Director Michael Barnett shares his inspiration for the documentary and why he walked away a changed man
By Lie Shia Ong
You may have heard or read about the superheroes movement across the United States, where ordinary citizens put on their own made-up costumes and take on the responsibility of fighting crime and making their cities a safer place to live.
In the new documentary, “Superheroes,” which premieres Monday, Aug. 8, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, director Michael Barnett shows the lives of these real-life caped crusaders from all over America.
MSN TV spoke with Barnett about his inspiration for the project, and what he thinks is the true definition of a “superhero.”
MSN TV: I heard this it the first film you’ve directed. How did the idea come about to do a documentary about superheroes?
Michael Barnett: … I basically stumbled across this community online and had kind of just been gathering information, and when I was ready to share it with my producer, he couldn’t believe a) a film hadn’t been made and b) that this community even existed to begin with. WE found Mr. Xtreme, our first guy, and he agreed to let us interview him, and we cruised down to San Diego, and we thought to ourselves, ‘Hey, if nobody else even agrees to do this, we have a great story in him.’ Ultimately, he became our main story anyway.
Were you a fan of superheroes and comic books growing up?
Yes, deeply embedded in the mythology of the superhero world growing up. I collected comic books. I was lucky to grow up during the kind-of golden age of “Dark Knight” and “Watchmen.” To this day, I still have “X-Men” delivered in the mail because I don’t want to read them online.
You filmed this documentary in several cities. How many superheroes did you speak with?
We spoke with probably well more than a hundred when we did our first set of interviews. Then we kind of narrowed it down. … As we did researching a bit, we found out quickly who the pillars of the community really were. We ended up shooting about 40-something heroes. Then we kind of narrowed that down—kind of streaming story lines with New York Initiative, Master Legend in Florida and Mr. Xtreme in San Diego, so we kind of covered the whole country.
Do you have a memorable moment that sticks out most in your mind when shooting?
I have so many. I would say the most memorable was when we—every time we would get in touch with somebody to begin with, they were so hesitant to agree to be a part of the film because they were really nervous about the media. They had been marginalized and exploited by their local media, so it took us a little bit. We would just spend the first day or so letting them know our intentions. Then, ultimately, we met with Zimmer, with the New York Initiative, and they’re pretty aggressive, hardcore crime fighters. They do a thing where they dress Zimmer up proactively and put him out in the streets in hopes of rooting out homophobic criminality. They were really hesitant to meet with us. We got them to finally agree, and we met them in a coffee shop in Brooklyn … and we really wanted him to be part of the film. He said, “All right, I’m going to get the rest of my team,” and then about an hour passed and we realized he wasn’t coming ack. We were like, “We flew all the way to New York for this guy, and I think he’s bailing on us,” and then just as we were about to leave, the table next to us comes up and says, “We’re the rest of Zimmer’s team. We’re the New York Initiative. We’ve been spying on you”
. Apparently, everything we had said while we were waiting was of pure intentions so they agreed to do the film.
Did you ever find that these real-life superheroes impeded the work of law enforcement? How did police and people react to them?
That’s such a complex question. It’s a rough one to answer because it’s really regional. IN the film, Mr. Xtreme by the end of the film really gets validated by the mayor’s office of San Diego. But in New York, I would say the police tend to marginalize the superheroes movement. So, yeah, it’s very complex. It changes city to city. I think some of the superheroes have a much closer working relationship with the police and some don’t. Some police think these guys are underqualified and undertrained and maybe exasperate an already precarious situation. It’s complicated, to say the least.
You have said that shooting this movie made you walk away a changed person. Why is that?
Yeah, I think anybody who spends a year-and-a-half wandering around skid rows and seeing the blight that exists in this country, to not be moved by what these guys do … It’s such a noble thing. Few of them have the resources to do that they do, to help, but they find a way, and they find light in very dark places. It ends up being very moving. It’s eccentric, and funny, and it’s sad at time how these guys sort of became a hero, but ultimately what they do is so inspiring. I mean, every single person I met was doing more than everybody I Knew in my everyday life to make this world a better place. So now that I’ve finished up this movie, I have to figure out what I’m going to do to make the world a better place.
So what do you think makes a real superhero?
There’s a definition for a real-life superhero, and it’s simply someone who develops an original superhero personality, develops their own costume and wears it and goes out in their community to do something, and that could be fighting a crime, helping the homeless or organizing blood drives or toy drives, whatever is needed to make the community a better place. So, it’s not that difficult to be one. Make up a superhero persona, make a costume, and go out and do good.
What do you want people to know about this film, and why they should watch it?
I want people to watch the film and really just see that they can do something, they can make a difference. There are people in the film who need help and receive it and are moved by it. So, I want people to realize it doesn’t matter how eccentric you are, you can do something, be it the smallest thing to do good, to inspire people to do good.