Defendor is tagged as a comedy in a lot of places. Hulu classifies it as one; so does YouTube. It’s the first genre listed on IMDb’s page for the 2009 film. The poster at right, with a half-dozen review quotes replicated throughout the background, is topped by a quote from Ain’t It Cool News, declaring it “darkly funny”. And sure, it stars Woody Harrelson, still probably best known for his role on Cheers, as a non-super superhero, bungling his way through crime-fighting with marbles, a slingshot, and jars of bees.
But it’s not a comedy, except perhaps if you view it through some very restrictive lenses. There are a few laughs here and there, sure, but for the most part, its absurdities aren’t comical, but quietly sad. The film is a deconstruction of the urban vigilante hero, and perhaps that’s why it’s mis-marketed so much; the idea of breaking down a genre non-comically is still a bit foreign to the Hollywood hype machine (see the portrayal of Watchmen as a straight-up action film in its trailers), and it’s easier to sell Defendor as a comedic parody, even if it’s not really all that funny.
What it is, though, is pretty good.
Defendor doesn’t have Batman’s budget. Or his skills, or anything else.
Harrelson plays Arthur Poppington, a public works employee who spends his nights putting on the costume of Defendor — he’s very particular about the “o” not being an “e” — and going out to fight crime. He has a particular hatred of drug dealers, as his mother died of drug abuse when he was young. He records his outings on VHS with a camera he has hooked up on his helmet, wields a trench club, and spouts one-liners that cause his targets to roll their eyes more than quake with fear. He’s slow-witted and inept, and in some films that would bring about the comedy that the film is hyped as. But he’s not slow due to being willfully stupid, as with stoner comedies, nor is it the unexplained but comical stupidity of the likes of Adam Sandler movies. It almost immediately becomes apparent — and is confirmed later by psychiatrist Dr. Parks (Sandra Oh) — that Arthur is mentally handicapped. He doesn’t quite comprehend the danger he’s in, and because of a sarcastic comment from his grandfather about the drug pushers being “captains of industry”, he thinks the city’s crime ring is the work of a nefarious Captain Industry. He has the understanding of a small child, but has lost the innocence, and is lashing out in the only method he understands.
Laughing at him would be like laughing when Forrest Gump gets assaulted by bullies.
During one of his nightly crusades, he comes across a man arguing with a young woman in a car, and decides to intervene. The man is corrupt undercover cop Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas), and the girl is his regular prostitute, Kat (Kat Dennings). Kat starts living with Arthur at his workshop, initially using him as a meal ticket, by feeding him false information about “Captain Industry”, who she claims is Dooney’s boss in the crime ring, Radovan Kristic (A.C. Peterson). As a result, Arthur begins chasing down Dooney and the members of his gang, fighting them and generally getting beaten up. His friend and employer Paul Carter (Michael Kelly) finds out about his activities, and tries to get him to stop; after Arthur is nearly shot in one of his fights, Kat tries to dissuade him as well. But even after Arthur is arrested for assaulting Kat’s father (the incident that results in him being evaluated by Dr. Parks), he is reluctant to hang up the tights until “Captain Industry” is defeated.
The actors in this film each give their characters a measure of life and reality beyond the limited dialogue they get. Harrelson’s Arthur is simple and honest and deeply earnest with everything he does. Although he’s slow, he is never goofy or wacky or any other descriptor that would befit an idiot hero in a comedy. Kat Dennings plays her namesake role with a nervous vulnerability that she attempts to mask with a hardened exterior; Kat (the character) doesn’t fool the audience, and she doesn’t fool Arthur either. Michael Kelly plays the concerned friend to such a degree that his character could easily have been re-written to be Arthur’s brother. And Koteas and Peterson are both adept at playing sleazeballs who are so inured to what they’re doing that it’s just business to them.
This is the first film directed by actor Peter Stebbings, and although it’s clearly a freshman effort, it’s not a bad one. The fight scenes are short and abrupt, and don’t oversell the skills of the un-super hero. The dark lighting, the frequent scenes of graffiti and disrepair, and the recurring voice-over of a disgruntled talk radio host all play into the mood of the movie, emphasizing how much the city needs a hero of some kind, even one who by all rights should be among the protected and not the protectors. It’s not a cheerful film, and comedic categorization notwithstanding, I don’t think it was meant to be. There’s far too much darkness and too little that could be comfortably funny in the film for it to be “darkly funny”. But it’s a surprisingly thoughtful work, and while the audience may not be laughing at the protagonists, it would be hard not to care about them.