Channel Four’s latest in a line of ‘holy-shit-how-weird-are-this-lot?’ documentaries takes the world of superhero fiction and drops it directly on our doorstep. In a side-splitting and at times touching portrait of the country’s eccentric vigilantes, three Brits spend their time donning costumes and fighting crime, or, as it turns out, delivering chocolates to girls and pissing in bushes.
We’re first introduced to 27 year-old Will, AKA The Black Spartan - a mild-mannered accountant and father of two from South Devon, who conducts his first interview wearing a mask that I’m all but certain was hurriedly drawn on with a magic marker. Will’s goal is to crack down on organised crime – notoriously harder to fight than disorganised crime - in Torbay. He first ‘came out’ as a superhero two months ago, walking into his living room wearing full riot gear and announcing to wife, Julie, that he was off out to fight crime, a declaration she seemed less than surprised by. “It’s not the worst thing he’s come out with,” she says, possibly remembering the February he spent trying to build a dinosaur themed adventure park using the DNA from a tree sap-encased mosquito.
Julie walks Will to the door as he takes us out on patrol, presumably having been summoned by a massive silhouette of a weirdo projected onto the sky. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she says. Although you can’t help but feel that by dressing like a laconophile stripper and going out on a Saturday night to fight crime, he probably already has.
Somewhat disappointingly it seems that most of Will’s heroic acts involve trying to escort drunk people home, which in turn involves him chasing them down the street as they ignore him, either assuming he’s a drunken hallucination or some kind of intricately dressed night stalker. It’s revealed The Dark Spartan is yet to thwart any actual crime
At the other end of the country is 17 year-old Kieran, AKA ‘Noir’. Kieran is a comic book obsessive who suffers from Dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome, but despite these setbacks has quite the superhero CV. “I saved a baby from a burning building. I stopped a car thief. I brought down a drugs ring,” he tells us. “Did you really do all of those things, Kieran?” says an off-camera voice, possibly god, possibly not. It turns out he hasn’t, but would like to in the near future. Whilst having a quick go on the swings in the local park, just like Batman wouldn’t, Kieran shows us a newspaper clipping featuring a local girl who’s recently been mugged. This, he decides, is his first big case. In preparation Kieran is undergoing combat training overseen by his best mate, Barry; a boy who somewhat admirably manages to conduct an entire interview whilst doing press-ups in a cut-off t-shirt and fingerless gloves.
Finally, there’s ex-army man and ninja obsessive Ken, AKA The Shadow, who we first meet as he jumps out from a pile of refuse sacks in an alleyway, just like the legendary ninja-tramps on which he models himself. It would have been the perfect hiding place too, if it hadn’t have been broad daylight and if a cameraman wasn’t filming him from about two feet away. Ken is waging war against a gang of ‘boy racers’, who’ve been causing a disruption by doing scooter wheelies and poppers and playing Pogs in the local car park. Although not the Pogs bit. And maybe not the poppers bit either.
Will, under duress from his understandably worried wife, attempts to find a sidekick by advertising on Facebook.
Later illustrations of Ken’s ninja skills see him appear from behind a Tree like some sort of crime fighting spider-monkey and hide in a river using a bit of straw as a makeshift snorkel. The latter of which, although illustrating impressive dedication, would only really be useful if he were trying to fight marine life; perhaps a mallard that had skipped bail or some water boatmen on Pubwatch. In fact, although hiding behind things is generally quite good, it does somewhat rely on crimes taking place within pouncing distance of your hiding place. Luckily, Ken is also armed with a battle cry, knowing that screaming like a loon is the next best thing to having actual superpowers.
