By Matt Singer
The figure of the superhero does not lend itself to independent movies easily or readily. While three of the top five grossing movies of 2008 center on the escapades of eccentrically dressed and extravagantly empowered individuals, there’s a distinct lack of caped crusaders or men of steel for the arthouse crowd. Indie filmmakers may be the most qualified to tackle the spandex set in terms of imagination — which may be the reason so many former members of their ranks, from Christopher Nolan to Guillermo Del Toro, have produced some of the genre’s most memorable entries — yet they have a special brand of kryptonite to contend with: low budgets.
With that in mind, I’ve watched as many indie superhero movies as I could find and assembled this easy-to-use list of five rules guaranteed to make yours a massive success. You can thank me later with some points on the gross.
1. Children are an invaluable source of unpaid labor.
Robert Rodriguez claimed he used his seven-year-old son Racer’s ideas for the basis of his “Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D” because he wanted to encourage his children to harness their creativity in productive ways. (“Sharkboy and Lavagirl”‘s narrative is, not coincidentally, about that exact same thing.) But let’s face it: Rodriguez was also employing his kids as free menial labor, and on the “Sharkboy” DVD, we see how their doodles quickly became conceptual drawings and how pool parties turned into carefully structured brainstorming sessions. (Though Racer was only given a story credit onscreen, the DVD extras suggest he had a significant hand in the dialogue as well.) If audiences don’t ultimately take to your film, as was the unfortunate fate of “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” the kids provide a convenient scapegoat too. You can just imagine that conversation between Robert and Racer: “Sorry Racer, no more dreaming. The box office was a little tepid. Go play some more Xbox.”
2. In the 1970s, special effects were supposed to look bad.
The hero of Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman” is a schoolteacher and family man named Shinichi (Sho Aikawa) who has never gotten over his childhood obsession with a 1970s kids television series called “Zebraman,” about a hero fighting villains with crabs on their heads in the year 2010. (Think “Power Rangers” without the high caliber of acting.) Now it really is the year 2010, and Shinichi’s only escape from his life of tedium involves dressing in his homemade Zebraman costume. When a guy with a crab on his head starts terrorizing his hometown, Shinichi must stop play-acting and accept his role as a hero. Miike’s warm-hearted homage has some big visuals in its final act, but rooted as it is in the aesthetics of cheesy ’70s television, it’s obligated to look a little low-rent. And even when Shinichi begins to manifest some superhuman abilities (mostly of the “kicking people in the neck” variety), he still frets over flying, a clever cost-cutting measure to keep the character from doing so until the climax.
3. Give your character powers that don’t require special effects.
Granted, most of the brand name superheroes have really showy superpowers: Superman can fly, Spider-Man can stick to walls, Wolverine’s got blades that pop out of his arms. But the reality is your new hero can’t compete with the big guns, and if he did, you’d probably just be accused of copying other characters anyway. Better to choose less popular powers, and better still, choose less popular powers that require you to spend little to none of your visual effects budget. Case in point: the low-budget Canadian indie “Sidekick,” where a nerdy IT specialist named Norman (Perry Mucci) believes a co-worker named Victor (David Ingram) is hiding the fact that he’s got superpowers. Though Norman’s suspicions are based on some truly flimsy evidence — since when does hitting a home run in softball make you a superhero? Is Artie Lange a superhero? — he’s eventually proven correct, and he begins to train Victor to use his gift for the benefit of mankind. That gift is the power of telekinesis, the ability to move things with the mind. Some of Victor’s tricks do require low-level CGI, but most of the time, it simply requires the rest of the cast to stand rigid when he freezes them or to grimace and grab their necks when he chokes them. Norman promises Victor that with practice he should be able to lift a car someday. Note: He does not, so perhaps he should have said with practice AND a few more wealthy investors.
4. Remember that even superheroes take days off.
Studio movies showcase the more glamorous side of heroism, but they tend to ignore the more tedious aspects of the job — paperwork, answering phones, super-team membership drives, and so forth — which makes such things a perfect subject for your indie superhero film. The approach already worked in writer James Gunn’s “The Specials,” a particularly uneventful day in the life of the “6th or 7th best superhero team in the world.” In fact, save for a couple flashy poses in the final montage, none of the members of The Specials do anything even remotely superhuman in the entire film. The team discusses some truly remarkable things — one guy recalls a former member with a prehensile scrotum — but director Craig Mazin, working with a budget under a million dollars and a preproduction schedule of less than a month, leaves them all to our imagination. The superpeople-are-just-like-us angle can be particularly fruitful; Gunn himself plays perhaps a neurotic Special named Minute Man who feels understandably insecure about his ability to shrink down and the way everyone mispronounces his name (“It’s Mi-noot Man. Do I look like a soldier from the Revolutionary War? Am I wearing a three-cornered hat?”). Mazin and Gunn’s film feels like the interesting character scenes that have been cut from a big budget movie to make room for more chase sequences, and in the way it focuses on the small but hugely important everyday problems of real people (who just happen to be able to emit lasers from their arms), it is very much in the tradition of so many American independent movies.
5. You don’t have to worry about things looking real if they’re not.
You’d have to be pretty crazy to put on some tights and run around solving crime. So take it one step further and create a hero who is crazy, like the just-released “Special” starring Michael Rapaport. Rapaport’s Les takes part in an experimental drug trial that he believes gives him the ability to fly, read people’s minds and walk through walls, but all it’s really done is drive him batshit insane. In his mind, Les is patrolling the Southland and stopping any petty thefts he encounters. In reality, he’s wandering around town in his old beater and tackling innocent people in convenience stores (The media dubs him “The Mad Tackler”). Since Les is emphatically not a superhero, nothing he does needs to look superheroic, from his costume (which looks like something a schizophrenic homeless person would wear to protect him from the CIA’s secret radio transmissions) to his powers (even when he thinks he’s flying, he’s never floating more than a few inches off the ground). This approach has an additional upside: you can save up your money for one or two really special visuals — like walking through a wall or an absolutely brutal stunt fall by a guy getting run over by a car — and the impact is exponentially increased because the audience believes everything is a figment of the character’s imagination. When something suddenly isn’t, you’ll wow them.
[Photos: “Special,” Magnolia Pictures, 2006; “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” Dimension Films, 2005; “Zebraman,” Media Blasters, 2004; “Sidekick,” Lightyear Entertainment, 2005; “The Specials,” Fluid Entertainment, 2000]