Tackling the grandiose superhero genre with a micro-sized budget appears to be a tall task, but thoughtful filmmakers have thrived under these rigid conditions. Whether it’s James Gunn’s darkly comedic venture Super or Julia Hart’s wildly overlooked feature Fast Color, directors have shown that there’s no ceiling even with limited assets. Daniel Isn’t Real director Adam Egypt Mortimer continues this spirited trend with Archenemy, a viscerally bold subversion of superheroes’ normative appeals. Simply put, Mortimer’s electrifying vision reaches soaring new heights for the beloved genre.
Archenemy follows Max Fist (Joe Manganiello), an outsider who claims to be a superhero from another dimension. Without his powers, no one believes his stories except for an upcoming journalist Hamster (Skylan Brooks). Together, they take to the streets to wipe out the local drug syndicate and its vicious crime boss known as The Manager (Glenn Howerton).
Max’s fish-out-of-water presence isn’t played with your typically hokey presentation. Instead, Mortimer utilizes Max’s super-powered origins to juxtapose Earth’s dog-eat-dog setting. The dual worlds mesh into one uniquely drawn landscape, as Mortimer creates a sonically surreal visual dynamic with arresting animated sequences (the blending of cosmic colors and dreamy imagery is a joy to consume).
I love how Mortimer blends the two styles simultaneously, with the animation highlighting the ways pulp storytelling embellishes real-world dynamics (it also creates an intriguing psycho-drama conflict, with Max’s human form still seeing himself as a super-powered entity). The marriage between comic serial and gritty realism works through the director’s keen eye. His creative visual verve enhances narrative beats into alluring, sensory-drawing experiences. What Mortimer accomplishes on a shoestring budget is far more impressive than the bombastic scale of major blockbusters.
Archenemy also builds a colorful world for audiences to indulge in. Mortimer walks a finite tonal line with relative ease, conveying our protagonists’ dire straights while understanding the genre’s vibrant appeals. The personable cast also helps solidify this balance. Joe Manganiello offers some of his best work to date as the gruff Max Fist, delving beneath the character’s rigid exterior to explore his hidden pains. Max’s straight-man persona is a fitting contrast to Skylan Brooks’ cheerful delivery. As Hamster, Brooks brightens the screen with his effortless charisma, while Glenn Howerton and Paul Scheer make great additions as hilariously unhinged antagonists.
There’s so much to like about Archenemy, but that bounty of appeals becomes a problem. Mortimer spins so many plates throughout the tight 90-minute run time, leaving several facets somewhat untapped in the process (a third act twist offers an interesting switcharoo, but its dramatic impact becomes somewhat limited). It’s like a beautiful sketch that isn’t quite shaded in. Perhaps a larger budget could’ve allowed Mortimer more time to explore his character dynamics and intriguing thematic conceits, but his offering still impresses as stands.
I’ve always had an affinity for spirited, low-budget offerings, but Archenemy is one of the few that’s never burdened by its financial limitations. I was enamored by Mortimer’s bright world from jump street, and I can’t wait to see what the upcoming filmmaker has up his sleeves going forward.
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