Defendor is a darkly humorous drama about Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson), aka Defendor. Poppington lives in a fantasy world. In the light of day he's a mentally disabled man who directs traffic for a road construction crew, but at night he throws on black tights to become the homemade superhero Defendor. With pouches of marbles, baby food jars stuffed with angry wasps, and his dead grandfather's trench club, Defendor fights crime and searches for Captain Industry - the fictional criminal mastermind he blames for his mother's death. Poppington finds himself in over his head after he beats up a crooked cop (Elias Koteas) and befriends Kat the hooker (Kat Dennings) who at first gets a sadistic kick out of making Poppington believe the drug/human traffic peddler Radovan Kristic (Alan C. Peterson) is the supervillain Poppingon has been searching for.
Most of Defendor is told in flashback. Poppington is imprisoned when the movie begins and tells his story to his court-ordered psychiatrist (Sandra Oh), and at first you're not sure what direction the story's going to go. He beats up the corrupt cop Chuck Dooney, mistakenly believing him to be raping Kat, and is arrested when - immediately afterwards - without bothering to change his clothes or wipe off his painted on "mask," Poppington gets an early breakfast at a nearby diner. He is initially released because of Dooney's embarrassment, but regardless stages a fake escape when no one is looking, using chewing gum as plastique to not-really blow away the lock on the unlocked door between him and freedom. His crime-fighting efforts aren't stymied at all and the following night he's beaten to a pulp by thugs partnered with Dooney. The hooker Kat brings him home both to help him and to get a warm bed. Though he refuses her particular form of "payment," he lets her stay and soon she has him convinced that the crook she was forced to service is the same Captain Industry Poppington is searching for.
Defendor feels like a bleaker, more realistic superhero parody with echoes of much more lighthearted movies like Mystery Men and Blankman, and Poppington sometimes seems like a less brutal version of Watchmen's Rorschach. While you're never led to believe that Poppington is anything but delusional, eventually his actions force the situation into the kind of classic superhero story he wants to be acting in. Magoo-like, Poppington stumbles his way into the machinations of one of the city's worst criminals. Eventually, radio jocks start praising his name and the city rallies behind him.
Harrelson is believable and funny as Arthur Poppington, whose story is tragic and touching in the ways that all movies about people with mental disabilities are tragic and touching. Koteas stands out as a genuinely pathetic specimen of cop and Denning is convincing as a young runaway just trying to keep herself alive.
Unfortunately, overall Defendor fell flat for me. Though it's a comedy, there's little that's laugh-out-loud funny. Poppington is too believable to laugh at that much. And it feels very much as if there's some kind of big, important message I'm supposed to get about heroism or courage or being who you want to be that doesn't have the impact writer/director Peter Stebbings, I think, wanted it to have. My impression is that Stebbings's goal was to create a superhero in the "real" world and to make a "see, you really can make a difference" message. If that's the case, then Defendor is a clear failure, though the failure is in the concept itself. Poppington, after all, may be a more realistic superhero in a more real world, but the word "real" only works in comparison. The guy still recovers a bit too quickly from taking severe beatings, being stabbed with switchblades, or even shot. He's a little too adept at somehow managing to gather up very cooperative wasps into the sides of trucks or baby food jars. It works the other way too. For someone who likes to crack people upside the head with a heavy wooden stick, Defendor has a surprisingly low body count among his enemies.
I don't know. It's possible I'm missing the point, but if so then I can't help but lay that on the filmmakers' doorstep. I was very excited at the prospect of a superhero movie that wasn't based on a comic book franchise, and one that looked as different as Defendor did seemed promising. Defendor comes off as another Blankman or Mystery Men, but more depressing while trying and failing to feel more authentic. Defendor is not, by any means, a bad movie but it isn't a particularly good one either.