I liked Kick-Ass a fair amount, but I admit I let myself get swept into the hype, and when I finally saw the movie, there were only two moments I really loved. Less than two weeks later, I've been confronted with Defendor, an entertaining little movie that covers very similar ground from a significantly different angle, minus all the hype. I don't know if Defendor is better than Kick-Ass, but it's certainly interesting. No doubt Sony got cold feet about releasing Defendor on a larger scale after hearing the same buzz I did, opting for a limited release back in February before giving the film a DVD premiere, but I think they should have stood their ground. Defendor may not have done better than Kick-Ass, but they actually complement each other in a way, as if they were always intended as companion pieces.
In lieu of the wimpy but presumably sane Dave Lizewski, Defendor offers us the slow, childlike character of Arthur Poppington, who is meek and uncomfortable unless he's decked out with a video camera helmet, club, and an endless supply of marbles. Using this equipment, he moonlights as Defendor, a superhero looking to bring down the evil Captain Industry. When we first see Arthur as Defendor, it's not clear how long he's been fighting crime, but he's got enough skills with the club to stop sleazy cop Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas) from hurting a crack-addled prostitute named Katerina (Kat Dennings). After assaulting Dooney, the police find Arthur enjoying some pancakes and arrest him at gunpoint, but Captain Fairbanks (Clark Johnson) seems to think Arthur is better off living out his fantasy than he would be as a prison inmate. Through a series of coincidences, Arthur finds himself in Katerina's presence again, and becomes even closer to her when she claims to know where to find Captain Industry.
Kick-Ass mused that you might have to be a little psychotic to run around throwing yourself in the middle of violent crimes, even to help stop them, and Defendor takes it a step further. Hard to tell whether or not writer/director Peter Stebbings has done this because he doesn't believe an audience will buy a guy with the lights on upstairs would do the things that Defendor does, or if he does it as an organic part of the story, but Harrelson sells the character's dual personality, in ways that are both funny and slightly sad. You may not learn very much about Arthur in the ways you would want to learn about some fully-rounded film characters, but I think Stebbings and Harrelson have told you more than enough about the character anyway.
Stebbings is unsteady when it comes to tone and pacing, so while the movie is both comedic and dramatic, it doesn't do either thing overwhelmingly well. It's not that it's bad at either one of them, but it doesn't seem to know quite how to deliver some of the material, and the result is a movie that will feel to many people like an awkward drama. For me, remaining focused on Arthur was the key: even if the movie isn't entirely clear what it wants to do when it comes to tone, I found Arthur's journey quite satisfying. Harrelson has a good chemistry with all of his co-stars, as well, starting with Koteas and Dennings and trickling on down to Johnson, Sandra Oh (as a psychiatrist), and Michael Kelly as Arthur's figurative guardian angel. Aside from Harrelson, of all the movie's cast members, I would have liked to see more of Saw IV's Lyriq Bent as a friend to Defendor; while the groundwork is laid early in the movie, it's likely the audience will forget who he's supposed to be or fail to put two and two together when he finally shows up.
The most important character to Defendor is Katerina, played by actress Kat Dennings (most famous for playing Norah in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist). As a follower of the actress' Twitter feed, I was expecting Dennings to be a major player in the film's comedy. Instead, she not only forms a believable bond with Arthur, but hits a few of the film's dramatic notes with surprising ease. Unfortunately, the character as scripted is all over the map, and it's hard to invest in the relationship quite as strongly as Stebbings is hoping. The film's slightly draggy editing doesn't help things either. Since I wasn't watching the clock, Stebbings' flashback structure had me thinking the movie was ending at about the halfway point, and it took a little while for me to adjust to the idea that it was continuing instead of wrapping up. The very final beat before the movie's (admittedly awesome) closing credits roll is also a bit little rushed: I may believe what it's telling you about the characters is really happening, but I don't necessarily buy it happening as easily as the movie shows it to us.
