Superman famously arrived on Earth as an infant, and our sun's yellow rays gave the last son of Krypton incredible superpowers. Archenemy, a new movie debuting on Friday, poses a different situation: What if a fully grown, cosmic-level superhero found himself stranded in our dimension, where he's nothing but a powerless bum without any ID or way of verifying his story?
"What if instead of the gravity being lighter — so that he could fly here, where he couldn't on Krypton — what if the carcinogens in the atmosphere were harmful to him breathing and he had trouble breathing, and he was in pain over it?" Joe Manganiello, who plays the displaced hero, Max Fist, tells SYFY WIRE. "What if gravity was super heavy for him, and he couldn't fly? And his bones and joints felt that pain to the point where he had to drink and do drugs to try to alleviate that pain."
Archenemy, which was written and directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, catches up with Max Fist after he's already found himself stranded in our mundane world. Memories of his superpowered past are depicted via trippy, hyper-stylized animation that calls to mind Pink Floyd's The Wall. It's a stark contrast with his current existence as a homeless, seemingly mentally ill man in a run-down city. That is, assuming Max actually was a superhero.
"I wanted to find a way to tell this kind of cosmic, Metropolis superhero story in a way that would be expressionistic and wouldn't commit us to saying ‘this did happen' or ‘this didn't happen,'" Mortimer explains in a phone call with SYFY WIRE, adding that the animation is intentionally a little vague. However, Archenemy isn't focused on whether or not Max is telling the truth — at least not in the "sort of 'M. Night' approach," as Mortimer calls it. The goal is less to make the audience doubt Max's story, waiting for a twist and wondering if he's really a hero or not; the focus is on whether the people Max encounters (and at times, even Max himself) believe this wild story.
Max's main ally is Hamster, a young man and aspiring viral content creator who is, in a sense, Archenemy's version of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, a comparison that actor Skylan Brooks agrees with.
"Hamster is kind of looking at Max Fist as a way out," Brooks tells SYFY WIRE in a separate call. Hamster and his sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) are poor, with Indigo having to dabble in organized crime to support them. Max's crazy story, real or not, could be Hamster's big break.
"Hamster kind of motivates himself into believing the story to keep himself in it," Brooks says.
For Max, though, believing the truth of his superheroic past — especially compared with his miserable current reality — is a much weightier task. His "babbling on and on about how great it was somewhere else, and then that becomes a metaphor for people who have maybe gotten off track in life, or are stuck in the past and how great the past was, and they're not living in the present," Manganiello says. "Or they're not making the most out of their situation. They haven't accepted that these are the cards that life has dealt them."
It's this dynamic that really drew Manganiello to the role. "It's not not a superhero movie, but it's not a superhero movie," the Justice League actor says. "And that's what I liked about it."
Still, Archenemy has plenty of superhero bona fides, as Mortimer says he was excited to make a superhero movie that played on audiences' familiarity with the tropes ("they don't need to see him get bitten by a radioactive snail") enough that he could do wilder things with the classic mythology.
"I was thinking about this idea of what [Darren] Aronofsky did in The Wrestler with [Mickey Rourke], I kind of wanted to do with Superman or Doctor Strange," Mortimer says. "To see what it would be like to have this guy so broken-hearted that his past becomes this unachievable dimension, and then I ran with it from there."
Mortimer gave all his actors a copy of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, a soaring love letter to superheroes at their most grand and sweeping. He also was inspired by Daniel Clowes' 2011 graphic novel The Death Ray, which is about a kid who discovers his father's deadly weapon and uses it to become a "hero" who will "kill a guy for stealing somebody's wallet." These are, in some ways, the two poles of superhero stories, and it can be hard to bridge that gap. One month, Batman will be in outer space holding his own against New Gods on the alien world of Apokolips. The next month, he's dealing with street-level criminals and foiling a mundane bank robbery. Mortimer says Max's plight, in a way, connects the breadth of what superheroes can do.
"There's a way that I boiled this story down to 'If Doctor Strange lost his superpowers, he would become The Punisher,'" Mortimer says. "He's a person who has been through black holes and he's seen the multiverse... If that person was real and that all happened to him, but he didn't have access to it anymore...
"It's almost like a spiritual longing," he continues. "I want to remember what it was like to be that guy who had the most cosmic adventures, but it's not available to me."
There's a hazy, somewhat grim and almost off-putting sadness to Archenemy, which is both more outlandish and more somber than its trailers might let on. But, Max's situation, and the thematic implications it carries, are the film's superpower. As Brooks puts it, in a lot of DC and Marvel movies, you get the sense that, "if that superhero didn't have that superpower, they would absolutely be considered useless.
"Max Fist is one of those people where you see, through his story, that there are redeemable qualities in people that we overlook every day," Brooks says. "It's a story that shares the reality of what superheroes carry."
Archenemy premieres in theaters and on VOD on Dec. 11.