it does feel as if the film moves a lot slower than it should. I think it might have been the gangster scenes that slowed it down. We’re focused on Arthur — he’s the only truly interesting character, after all — and the movie works best when we’re fixated on him.
This is helped by Woody Harrelson’s unhinged performance. He has to make both Arthur and Defendor separate characters with their own personalities, and he pulls it off. The shy, nice, kind of slow Arthur gets juxtaposed against the deep-voice, extremely confident Defendor, and Harrelson is great in both roles. Elias Koteas works as a slimeball of an undercover cop, Michael Kelly is a nice man who serves as Arthur’s guardian angel, and Kat Dennings is good as the hooker with a heart of gold.
I hesitate to call Defendor a good movie or one that’s a necessary watch. It’s too mediocre, tonally inconsistent, and feels overlong to truly recommend it. But its take on the superhero genre, and real-life superheroes in particular, is novel, and if you’re looking for something a little different from the superhero blockbuster, this one might fit the bill. It has moments of brilliance and some good performances, and while it does feel long it’s never truly dull. It’s a mixed bag, but if it sounds like it’s for you, I recommend seeing it.