Archenemy nicely compensates for its budget with some bits of visual aplomb, but it amounts to little as the film frustratingly spends most of its time with its least interesting characters.
Since everything is a superhero movie now, there’s even a sort of cottage industry of dark, indie takes on the genre. You’ve got your Chronicles, your Brightburns, and so forth. Most of them are pretty same-y, but occasionally something relatively inspired pops up, which makes the strange existence of Archenemy all the more frustrating.
Meet Max Fist. Yes, his name is Max Fist. When we first meet Max (Joe Manganiello), he’s the protector of his world, some extra-dimensional place called Chromium, and he’s doing battle with his nemesis (some might say…archenemy) Cleo (REDACTED). They battle each other out of a very high window in a very tall building and fall through a rift in space-time. Cut to: Los Angeles. Here, Max is an unhoused alcoholic who, when he’s not drowning in booze, will tell anyone willing to listen about his past as a superhero. He finds a welcome audience in Hamster (Skylan Brooks), a youngster attempting to break into viral social media, and who suspects he might have just discovered some grist for his would-be content mill. Meanwhile, Hamster’s sister Indigo (Zolee Griggs) is a low-level drug dealer who’s just ripped off her boss, The Manager (Glenn Howerton). Seems unwise, but there has to be something to disguise as a plot, so we’ll allow it.
The question of Max’s actual provenance could only go one of two ways, but any tension behind that question is mostly diluted because the very idea that Hamster might honestly believe his superhero claims makes him seem, well, stupid. On the other hand, if Hamster is merely trying to get a good story to go viral, then he’s exploiting a homeless alcoholic in imminent mental crisis for clickbait, which makes him a remarkable kind of asshole. Worse, although Manganiello is doing some decent lifting — someone please cast him as Randy Savage in a Macho Man movie — Max is largely sidelined by Hamster’s and Indigo’s throughlines, and so we spend most of the movie with its least interesting characters. One wishes there was more time to hang out with the mumble-mouthed Max and also Howerton’s The Manager, who is clearly having a ball as a vicious gangster, and let’s not forget the late reappearance of REDACTED, who’s always a welcome presence.
Director Adam Egypt Mortimer (now that’s a cool name) keeps the narrative pleasingly oblique and thankfully mostly bereft of conventional superheroics or obligatory special effects; instead, there are a ton of flashbacks to Max’s time on Chromium that are depicted in dopey animated sequences covering for a low budget. Credit where it’s due though, the film has a lovely, splashy color palette of bright blues, reds, and purples, and when the action does heat up, Mortimer displays some distinct ingenuity, specifically in a slow-motion close quarters fist/gun fight. But ultimately, while Archenemy is quite a massive swing, and you love to see it, it’s just as big a miss, which, well, you know.