In the world of comic books (and, now, comic book movies), it’s well understood that if you’re not inclined toward evil and have some type of super power or unique ability, be it from a radioactive spider bite, the yellow sun our plant swings around, adamantium grafted onto bone claws, etc., you’re likely to don a costume and become a superhero. Great power, great responsibility, yadda yadda yadda. But when you have no discernible powers or abilities and go a-superheroing, well, you’re a special kind of crazy, aren’t you? Not ha-ha crazy, but chemically imbalanced crazy. I mean, Bruce Wayne is extremely wealthy, at the height of human physicality, and wicked smart, but he’s also a bit loco, right? (I don’t even need to ask whether you think Frank Castle or Walter Kovacs are batshit.)
So, too, is Arthur Poppington a bit loco. Poppington is slow, yes; retarded, maybe; full retard; no — he’s somewhere between a kettle boiling over and one wave short of a shipwreck. Poppington (Woody Harrelson) is able to hold down a day job as a construction site sign holder but, at night, he dons the guise of Defendor (that’s Defendor, not Defender), taking to the streets in an ongoing quest to find and vanquish the evil mastermind known as Captain Industry. Who is, of course, little more than a figment of Poppington’s slightly broken psyche. However, when Defendor ends up in an accidental roommate situation with Angel (Kat Dennings), a drug addicted hooker, his figment villain is given a name, and Defendor’s heroism is given a more directed sense of purpose.
Poppington has no superhero-type abilities — Defendor is not particularly strong, he clearly is not particularly smart, he can’t run faster than you or I (well, maybe faster than me), etc. Instead, Poppington takes a low-rent Bruce Wayne approach to fighting crime and, surprisingly, he is relatively successful. Poppington isn’t the smarted hammer in the drawer, but he actually is a bit cleverer than you’d suspect, and he is able to use home-grown solutions to achieve relatively successful results (having a WWI trench club to beat the shit out of criminals helps, too).
While the film tracks Defendor’s attempts to find, spy on, and eventually take down Captain Industry, it also focuses on Poppington’s non-heroic situation, through his dialogue with a state psychologist, his interaction and budding relationship with Angel, and the curious relationship he has developed with a coworker’s family. The film jumps back and forth between these two aspects, the satirical film about a “realistic” super hero and the more grounded psychological drama about a somewhat slow man. While the jumps are not awkward or particularly schizophrenic, it does leave the film feeling a little uneven. That unevenness is enhanced by the fact that, while Defendor is also clever at times, and has a few genuinely hilarious moments, it also has a bit more cheese than one would like. To be fair, some of the dialogue is intentionally cheesy, particularly Defendor lines like “trouble has a way of following me,” said in a Bale-lite growl. But when the film tries to hit its emotional core, it sometimes gets cheesy in a way that is clearly not intentional. For example, when I found out why Poppington’s coworker and his family cared so much for Poppington, I may have thrown up just a little in my mouth, so overwhelmed by the fondue cliche. Similarly, the movie’s end is a bit wrought and overly melodramatic, as if to say “hey — look at me, I’m an indie flick!”
That being said, the film’s flaws are all compensated for by Harrelson’s performance, which is nothing short of fantastic. Harrelson is a really underrated actor who has developed far past his iconic sitcom character (though, deep down, he’ll still always be Woody Boyd to me). When he takes on dramatic roles, there often tends to be a simmering darkness under his character’s surface, but here, there’s nothing like that. Poppington is a completely likable quasi-simpleton, even when he’s engaging in conduct dangerous to both himself and others. Harrelson effortlessly delivers the charm, humor and sadness that makes up Poppington, and he’s downright amusing when he takes on the role of Defendor (he particularly nails the delivery of comic book-like dialogue, like the Rorschachian “When you break the law, you’re a punk. When you break the law with a badge, you’re a punk with a badge. I don’t strike officers. Punks, different story.”). Kat Dennings is similarly fantastic because she doesn’t know how to be anything else, and Elias Koteas and Clark Johnson wear their roles very comfortably.
Much like the just released Kick-Ass, Defendor is ostensibly about a normal guy who becomes a superhero. But it’s a low-rent, indie spin on the premise, lacking in the bright costumes, ultra violence and over-the-topness that makes Kick-Ass such an entertaining ride, and instead offering a more muted and grounded tale that strives to be a bit psychological as well. And though it has its faults and does not successfully hit all of its goals, Defendor ultimately succeeds more than it falters, and is worth seeing just for Harrelson’s performance.