Superhero movies have enjoyed a lot of popularity recently, but today’s audience doesn’t seem to want to let heroes be heroes. Superman Returns may have held up a virtuous and light-hearted hero, but even in that “boy scout” franchise modern sensibilities crept in with their dark, dreary undertones. Darker heroes like Hellboy, the upcoming Punisher, and the inevitable attempts at deconstruction like Hancock seem to be what people are clamoring for today.
With that in mind, the premise of Special doesn’t sound too bad. Les Franken, a man full of ennui and lacking social skills, begins taking an experimental drug and believes that it has granted him superpowers. The world around him knows that the “powers” are all in his mind, but Les goes out trying to be a hero in spite of any and all opposition. It could be cool, something like a modern Don Quixote, believing in his dream no matter how impossible.
Except, Don Quixote is a good and exciting story, with well-rounded and well-defined characters, a touching mix of humor and tragedy, and an ending that resolves the story. Special is not.
There have been plenty of movies before dealing with a delusional protagonist; some of these have alerted the viewer right away to what reality really contains, others save the reveal for a twist ending. Special first shows the audience that Les is imagining things at around the 20-minute mark, but it backtracks. For the most part it’s obvious to the viewer that his powers aren’t real, but there are moments that seem utterly impossible if this is the case. The film wants to have its cake and eat it, too, expecting the audience to buy full action sequences and demonstrations of superpowers–teleportation, for example–even after we have been convinced it isn’t true. Perhaps the directors hoped for us to leave questioning if it was all real after all, in which case they shouldn’t have given us so many blatant pieces of evidence that it wasn’t.
Another painful problem in Special was a lack of clear characterization. I left the theatre wondering if a large handful of moments in the film seemed out of character, and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t have been—–because the characters were never defined enough in the first place. Les’ best friends are built on the “comic book guy” jerk nerd model, and Les himself goes back and forth between internal monologues that mesh with the person we’ve seen, give hackneyed insight into his thought process (“I used to dream about flying…now I never do”), or just plain don’t seem to fit. Many of the other characters have these moments as well. Why doesn’t his doctor keep a consistent personality, or at least a solid opinion of what’s going on? Why does Les impress the love interest at all?
The characters of the “suits”, business men who Les take to be his arch-enemies, are ridiculous in their entirety. The lines begin to blur as to how many of their evil deeds are real and how many are not, but it is strongly implied that their violence toward Les, beating him to a pulp and running him over with a car, really happens. These characters are vicious and would be perfectly at home in a traditional superhero story. But they’re incredibly out-of-place in a story that wants to be utterly realistic.
It’s worth mentioning as well that the story never seems to amount to very much. Les “discovers” his powers and the suits start chasing him, but after that the story stagnates. There could have been interesting dealings with paranoia and delusion, but we never really got anything other than a jumbled mess of scenes and subplots. There’s a love interest who turns up in all of three scenes, but that doesn’t go anywhere. There’s a throwaway gag about “Les from the Future” that could have been at least a good motivation for the character, but that also never went anywhere. Even the suits beating him up didn’t seem to go anywhere. The end of the movie is a complete mess, managing to make its villains even less relatable in its attempt to make them more, and refusing to explain what’s going on, only ending on a jarringly optimistic note.
The biggest problem with Special is that it doesn’t know who it wants its audience to be. It can never decide if it wants to be touching and provocative, or funny and light, and much of the humor in the movie feels out of place as a result. If it’s a movie for optimists, why is the whole thing so bleak and dreary? (If you have motion sickness, I have to further caution you about the movie; I don’t, and I still walked out of the theatre nauseous from the shaky-cam) If it’s for pessimists, what’s with the moment of confidence at the end? If it’s for comic book fans, why are the only comic book fans within the movie portrayed as loner losers with no lives? If it’s for people who hate comics, then it’s spending too much time and effort on heroic, “epic” moments. If it’s meant to be a deconstruction of the genre, then where’s the critique? As a whole, the movie is fragmented, messy and unclear.
At its best, Special is a bland movie that enjoys the little bit of playing it gets to do with comic book tropes. There are a few laughs, but none of them huge. The acting was fine, and it’s the kind of movie that you can tell was well-loved by those who put it together. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work on the big screen.