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Film Review: ARCHENEMY (2020): A Rambunctious Comic-Book Romp That’s Also Fairly Grounded

Archenemy Review

Archenemy (2020) Film Review, a movie directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, and starring Joe Manganiello, Jessica Allain, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Mac Brandt, Kieran Gallagher, Christopher Guyton, Jeremy Hawkins, Glenn Howerton, Roy Lee Jones, Jospeh D. Reitman, Paul Scheer, Amy Seimetz, Amje Elharden, and Luis Kelly-Duarte.

“I’m not a superhero”, Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) grunts to siblings Hamster (Skylan Brooks) and Indigo (Zolee Griggs), as they speed away from their apartment where Max has left two mobsters bleeding out on the living room carpet. The siblings just witnessed an otherworldly bout of violence, and yet Max is insistent that he doesn’t have superpowers. Needless to say, Hamster has his doubts.

Such is the approach of director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Archenemy, a film that wears its comic-book influences on its sleeves but plays itself close to the chest … and close to the ground, too.

The film follows Hamster, a teenager on a quest to become the next viral sensation through immersive, “on-the-ground” “reporting” for the clickbait-y website Trendible. On one of his treks through the city he crosses paths with Max, an alcoholic junkie and short-tempered homeless man, who Hamster inadvertently saves from getting crushed by L.A. traffic. Hamster listens to Max’s tall tales of traveling here from a parallel dimension – one where he allegedly possessed extraordinary powers (although Max is adamant that that does not make him a “superhero”) – and Hamster, skeptical but genuinely amused (and also seeing a prime opportunity for a “human” interest story), continues to humor him.

Archenemy’s strength comes from Mortimer’s own directorial patience, as he never indulges more than what is necessary for the current moment. Sure, there are moments of flourish and embellishment, but he and co-writer Lucas Passmore never directly spell anything out either. That basic “Is it real or not?” sort of mystery provides enough bemusing fodder to power the film through its packed 90-minute runtime. It’s a simple skeletal conceit onto which a taut fantasy crime thriller can be grafted. The whole “not a superhero” bit ties into this premise nicely, as if it’s Mortimer and Passmore reaching out of the script to remind you not to hold their film in high esteem above other genre works, but also reminding you not to view it through a solitary lens, either.

Mortimer never really takes the exploitation route, either – even though he easily could have with such a high concept premise.

Max’s arc dovetails with that of Hamster’s sister Indigo, who was forced to take up work with the local crime boss known only as The Manager (Glenn Howerton) to provide for herself and her brother. Seeing Hamster and his sister as his part of his interdimensional mission now, Max must take on a parallel role to Indigo and do all that he can to protect them. Unfortunately, given the high-strung and controlling nature of The Manager, that’ll lead to particularly violent outcomes.

Mortimer doesn’t use this opportunity to make Archenemy a reveling in the excessive violence of vigilantism à la Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn for the sake of edgy humor. He also doesn’t utilize the overabundance of narcotics abuse and mob control of civilian life for cheap dramatic shock. Despite existing within a narrative where the protagonist has “flashbacks” to a parallel dimension with crystal caves and extraterrestrial skyscrapers (emphasized through somewhat-cheesy motion-graphics animation) these moments of violence and drug use carry with them a heavy weight of worldly consequence. In turn, these moments jolt the characters – Max, Hamster, and Indigo alike – into the stark reality of their situation. Ironically, despite seeming outlandish, it gives Archenemy a very grounded feel.

Mortimer also (mostly) steers clear of harmful stereotypes surrounding homeless people, too, by sort of explaining away Max’s state of mind with his backstory of interdimensional travel. But again, Mortimer’s always keeping us in the dark until he deems it unnecessary, and he uses Max’s mystery to always push the film one step away from being uncomfortably Too Much.

That being said, Archenemy doesn’t really have all that much to say, and perhaps that very fact makes it exploitative in and of itself. Instead of using Max’s predicaments as an in-route to discuss the intersecting problems of homelessness and mental health, or how organized crime preys on a population’s most vulnerable like Indigo and Hamster, the film only uses these points as the story’s basic set-up. It provides a structure for the fantasy, but offers no introspection through deeper metaphor. Mortimer isn’t required to offer up any greater quandaries, of course, but it does seem like an sorely missed opportunity – that is, beyond him giving Paul Scheer a bunch of ugly facial tattoos and letting him give his most strung-out performance to date.

Yet that breezy approach still makes for a rambunctiously fun ride – the same sort of thrill that flipping through the pages of a comic book (but “not a superhero” one) might offer. It’s ridiculous and bizarre but also level-headed and gritty, with Mortimer treading that divide with aplomb. Archenemy is carried on the performances of Manganiello, Brooks, and Griggs, too – particularly Griggs, who deftly portrays the struggle of maintaining a tough composure even in the face of terror. And of course, Amy Seimetz just chews the scenery in a third-act supporting role that helps end the movie on a powerful punch.

Archenemy is a fun little genre treading that offers up a familiar story in fun ways. It’s worth a quick skim of its cartoonish encasings – especially if you’re into those of the “not a superhero” variety.


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