Written by Scott Mackay and David Barras
Directed by David Barras
The opening credits sequence of Electric Man is structured as an animated comic, with panel shifts and camera manipulations aimed to recreate and enliven the experience of reading a comic. It’s a fun, kinetic sequence that actually seems to display some of the excitement of reading a comic. Unfortunately, it is one of the few moments in a film ostensibly populated with lifelong comic-book obsessives that feels even slightly enamored with the graphic medium. Electric Man often seems written from boilerplate, like someone took a Mad Lib of screenwriting clichés and mistakenly put it into production. The film is increasingly frustrating to watch, as missteps become missed opportunities and bad moves become bad habits.
The story is so standard, it’s rote at this point: Jazz (Toby Manley) and Wolf (Mark McKirdy) co-own a comic book shop that is barely making them a living, until they discover they owe their landlord thousands of pounds for repairs. The two are sunk until circumstances put them in possession of the rare comic Electric Man #1, which is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 pounds. Things complicate themselves in fairly expected ways from there, with a murderous thug (Derek Dick), a femme fatale (Jennifer Ewing), and an eccentric collector (Mark McDonnell) all angling to end up with the issue, and Jazz and Wolf just hoping to get out with their business intact.
Electric Man was made on a shoestring budget, which always means cutting corners. Yet that doesn’t have to mean skimping on the script, co-written by Scott Mackay and director David Barras, which can be the saving grace in some independent cinema where funds are scarce. Here, everything is set up in the laziest possible shorthand, from characterization (we find out Wolf is a ladies’ man because he is introduced in the way all ladies’ men are) to plot (the film kicks off with a murder so cursory, it rots much of the rest of the story’s development).
The stakes never feel real because the film never spends any time building out the people these things are happening to. Jazz and Wolf say they need money, but they never seem that desperate and we never gain an understanding of what their failure will look like, other than that they’ll lose the store, in which neither seems particularly invested. And while everyone seems to want the comic, their motivations never feel earned. Even the collector, whose desire for the book is theoretically most purely rooted in his love for comics, never coalesces as anything more than a mustache-twirler with a costume and a catchphrase. This is a movie about comic books that has no apparent love for the medium it seems primed to honor.
Each of the performers is perhaps a bit too committed to embodying their cliché, a bit too comfortable in their archetype. Rather than reaching to create three-dimensional characters where none exist, they seem comfortable to subsist in two dimensions like the characters they supposedly treasure. In the early going, Manley and McKirdy develop a nice sense of rhythm, and there is briefly a feeling that, as a hang-out movie, Electric Man could be a good deal of fun. These early scenes carry a blithe sense of humor that’s less outright funny than comfortably amusing. The dialogue between the two feels constructed, but not in an unpleasant way. It’s writerly more than realistic, but not so overt that the film flies off the rails.
Sadly, this nice rhythm between the characters is interrupted by the intrusion of the plot, a lumbering mess of noir-lite double- and triple-crosses that is far too satisfied with twists any viewer will see coming from miles away. Again, the film is defeated by its lack of well-realized characters. Electric Man is packed with references, but they are so surface, they never really resonate as anything but glib. Jazz and Wolf joke about The Matrix and The Terminator (zero credit for guessing which incredibly famous lines they quote as if checking off a box), but these allusions aren’t jokes so much as they are misdirected attempts at engaging an audience the writers don’t seem to understand. Without specificity, there’s no sense that these characters actually exist as living, breathing people, much less as obsessive nerds who have spent a lifetime cultivating particular tastes and vast amounts of trivia. Jazz and Wolf don’t feel like the kind of nerds who exist in the real world. They just feel like someone’s idea of a nerd, and their references are to things the writers must suppose pop-culture obsessives enjoy.
There’s a vaguely interesting idea in the way Electric Man plays with how superheroes can save our protagonists even without existing, but this cleverness is never given enough room to grow or resonate. Again and again, the film flirts with having an actual message about the importance pop culture can play in people’s lives, but it is always too busy getting on to the next plot twist to pause and examine its best idea. Electric Man is innocuously bad, the sort of film that won’t offend anyone but might be better enjoyed by a group of friends riffing on its clichés and missed opportunities than quietly in a theater. With the right exposure, Electric Man might develop enough of a following to be the sort of reference its characters would make, if only they knew how.
Electric Man will be released on DVD September 10th, and on VOD October 15th.
— Jordan Ferguson