Archenemy Review

“The world is a really complicated place right now. America is a really complicated place right now. And I’m not a politician or an activist, but I do feel a responsibility to put positive, powerful, meaningful messages out into the world…you don’t have to be a superhero to do that.”

That was how filmmaker Julia Hart described the concept of her 2018 sci-fi thriller Fast Color, which now feels like a watershed moment. Starring a nearly all-female cast, it offered a unique twist on the everyman crime-fighter genre and demonstrated the potential of a story about a super-powered being.

Superhero movies, to be fair, have always carried undercurrents of political and social commentary – that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, a friendly, neighborhood hero who saves New York City from a violent threat came to fruition in the aftermath of 9/11 felt powerful in 2002 and still carries weight. However, over the past few years, portrayals of powerful loners and their ability to shake up the status quo have been fervently more prominent.

Extra points if the film in question is punk as fuck. For all its critical analysis, Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy works first as a spectacularly violent, gritty reimagining of a champion’s origin story. It’s a superhero movie, only the setting isn’t a brightly lit suburb in Glendale with plain white walls, or a vast alien kingdom upheld by a devout army.

The film takes place in dark alleyways and dimly lit dive bars and lewd motel rooms, where Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) waxes romantic over his glory days in exchange for a pint of beer. According to Max, he is a fallen hero from the planet Chromium, and he punched a hole through time and space while battling his nemesis Cleo (Amy Seimetz), which landed him in this plane, powerless and alone. To everyone on earth, he is a manic homeless man spinning falsehoods about crazy things like falling from the sky, jumping through alternate dimensions, and creating weapons to hurt the invulnerable. Things that couldn’t possibly exist. In the eyes of aspiring journalist Hamster (Skylan Brooks), these tall tales are the ticket to going viral and securing his 15 minutes of fame.

Hamster befriends Max, buying him booze and listening to his stories and reporting each entry like penny dreadfuls for the internet age. Whether or not Max is telling the truth is somewhat irrelevant, as long as the updates are “splash-worthy.” Across town, his sister is chasing questionable goals of her own. Indigo (Zolee Griggs) has fallen in line with the Manager (an unrecognizable Glenn Howerton), a local drug dealer who eagerly informs his young prodigy that she’s going places. When their latest financial endeavor goes south, Indigo is saddled with the blame, which is where Max steps in to lend a hand, and all of our stories exuberantly collide. Max enthusiastically announces his plans to free these kids once and for all, taking on the Manager and all of his minions, and beating them all to a bloody pulp on behalf of his new friends. But should they really be accepting the aid of a man who is quite possibly stricken with dangerous delusions of grandeur? 

Is there any truth at all to what Max claims? Director Mortimer takes his time revealing the answers, smartly keeping the focus on the relationship between these three characters and the harsh, bitter world in which they reside. It would have been easy to lean into the “Is-he, isn’t-he” debacle at hand, but instead, Mortimer dives deep into the haunted soulfulness of vigilante crime. Directed with passionate rebellious ferocity, this renegade spin on the typical comic book tropes gives Archenemy a razor sharp edge that packs a punch.

Max makes it clear from the moment he straps on that bullet-proof vest that he’s not taking any prisoners, and those foolish enough to challenge him lay dormant in the wake of his uncurled rage.  Like a rabid animal gone rampant, Max strikes down one opponent after another. Bloody carcasses adorn a discreet underground club. Gun fights illuminate a lackluster lobby with lighting flashes of fast-moving death. Crimson dyed dead presidents. Man made machines falling prey to the hand that feeds them. Missing money. Cracked skulls. Russian roulette. This flick packs several layers, let there be no mistake, but how nice it is to see an up-and-coming director place the same level of importance on romantic brutalism as they do on deciphering what it all means at the end of the day.

Still, the social elements are still very much present in this scenario. This is a movie that carries a message about how society has failed its people. Discourse on the exploitative nature of millennial journalism. A story that seeks to highlight the rising population of homeless veterans in America, and how quickly we dismiss those unhoused as lesser than human, rather than criticizing the debilitating capitalism which rewards the wealthy and punishes the working class.  This is a movie about a warrior for a new generation. A superhero feature for those who choose to keep their hearts open in Hell.

And in true Mortimer fashion, just as his previous entries have so brilliantly done, this is a film that explores mental illness, and how the public fails to understand or properly diagnose those who are afflicted. “You live this gritty life” Joseph D. Reitman’s Finn says to Indigo one evening, “This life of violence, it’s meant to deflect away from the agony of self. You know?” Despite the palpable peril of the moment, the movie still pauses to provide a fleeting second of empathy for a drug dealer’s henchman, because this is a storyteller who understands that nobody is born evil. People choose the best path that their lot in life allows, and they do the best they can to survive.

If Sam Shepard wrote a superhero movie about a drunk under a bridge muttering about when he used to be the guardian of an alternate dimension, it might look something like Mortimer’s incendiary Archenemy. Although the narrative gets a bit tangled at certain points, strong performances from Manganiello, Griggs, Brooks, and an all-too-brief scene stealing appearance from Seimetz bolster the film and keep the viewer engaged. Seeing well-known comedic actors Howerton and Paul Scheer get to play against type is a delightful turn as well, sprinkling special little bite-sized moments of devious joy into this brash tale of hardened revenge.

This wildly original film is about using whatever limited power you have to protect those you love, passing the torch to more marginalized voices, and finding your purpose play like a hat trick in a medicine show. Archenemy is entrancing, but one should go in knowing it is closer in tone to Raimi’s Darkman rather than anything from Marvel.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Kalyn Corrigan is a writer who regularly contributes to such sites as Birth.Movies.Death, Collider, Bloody Disgusting, Vulture, ComingSoon, and Playboy.