For his latest, Archenemy, filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer introduces us to Max Fist (played by Joe Manganiello), an inter-dimensional warrior who now lives out his days here on Earth. He arrived on our planet after an all-out battle left him careening through dimensions, and now, a destitute Max gets by being a talkative drunk who will tell anyone who will listen his wildly unbelievable story. One day, Max crosses paths with Hamster (Skylan Brooks), an aspiring e-journalist who sets out to prove to the world that superheroes are amongst us as he records his new pal doing a bunch of tricks that he hopes will go viral.
Meanwhile, Hamster’s older sister, Indigo (Zolee Griggs), has found herself mixed up in a bit of trouble with her boss (Glenn Howerton) after he tasks her with retrieving a huge sum of money from one of his associates (played by a completely bonkers Paul Scheer). But the exchange goes awry, and Indigo finds herself in the crosshairs of a lot bad people, and it’s up to Max to step in and come to the rescue, even if he doesn’t think he’s all that heroic to begin with.
In a day and age when superheroes have become a driving force in pop culture and in so much of the media that we consume, Archenemy stands out as an anti-hero tale that takes a bit of the wind out of the capes of those iconic characters, but does it in a very thoughtful way. Some elements of Archenemy deliver what you’d be expecting from this kind of a movie: an intriguing backstory, some killer world-building, and a central conflict with a “big bad.” But beyond that, there’s something very different about the way Mortimer goes about things in Archenemy, where stripping away Max’s power and turning him into a guy who eventually just wants to set things right, makes this experience something far more humane and realistic than you’d see in any Marvel movie (that’s not a knock to Marvel, either, those films/stories just serve a different purpose).
The visual style of Archenemy is pretty fantastic, with Mortimer utilizing a series of gorgeous and eye-popping neon-drenched animated sequences to fill in the blanks on Max’s life prior to his arrival on Earth, and the way those sections tend to bleed into the gritty reality of the rest of the movie was a really ingenious touch, too. It’s not that I haven’t seen movies blend live-action and animation before, but there’s something about the way Mortimer approaches it here that feels very special.
As the fallen hero at the center of Archenemy, I really enjoyed Manganiello’s performance as Max, who gives the grizzled character some rough edges, and despite his character’s best efforts to be as disagreeable as possible at times, there’s just something inherently engaging about this fallen hero all the same. There’s a sense of responsibility that you can sense is driving Max, particularly when he gets mixed up with Hamster and his sister, and those are easily the best parts of Archenemy, especially as they allow Manganiello the opportunity to go off in a bit more deadpan comedic direction with his portrayal of someone who used to be able to wield his power with the greatest of ease, and now, the only thing he’s really good at is consuming large quantities of alcohol (his love of booze also happens to tie into Max’s genetic makeup).
But I enjoyed seeing this side of Manganiello as an actor, and I think Archenemy effectively proves that he should have been top-lining movies for years now (although his stint in Rampage was super fun, too). Both Brooks and Griggs are enjoyable in Archenemy as well, even if some of the aspects of their respective storylines do feel a bit thinly stretched at times (who just gets to walk into a business and demand a job as a journalist? Certainly not this writer). That being said, I do feel like their characters give Archenemy a sense of emotional-centeredness to balance out Max’s aloofness, and both actors are instantly likeable.
My only quibbles with Archenemy are centered around its finale, as the pacing in the final act of the film feels very jarring in comparison to everything else that precedes it. Mortimer takes his time in settling us in with Max, as well as Hamster and Indigo, so when Cleo shows up, Archenemy’s narrative seemingly goes into hyper-drive mode and races its way to the finish line, and I wish that we had gotten a bit more out of that final act as a whole. Because it rushes along so rapidly, when we get to the conclusion, I was left with a bit of a “wait, that’s it?” feeling, which left me wanting more as a viewer from both the story and these characters as a whole.
Also, I feel like there was a bit of a missed opportunity to really build up the conflict between Max and Cleo here to feel like something of the epic showdown we are teased early on in the film. There’s a decent amount of back and forth, but it’s missing that big wallop that would have heightened the tensions and stakes as a whole. But I will say that getting to see Seimetz here as a super villain in Archenemy was an absolutely delicious experience all the same, and I’d love to see her take on more villainous roles like this in the future.
The one thing that I have always appreciated about Mortimer’s career is that he’s never been afraid to take risks as a storyteller, and with Archenemy, he takes some pretty big swings that could have been catastrophic in the hands of lesser directors. There’s something uniquely bold about the type of world-building that Mortimer does with Archenemy and I love that even if he didn’t have a huge budget to fall back on, the ambitious director still goes all out with some killer visual aesthetics and a ton of ingenuity that puts a lot of bigger movies with ten times the budget to shame.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
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