Although we’re yet to witness any real crime-fighting, Will, under duress from his understandably worried wife, attempts to find a sidekick by advertising on Facebook. Thankfully, if there’s any place you’re guaranteed to find someone as unusual as yourself, it’s the internet, and he’s instantly paired up with ‘The Black Void’ - a comic book shop employee equipped with a slightly reconfigured Spiderman suit, a tool belt, and a walking stick; an outfit that doesn’t really invoke feelings of voidy darkness so much as it does those of sympathy. The Black Void is briefly interviewed for the position by Julie before going out into the garden to demonstrate his martial arts skills. Essentially this just involves swinging his cane about next to a trampoline, a bit like an advanced baton twirling class but with none of the street cred’. “You just kind of hit people with it like this,” he explains, pretending to hit someone with it like that. Julie then makes the mistake of asking about the legality of carrying around a big stick. The Black Void explains that it’s for medical reasons - he has Irritable Bowel Syndrome; biology’s kryptonite.
When questioned about whether or not she finds having two superheroes in her house a bit overwhelming, Julie simply says, “There’s either two options: accept it, or say ‘what the hell is going on?’” she then briefly scans the room looking for some sand to bury her head in. If ever there was a woman who deserved a hug, it’s her.
Back in Somerset, hidden in plain sight in his back garden, The Shadow is hatching a plan to fight the car park yobs. So far it involves a smoke grenade, some model cars and a G.I Joe. It’s a bit like a precise military manoeuvre but also a bit like a child playing with action figures whilst his mum cooks his tea. His plan, it seems, is to run over to the gang and shout, “Go away, and don’t come back,” most likely because the one thing ‘boy racers’ hate is being given directions. Although ridiculous, there is something about Ken that makes you think he has the capacity for serious violence. It may be the story that his mate regales us with about the time he head-butted a big Scottish bloke who was trying to break into a car; it may be the way he manipulates his G.I Joe around the tiny, chalk-drawn car park on his patio; or it may be the shed packed full of swords and guns in his garden. Whatever it is, it’s intriguing.
Weeks of planning and surveillance, and several G.I Joe funerals later, the time for battle arrives, but the car park is deserted. Not to be discouraged The Shadow hides in a bush whilst the film crew shine bright lights on him in the least subtle display of stealth ever. “How long have you had to wait for crime before?” someone asks. Ken explains that sometimes it can be hours, before almost needlessly divulging that occasionally he has to piss himself to avoid breaking cover. “Err...Ken, I’m going to call it a night,” the cameraman replies, possibly put off by the sound of liquid spilling on concrete. “I could show you what I was going to do?” offers The Shadow, his illuminated face poking out from between the leaves of the bush.
And he does, throwing an unnecessary smoke grenade about two feet away from him, running out of the bush and shouting at a parked car using words more fitting in a letter to the council than in conversation with a bunch of lairy teens. “The local residents do not want you in this car park, I suggest you leave and do not return.” He then sprints off back in the direction of the bush. You can’t help but think that not only would this speech have been spectacularly unsuccessful, but also probably no worse off if missing the ninja outfit, the smoke grenade and the story about weeing himself in bushes.
Despite moments like this containing an unintentional stroke of comic genius, there is a touching and a times very sad undercurrent to the film. Each of our fledgling heroes is spurred on by either past trauma or the strain of their everyday lives, and despite their bizarre behaviour, you can’t help but like all three of them. Ken is still angry after facing a traumatic childhood involving what is suggested to be fairly merciless bullying. Will has in the past suffered depression and uses The Black Spartan as an escape from the demands of his day-to-day life (his wife is unable to work following a head injury and Will is the main carer for their two kids). And Kieran, due to his conditions, seems to find the prospect of simply talking to people almost too much to bear. All three take comfort in their disguises.
We leave our heroes with Kieran deciding to track down the victim of the mugging he read about in the paper. He interviews local residents, between numerous panic attacks, and eventually finds someone who knows her. Unable to speak to her he instead, endearingly, writes her a letter and places it with a box of chocolates on her doorstep, leaving you to wonder if maybe the girl was the objective all along. When reflecting on his success, Noir displays a maturity that you wouldn’t previously have expected. “You don’t need a mask or a costume to be a superhero. It’s what you do, not what you look like or what you wear.” Now, if he could just cc The Dark Spartan and The Shadow in on that then maybe they’d all be better off.
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