Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real was a treat for fans of cosmic horror; the film was a swanky, terrifying take on imaginary friends and also explored mental health with kindness and empathy, with plenty of gore and body horror to please the hardcore fans. Mortimer now returns to our screens with Archenemy, his take on superheroes with a smidge of social commentary and some more of those cool cosmic visuals we love.
Joe Manganiello, an inspired piece of casting, plays Max Fist, who we learn through an animated intro has quite literally fallen from the skies. He comes from his home planet Chromium, where he stopped supervillain Cleo, who was attempting to destroy everything with her powerful Void Machine. Max fell to Earth and lost his superpowers and now lives as a homeless drug addict among mere mortals.
Teenager Hamster (Skylan Brooks) is attempting to go get his big break in online journalism with relatable, trendy street stories and comes across Max and makes him his next story while his sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) gets mixed up with the sinister The Manager (Glenn Howerton) and the booming drug business of the city. Max gets caught up in all of this and sees an opportunity to become a hero once again.
Archenemy throws a lot at the viewer and it’s often a lot to take in, visually and narratively. The film switches between huge drops of exposition and story and slower bouts of pure fun, but the tonal changes don’t always work. Mortimer’s visual flair, already observed in Daniel Isn’t Real, proves to be the carrying force of Archenemy. The gorgeous shades of pink, purple and blue provide a nifty backdrop for the brutal action and violence.
There isn’t as much violence as you’d expect from an Adam Egypt Mortimer film – his debut feature Some Kind of Hate is one of the gnarliest horror debuts in recent memory – but when it hits, it hits hard. While most superhero films are questioned and criticised for their lack of stakes – the violence is often pure spectacle, but never seems to have real, bloody consequences – Mortimer’s take on this is refreshingly heavy. The fight sequences have a sense of weight to them, you feel every single punch and hit, and Max, among with the more vulnerable humans, bleeds and aches.
Not all of it works as well as it should and you’d want it to. Archenemy often lacks focus and a clear protagonist, someone to hold on to when things kick-off. While Mortimer’s examination of a fallen hero is fascinating, the narrative is too split between Max, Hamster, and Indigo and Max especially often feels like a supporting character in his own story. There is subtle commentary on society’s tendency to forget its most vulnerable members (Joker, anyone?), but the script, penned by Mortimer and Lucas Passmore, doesn’t dig deep enough into these themes. Similarly, Hamster and Indigo are never fleshed out enough to make for captivating protagonists.
Visually, Archenemy is flawless. Halyna Hutchins’ cinematography is at times smooth and at other times, ragged and chaotic, creating a fluid, appropriate visual language for Archenemy. Mortimer proves to be at his most confident when creating visual metaphors and the idea that a battle of good and evil is often a matter of perspective is intriguing, but the film’s narrative feels clumsy at times and never grasps you quite as intensely as it could.
Manganiello is rather perfect as the gruff, rough superhero. His charisma carries the film, even when things become a tad convoluted and he has wonderful chemistry with Skylan Brooks who plays Hamster. Glenn Howerton hams it up as The Manager, who is equal parts ridiculous and menacing, an entertaining hybrid of pure entertainment and believable villainy. Amy Seimetz is predictably great but criminally underused. Archenemy feels like it’s constantly one script edit away from the best version of itself.
Archenemy builds to a fascinating finale that fleshes out some of the film’s more interesting ideas, only for the credits to then start rolling. There is room for a sequel and Mortimer has teased a third entry into the Vortex trilogy, consisting of Daniel Isn’t Real and Archenemy so far, where the two film’s worlds would collide. As far as superhero films go, Archenemy is a fun, ambitious and entertaining addition to the genre that is fast becoming boring and generic.
Dir: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Scr: Adam Egypt Mortimer, Lucas Passmore
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Skylan Brooks, Zolee Griggs, Glenn Howerton, Amy Seimetz
Prd: Joe Manganiello, Nick Manganiello, Daniel Noah, Kim Sherman, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
DOP: Halyna Hutchins
Run time: 90 minutes
Archenemy is available digitally and on DVD February 22.