“Super Capers,” the new film by Ray Griggs, tells the tale of aspiring superhero Ed Gruberman’s baptism by fire. He is aided by a group of misfit superheroes assembled under court order. The team consists of recognizable ciphers. Tommy “Tiny” Lister plays Sarge, who barks orders to the team and threatens them with physical harm. The most powerful member of the team is vain Will Powers (Ryan McPartlin). Having most of Superman’s powers, he sells used cars on the side, has his own theme song, and will crumple to a pile of tears if you call him old. The lone female on the team is Felicia Freeze, played by Danielle Harris. Sam Lloyd plays hen-pecked mama’s boy Herman Brainard. He can sometimes move objects with his mind. Also along for the ride is director Ray Griggs as Puffer Boy. He expands like a blowfish when he is frightened. Together, they foil the evil machinations of the local judge who was once the city’s favorite hero. Ed also grows up a little along the way.
If that reads a little flat, it is no accident.
“Super Capers,” like “Mystery Men” before it, believes that misguided or amateur superheroes are inherently funny. In lieu of characters, we are given recognizable types whose fumbling is supposed to be an endless source of laughs. This is flawed logic. It is not that costumes heroes have to be grim and serious. Look at “The Tick,” which is the textbook for bumbling but well-meaning heroes. Even the 1960s “Batman” TV series, which always played the characters as straight, if a little overzealous as citizens, is a well written example of superheroes for laughs. Both shows have characters and the comedy grows out of their situations and predicaments.
The most beloved scene in the ‘60s “Batman: The Movie” features Adam West’s Batman running around Bodega Bay with a giant cartoon bomb. Every time he is close to disposing of it, he is confronted with ducks, children, nuns, and old ladies. Flustered, Batman stops and says, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” The scene is true to the Batman of that era and the punch line, while silly, pays off on the tension.
No such scene exists in “Super Capers.” In lieu of situations creating the comedy, the film relies on pastiches, homage, and outright theft of scenes from the great popcorn movies of the 1980s, particularly “Back to the Future” and “Return of the Jedi.” While director Riggs claims he wants to honor the films that inspired him, they read mostly as cheap gags. Every time the Capers’ RV appears – it loosely resembles the famous De Lorean -- it says nothing but, “I like ‘Back to the Future.’” It has a flux capacitor prop inside. And like its cinematic progenitor, it will travel through time if it speeds up to 88 miles per hour. The film eventually gets the vehicle to move that fast by dropping it off a cliff. A sound-a-like composition of Alan Silvestri’s “Back to the Future” theme plays to reinforce this notion.
Griggs attempts to wear these influences on his sleeve by pointing at them. The Capers have an armorer in the form of Oliver Muirhead’s Herbert Q. He likes to think he is Major Boothroyd, head of Q section from the James Bond films. Everything about Herbert is obvious. His lab features posters from the movies Riggs leans on the most. His robot assistant is made to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, but comes off more as the Hans and Franz “Saturday Night Live” sketch mixed with Twiki from “Buck Rodgers. A running gag in the film is Herbert’s reliance on movies to make the team gear and costumes. In Herbert, Griggs attempts to acknowledge how much he owes the films he is lifting from, but admitting unoriginality is not a valid excuse to proceed.
“Super Caper” does feature an able cast who have very little to work with. Justin Whalin plays Ed Gruberman with a great deal of conviction. He played Jimmy Olsen on “Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman” from its second season and can play overwhelmed very well. He commits completely to the roll, and while the character is never rounded, the actor never looks frustrated in the confines of the part.
It is always a pleasure to see Michael Rooker on screen. He plays the evil Judge with the delightful villainy he brings to “Mallrats” and “Slither.” Taylor Negron appears as the Judge’s chauffer. Negron has the amazing ability to deliver any line and produce a laugh. He is the lone source of intentional laughs in the film.
Near the end of the film, Whalin and Rooker re-enact several minutes from “Return of the Jedi.” When Whalin first enters the set, a character appears to inform that the scene should feel familiar. The actors deliver, chapter and verse, exchanges between Luke Skywalker and the Emperor; including the line, “Your faith in your friends is yours.” At the end of the sequence, Michael Rooker rips of his mask and shouts, “This is ridiculous!” It looks like the actor is cracking. We cannot blame him. This sequence typifies the experience that is “Super Capers.” It spends much of its runtime reminding you of better films you could be watching. The “Jedi” scenes go on so long, it begs the question, “When does it stop being an honor and start being a theft?”
This is the problem with the whole film’s approach. It is all obvious with very little insight. When the makers of “Strange Brew” reference scenes from “The Empire Strikes Back,” they made it work for the characters in that film. Similar homages in films like “Airplane!” and “Wayne’s World” also utilize scenes from other films to underscore their set of characters. In “Super Capers,” the characters, such as they are, exist only to service the scenes from other films Griggs wishes to “honor.” Without a soul of its own, these scenes come off hollow and far sourer than Griggs intends them to be.
“Super Capers” was made in 2007, but feels much older. It comes from that era reacting to Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino; watching those filmmakers only lifting scenes from other films without noticing how those scenes were re-contextualized in an original work. It comes from the same thinking that led David Zucker down the path of destruction that is the “Scary/Superhero Movie” franchise. While “Super Capers” is not a cynical film – in fact, its motives are very pure – it is as misguided as its costumed ciphers. It hopes to get up to 88 miles per hour, but can only do about 12.