Review: Joe Manganiello is the Dark, Buck-Wild Superhero We Deserve in Archenemy
Shiny and Chromium!
The world is dark and full of terrors (like watching flies land on the living wax dummy that is Mike Pence) but Beyond Fest 2020 found a way to bring us the world premieres of films that are mind-bending and absolutely buck-wild (this year it was from the safety of your own parked car at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Southern California). Last night was the world premiere of Archenemy, the second film from director Adam Egypt Mortimer (who blessed us with Patrick Schwarzenegger in a fishnet shirt in 2019’s Daniel Isn’t Real).
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS
Archenemy follows Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), a troubled—possibly schizophrenic—man who claims to be a superhero from a fantastical city called “Chromium” in an alternate universe. He was propelled into our dimension through a rip in the space-time continuum during a battle with his “archenemy” Cleo (Amy Seimetz).
Stuck on our dreary world, he is powerless, homeless, and spends most of his days getting drunk and punching walls. When Hamster (Skylan Brooks), a young man trying to start a career as a social media influencer, asks to hear his story, he gladly shares every last detail … in exchange for whiskey and twinkies.
Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs), a small-time drug dealer, runs afoul of her boss “The Manager” (Glenn Howerton) when she steals three hundred grand from him after a money drop goes horribly (but hilariously) wrong. With an army of The Manager’s henchmen after them, Max Fist decides to step in and protect his new friends … with deadly results.
The world of Archenemy is a chaotic, grimy, neon fantasy. We follow Max we bounce back and forth between the dirty Los Angeles city streets and the colorful, animated world of Chromium as it exists in his memory. The animated sequences are beautifully rendered in saturated neon pinks, purples, and blues (if there’s such a thing as bisexual lighting for animation this it!) and clash harshly with the dirty browns and greys industrial LA.
The only overlaps of color come from Indigo and Hamster and the lighting in The Manager’s office. Small hints of the ways the two worlds might bleed together. The action and fight scenes (those that aren’t animated anyways) are brutal and scored with ear melting heavy metal. Even listening to it via my car radio at the drive-in, the experience was often dizzying.
It amazes me that Joe Manganiello, with his beefy, brawny bod and a jaw like a 2×4, hasn’t donned the superhero/villain mantle before this (with the exception of his Deathstroke cameo in Zack Snyder’s Justice League) because he’s such a natural fit. And while we don’t get to see much of Max as he lived on Chromium (at least that isn’t animated), Manganiello’s tortured, earth-bound Max is simultaneously grotesque (there is a lot of vomiting), dangerous, and tragic. Brooks and Griggs are charming as the struggling siblings (even if the characters’ choices are sometimes puzzling).
You can feel the venomous pain of Seimetz’s Cleo rippling just beneath the surface of her satiny voice. I wish we could have seen more of Cleo and more of her history with Max throughout the film instead of saving it all for a final “twist” at the end. It’s clear from their chemistry at the beginning of the film that she is his former flame, and seeing more moments of them not falling out of a building during an epic fight would add extra weight to her final revelation at the very end.
But honestly, the breakout performances for me were Glenn Howerton’s turn as the out-of-his-depth-and-doesn’t-know-it Manager, and Paul Scheer’s cameo as the high as a kite, tatted-up Krieg. To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Howerton not play a narcissistic psychopath obliviously barreling toward his downfall, but it’s still enjoyable to see how much fun he still has playing that part. Scheer is definitely having the time of his life playing the cartoonishly unhinged Krieg, and should make the forehead tattoo a permanent choice.
A grim reversal of the Superman story, Archenemy pummels its way into the increasingly full “gritty deconstruction/commentary on Superheroes and how they would behave in the real world” genre. Max Fist is a full-grown Kal-El when he plummets to earth, but unlike Superman (or Brandon Breyer in Brightburn, another classic of this new subgenre!), he is cut off from his power source (with the exception of crystal meth, which according to him has trace elements of the “cosmic source” that used to power him).
He can’t fly, or punch holes through time, or see through molecules. All he has left is his rage, his fearlessness, and his addiction. This is a Superman unable to function in the real world. Hamster is a classic Jimmy Olsen sidekick figure. But in Archenemy, the kid reporter sidekick is cynically documenting an assumed to be mentally ill homeless man for social media clout.
Cleo is both Lois Lane and Lex Luthor. The great love turned bitter-ex wife and ultimate nemesis. Unlike Max, she is able to adjust to her new life and builds a multi-faceted empire from the ground up. It feels one of a piece with works (both comic book and tv series adaptations) like Alan Moore’s Watchmen (or Miracle Man!) or Garth Ennis’ The Boys. What is the toll on ordinary human lives, when super-powered humans (who are still after all human, warts and toxic masculinity, and anger management issues and all) try to work out their trauma on the world and people around them? Who ultimately pays the price? And what is the potential for recovering from such destruction?
Overall, while not quite landing all of its punches, Archenemy is a fast-paced, raging addition to the deconstructed underbelly of the Superhero genre. If you like action, animation, or seeing Joe Manganiello barf repeatedly (yup) then you should definitely check it out when it’s released on Dec 11th.
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