Superheroes are everywhere. Since the mid ’00s, they’ve graduated to a billion dollar business, shifting the way Hollywood makes films. A new (anti-) hero is headed our way in Archenemy, Adam Egypt Mortimer’s psychedelic gonzo take on the genre. Max Fist (Joe Manganiello) is a force of nature. He also might be the last son of a planet named Chromium. When he gets entangled in the lives of two teenagers, Hamster (Skylan Brooks) and Indigo (Zolee Griggs), the homeless drifter has to reconcile his apparently tall tales with the danger his new friends find themselves in. Archenemy is a smart, timely, and inventive take on the stories saturating Hollywood. We chatted with Mortimer and Manganiello about the comics that made them, creating a multiverse, and changing the superhero film for the better.
Not Your Average Origin Story
Archenemy is a project Mortimer had been planning for years. “I started really thinking about it around 2015,” Mortimer told Nerdist. “That’s how long it’s been. I’ve always loved comics and superhero stories. And I’ve always felt like comics deal with superheroes in these ways that are so much more interesting and cosmic. They have all these different aesthetics…that we’ve yet to see in superhero movies.”
Mortimer expanded on the birth of his film. “So I had this sort of dual integration for this one. I want to do something that’s really gritty and real like The Wrestler, but with a superhero,” the director said. “But on the other hand, I want to do something that explores the multiverse and the kind of origin story that you’ve seen so many times but in a way that really takes it into a different world.”
The Comics That Shaped Archenemy
Epic Comics, Dark Horse Comics
Despite not being based on an existing comic book, Archenemy is very much a comic book movie. From the visual language of the film to Max’s obvious super influences, it wears its love for the medium on its sleeve. So what titles influenced them? “Marshal Law!” Manganiello exclaimed, referring to Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s comic, which debuted in 1987. “It’s the best, darkest satirical representation of the United States and our culture by any writer I’ve ever witnessed. I love that book so much. Pat Mills, if you’re out there, I want the rights so much! Let me have the rights, please!”
Manganiello named some other impressive deep cuts when asked which comics shaped the film. “[Kevin] Eastman and [Peter] Laird, their original run of the black and white Ninja Turtles before it went, you know, skateboards and pizza,” the actor said. “It was so existential and questioning and challenging. Like, ‘We were raised for revenge. And once we get revenge, then you’re just empty?’ And then you’ve got the rest of your life to live and you’re this abomination who doesn’t belong. So it was just the loneliness of the X-Men times ten.” As unexpected as it may seem, those themes are key to Archenemy, which deals with what happens when great power doesn’t come with great responsibility. Not to mention how those who lose their way are often left on the outskirts of society.
Grant Morrison’s Influence
For Mortimer, one name came to mind immediately. “Grant Morrison,” the director said. “He’s a good friend of mine. And he’s also not just my favorite comic book writer, but he’s one of my all time favorite writers in any medium. I love the way that he approaches superheroes and approaches the comic book page as this endless opportunity. He can squeeze brand new ideas out of every panel.”
But Morrison wasn’t Mortimer’s only influence. “Another book that I love, that I brought up and showed my photographer, was the collected works of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury. Where he took what [Jack] Kirby was doing and suddenly it was just this most amazing pop art, op art, optical effects… and it blew her mind. So she was immediately like ‘How do we adapt this?’ And that comic is from a long ass time ago and you’re still not seeing that influence on superhero movies. Steranko helped [Francis Ford] Coppola make Dracula, but you’re still not seeing that in superhero movies. As a lifelong fan of the best and coolest comic books, I wanted to put that into the movie.”
Creating the Otherwordly Planet of Chromium
One of Archenemy‘s greatest strengths: incredibly immersive animation. The swirling purple and pink oil-slick-inspired pieces are used to illustrate the world of Chromium and Max’s past. It’s an effective device that strays from the often unambitious animation we expect. Getting this part of the world right was key for Mortimer. “I didn’t want it to look like a motion comic,” he explained. “That was my number one fear. It couldn’t be this really beautifully drawn picture that has no life or movement. It needed to be completely alive and expressive. So how do we make it emotional and expressionistic?”
Manganiello was clearly impressed by the inventive representation and had some deep readings of it. “That was great. That was really interesting, not just as a way to tell the story but also as an interesting way to represent another dimension,” the actor shared. “Who’s to say that the perception or the way that things are perceived in another dimension wouldn’t be exactly that way? That it wouldn’t be seen in two dimensions? That the color palette wouldn’t be completely different? Then, coming to our Earth and being made of flesh and blood and molecules, that our eyes would focus and see pictures in a totally different way. So I really liked that the animation was there. Not as a gimmick but to create an alternate dimension.”
Subverting Superhero Expectations
Made on a low budget for a small production company, Archenemy doesn’t feel like your average superhero movie. And making it didn’t feel like one either. “It’s all about heart,” Manganiello shared. “But there’s also a level of freedom in the subject material because we’re not confined by someone else’s IP. My partners in SpectreVision, you couldn’t ask for better partners. They just care about telling the best story. So we got to take this archetypal character like Superman and tell our own story with him. What if he landed on the wrong planet? What if he was a drug addicted homeless man? These are all the sandboxes that we got to play in that are very hard to play in if you’re making a big studio film for a corporation and conglomerate that’s running the show. We got to tell the story we wanted to tell.”
Could We See the World of Archenemy Expand?
As for whether there’s more stories to tell, both Mortimer and Manganiello would love to keep exploring the world of Archenemy. “Absolutely,” Mortimer exclaimed. “I wrote the outline for a graphic novel which not only kicks off at the end of this movie but also goes back in time, with a lot of focus on Indigo. I think there’s a whole lot of things to do! It’s a tiny little movie but I always wanted to create a multiverse, to have that sense of possible mythology. It could be a series, it could be a series of books, it could be all of that stuff!”
Manganiello agreed. “We’ve talked about it. We didn’t want to put the cart before the horse. But you’re talking about a movie that deals with dimensional travel, eleventh dimensional space, string theory, parallel universes. There’s so much to be explored. You never know if this is a hallucination or if it’s three different timelines existing at once. And he’s kind of getting pieces in his brain of all of them and it’s driving him mad. So I think there’s a lot of cool stories to tell. Hell, I want to see Max back on Chromium. What happened there?”
Archenemy hits theaters, On Digital, and On Demand on December 11.