Arts Desk

Faux Reals: On the Deconstruction, Mainstreaming, and Redeconstruction of Superheroes

“If you don’t recognize that criminals aren’t the enemy, the system is, you may as well get out now,” we’re told at the top of Gwydion Suilebhan’s Reals. A moment later, we’re chastened, “Superhero movies are bad for you.”

The pronouncement is part of an odd direct-address prologue—intoned by a masked woman in black lace and purple vinyl while she strikes stylized martial arts poses—that makes it clear we’re in for a State of the Cape address.

Suilebhan’s admirably compact play sometimes feels like the 1,001st adamantium nail in the superhero’s lead-lined coffin. An entire generation has passed since an influential wave of revisionist superhero comics posited that people gifted with great power likely wouldn’t exercise great responsibility, even if—especially if—the wielder felt further emboldened by good intentions.

And yet, having been shown to be fundamentally absurd, the superhero refused to die.

Suilebhan’s play is informed by the sad-sack psychology of the Dark Knight-Watchmen ’80s. But despite that stick-it-to-the-man prologue, Reals turns out to be more of a sly unpacking of the impracticalities of masked vigilantism than an exploration of whether nefarious entities have co-opted the superhero myth. Its marketing language describes it as a “dark comedy,” but its laughs are as sparse as Batman’s hugs.

Suilebhan is, like me, a longtime if lapsed superhero fan. His prologue also points out—as current Action Comics scripter Grant Morrison has, among others—that Superman was originally a crusading liberal. Suilebhan seems irked that comics, once a subculture mocked and misunderstood by the world at large, have become the idea supply chain for the most popular mass entertainments on the planet. If superhero stories now cost more than $200 million a pop, how subversive can they be?

It’s a timely question, to which the answer is “it depends.”

The cineplex’s current superhero saturation kicked off with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Since then, not a summer has passed without at least one live-action filmed comic book being heaved into the school-vacation marketplace. The trend seems to have hit a new apex this year, wherein the top two grossing movies, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, both came from comics.

I don’t think either film has been rendered ersatz in its effort to be as universally appealing as possible. Unlike a lot of blockbusters, both are easily recognizable as the work of the artists who made them. Avengers is a high-flying hoot, as shiny and weightless as one of Iron Man’s antigravity boots. Nolan’s film is longer, bleaker, more pretentious, and very unconventional in its pacing. (It’s also the one I prefer.) But even that one gives Batman a flying car—not something I’d ever imagined we’d see in Nolan’s grimy, procedural vision of Gotham City.

Suilebhan has said Reals started percolating in his brain four summers ago, when the middle chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy became a $500 million megahit. He wondered what gave the public such a voracious appetite for yet another Caped Crusader movie. He also started researching real-life costumed vigilantes. (In the lobby of the H Street Playhouse, a U.S. map displays the photographs of masked heroes known to be active in various cities.)

Without giving the game away, I can tell you the scenario Suilebhan has cooked up is a job interview, of sorts. Two would-be superheroes—a Kevlar-and cape-wearing Batman type who calls himself Nightlife, and Belt, a more reluctant crimefighter who relies on her advanced martial arts skills as well as a lie-detecting talent she downplays as “womens’ intuition”—have arranged a meeting with Sensei, a third costumed do-gooder who wants to join their nascent superteam.

While they wait for him to arrive, the partners debate the superhero trope. Are masks and secret identities essential or infantile? Should the primary brief of their uniforms be protective, or to scare the pants off of bad guys? The more critical issue of figuring out who the “bad guys” are comes up, obviously, but not until later.

Nightlife—to whom square-jawed actor Andres C. Talero brings a naïve, easily punctured idealism—seems well-meaning but inept, and you wonder why Belt (a tough yet tender Blair Bowers) would follow him. The applicant, Sensei (Jon Hudson Odom, in stentorian, high-kicking Morpheus mode), also seems to have little trouble making Nightlife, who fancies himself the group’s leader, dance to his tune.

“You haven’t chosen an accent color of any kind,” Sensei frowns, taking in Nightlife’s all-black regalia. Sensei’s costume seems to be inspired by Green Arrow’s hooded-archer ensemble. (The costumes are by Kendra Rai.)

Late in the show, Suilebhan’s script stokes the tension in at least one way that felt a little contrived to me. But his larger point—that the type of people drawn to masked adventurism are likely to have some easily exploitable psychological vulnerabilities—is sharply drawn. He gives us a protracted, impressive fight scene (choreographed by Nathaniel Mendez), but Reals reminded me of the quieter, more interior screen superhero stories. After seeing it, I thought of M. Night Shayamalan’s 2000 movie Unbreakable for the first time in ages. Also Bryan Singer’s chilly X-Men from that same year, which felt as much like an arthouse indie as a movie that ends with a superpower fight atop the Statue of Liberty possibly could.

In their own ways, those films brought superhumans down to earth. But because no one in Reals evinces actual fantastic abilities, it turns out to be about the most grounded superhero motif of all: the Batman Problem.

* * *

Batman was always my favorite costumed hero. That’s probably because when I got into comics at the tail end of the ’80s, he was the one with the best stories, but as a kid I imagined it was because of his lack of superhuman powers. Sure, he was rich enough to outfit himself with an arsenal of unique nonlethal weapons and vehicles; sure, he spent a decade or so in monastic study of criminology and science and martial arts. That still seemed a more plausible backstory than being the lone survivor of an advanced, humanoid extraterrestrial society or a nerdy kid for whom the bite of an irradiated spider had only desirable physical effects. (If David Cronenberg had invented the Amazing Spider-Man, just imagine.)

Nolan’s Batman films strive mightily to drape themselves in a veneer of plausibility no prior screen incarnation of the Darknight Detective ever attempted. They also dare to tackle the question of how one guy putting on a bullet-resistant costume to kidney-punch muggers and drug dealers could possibly improve the world in any substantial way. As Bruce Wayne explains to various confederates throughout the series, in Batman he means to create an inspirational symbol that the good citizens of corruption-addled Gotham City can rally behind. Late in The Dark Knight Rises, he counsels a younger ally, “If you work alone wear a mask…it’s not for you, it’s to protect the people you care about.”

Well, not just for them. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man is the least of the summer’s big, expensive superhero epics, perhaps because despite tweaks in characterization and tone and improved special effects, it just isn’t different enough from Sam Raimi’s recent Spider-Man trilogy that preceded it. But it contains what might be my favorite superhero scene of the year. Spider-Man is trying to rescue a terrified child from a flaming car that is burning away to nothing while Spidey holds it off one side of the Williamsburg Bridge. While he may have spidey strength and spidey sense, he has only half the arachnid number of limbs. He needs the kid to unbuckle his seat belt and climb up through the blown-out windshield, but the boy is too frightened to move.

Spider-Man, played by Andrew Garfield, takes off his mask and shows the boy his face. Then he tells the kid to take the mask and put it on. “It’ll make you strong,” he says.

Suilebhan’s play offers us none of this kind of uncomplicated joy. But it’s an admirable engagement of a trope we just can’t seem to leave behind: Heavy is the head that thinks about the head that wears the mask.

The play, which is produced by Theater Alliance, runs through Sept. 16 at H Street Playhouse.

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