Superpowerless is The Room with superheroes
Superheroes have been losing their powers almost as long as they’ve been gaining them. There’s an irresistible pull to the fallen icon, magnified greatly when you’re dealing with godlike beings who fly and punch and absorb bullets. The best examples of these twilight-of-the-god stories focus on the struggle formerly nigh-omnipotent beings go through as they attempt to be human, while remembering how it feels to be so much more than that. Duane Andersen’s debut feature strives to be a particularly grounded work in that vein, but artless presentation and an obvious distaste for its characters keep Superpowerless from flying anywhere near the loftier works that influence it.
The mopey, depowered center of Superpowerless is Bob (Josiah Polhemus), who once saved lives as “Captain Truth” but now wanders aimlessly around San Francisco wearing a trenchcoat pillaged from Kevin Smith’s wardrobe. This character functions mostly as an albatross around the neck of his girlfriend Mimi (Amy Prosser), tossing sub-“I coulda been a contender” lines from the safety of her couch. Bob drinks himself stupid while Mimi works her way up the ladder at a law firm to keep them “in clothes and cat food”.
After Bob learns his former sidekick Liberty Boy (H.P. Mendoza) is publishing a book about his career, Mimi encourages Bob to do a book of his own. So he buys himself an audio recorder and transforms from sad sack wandering the streets of San Francisco to sad sack talking to himself while wandering the streets of San Francisco.
It’s not necessarily a problem for the story that Bob is such a mopey asshole, but it doesn’t help that he’s devoid of any magnetism or charm we associate with even the most destitute of former heroes. A work like The Wrestler doesn’t shy away from the flaws and misery its characters wade through and inflict on others, but it also makes sure to give glimpses of who the lead once was. By contrast, Superpowerless is constantly having characters tell us how great Captain Truth was, but never revealing a single redeeming aspect of Bob’s personality.
Bob’s shortcomings are crowned by an inexplicable bitterness towards the woman he claims to love. (Indeed the only tenderness we see from Bob towards Mimi comes in a saccharine montage* of the couple on a fawning love stroll.) The rest of the time Bob is snide or condescending to Mimi and her friend Marie (Guinevere Turner), taking his bitterness at his soft middle age out on them, guilty as they are of the crime of facing reality.
Bob’s outlook on women is “they’re all too ambitious or psycho”. His view on humanity is no less childish and cruel, constantly flat-out remarking “the world is a shithole”, the sort of thing you expect to hear from a budding mass shooter – made all the more ominous coming from someone possibly still possessing superpowers.
The selfish misogyny driving the film is at its worst, though, when exploring the relationship between Bob and Danniell (Natalie Lander, from The Middle), the young editor he hires to help him with his book. For whatever reason, when he gets her job application to edit his book, Bob thinks, based on Danniell’s name, that she will be a man, and he continues to tell Mimi that he is meeting with “Daniel” not “Danniell”. Cue that age-old trope of a gross, washed-up old man refusing to work on his relationship, to instead leer at a much younger woman, constantly lying to the woman who has supported him.
Not long after he admits to himself he’d like to sleep with Danniell, Bob sees Mimi hug her boss and immediately decides they must be having an affair, thus excusing his cheating fantasies. For the rest of the film, Danniell merely exists to tell Bob how great he is and attempt to seduce him (and other attached men), while also encouraging him to believe Mimi is the reason he lost his powers.
We’re told Danniell is one of those “ambitious” women Bob previously had such disdain for, but she’s never given any agency, let alone moments to showcase how skilled she supposedly is. Andersen clearly wants Danniell to be the Silk Spectre to Bob’s Nite-Owl, a lust object giving him hope for defeating the impotency that has become his truest arch-rival – but even Silk Spectre was given a few scenes proving she was a real person, with real hopes and dreams, and not just a depository for male ennui. We know Bob’s girlfriend Mimi isn’t one of those “ambitious” types because she meekly helps her friend strategize for a job interview for which she is also interviewing. What exactly does Andersen mean to express by setting up this false dichotomy of self-sabotaging women along the spectrum of arrogance to insecurity?
At the end of the day, Superpowerless may aspire to be an “adult” superhero work on the level of Watchmen, but the truth is its closest sibling isn’t a dark and gritty comic but that misbegotten disasterpiece of misogydrama, The Room. Superpowerless presents a superhero mope instead of a finance mope, while retaining all the awkward go-nowhere dialogue, obsessive sexism, and questionable understanding of how adults actually seduce one another.
Worse, Superpowerless utterly lacks whatever strange quality made The Room so captivating, despite its many faults. Superpowerless can’t even succeed at being “so bad it’s good”, whether it’s just a fantasy or a nightmare for superpowerless men wanting their childhood idols to grow up just as pitiful and self-loathing as they are.