Superhero film ‘Samaritan’ suffers from lackluster script

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It’s hard to imagine a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t dominate the superhero genre. Love it or loathe it, the MCU’s shared universe has become an unrivaled juggernaut.

The media franchise began with the 2008 film “Iron Man,” launching Phase One of the MCU. “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the 29th and most recent film in the franchise, was released on July 8 as part of Phase Four of the MCU. Phase Four will conclude with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” set for release Nov. 11. Films for Phase Five and Phase Six have been announced, continuing to expand the MCU through 2025.

The MCU dominates the genre not only by volume, but by critical reception and revenue. Of the top 10 highest-grossing superhero films, eight are part of the MCU. By comparison, “Aquaman,” the highest-ranking film from the DC Extended Universe — Marvel’s top competitor — ranks at No. 10 on the list.

Long before the MCU, superheroes made the leap — in a single bound — from the pages of golden age comic books to the silver screen. In the early days, they were featured in Saturday film serials aimed at children. These serials featured characters such as the Green Hornet, Captain Marvel, Batman, Captain America, Superman, and Blackhawk, and were popular during the 1940s and early 1950s. 

For modern audiences, the superhero genre in film was inaugurated by the release of Richard Donner’s “Superman” in 1978. With Christopher Reeve in the starring role, it was the first big-budget DC film. It enjoyed commercial success and led to a string of sequels. It set the stage for Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989, “The Punisher” in 1989, Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” in 1990, “The Rocketeer” in 1991, and “Judge Dredd” in 1995.

Among those, “Judge Dredd” — based on the 2000 AD comics character of the same name — was not well received. Directed by Danny Cannon, it featured Sylvester Stallone in the title role. In that film, Stallone portrays a law enforcement and judicial officer in the dystopian future city of Mega-City One.

In the new superhero film “Samaritan,” Stallone portrays Joe Smith, a misanthropic city trash collector living in Granite City — a blighted, economically depressed urban setting plagued by rising rent prices, homelessness, crime, and corruption. “Samaritan,” directed by Julius Avery, was released Aug. 26 by United Artists Releasing and Amazon Studios via Amazon Prime Video. “Samaritan” is not part of either the MCU or the DCEU. The story was adapted into graphic novels published by Mythos Comics. 

“Samaritan” revolves around the relationship between Joe and 13-year-old Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton). Sam lives in a small apartment with his mother Tiffany (Dascha Polanco), though financial problems put them at constant risk of being evicted. Like many other people living in Granite City, Sam is obsessed with the legend of a super-powered vigilante named Samaritan.

In the film’s opening sequence, viewers are given a Reader's Digest Condensed Books version of the city’s recent history. Roughly 25 years earlier, Samaritan and Nemesis — twin brothers with superhuman powers — chose very different paths after residents burned down their home, killing their parents. Samaritan became a vigilante, vowing to fight for justice and to protect the defenseless. Nemesis sought vengeance and set out to make everyone suffer as much as his parents. Their conflicting paths led to an inevitable showdown.

In an effort to best is brother, Nemesis forged a powerful weapon — a hammer that is totally not Thor’s Mjölnir. The account of their battle concludes with the supposed death of both Samaritan and Nemesis, along with the admission that Sam believes Samaritan is still alive.

I can’t overstate Sam’s obsession with Samaritan. The viewer soon learns that the kid maintains a list of people he has mistakenly identified as Samaritan over his short lifespan. His candidates include a freakishly strong school janitor and a postal carrier who outran a vicious dog. Now he is convinced Joe is the city’s long-lost savior.

His conviction is upheld when Joe saves the boy from Reza (Moisés Arias) and his band of presumably juvenile delinquents. During the scuffle, Joe scrunches a knife in his hand and flings teenagers across an alley as if they were bean bags at a cornhole tournament.

Not long after the skirmish, another incident proves Joe does possess superhuman abilities. By that point, the film’s focus has shifted to Reza’s boss, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who idolizes Nemesis as a mythic heroic outlaw akin to Robin Hood. Cyrus intends to assume the role of Nemesis, claiming that he fights for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. His view is that you can hurt anyone as long as you “punch up.” His principles are about as rotten as a dirty diaper left in the car on a Florida summer afternoon. Cyrus emerges as the film’s Big Bad, inciting people to violence in response to economic oppression and promoting mayhem and riots. If Superman stood for “truth, justice, and the American way,” Nemesis espouses anarchy, chaos, and malicious lawlessness.

