The popular superhero genre seems to be economically dictated by a natural monopoly, in which two brands (Marvel and DC, now basically Disney and Warner Bros.) lead the cinematic pack. While there are some diverse stories within these cinematic universes, they still feel extremely homogenized and monolithic. That’s why it’s refreshing to see Samaritan, what is essentially a small business going up against the Walmart that the MCU has become.
Samaritan doesn’t look or feel like any Marvel or DC film, standing apart from the bright colors and comic sensibilities of the former and the more lugubrious and operatic elements of the latter. The new Amazon Prime Video film, starring Sylvester Stallone as a retired superhero who faked his death and now lives as a garbageman under the idiotically obvious name Joe Smith, is a welcome anomaly in the cinematic superhero landscape, a dirty, small, working class action fantasy that has more socioeconomic relevance than any recent superhero movie, outside of perhaps Superbob or The Dark Knight Rises.
Samaritan is an ethically and politically interesting film, wisely told from a kid’s perspective, with some great action sequences and smart direction. Despite its often weak dialogue and occasional pacing problems, Samaritan deserves more thoughtful analysis than many critics have provided it.
Samaritan largely follows Sam Cleavy, played by the excellent young actor Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, whose work in the American remake of Utopia was much better than the show itself, and who has stood out in Euphoria and The Umbrella Academy as a face to watch. Sam is a small kid with a childlike innocence and naïveté which stands in stark contrast to the soul-crushing reality of his environment. He and his single mother live in what amounts to an ignored housing project, a grim bump across the terrible topography of a bleak, awful city.
Director Julius Avery does a remarkable job of creating a true hellhole of a city, a perpetually wet, gray, and foggy variation on urban America called Granite City. Samaritan was filmed in Atlanta, but it feels as if Avery has combined the alleyways and bus stops from the worst parts of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit to create one grimy behemoth of a city, a dark portend of America’s economic future.
Everyone is working class here, and the only middle-to-upper class individuals are ruthless criminals who still live amidst filth. In this world, the Wall Street elite have high-tailed it to some skyscraper seemingly light years away, and it feels as if the poor and working class have been left to kill each other or rot in this soggy nightmare of a city.
The film begins years after two super-powered brothers, Samaritan and Nemesis, fought each other to the death, leaving Granite City to operate without any physical manifestations of good or evil; this is told in a streamlined, comic book-style opening that’s effectively childlike in its ‘once upon a time’ presentation. The brothers represented two extreme sides of morality and the law, made apparent by their names, and without them, the city is left in a kind of ambivalence. There are people who are suffering and starving, so they commit crimes; does that make them the bad guys? What about the police who arrest them, perpetuating a prison-industrial system which only creates more economic hardships within the community and for all of their dependents? Are they the good guys?
Samaritan cleverly asks these questions without ever compromising the entertainment at hand, bringing up topics like income inequality and a proletariat revolution but with an ethically ambiguous tone. It presents a community of criminals who have burrowed into the detritus of a broken-down town, subjugated by politicians and police, who are yearning to rise up and take back their town by violence; as such, they worship Nemesis, and consider the ‘good guy,’ Samaritan, just another cop. It’s a complicated, fascinating dynamic which brings to mind many current sociopolitical issues, protests, and grievances.
In a sense, Samaritan is a cautionary tale about superheroes and vigilantism, because in reality, almost every ‘bad guy’ thinks they’re the ‘good guy.’ Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot — they didn’t think that they were evil monsters and villainous cretins, but rather heroes saving their countries from international influence and corruption. Samaritan is clever in this way, suggesting that if someone wants to be ‘the good guy,’ they better check their blind spots and ideology.
Sam worships Samaritan, though. He sees ‘the good guy’ as just that, and ‘the bad guy’ as deserving of punishment, but things get confusing for him when Cyrus (played by Game of Thrones‘ Pilou Asbæk, looking and acting like a Norwegian Michael Shannon, and that’s a compliment) takes him under his wing. Cyrus’ gang is made up of basically low-level criminals, but he fashions himself as a revolutionary leader, someone who wishes to take up Nemesis’ mantle and start the real proletariat revolt. The interesting thing is that his intentions aren’t exactly wrong; he claims to “punch up,” attacking the class system and institutions which turned Granite City into a practically post-apocalyptic dump.
However, Sam believes that a man living in his run-down apartment complex is Samaritan, hiding under a false name after faking his death. This is ‘Joe Smith,’ a beefy garbageman played well by Sylvester Stallone (give or take a few mumbled, punch-drunk line readings). Joe likes to fix broken things (toasters, radios, watches), though no longer seems interested in fixing the world or himself, but Sam’s unbridled enthusiasm and innocence may be the very thing to kickstart his resurgence.
Stallone’s character is another example of the fascinating psychology and politics of the film, perhaps a bit reminiscent of Ben Affleck’s Batman in the Snyder movies, or even Thomas Jane’s Punisher in the Dirty Laundry short film. He’s perceived as a man who used to save the world, but who now thinks the world isn’t worth saving, and it’s sometimes hard to argue with that nihilistic logic. If he is a superhero, he’s one wholly representative of the Doomer generation, those fatalistic individuals who see climate catastrophe, economic slavery, peak oil, political corruption, and corporate malfeasance as unstoppable forces, and who thus prefer to be alone, sulk, and lament what they don’t believe they can change. In short, he’s the hero for our times.
Between a late reveal and an epic showdown, Samaritan takes its sociopolitical commentary in a very interesting direction, devoid of the fascism of some superhero movies and into the territory of a complex power-politics of difference espoused by Deleuze and Foucault. There are no easy answers here, but there is a pretty rousing good time. The physics-defying action sequences, while sometimes ridiculous and illogical, are exciting and filmed in a matter-of fact way, pleasantly devoid of the hyper-edited, CGI-heavy battles of recent superhero movies. The plot, while occasionally slow-moving, creates some nice character development for Sam and Joe, and even fleshes out villains like Cyrus.
Of course, some commentators might consider the film to be a borderline-racist polemic against urban city kids and street gangs, but Samaritan is no Death Wish, or any other twisted neo-con revenge film wish fulfillment. This is a film which doesn’t expressly condemn or celebrate any of its characters, but rather presents a difficult, morally complicated reality and then explores its characters’ decisions within that world. Yes, some of the dialogue (especially from the non-white characters) is trite and dull, and the only people who wield power in the film are white, but to confuse this film as racist or fascistic is to miss the point of Granite City itself.
Ultimately, Samaritan is a very satisfying, sometimes slow-moving and illogical movie, but one which stands out from the mass of homogenous superhero films with its original characters and premise. It’s joyfully self-contained, and nobody needs to watch 28 other movies to enjoy and understand this. It treats its politics as seriously as it treats its three main characters (Sam, Joe, and Cyrus), even if its supporting players are extremely underdeveloped.
Samaritan fits nicely into Sylvester Stallone’s filmography of underdog characters, but its thematically powerful and significant twist makes it almost more interesting than anything else he’s done in recent years. While critics have railed against the movie, audiences have seemed to adore it; as such, don’t believe the (anti)hype and see it for yourself, as the fascinating Samaritan just might be a good outsider film lurking on the boundaries of an oversaturated economic world of superhero cinema.
Distributed by United Artists Releasing and Amazon Studios, and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Balboa Productions, Samaritan is now streaming on Prime Video.