SPARKS: Award-Winning Superhero Movie You Haven't Heard Of

Superhero movies have been dominating big box office for several years now, but a new brand of devotees are flocking to the superhero genre: Independent filmmakers.

At recent film festivals, there's been a steady stream of post-modern superhero movies showing up the last couple years. And the accessibility of special effects technology means they're getting more sophisticated.

Earlier this month, the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, Calif., hosted the premiere of the indie superhero move Sparks (for which Newsarama hosted a trailer last year). Then last week, Sparks won best film for its category at the Omaha Film Festival. Next, the movie will be part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which takes place in Rosemont, Ill., on April 12-14.

The film, which combines a crime noir style with superhero archetypes, features a few actors who are considered "heroes" in the sci-fi/superhero world, like William Katt (Greatest American Hero, Carrie), Clancy Brown (Lost, Shawshank Redemption), Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, Enemy of the State) and Clint Howard (Star Trek, Fringe).

While men and women in tights, played by genre-associated actors, may not sound like the usual fare for an austere film festival, superheroes have started to hobnob with even the most contemplative flicks on the indie stage. Michael Rabehl, programming director for the Cinequest film festival, said that although superhero films are associated with summer blockbusters, their stories are relatable on many more levels than just huge action scenes, and that makes them fair game for indie filmmakers.

"Superhero stories have often been about acceptance or finding one's place and purpose — at least the most interesting ones have been," he said. "And that search is a universal one that is immediately relatable."

Last year, the movie Alter Egos, by respected indie filmmaker Jordan Galland, was a hit on the festival circuit, garnering extra attention because it featured music by John Lennon's son Sean Lennon. Before that, the ambitious 2010 superhero movie Boy Wonder was also a festival favorite, winning positive reviews for reality TV veteran Michael Morrissey as director. Both movies are now available on Netflix.

With Sparks, the film's writer and co-director Chris Folino has another potential hit, as it debuted Friday night to a packed theater of enthusiastic movie fans. Using surprisingly sophisticated special effects, Folino combined his experience with TV commercials and his love of comic books to create an alternate universe where costumed crime-fighting is the norm, complete with a sexy shapeshifter and an evil, steampunk-style villain.

"These guys know what they're doing, and I thought the script was really interesting," said Brown, an actor whose face may be well known for his Shawshank appearance, but whose voice work as Mr. Krabs and Lex Luthor is just as iconic. "They shot the whole [Sparks] movie in, I think it was 12 days, so they had to be very organized in how they shot it. There was a lot of planning that went into it, and the passion they felt for the movie just spilled over into everyone involved."

Katt joked that the tight, indie-style filming schedule actually helped him get into character. "I play the villain, Mantanza, and the mask and white make-up helped me transform into the character. But we were also shooting all night, in the winter, so I was cold and tired. It made me naturally grumpy," he laughed. "So sometimes that kind of thing works in your favor."

The movie is reminiscent of Sin City, because of its crime noir style. The actor who plays Ian Sparks, Chase Williamson, delivers his dialogue and narration completely "straight," but the dialogue has subtle humor.

"Everybody wants to play a superhero," said Williamson about his attraction to the role. The actor broke into the indie film scene with a starring role in John Dies at the End, a 2012 festival favorite that also featured esteemed actor Paul Giamatti. With Sparks, Williamson is playing an archetype: the wrongly accused and fallen antihero. "It's a different role for me, so I jumped at the chance to play it."

The script also doesn't shy away from the outlandish superpower plotlines seen in comic books, such as one character who can regenerate his entire body even after being blown to bits.

Actress Marina Squerciati said the fact that Sparks embraces the darker, riskier parts of comic book superheroes is one of the things that attracted her to her character, a shapeshifter named Dawn. "She has the power to turn herself into anyone else by just touching them," the actress said, "and she uses the power as a prostitute, to give people what they want, because she can turn into any person they want. I find it so interesting how this movie looks at superpowers from that realistic angle."

Superhero movies like Sparks also give indie directors the chance to feature action scenes that don't usually show up in smaller movies. To make the action look realistic, Folino even paid for martial arts lessons for Ashley Bell, who plays the feisty female superhero Lady Heavenly in Sparks.

"My character has 'one hell of a back-kick,' to quote the script," Bell said. "I love action movies, and I had a poster of Ripley [from Alien] on my wall when I was young. So to play a tough female, it was so great, because those roles are few and far between."

The new interest in superheroes by film festivals bodes well for indie directors who are interested in making genre films. Folino, who funded Sparks himself, said he's gotten more than a dozen offers for distribution from what he calls "mid-level companies," but with the festival season ahead of him, he's hoping for something better for the film. "We just wanted a shot at a bigger distribution studio," Folino said, "so the hope is the world premiere [at Cinequest] would get a little press and hype and position the film better."

After all, he said, making an independent movie means you've already sacrificed the promise of quick money to make sure your project is done right. "That's got to be the worst part of making a movie," he said, "having to stop production to go work and save money and find ways to use a credit card to keep going. I am going to do everything to get it released properly and protect everyone involved."

Rabehl of Cinequest certainly thinks the film has the potential to reach a wider audience. "Sparks really stood out because of its highly original and dynamic method to tell its story, because it takes an already familiar genre of film noir but uses superheroes as characters," he said. "And its depiction of an almost 'antihero,' and the struggles that go with that figure, truly accentuate the heart of the story.

Does that mean Cinequest will continue hosting superhero movies? "Absolutely, he said, "if we felt it was as adventurous as Sparks."

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