Although Joe becomes aware of the situation, he prefers to avoid confrontation at all costs. It is his fondness for Sam that eventually draws him into a direct clash with Cyrus.

It is inescapable. Every superhero film released these days will be compared to benchmarks set by the MCU. “Samaritan” cannot evade modern expectations established by the Marvel canon. The fact is “Samaritan” doesn’t stand up well next to the crowded field of superhero films.

First, the film’s big reveal is so obvious it occurred to me while watching the opening sequence less than one minute into the 101-minute runtime. Second, Bragi F. Schut’s script is filled with excessive exposition, clunky dialogue, and shallow motivation. Third, while “Samaritan” introduces some new approaches to the superhero genre, it fails to fully explore them.

I suffer from a frustrating curse: When watching a film like “Samaritan,” I can spot its flaws and quickly formulate script revisions to improve it. I doubt I’m the only film buff who suffers from this debilitating disorder. Maybe the origin of the malady can be traced to my own storytelling endeavors as an under-appreciated author of short fiction. Maybe it stems from a lifetime of viewing movies. Maybe it’s just experience that comes with age.

What is so frustrating is that “Samaritan” could have been a better, more meaningful film. It could have delivered something other than its depressing ode to apathy and its morally ambiguous and unsatisfying denouement.

But wait: Let me back up a few steps. It’s not all bad.

What is particularly groundbreaking about “Samaritan” is that it makes an inconvenient observation: Most cinematic superheroes maintain a status quo favoring the ruling class. Particularly in MCU films, the conflict is usually about an extinction level event or a villain capable of inflicting mass casualties that would disrupt day-to-day normalcy. Street-level crime isn’t going to warrant a call to Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Likewise, Hulk isn’t likely to smash any billionaires for routinely underpaying employees, using their amassed wealth to lobby politicians into passing legislation that benefits them at the expense of the working class or the environment, and generally profiting off people’s suffering for generations. 

If a billionaire decided to develop a superweapon or assume control of all the world’s governments, that would probably trigger a superhero response — but only if James Bond wasn’t available. 

While “Samaritan” misses an opportunity to shine a light on underserved low-income communities and the lack of opportunity for urban youths, it at least brings these concepts to the table. 

It’s not Stallone’s fault “Samaritan” doesn’t rise above its lumbering mediocrity until the last 30 minutes of the film. His portrayal of this glum, introverted recluse, shows that he is still more than capable of tackling both dramatic roles and action films — though he, like most actors, is assisted in the later with a bit of computer-generated imagery. 

It’s worth waiting for those last 30 minutes. The showdown is as brutal as the PG-13 rating allows, and there are some tense moments in which it’s not exactly clear who will survive and how the city will react to the final struggle.

If you happen to be a hardcore Stallone fan, you’ll probably find more reason to praise “Samaritan” than to nitpick its deficiencies. The actor was attracted to the script because it centers on a boy lacking a father figure who ends up finding one in an unlikely place.

“Sam is looking for a male role model,” Stallone in the film’s production notes. “The entire neighborhood is surrounded by bad guys, and he’s being bullied. When he sees Joe, this old guy, there’s something there that connects with him. And he becomes a surrogate son to Joe.”

Stallone said he connects to this type of narrative.

“I do have an affinity for this particular kind of mythology — action films that also have heart, and which audiences can relate to, so they can say, ‘Oh, that’s like my father-and-son situation,’” Stallone said in the film’s production notes. “The audience has to identify with the crisis in the story, so they have empathy. If they’re not empathetic to the situation, then emotionally, they won’t be engaged with it.”

The key to enjoying “Samaritan” may be ignoring the fact that it’s a superhero film. It has the flair of a classic Stallone action film along with a few well-positioned one-liners. It has heart, though it might be more effective if the script devoted more time to developing the characters beyond two-dimensional archetypes. As for the morally ambiguous ending, I’d suggest writing your own appendix if you feel the need for closure.