“Superhero movies are hot.”

It’s something, I guarantee you, has been slipping from the lips of Hollywood execs since Bryan Singer launched the X-Men film franchise based on Stan Lee’s narrative comment on the changing civil rights landscape that polarized much of the American sixties.

I also guarantee you that this simple statement isn’t ended with the tag-on , “… right now.”
The reason? Comics are constantly being produced. Big, iconic characters such as Spider-man and Batman are constantly changing to match the time they are read in. And new properties such as Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead are causing Hollywood industry insiders to constantly peruse the comic shelves for new intellectual properties to jump on and buy up for development in the future. All this and Hollywood has come to seemingly rely on the relationship comic book properties have with the “summer blockbuster”.

But, while it is financially advantageous for superheroes and other comic book staples to be linked so closely to the “summer blockbuster”, it also brings its fair share of drawbacks. The big one being lack-luster, committee developed films that are more closely related to Director Michael Bay’s (Transformers, Pearl Harbor) somewhat hollow filmmaking sensibilities, than say Steven Spielberg’s Jaws that almost single-handedly created the term. This is a sad fact that hasn’t changed even with Marvel’s major move to buy back many of its licenses and control its characters big screen versions, with some serious hit or miss outcomes. Iron Man worked for Jon Favreau, but Edward Norton’s Hulk had such a high degree of rumored meddling from Marvel Studios that it caused Norton to throw his hands up and end his involvement with the company once the film wrapped, and a resulting film that didn’t wow anyone. There are exceptions to the rule, most notably Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (discounting the third and final installment which was an unmitigated mess), and the cake topper, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, with the second installment being arguably one of the best films made this century!

But, as we look to this year’s coming attractions in the spandex department, the question remains, do we have anything to look forward to, or are we looking at a year of expensive polished turds? Let’s sound them off shall we; Marvel finishes much of its Avengers movie prequels with Captain America: The First Avenger and the Kenneth Branagh helmed Thor. Fox has their reboot/prequel X-Men: First Class, directed by Kick-Ass (which fell short of its printed origin) director, Matthew Vaughn. On the DC side of things, less is more seems to be the motto based on purely film count, as they focus their attention on one movie in which they CG clothe Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern and think that this will be enough to hold DC fans until The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Add to this the indie press alternative called Cowboys and Aliens with Iron Man’s Jon Favreau at the helm and starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and you’ve got your 2011 major comic conversion line-up.

There is some potential in this line-up, but nothing that gleams like the Spider-man reboot or final Nolan Batman film slated for 2012. So what could be lurking in the shadows to jump these high-budget, spandex Ballets (I’m English, look it up)? A blonde, skinny, ripped kid, dressed in a black hoodie and who listens to Bach!

Surprised? Me too! As I stepped out of the Festivus Film Festival screening of Writer/Director/Producer Michael Morrissey’s first feature film, Boy Wonder, I was just as surprised as anyone at the screening that the first glimmer of hope for superheroes on the silverscreen in 2011 was an indie outsider! It’s why I went 500 words deep into an intro without mentioning the film I’m reviewing (sorry to my editor). Boy Wonder is a film that can easily stand up on its own as a dark tale of growing up hard when the Brooklyn streets outside your door are as frightening as the corridors inside your childhood home. But, when placed inside the parameters of a superhero/vigilante tale, Boy Wonder gains a level of contrast; one that stands it up as the indie superhero movie that could literally punch the throat out of the big boys this year.

Boy Wonder puts the audience in the head space of young Sean Donovan, played by Caleb Steinmeyer (Lost, True Blood, Veronica Mars) a boy growing up in Brooklyn NY, who seems like a normal enough kid to those around him. Sure, he’s a bit introverted. He hits the books, listens to classical music and helps out at the local police station in his spare time. But, the audience are allowed to play voyeur to this seemingly polite, quite boy, and what they find there is a twisted mess of rage, bristling white with painful anger and violent reasoning. Everything Sean fills his life with, classical music, training at his Dad’s old gym, his after school work at the police station, is all in the pursuit of one thing; to keep the memory of the day his mother was brutally murdered in a car-jacking, alive in his mind. Why would you do such a thing, you might ask? To make those who were responsible, and in the pursuit, people like them, pay for their crimes by Sean’s own hands.

This is one of the reasons Michael Morrissey’s film makes so much sense as a superhero movie. Last year, we were asked to examine the idea of a young NY boy putting on a costume and beating and getting beaten up by drug dealers and the like, in the movie Kick-Ass. But it was wrapped in a very tongue and cheek package (present in Mark Millar’s source comic) and with direction that wanted ever so much to be a Tarantino film. What Michael Morrissey does with Boy wonder, to his credit, is go one step further and say, “No seriously, what would happen to a real boy if you put him through the horrors that make up the first act of a superhero mythos and then put him on the streets?” His answer is a visceral ride full of white-knuckled suspense, and gut-wrenching provocation of what would really happen.

It’s what you’d expect from a Brooklyn born filmmaker who resembles Sean in many ways, sans the horrific death of his mother, of course. But, again Morrissey breaks with convention to deliver another kind of story. Whereas most superheroes work their way up from fighting petty thugs to crime bosses, who inevitably turn out to be linked to the death that created them in the first place. Morrissey, instead, goes the other way and takes Sean into a downward spiral from taking on petty thugs and pimps, to beating on a mentally ill subway patron (we’ve all met one of those) and fighting the very inner demons that propel him forward on this calamitous path. This self-destructive journey is as dark as it gets, as you journey with Sean, and so Morrissey differs to a much less dark, if not truly any happier side plot that follows Sean’s. This journey is led by newly appointed homicide detective Teresa Ames, played by Zulay Henao (Fighting, S. Darko, Feel the Noise). Ames is a workaholic, careerist who’s lost her family to the job and her lust for more accolades. When Sean, who is always moping around the station, starts to fit the role of a mysterious vigilante, Ames true nature begins to appear. While Henao’s performance lags occasionally, the comic relief from her and her partner, an over-weight, unknowingly racist and sexist detective, is well dispersed throughout the movie to allow the audience a moment of levity before it is once again shattered by Sean’s perspective, and it is in Steinmeyer’s performance that the film really relies, and he delivers in spades.

While the performances are generally top-notch, and much higher quality than you’d expect from a low-budget indie, it’s the narrative that Morrissey brings through his use of moody lighting, often disturbing camera angles and absolutely phenomenal editing, that makes Boy wonder work so damn well. It won Morrissey an award at the Rhode Island Film Festival for best editing, and from the opening sequence you can see why. Morrissey’s edit pulls you in and doesn’t let go even long after the credits have rolled. It’s nice to witness an audience tense up at a movie that isn’t just trying to shock you for the hell of it. It’s so effective that it took the audience I was with, time to loosen up and feel okay to laugh at the occasional moments of well placed comic relief. Sound editing also delivers to the overall effect, getting under your skin at times, while at others just making it plain uncomfortable to be in the mind of a very disturbed and even more disturbingly relatable individual.

All round, Michael Morrissey’s film deserves to be taken seriously as an alternative to the line-up of superhero films this year, or just simply as a great indie sleeper hit that will leave you hugging your own sanity a little tighter at night. And for that I applaud the planners behind the Festivus Film Festival for screening it and for giving it the award of best narrative feature at the show.

Look for my interview with Michael Morrissey coming soon to this space.