Today’s major-brand superheroes have an onscreen lineage going back at least to the ’40s, including iconic serials starring Superman, Batman, and Captain America. But Marvel and DC aren’t the only cinematic superhuman universes. During the great superhero revival of the 1980s, wedged between memorable Christopher Reeves films Superman and Superman II, came 1981 television series The Greatest American Hero. Standing alongside the tradition of filmmakers and TV showrunners dabbling in making their own superhero universes, there are also series and movies pulled from lesser-known comic book titles, such as 1994’s The Crow and 1997’s Spawn. Titles like these were countered by such as 1990’s Darkman, 2000’s Unbreakable, and 2008’s Hancock.
There is a lot of superhero content across pretty much every streaming platform. One of the latest to join the non-Marvel/DC lineage is Samaritan, which plays like Amazon Prime’s attempt to jump on the antihero bandwagon. Action film heavy hitter Sylvester Stallone stars as Joe Smith, a reclusive and mysterious neighbor, who turns out to have superpowers. His secret is discovered by Sam Cleary (Javon “Wanna” Walton), a neighborhood kid who is, on the one hand, too nosy for his own good, and on the other, beginning to get caught up with local criminal elements in a way that seems inevitable.
Arley: You know what you’re getting into from the preview. Given that it’s a streaming service movie, and considering Stallone’s body of work, this one overall is… not the worst. Stallone does a lot of really, really bad movies where he’s pretty much just grunting at the camera. Expendables was terrible. And then they made sequels! I’m like, why are you making these? Why are you underutilizing Jet Li in the worst way since Lethal Weapon 4?
Josh: I have nothing good to say about this movie. It was the worst movie I’ve seen all year.
Josh: Samaritan was very predictable, and I didn’t even see the preview. It claimed to be a fresh new take on the superhero genre — so untrue. What they give you instead is the most generic direction you could take this movie. There’s a “twist,” but I was probably three minutes into the movie before I called it. It’s the exact plot twist in Use of Weapons, my favorite of the Iain Banks Culture novels, and you can probably think of so many other examples that do something similar. The problem is not only that the twist is predictable, it’s how they treat the material in between, and the characters we’re following. I think this movie was hinging entirely on that plot twist, and it wasn’t strong enough to redeem the film. I’m surprised this turned out as bad as it did because Julius Avery previously directed Overlord, which was solid, and Stallone can do good performances and good movies. He was great in The Suicide Squad, and he was Oscar nominated for both the original Rocky and Creed.
Arley: Creed was a good movie. If he was Oscar nominated for that, it’s because they didn’t want to give it to a Black person*. But yeah, Creed is a standard Rocky flick, and they also tend to be predictable, but they are still pretty effective. Michael B. Jordan was fantastic in that. And okay, Stallone was pretty good in it, too.
Josh: There are actually a lot of decent actors in this movie: Dascha Polanco is great as Daya in Orange is the New Black; there’s Martin Starr; and the villain was good in Game of Thrones. Shameik Moore’s in this?!
Arley: I think the writing failed them, or maybe the directing, or both. Some of the moments in this look like actors doing their best to deliver solid work despite the circumstances they’re given.
Samaritan seems to demand very little from Stallone in terms of performance, and that is just what he delivers. In action movies, there are usually a few cool scenes to get excited about, but Samaritan never quite develops that momentum, partially because we never care that much about the characters, and partially because the action we do get has all been done so many times before that it feels ordinary. The average superhero geek wants to fall into a story of wonder, feel the excitement when powers manifest, and, ultimately, be transported into a realm of possibility. The superhero elements here are fairly unremarkable, bordering on dull. Because the movie relies mainly on the “surprise” of the twist, little effort is spent developing powers or mythology that feel in any way fresh, especially not given the plethora of film and TV material already out there. The special effects are decent for a handful of scenes, which gives the viewer some feeling of transportation, but several of the most critical moments — including, notably, the climax — rely on terrible effects, destroying any tension or suspension of disbelief.
The notion of a superhuman hiding their identity — including the idea of a retired superhuman who doesn’t want to be discovered — is about as trite as it gets. Similar to new TV series Stargirl, Sam goes digging through stuff to discover Joe’s secret. Unlike Stargirl¸ who lives with her stepdad and has ample opportunities to pry, Sam scales the apartment building and breaks into Joe’s place, pushing the suspension of disbelief a bit too far. Samaritan also wants to be special by aiming for a gritty superhero story, where not everything ends well, and where life is hard, and oh-so-complex. Okay, cool. But it doesn’t push the boundaries or raise questions the way Watchmen did way back in 2009, or get anywhere near as creative and interesting as the 2019 Watchmen TV show; frankly, it’s not even as gritty or dark or antihero as The Crow was almost 30 years ago.
