Film Analysis: Special

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The DVD of the long-delayed indie film Special was just released on March 31st. The movie was completed with little fanfare and cursory critical reception at film festivals a little over two years ago. The article below seeks to establish how the film predates and parallels recent realistic, almost anti-superhero films including Batman Begins/The Dark Knight and the forthcoming film of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass. In each, superheroics are established by the creators as an extreme psychological reaction to urban life, in the hope of achieving vengeance, making a difference, or just making a name for oneself. The following article will discuss Special both in relation to the recent trend of the real-life superhero and in its own terms as a film.

To a certain extent,
Watchmen (the movie) could be considered a part of this list, but because it’s so thoroughly tied to the reader/viewer’s relation to serial fiction and an alternate history of the U.S. it’s difficult to discuss within the context of the downright verite feel of Special.

Director: Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore
Writer: Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore
Starring: Michael Rappaport (Les), Josh Peck (Joey), Robert Baker (Everett), Jack Kehler (Dr. Dobson), Paul Blackthorne (Jonas Exiler), Ian Bohen (Ted Exiler)

Synopsis: The subject of a depression drug trial becomes convinced that the experimental medication has imbued him with super powers. Violent attempts to clean up the streets ensue.

Michael Rappaport as Les in "Special"

***Spoiler-y Review and Analysis follows***

The first thing Les (Michael Rappaport) asks when he receives the bottle of an experimental depression drug is if he can take it now. Anxious, smiling nervously, he asks the stern Dr. Dobson (Kehler) how long before he begins to feel the effects. In voice over he tells us that he wasn't even feeling particularly depressed before entering the drug trial.

Everything points to Les being a man who needs a change in his life: from the hunched way that he sits on his couch, eating his meager microwave dinner, long limbs bunched up in front of him; to the way his boss admonishes him to repeat the mantra of the meter maid - "I'm important to the city... I matter." Les is the superhero fantasy in genesis: he's a normal, undistinguished man waiting for some catalyst to shake him loose and unleash his potential.

Before you can say "bitten by a radioactive spider," Les begins levitating in his living room and hearing the thoughts of the incredulous Dr. Dobson. With great power comes great responsibility and after successfully disarming a would-be thief, Les throws together a costume and hits the streets of his unnamed city to fight crime.

But the writing/directing team of Haberman and Passmore don't keep things simple. Les is convinced os his new abilities but from the subjective view of his doctor and friends, Les is delusional, visiting a good deal of physical damage upon himself in spite of his protestations that Les get help.

Then there are the Exiler brothers - investors in the experimental drug that give Les his powers/delusions. The last thing they want is some lunatic wearing their corporate logo running around claiming to have powers with their pills in his system. After a time, Les will find that he has archenemies to go along with his rapidly-developing mania.

What's interesting is that the script doesn't let the miracle pills make Les anything more than he already is: he's a man who wants to do good and be valuable so he goes out and does some good measured with a certain dubious amount of value. He doesn't become smarter or more charming. He's still unable to connect with the pretty girl at the local convenience store. Even in his delusion he's only able to execute practical feats that combined common sense, observation, and willingness to punish one's body would allow.

Special is the anti-superhero movie somewhat in the way that Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (and its forthcoming film) is an anti-superhero comic in that both regard the desire to put on a costume and circumvent the law to fight crime as inherently selfish acts borne of varying degrees of delusion. Where they diverge (besides the subjective merits of the two works) is in how they treat their leads. Dave of Kick-Ass is an unlikeable, self-serving teen hoping to use a career as a superhero as a means to gain fame and noteriety (even if the goal is somewhat muddied by his identity being hidden behind a mask). Meanwhile, Les is a genuine guy - I've said before that he wants to do good and to that end he's trying.

Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski in the upcoming "Kick-Ass"

Millar appears to be more cynical about human motivation: everyone wants their 15 minutes to somehow illuminate their angry, frustrated existences. At their core everyone is deeply flawed and set up to ultimately fail. This is linked to a “isn’t this cool” façade of well-choreographed violence (John Romita Jr. can be depended to illustrate big action expertly) and a wink to the reader that they’re much cleverer than the protagonist (even in his narration Dave admits that he’s following the most foolish path possible). Even the name is ironic bravado to keep us from empathizing with the main character’s motivations too much.

Special posits a case where a man can be flawed (Les is lonely and perhaps a bit juvenile) but essentially good. When the chips are down, when Les realizes that he's a victim of psychosis, he does the right thing and attempts to shut himself away from anyone that he could potentially harm, taking an "antidote" that will supposedly remove the drugs from his system. Les would choose to sacrifice emotionally-fulfilling delusion in order to do the objectively right thing.

Viewed against Christopher Nolan’s recent conception of Batman as played by Christian Bale, Les is no less heroic, per se but perhaps a little more sincere in his madness. The Batman of the Batman Begins and Dark Knight is more of a reactionary figure, constantly avenging the death of his parents and creating an asymmetrical relationship with the criminal underworld with his extensive collection of devices with which to fight crime. Les, on the other hand, is guided by his own (imagined) voices which command him to stop potential acts of violence before they start. Les’s only advantage over the criminal underworld is that he doesn’t realize how much he’s punishing his body (or at least, not until much later in the story).

As a film, I have a great deal of affection for Special. As a barometer for where we’ll be seeing our superheroes onscreen I find it the precursor to an interesting trend – the enthusiastic hero who is flawed precisely because he/she wants to be a hero. I’m interested to see how this plays out in the coming years as more and more high-profile comic properties come to the screen.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

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