Two things are true: Superhero movies take up too much pop cultural real estate, and we need more of them. Disney, pop culture’s reigning dominant force, plays an outsized role in determining how movies get made and which movies get made, with superhero movies remaining the blockbuster du jour 14 years after the release of Iron Man. Marvel characters are ubiquitous on multiplex screens and streaming services. But there are more superheroes in Heaven and Earth than Marvel’s philosophy can dream of, not only because the Marvel Cinematic Universe ’s philosophy sucks but because superheroes have a rich history outside of Marvel.
Maybe the stranglehold the MCU has over what audiences watch explains why series like The Boys, Invincible and Watchmen have carved out space for themselves, bit by bit: A segment of viewers want to see superhero deconstruction, stories that focus as much on character as on CGI things smashing into each other. This may also explain the release of director Julius Avery’s Samaritan, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle that draws on his persona as society’s worn out and discarded has-been, where a masked vigilante long thought dead turns out to be alive, living among normies, keeping a low profile out of weariness and survivor’s guilt.
Samaritan, the hero of the title, fought with his brother, Nemesis, in a slobberknocker of the gods 13 years before the film’s events. A colossal explosion killed them both. But, in the present, young, impressionable Sam (Javon Walton), thinks that Samaritan made it out of the blast and now leads a humble existence as Joe (Stallone), a reticent garbage man holed up in the apartment across the way. Is Joe Samaritan? Is he just a regular guy doing what he can to get by? Why does he have a freezer full of ice cream? Are criminals really all that bad, and should Sam get in good with Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a Nemesis fanboy and gangster who fancies himself a modern-day Robin Hood? Are superheroes super after all?
Samaritan tosses questions at the viewer like dice at a craps table and expects they’ll answer themselves. Mostly, Avery and screenwriter Bragi F. Schut are interested in Walton palling around with Stallone, who plays Joe as a tough guy caught in arrested development: Streetwise but childlike, strong but incongruously innocent. He’d rather avoid a fight than throw elbows, a preference he tries to impart on Sam. But Sam is an actual child. He has no familiarity with violence or its repercussions, or how people who embrace violence as a catalyst for change are willing to cross moral lines. Cyrus is, unsurprisingly, a brutal monster and a version of a Nazi paraphernalia collector: The guy busts into a police evidence depot to retrieve Nemesis’ two defining effects, his mask and hammer.
Cyrus’ villainy is as great a disappointment for Sam as Joe’s stubborn refusal to step out of the shadows and save the day. This is a juicy setup rife with potential for unpacking superhero mythology and purpose—in between staging exceptionally one-sided brawls between Joe and the legion of thugs Cyrus sends after him. Each fight scene is leisurely; Samaritan isn’t trying to live up to current standards of action in terms of momentum. It’s embracing the idea that even superheroes get old, and, yes, that genetic anomalies capable of shrugging off bullets and sending men flying through walls with a single punch don’t need fancy-pants moves to win a scrap. But the film only gets halfway to answering its questions and resolving its themes—that’s because, about halfway through its 90 minute duration, Avery loses his grip on Samaritan’s threads.
By the end, all of the exciting narrative possibilities laid out in the first act boil down into a beat-‘em-up climax floating on disappointing black-and-white ethics. To the movie’s credit, the defining motifs—we are who we choose to be, everyone deserves a second chance—remain present, if too backgrounded, even after Avery stops striving for something greater than “generic” by folding recognizable elements of contemporary social unrest into his material: He comes frustratingly close to pulling off an ACAB superhero movie. The Boys, Samaritan is not. But even a failed attempt at making a superhero movie out of whole cloth rather than pre-existing IP is welcome, particularly one that challenges the genre’s mores.
Director: Julius Avery
Writer: Bragi F. Schut
Starring: Javon Walton, Sylvester Stallone, Pilou Asbæk, Dascha Palanco, Moisés Arias, Martin Starr
Release Date: August 26, 2022 (Amazon)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.