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In his 50 years as an actor, it might be surprising to register that Sylvester Stallone has never played an actual superhero. Sure, he's acted in plenty of comic book-inspired projects like Judge Dredd (1995), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and most recently voicing King Shark in The Suicide Squad. But outside of those superhero-adjacent titles, Sly's has been able to navigate a pretty cape-less career. However, Samaritan director Julius Avery was finally able to lure the legendary actor into the genre by promising no spandex and a dash of gritty realism for his portrayal of Joe Smith, a former superhero who disappeared and now works as an unassuming garbage man.
Stallone recently got on a call with reporters (including SYFY WIRE) head of the film's Aug. 26 premiere on Prime Video to talk about how his first lead in a superhero film looks nothing like what Marvel Studios and DC are making. "There has been a tremendous accomplishment by certain directors, and certain companies like Marvel and DC, that have really pushed the universe to the max," Stallone said of contemporary superhero movies. "Everything that you could possibly imagine has been created. But I always feel there is nothing quite as relatable as almost getting hit by a car, or walking down a dark alley and there's a shadow coming behind you. That's very relatable. In Samaritan, we try to make the events in the danger plausible, in a sense, and identifiable. It could happen to you. It's something that's very tangible. It's not from another universe, it's right here in the streets."
The streets are those within Granite City where superheroes do exist and, 25 years ago, the city's savior was the super-powered vigilante, Samaritan (Stallone). After a huge warehouse blowout against his arch enemy, Nemesis, Samaritan just disappeared. It's only decades later when young Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton) sees his garbageman neighbor, Joe Smith, handling himself against a bunch of street toughs that he connects the dots about where that beloved superhero really went. Sam persuades the entirely reluctant Smith to finally come out of hiding to save the city once more.
Stallone, who described Smith as grounded, "average Joe," said that approach allowed them to bring to life a very "regular" superhero that does "irregular" things.
"It's not set in some super fantastic universe," the actor explained. "It's set among brick and concrete and identifiable situations in the neighborhoods we live in. And that's what I liked about it. You could be standing next to him on an El or a bus and not even know you're sitting next to some fella here that can literally lift the bus up. There's a kind of simplicity to it, and it's a simmering boil."
Stallone said the film explores how we address the rise of crime that is seen plaguing the residents of Granite City. "We ask how do we get rid of the violence. In the movies, it's always this mythic character," Stallone offered. "But in the end, and I say to people, you have to take care of yourself; that's what it's all about. So Samaritan is kind of a cautionary tale, that you get rid of like your hero and then maybe you need a hero back sometimes, because you're just not ready to take on the responsibility."
While Joe Smith doesn't exactly look "super" with his grizzled beard and neutral hoodies, Stallone said he loved that the character blends into the environment he lives within and isn't some muscle-bulging proxy for what he did years ago with his Rocky and John Rambo characters. "There is a point where you can't do a 29-year-old Rambo kind of a thing because you have to honor who you are at your age," the actor said. "You're not who you were, but you're still there. I thought that this guy, his trait would be in his resolve. He still has great physical power as opposed to speed and he's not jumping through the air. He can't fly, he can't see through walls, and fire doesn't come out of his mouth. He's just a unique sort of superhero, like a modern-day Hercules. He's that kind of a mythic hero and I think those are ones that you can identify with."
The actor said also loved the relationship that unfolds between Sam and Joe, which is what inspires his character to reconnect and care again. "As you get older, you become cynical and go, 'Ah, to hell with it!' And that's where you hit the cranky old man syndrome. But then you look at youth and you go, 'Youth must be served.' There's something so invigorating and infectious about this kid who's full of life. He just wants to explode and he wants you to help him, educate him and take him on this journey. In a sense, he's winding the clock back for me. When you see older people hanging out with younger people, it's vital because they both become so symbiotic. You grab their wisdom and they grab your energy."
Samaritan premieres globally on Aug. 26 exclusively on Prime Video.
Looking for more stories of superheroes walking among us? Stream Heroes on Peacock.