Before anything else, I always wanted to be a superhero. So much so that in my youth I even attempted to be one. I dug up an old Superman Halloween costume and modified it to be the Amazing Awesomeguy (or something, I can't recall what my actual heroic nom de guerre would have been) and attempted to patrol my neighborhood. I even stored my super-suit in an old suitcase, cleverly concealed in a nearby vacant lot next to our house in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I think I held on to the idea for about a week, maybe a week and change before abandoning it mainly because:
A) Nothing really happened in my neighborhood
B) Being a superhero with no 'crime' to fight was actually pretty dull.
Still, that fantasy has endured even to this day, though I tend to explore through the (arguably) more healthy venues of roleplaying games like Green Ronin's Mutants & Masterminds or my own writing. The notion of actually dressing up in a gaudy outfit and going out to right wrongs is an appealing daydream. . .but the reality I expect would be far from the pat endings and epic fantasies of my favorite comics. No, for someone to actually consider going out and taking the law into his own hands they'd have to be more than a little messed up.
Defendor is the story of Arthur Poppington(Woody Harrelson), a mentally challenged construction worker who dons a costume (mainly a dark sweater with a duct-taped 'D' on his chest, a helmet with video camera and an elaborate VCR hookup) and--outfitted with a variety of little gimmicks including his grandfather's trench club--goes out into the night to fight crime on the mean streets of the city. Arthur meets with some moderate success at first, roughing up a vile john by the name of Chuck Dooney(Elias Koteas) and coming to the rescue of a young streetwalker named Kat(Kat Dennings). Through her we're informed of his crusade to find the arch-villain of Captain Industry, the murderer of his mother. The story is initially told in flashback at a psychiatric evaluation of Arthur by Dr. Park (Sandra Oh), wherein we gradually learn the full details of Arthur's rise and fall as the heroic Defendor.
Arthur is not a well man, and his initial escapades (while somewhat funny) are tinged with a kind of wincing foreknowledge that for all his luck he's eventually going to get in way over his head. Especially when Chuck turns out to be a crooked undercover cop in the pocket of the Serbian mob, whose boss wants the 'little fly' taken care of in as quick and final a manner as possible. Soon enough Arthur bites off far, far more than he can chew and eventually is run to ground and given a choice. Does he let it go, or does he take one last stand for what he feels is right?
Defendor is a dark film, but for all that it's still highly enjoyable. Writer/Director Peter Stebbings eases you into Arthur's world and you come to bond with him as a character. Woody Harrelson seems to be undergoing a kind of second renaissance these days and he does fine work in making Arthur highly likable. You know Arthur isn't well but you feel for his situation, you understand his plight. Kat Dennings plays Kat as pretty much another user in a long chain of users, but one whose humanity gradually surfaces thanks to Arthur's simple, sweet nature. Elias Koteas practically oozes sleaze during his screen time, and he receives a just reward for his scumbaggery. Stebbings manages the comic and the tragic with a sure hand, and you'll find yourself laughing even knowing the pain that's doubtless to come from 'Defendor's crusade for right. Michael Kelly also turns in a great performance as Paul Carter, Arthur's boss and friend who tries his best to look out for him.
There have been some online who have been comparing Defendor to The Dark Knight, even going so far as to declare it that film's polar opposite. There's some merit to that argument, but for me Defendor was more of a modern day version of Don Quixote. A dreamer who escapes into the world of his fantasies so deeply that they become all that sustain him, even compel him to go forth and try to live that dream. He fails, but even in failure he nevertheless serves as an inspiration to those in his community. Defendor isn't the actioner that the other film that purports to be about 'real people as superheroes' (Kick-Ass) looks to be, but I think it's a worthwhile film about pain, loss, and trying to be better than you are. Recommended.