From Watchmen to Kick-Ass comic books and other mass media outlets have shown the great risks involved in superpower-free heroics. However, this very real risk of physical or emotional damage from acting the hero has not deterred a growing number of real men and women from donning costumes and going on patrol in order to ‘fight crime’ and ‘make a difference.’ Director Michael Barnett explores the world of Real Life Superheroes in his documentary , SUPERHEROES, premiering Monday night on HBO.Newsarama recently sat down with him to explore a world that has even more in common with a comic book universe then expected.
Newsarama: Michael, what inspired you to make SUPERHEROES?
Michael Barnett: The inspiration was kind of accidental, I stumbled across the [Real Life Superhero] community online and developed an immediate fascination. I did a little more research and discovered it was a nationwide phenomenon. The more research I did the more news clippings I found, the more local news stories I saw and the more fascinated I became. I brought it to my producer and he became intrigued as well. We’d found that there hadn’t been a film done on this and certainly not a definitive one as yet. So we dove in. We found [San Diego-based Real Life Superhero] Mr. Extreme and then we went from there.
Nrama: You mentioned finding them online, is there a strong Real Life Superhero presence online?
Barnett: Yes, there a pretty vast community online, they have forums and chat rooms they use them to keep everyone informed about what they are doing in their own community, how they are evolving and how they are trying to be more effective in what they do. And they use them to bicker a bit as well.
Nrama: Do you think the Internet in enabling Real Life Superheroes?
Barnett: Yeah, I think the internet gives a start-up Real Life Superhero the ability to research the veterans, those who have been at it a long time, who are really active online. I think [the internet] is a real catalyst for the growth of the community for sure.
Nrama: Once you tracked a few Real Life Superheroes down, did you find it hard to get them to talk on camera?Barnett: Absolutely, I’d say trust was probably our biggest hurtle in making this film. A lot of these guys have participated in a ton of local media and most of those pieced marginalized them or exploited them. That was not our intention, our intention was to tell a very honest portray about what this community does and to try and figure out why these guys do it. So when we first started interviewing them, and we pre-interviewed well over one hundred, yeah the level of mistrust was crazy. When Stan Lee signed on very early, it was great for us. We could say that Stan Lee was going to be in the film, and that opened doors for us in the community. After a couple signed on, and because they have such a vast community online, they started to talk to each other and word got out how our intentions were noble, we got more participation.
Nrama: You mentioned that you pre-interviewed over one hundred people, how many Real Life Superheroes do you think are out there?
Barnett: There are hundreds registered [online], and it’s always growing, even internationally. Every time I jump on Facebook there are more. Worldwide they number in the thousands at this point, but I’d say the number that are really active and effective are about one hundred.
Nrama: On how they portray themselves individually, do they tend to give a lot of thought to their superhero “character?”
Barnett: Yes! I mean, it starts with their origin story of their character and the inspiration for their character. Before they even go out into the community they spend a great deal of time on their persona. In the film, we get really specific as to what these guys are. For example, the vigilante Spider’s inspiration is the Manga-verse Spider-Man, Mr. Extreme’s inspiration are the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, everyone has their own, very specific, inspiration as to why they do this, and it’s all from some pop-culture super-hero mythology. They spend a lot of time on what’s going into their personalities and that effects what they inevitably do as Real Life Superheroes as well.
Nrama: If some Real Life Superheroes are inspired directly by comic books, and perhaps the whole movement is in no small way, do you think this phenomenon would exist if there was never such a thing as comic book superheroes?
Barnett: Probably not. I think people have this need to go out and make their community better and to want, internally, to make a change, so [this need] would manifest itself in different ways. Like the Guardian Angels or neighborhood watch groups or the Black Panthers, they are all people who become activists because they are tired of the status quo, Real Life Superheroes are really no different, they just happen to do it in a really eccentric way. If the mythology of the superhero didn’t exist, they’d find another outlet for it, but I must add that the superhero mythology helps because it makes it iconic and quite a bit of fun for some of these guys.
Nrama: So is being iconic important to them, meaning that it’s easier then doing say, grassroots political action or getting involved in their communities by writing letters or organizing people?
Barnett: Some do [get involved], there are so many different personalities in the community, D.C. Guardian has a fully organized non-profit that helps children’s charities. Same thing with Team Justice in Florida, they are a 501(3)(c) non-profit. Superheroes Anonymous is on the brink of non-profit status. They all do a ton of community outreach. Other believe to be heroic you need to stalk around your city at two in the morning in the darkest and dreariest places and try to fight or prevent crime. It’s really all of the above.
Nrama: Is there a concern in the Real Life Superhero community about “escalation,” that is to say, Real Life Supervillians?
Barnett: This is a sticky subject. We chose not to put that into the film we had Real Life Superheroes who have gotten death threats and had very real and very scary interactions with Real Life Supervillians online. This was a documentary, and people’s well-being was actually as stake, so we chose not to focus on it and instead focus on the story about why the [Real Life Superheroes] do what they do.
Nrama: Wow, wasn’t expecting that. I guess with the Internet, anything is possible.
Barnett: There is so much hate online, people hiding under cover on anonymity to spew their vitriolic hatred. I guess it was inevitable that a Real Life Supervillian network would emerge.
Nrama: Superheroes are enjoying a resurgence in popularity in no small part to films like The Dark Knight and Captain America, has this translated into a growth in the Real Life Superhero community and do you think they will be around in, say ten years?
Barnett: I think Real Life Superheroes discover really quickly that it takes a lot of resources and finances, the turnover is quite high. The pillars of the community have been doing it for a long time, Mr. Extreme, Zeta-Man, Xanatos, Life, Dark Guardian, they are really committed to this movement. But there are superheroes in the film that have retired shortly after starting out. I think in ten years the movement will have evolved and grown, and hopefully some of these veterans will still be around, but there will be a whole new generation of Real Life Superheroes trying to make their streets better.