In a month focusing on comic book movies, there probably isn’t a more obvious film for this month’s Essential Canadian Cinema column than, Canadian actor-turned-director, Peter Stebbings’ debut feature Defendor (2009). The film focuses on a, somewhat mentally challenged, man named Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson), who works during the day at a construction site for his friend Paul (Michael Kelly). However, by night Arthur traverses the streets of Hamilton as the “superhero” Defendor. With the help of a crack-addicted prostitute named Katerina (Kat Dennings), Defendor hopes to find the evil mastermind “Captain Industry,” who is supposedly working with a corrupt cop named Dooney (Elias Koteas).
Sean: Before getting to the actual plot of Defendor, I would like to talk a bit about the film’s status as a Canadian film. In my opinion, Defendor is not really actively trying to be viewed as a Canadian production. In fact, you would probably be forgiven if you thought the film was American, since it features the likes of Woody Harrelson, Michael Kelly, and Kat Dennings in the lead roles. Even the Canadian leads in the film, Elias Koteas and Sandra Oh, are just as well-known for their American roles than Canadian ones.
The film is supposedly set in Hamilton, where it was shot, however the on-screen references to the city are vague at best. Unless you are familiar with Hamilton’s nickname of “Hammertown” or the Spectator newspaper, most viewers will likely assume that the film is taking place in “Anytown, USA.” I would probably argue that the most uniquely Canadian thing about the film is the use of Metric’s song “Help I’m Alive” for the closing credits, though even they were starting to hit it big Stateside when the film was released.
William: First of all, Defendor is a fantastic film, and it’s a great piece of this tiny sub-genre of superhero films. I’m not totally sure what you would call it, maybe the heroes with no powers genre, or something like that. Special (2006) was a great one, Super (2010) was another. I think Defendor manages to beat the others out thanks to Woody Harrelson’s role as Arthur/Defendor. He’s dealing with some disability, although we’re never told what’s wrong exactly, but he never goes too far with it. He plays it just right, and it’s interesting to see how some of the more subtle moments lead his character to huge decisions, like the reason why he is searching for Captain Industry, or when he believes that bullets can’t hurt him.
Elias Koteas, as the crooked cop Dooney, is also great. He makes for a much better villain than Arthur’s somewhat imaginary Captain Industry. He adds a level of comedy, in his interactions with Arthur, and still manages to be a disgusting bad guy that you love to hate. Kat Dennings, as the world’s best looking drug user Katerina Debrofkowitz, doesn’t pull it off quite as well as the others. The relationship between Arther and Katerina is great, but I found myself thinking that it was more because of Woody Harrelson. Dennings does seem to pick things up towards the end, but I think she’s still the weakest link in the film.
Sean: I definitely agree that Defendor stands out in the “civilian as superhero genre,” which really seemed to be a growing trend, with films such as Kick-Ass (2010), Super, and Griff the Invisible (2010) coming out very close to each other. I would argue that Defendor is probably much more grounded in reality than any of those films and doesn’t shy away from the consequences of dressing up as a superhero and going after dangerous criminals. I also like how Defendor uses very practical and non-lethal methods, such of throwing marbles or wasps, to fight adversaries. In fact, one of my favourite scenes involves Defendor torturing Dooney with lime juice, which is quite hilarious in the way Elias Koteas sells it. Then of course, there’s Defendor’s ridiculous get-up, where he records his crimefighting onto a VCR strapped to his back.
I actually didn’t mind Kat Dennings’ performance in the film. She was still a relative unknown at the time, with me only really being familiar with her from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2009). This was actually the first of two Canadian films in a row Dennings starred in, since immediately after Defendor, she went on to make Daydream Nation (2010). I think she was actually better in this phase of her career, than today on the sitcom Two Broke Girls, in which her character’s biggest trait is constantly spouting sexual innuendos as one liners.
William: All those non-lethal methods are some of the best bits of the film. Elias Koteas’ reaction to a handful of marbles, or a jar of wasps, is always sarcastic, until it actually becomes an effective way of dealing with the bad guys. The fact that Arthur’s homemade battle tactics actually wind up working is hilarious. That one scene with Defendor torturing Dooney starts to take a very dark turn towards the end though, and it almost doesn’t fit with the character. For example, at the end, Katerina gives Arthur a gun, but instead of actually shooting someone with it, he just throws it at one of the bad guys. He does all these kind of ridiculous things, like the lime juice torture, but takes a nutcracker to Dooney’s knuckles in that one scene. It’s just this one moment, but it doesn’t seem to fit the character at all.
I kind of like Defendor’s outfit. Sure, the duct tape D is a bit silly, but the fact that he records what he’s doing is a genius move. It’s like having a dashcam in a cop car, Defendor can always be sure that the criminals get what they deserve!
Sean: Of course, there’s the issue of knowing exactly WHAT to record and there’s the humorous scene where Defendor gives his tapes to the police captain and the bulk of them are just of the criminals ordering take-out. It is also funny later on when Defendor needs more tapes and is given a box of used porn videos, which were the only VHS tapes Kat could find.
While on the subject, it is quite humorous how Defenfor tries to emulate Batman’s rapport with Commissioner Gordon whenever he converses with the police captain. In fact, I believe the true purpose of the lime juice is to give Defendor a Batman-like hoarse whisper. Even though he obviously does not know how to respond to Defendor, it is obvious that the captain is sympathetic to him and even eventually respects the work Defendor does for the city.
William: HAHA! Yeah, I never thought of the lime juice serving a purpose like making Defendor more like Batman, especially with his interest in comics. It’s too bad that this idea isn’t looked at a bit more though. Defendor has comics, makes a comment that he doesn’t have a cape because he doesn’t fly, and certainly seems to live his life like he’s Batman, but beyond a few minor mentions, his love of comics isn’t explored in any way.
It’s interesting how this type of sub-genre tends to be quite funny, but ultimately leads to a very serious ending, always carrying the moral that being a vigilante isn’t something that people should be doing.
Is Defendor Essential Canadian Cinema?
William: I’m going to go with a huge no here. It’s a great film, but there is very little about it that makes it Canadian. It doesn’t seem like they’re trying to make this an American film, and like you said, only if you’re familiar with Hamilton will you get the few references. Defendor almost seems to exist in his own Gotham City, not explicitly American, but always our first thought. Aside from a little bit of snow here and there, I can’t think of anything that says Canada here. In fact, I’ll have to admit that I never even realized this was a Canadian film until this article came about, even though I have watched this film before.
Sean: It’s a bit tougher for me to call. I was fully aware that Defendor was a Canadian film from the start, since I first saw it as part of Canada’s Top Ten in early 2010. A lot of my favourite Canadian films, such as Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, are genre films and are equally not obviously Canadian. Even though I pointed out Defendor‘s use of American actors and the vagueness of its Hamilton setting, I am still going to go out on a limb and say that I believe that the film is indeed Essential Canadian Cinema. It might be a bit of a controversial decision, but I don’t want let a bunch of stereotypes, such as the presence of snow, be the criteria about whether or not I call the film essentially Canadian. If nothing else, Defendor put Peter Stebbings on my radar and I am quite interested in checking out his sophomore film Empire of Dirt, which will be playing at TIFF this year.
The Final Verdict
We have a split vote folks! Make sure to check out Defendor for yourself and chime in with your opinions on whether or not is should be considered Essential Canadian Cinema.
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