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'Archenemy' Review: A superhero fights the enemy within

Adam Egypt Mortimer's 'Archenemy' is an anti-Marvel movie that pops with sorrow and regret, but feels incomplete or slight as a hero's mortal reboot.

Joe Manganiello in Archenemy.
(Image: © RLJE Films)

Our Verdict

'Archenemy' works better as a criminal underbelly broiler than superhero commentary, with Joe Manganiello gruffing it up as a boozy bruiser who excels in singular moments of reflection.

For

  • 🥃 Joe Manganiello as a post-hero hero.
  • 🥃 Glenn Howerton's gangster.
  • 🥃 A superhero shakeup.

Against

  • 🥃 Feels too quickly paced at times.
  • 🥃 The third act deflates.
  • 🥃 Vision vs. execution imbalance.

The prospect of independent superhero flicks is a tough sell. Disney’s MCU and Warner Brothers’ DCU have instilled in audiences demand for blockbuster budgets filled with spandex-smackdown extravagances. Billions spent on visual effects, massive cityscape destruction, all the mainstream expenditures that a film like Archenemy can’t match. Does that mean Adam Egypt Mortimer’s latest, or James Gunn’s Super, or Peter Stebbings’ Defendor shouldn’t be permitted storytelling opportunities that benefit smaller-scale “superhero” explorations? Dependent on vision, there’s as much intrigue in a hero’s arc even when Thor’s hammer or Cap’s shield aren’t punishing foes - but maybe more so in Super and Defendor than Archenemy.

Joe Manganiello stars as Max Fist, a homeless alcoholic who claims he’s an interdimensional savior surging with cosmic “blood.” The problem? His powers don’t work on Earth, so he’s stuck here chugging whiskey and telling stories to anyone who will cover his tab. Enter Hamster (Skylan Brooks), a teenage hustler who’s awarded an opportunity by some Buzzfeed knockoff mega-website to prove he can bring in “splash” worthy content in exchange for a full-time gig. Hamster starts building the online lore of Max Fist, until big-sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) steals money from her drug-peddling boss, “The Manager” (Glenn Howerton), and the trio is marked for death.

Mortimer’s answer to skirting around Avengers bells-and-whistles is removing his superhero’s invulnerability. Max Fist’s only remembrances of “home” are the scaly-patterned cape and suit that are no longer wearable around Los Angeles without drawing suspicion. It’s clever because you’ve stripped an almighty warrior who supposedly stood for justice on Chromium of his armor, his purpose, and most importantly, his superiority. Now he’s just intoxicated Joe Manganiello punching brick building walls, muttering an old credo as Hamster tries to gain internet notoriety.

Superhero movies are often about “the rise,” and with franchise time permitting, any “fall” might be sandwiched between an origin and redemptive threequel. Archenemy is, contextually, about a rise, but one that still grounds itself in Earth’s atmosphere and emboldens Max’s almighty fall from Chromium. Manganiello rides a fine line between a defender of universes and street corner kook, one minute blabbing about crystals and void machines, the next railing methamphetamines before charging into another bone-crunching battle. We, the audience, are watching from Hamster’s perspective as one dimension’s crusader now commits violent murders, and we must wonder - what proof beyond a sewable costume confirms any of Max Fist’s interstellar claims?

Archenemy further avoids universe-hopping locales by opting for cartoon illustrations whenever Max narrates flashbacks of his combats against proclaimed “archenemy” Cleo-Ventrik (Amy Seimetz) on Chromium. “Wild Berry Pop-tart” color palettes favor a blockier style of drawings that remove any need for laser effects or space tech, which, while ingenious, cheapens aspects of the final product. It’s a problem that persists throughout the film; vision and execution sometimes fail to meld. The ideas that propel Max Fist’s introspective journey of recalibration and selflessness are undermined by tonally one-note motivations and a third act that doesn’t quite land in a superhero pose - more a soft hop.

That’s not to say Mortimer isn’t imaginative in his underworld construction. Glenn Howerton is an inspired but aces choice as the film’s bleach-blonde, tennis-shorts-prep heavy who’s drenched in hipster sleaze. Paul Scheer shows up as a drugged-out lackey in a mankini with a penchant for Russian Roulette. Criminal pawns are tatted, slicked-back, and modern-mobster sinister - but in a movie that’s so vocal about describing its sci-fi elements through dialogue, there’s little lasting fantasy impact. Tinges of Kick-Ass are half-baked, and supporting subplots are underserved under Max Fist’s shadow. Hamster immediately gets offered a lifetime opportunity (LOL at walking into "Not Buzzfeed" and getting a staff position tryout), and Indigo immediately endangers her brother, followed by Max Fist’s redemptive psycho-babble bodyguarding and an event brisker finish.

In the action department, Manganiello rarely explodes into berserker mode outside a shoot-em-up siege at The Manager’s hideout. Wardrobe fits the maybe-superhero, maybe-tweaker in riot gear and arms him with a pistol, as Max charges into a room of monster-faced henchmen. Hamster’s given a rad letterman jacket studded with piercing additions. Otherwise, pink-and-purple Chromium montages tease epic stellar warfare that never figures into Archenemy. By the time Amy Seimetz delivers her character’s pivotal monologue, she’s already underutilized, and biting narrative revelations follow a formulaic trajectory. For a movie with such ambitious fictional beginnings, it’s never the big swing we’d expect. Merely a weighing of good versus evil that’s been blurred countless times before.

At best, Archenemy soars at a lower altitude than Super or Defendor; less remarkable, more familiar. Joe Manganiello plays a liquor-breathed nobody who vomits, wallops, and agonizes over past sins, in an appreciated performative way that recalculates the burden of hero complexes. Glenn Howerton is a bougie-bastard standout; comic book inserts aren’t always the razzle-dazzle intended; the mixed-bag recounts mount. In something like Daniel Isn’t Real, Adam Egypt Mortimer empowers wildly intoxicating expressionism that cannot be contained to our puny planet. In Archenemy? An idea that spans milky ways and temporal openings never feels more than a few metropolitan blocks wide. The plight of unlimited power, as told before.