Right before the third act, Arthur sits on a children's swingset and remains stone-faced and silent, and various people occupy the second swing, offering Arthur words of wisdom. The final occupant is Kelly's character Paul, who says a few things to Arthur that make up the heart of the movie, and you see the gears turning in Arthur's head. Arthur's triumph, as created by Harrelson, is more internal than external, a personal triumph rather than a major one. Kick-Ass has the same moment of inspiring chutzpah, but the two scenes are miles apart: while the big-screen flick explains the psychology of living life behind a cape and cowl, as well as letting the audience live vicariously through Dave's transformation to bona fide hero, Defendor remains rooted in reality, showing the viewer the man that makes the superhero rather than the superhero in the man.
Defendor comes with artwork that, in the likely absence of available Kick-Ass posters at the time it created, chooses instead to try and ape Harrelson's Zombieland, which works pretty well, since the globe-rounded title treatment of that film looks pretty much like a comic book title when block lettering is used. It actually doesn't look too bad (I like the combination of purple, red and black), although it's a little odd to me that they chose to put Kelly on the cover instead of Koteas. The back cover doesn't work quite as well (yellow is a bad addition, the fade to red doesn't sit right to me, and what exactly is the grid holding the pictures meant to be?), but all in all, a reasonably good effort. The ECO-BOX case holds no insert, and the disc features high-contrast black-and-white artwork that I think would have been a better choice for the whole package.
The Video and Audio
One thing and one thing alone totally sells me on this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation from Sony, and that's the stunningly vivid colors, including well-adjusted whites and inky, rich blacks. Close inspection definitely reveals a limit (but no problems) to the fine detail that indicates this to be an SD-DVD transfer, but anyone standing back might briefly believe they were watching a Blu-Ray instead.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds just peachy too, with a fair use of the surround channels and crisp, clear dialogue. Sony has also helpfully included a mass of language and subtitle options befitting an HD disc: Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai 5.1, and English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing (other studios take note: being able to choose between English subtitles and English captions is great).
First up is an audio commentary with writer/director Peter Stebbings, producer Nicholas D. Tabarrok, and actors Woody Harrelson and Kat Dennings. In the pantheon of commentary styles, it's a "fun" track: plenty of jokes, informal atmosphere, and a smattering of info. Dennings dominates the commentary with an upbeat attitude, and everyone seems genuinely proud of having worked on the film, a notion often mentioned on tracks like this, but not as frequently felt. An enjoyable, if non-essential listen for fans of the film (or Dennings).
Five deleted scenes (7:25) are next, which primarily flesh out a side plot involving a reporter named Dominique Ball (Lisa Ray), which, while rightfully excised from the film, serves as a good reminder of how important reporters often are in superhero stories. It's disappointing, though, that there isn't more: Dennings and Stebbings talk about an alternate final scene, which is not present on the disc. A reel of outtakes (2:25) is somewhat enjoyable because it feels more like something Stebbings put together to amuse Harrelson and Dennings rather than an outtake reel for a DVD.
Last, but not least, 5 featurettes ("Origin Stories: The Genesis of Defendor" - 10:15, "Removing the Costume: Behind the Screenplay" - 11:29, "Heroes and Villains: Meet the Players" - 20:10, "An Actor's Director: Working with Peter Stebbings" - 4:57, and "Famous Last Words: Wrapping Defendor" - 9:38, total runtime 56:32) combine to form a making-of documentary. Any informative material that was missing from the audio commentary is included here, with all of the key members of cast and crew interviewed, and there isn't an over-reliance on film footage, which is always a plus.
Trailers for The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Road, Chloe, Legion, "Rescue Me", Transylmania and Zombieland are accessible from a submenu. No theatrical trailer for Defendor is included. Phenomenally, all of the extras (with the possible exception of these trailers) have English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles, including the whole audio commentary.
Even with some wonky editing and tone issues, I enjoyed Defendor just the same, and my experience was only enhanced by having seen Kick-Ass, an alternate take on the same ideas about regular joes with secret identities. The DVD looks and sounds just fine, and it even comes with an enjoyable commentary and over an hour of solid video extras. You might want to wait until Matthew Vaughn's film arrives on DVD (which, judging by the tumbling weekend grosses, may be sooner than later) so that the two films can be viewed back-to-back, but for my money, Defendor earns a solid recommendation.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.