Starring: Chase Williamson, Ashley Bell, Clancy Brown
Director: Todd Burrows, Christopher Folino
Retro superheroes have become quite the fashion in comic books of late, and this commendably stylish 1940s-set feature (co-directed by Christopher Folino from his own graphic novel) marries that trend with lashings of noir tropes and twisted goings-on. All in a way that would make Alan Moore proud, and all on a tiny budget.
B-movie references abound, with much of the story told in flashback from a dramatic, D.O.A.-style opener, our narrator being the titular Sparks, a would-be superhero who has been hampered throughout his career by the fact that he doesn’t have any actual superpowers. Orphaned at an early age, he finds his niche as the loyal sidekick and romantic admirer of kickass heroine Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell, almost unrecognizable from the human pretzel of The Last Exorcism). But when a run-in with a camera-wielding, Peeping Tom-like serial killer leaves her a quivering rape victim and himself a laughing stock, he’s washed up and suicidal. And from there, things only get worse…
Sparks is a film that looks inexpensive, but in an interesting way. The use of bold, splashy green screen SFX, combined with ’40s glam, makes the whole thing seem theatrical, hyper-real and dreamily self-referential, which wouldn’t work at all for a more humdrum story but is very well suited to a tale of people who feel driven to dress up in flashy costumes and call each other by silly names. Visually, it has something in common with Sky Captain and the Pirates in Mars, but whereas that movie ended up feeling like a toothless exercise in nostalgia, this one has learnt from Watchmen, steeping its characters in a surprising amount of violence and dark subtext. And it’s surprisingly true to the spirit of noir as well, with its despairing and broken central character, whose idea of a good time is to pay a shape-shifting prostitute to pose as the love of his life.
Occasionally the layers of noir stifle the drama, but more often the grit, violence and sense of menace prevent it from becoming a mere exercise in style. Decent performances all around too, especially from the touchingly weedy-looking Chase Williamson, who would make a great Peter Parker. Oh, and trivia buffs, look out for a fight scene between baddie William Katt and Jake Busey, whose dad Gary co-starred with Katt all the way back in 1978 in Big Wednesday … okay, make that really serious trivia buffs only then.