Here they come to save the . . . well, that’s the problem with adopting the secret lifestyle and ethical codes of a “real-life superhero”: Nobody requires your services nearly as much as you’re hoping to provide them.
Ultimately, as we learn in Michael Barnett’s compelling yet conflicted HBO documentary “Superheroes,” today’s supermen (and the occasional wonder woman) wind up handing out rolls of toilet paper to homeless people.
In “Superheroes,” which airs Monday night, Barnett travels the country to profile a handful of the 300 or so self-styled characters who are attempting to live a comic-book ideal. These are not the people you’ve seen at amusement parks and Comic-Con and along Hollywood Boulevard, who are simply playing dress-up for photo-ops. Something in the comics lore has spoken to real-life superheroes on a personal level, and they are serious — if perhaps a touch delusional. They see society as troubled, and they are especially disenchanted with law enforcement. “The N.Y.P.D., even the government is completely unreliable,” says Lucid, a Brooklyn-based superhero.
Mr. Xtreme, a lonely San Diego bachelor and frustrated jujitsu student, works by day as a security guard and spends his evenings wearing padded green-and-yellow regalia (including a limp polyester cape and a bug-eyed helmet), prowling the streets, searching for a sexual predator the TV news stations have dubbed “the Chula Vista Groper.”
Meanwhile, in Orlando, the eccentric Master Legend drives around in a beat-up van and offers his services to the downtrodden, stopping frequently to treat himself to a can of beer from the ice chest he keeps in the back.
Back in Brooklyn, Lucid and his more edgy clutch of masked avengers — they go by Z, Zimmer and a heroine named T.S.A.F. (which she says stands for “The Silenced and Forgotten”) — like to skateboard the city’s streets in the wee hours, hoping to attract muggers.
Barnett employs an appealing style of comic-book panel animation to enliven the narrative transitions and give viewers a heightened sense of the adventure that the heroes imagine themselves having — even if none of their adventures necessarily pan out.
Zimmer, a gay man who chooses not to wear a mask or use a hero name because it reminds him of being in the closet, glams himself up in hopes of luring nighttime gay-bashers. Lucid and the others wait in the shadows to come to his aid. When that doesn’t work, T.S.A.F. dons a miniskirt and lipstick and tries her luck at baiting rapists.
This tendency toward entrapment is where things get creepy, despite the tender care “Superheroes” takes to understand its subjects without mocking them. Many superheroes exhibit depressingly sour feelings about the larger world. They like to keep photos of Kitty Genovese on their walls and refrigerators for inspiration. She was the New York woman stabbed to death 47 years ago as dozens of witnesses overheard (and ignored) her screams. Genovese’s murder set off a popular and lasting notion of an uncaring, indifferent society.
What the superheroes in “Superheroes” seem to willfully ignore is the remarkable drop in violent crime statistics over the past two decades — to say nothing of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security era that lit up our nights with security cameras and deputized every smartphone owner with the ability to upload crimes in progress to YouTube, which has helped catch miscreants of all kinds.
Yet things get darker (and dorkier) during a montage scene in which superheroes proudly show Barnett the assorted weapons they’ve incorporated into their spandex ensemble: knives, nunchucks, sharp spikes, Tasers, retractable batons, maces, pepper sprays, blinding spotlights and lasers.
They’re all dying for some action, which has a way of making them seem more marginal, and embittered. A San Diego police lieutenant worries that these self-anointed vigilantes are going to hurt themselves (or hurt someone else); a psychologist wonders about their dependence on an alter ego.
Although the movie ends on a somewhat brighter note — following the heroes as they look after the homeless in their communities — even Stan Lee, the father of the Marvel Comics universe, expresses bafflement at these wannabes. If Stan Lee thinks you’re extreme, you might want to chill.
(83 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.