If you’re someone who generally loves superhero films, who is just going to enjoy most superhero content anyway, with the ability to get into things that ultimately aren’t that strong, this will land as solidly mediocre, something to watch once you’ve run out of anything else. If you’re not in that group of viewers, this will probably land as pretty bad. Either way, there are a lot of other options out there.
Josh: I think part of the thing that maybe disconnected for me is that it’s clearly aimed at teens. The main character is a teen and he’s just so obnoxious the entire time. That kid is so unlikable compared to Shazam, where the characters were funny, the banter was good, and it was actually fun to watch. In Samaritan there’s a scene where Stallone says, “I see you, a-hole,” instead of “asshole,” because the rating has to come down, because they want a younger audience. There are just these very strange writing choices for this movie. I kind of want to compare it to Bloodshot, in that it was from the teen’s perspective, but this one is not trying to do anything really different in terms of the superhero genre.
Arley: I feel like it’s not for teen audiences so much as it’s for the superhero audience, and those movies and shows just often feature teen characters. I do agree 100% that the kid is fucking annoying. And I’ve talked once or twice in different places about how tired I am of narratives with annoying children characters because I feel like Americans seem to have a belief that kids being annoying is inevitable. I don’t believe that that’s true. Not every kid has to be toxic, and even if they are, they don’t have to be super toxic. It’s cliché and lazy writing, to me. I agree with a lot of what you said. But I also feel like there’s a degree to which people who really like superhero content are more forgiving. I think of Daredevil and that set of shows on Netflix, and when we’re talking about the effects in this movie looking really shitty, there are moments in those shows that are equivalent. But people are forgiving of them because they like superhero content, and because they get into the other parts of the overall presentation.
Josh: I would be more forgiving if this was being presented as a TV show, where you’re like, Oh, the budget is clearly lower, and the focus is more on story or something, but this is being sold as a big, effects-driven movie starring Stallone. It’s a mismatch in the marketing versus what’s being delivered, so I kind of felt cheated.
Arley: You watch a certain amount of superhero stuff, but you’re not like us. You’re not the target audience for this movie.
Josh: No, definitely not. I mean, I appreciate the superhero movies that are trying to do something different. Those trying to play with the tropes and the conventions, like Invincible or The Boys, although those are becoming their own tropes.
Arley: I love that cartoon. There’s, like, a battle going on between Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon over superhero shows, and this is Amazon’s volley. Trying to stand against Jupiter’s Legacy and Raising Dion and of course Umbrella Academy. Or even The Guardians of Justice which I couldn’t even sit through. Hulu had The Awesomes and a bunch of shows based on lesser-known Marvel titles, like Cloak and Dagger and Helstrom, and Marvel’s Runaways, or Gifted, which was kind of “in the world of” and “with some notable characters.” I did like Hawkeye, actually, which surprised me. Disney’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is fantastic, one of the best among recent efforts, in my opinion, and deserves to be watched by anyone who loves superhero content.
Josh: I have disliked all the other Disney+ Marvel shows, but She-Hulk was great. I watched the first episode on a lark and then ended up bingeing the rest of the show over the next two days. The CGI is garbage, but everything else (and especially Tatiana Maslany’s performance) saves it. On most other superhero stuff, we have opposing opinions. We’re two different audiences, and that’s fine, because there are different audiences out there for movies so our reviews align with them one way or another.
Arley: Sounds right. For you, Samaritan is a hard pass. For me, watch it if you’re hella bored and you’ve seen everything else. I’ll also have that cranky, “Don’t get me started on racist stereotypes and tropes,” look on my face the entire time, like, yet another story where people of color struggle with drug addiction and gang life, and some white dude comes in to save the day. Hopefully it’s such an obvious point that I won’t even need to tack that note on at the end of the review.
*Don’t take my word for it: Google “Racism in the Oscars” to find many conversations about the history of exclusion in what is considered film’s premiere awards.
Directed by: Julius Avery
Written by: Bragi F. Schut
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Javon “Wanna” Walton, Pilou Asbæk, Dascha Polanco, Sophia Tatum, Moises Arias, Martin Starr & Jared Odrick
JOSH PEARCE has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, Nature, and more. Find him on Twitter: @fictionaljosh, or at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Senior Editor, has been part of the Locus crew since 2014. Arley is a 2022 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award recipient. He is also a 2021 and 2022 World Fantasy Award finalist as well as a 2022 Locus Award finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. He is a 2022 Ignyte Award finalist in two categories: for his work as a critic, and for his essay “What You Might Have Missed” in Uncanny Magazine. Arley is Associate Editor and reviewer at Lightspeed & Nightmare magazines, columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and interviewer at Clarkesworld Magazine. He grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and lives in the SF Bay Area. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he can be found at arleysorg.com – where he has started his own “casual interview” series with authors and editors – and on Twitter (@arleysorg).
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