Four members of a now defunct superhero team awaken in a deserted town in the dead of night. Robbed of their superpowers, Charge (writer-director Jason Trost), Cutthroat (Lucas Till), Shadow (Sophie Merkley) and The Wall (Lee Valmassy) must set aside their differences as they are forced to take part in a twisted and deadly game orchestrated by their vengeful arch-nemesis, Rickshaw (James Remar). Their task is to unravel a series of fiendish traps with the lives of captive innocent townsfolk at stake. But the games are rigged as Rickshaw wants the heroes to learn what it feels like to fight a losing battle.
In retrospect the flop comedy Mystery Men (1999) has proven surprisingly influential given the “what would superheroes be like in real life?” premise blossomed into a vibrant sub-genre in its own right following the likes of Kick-Ass, Super (2010) and cult TV show Heroes. Described in some quarters as “Heroes meets Saw”, All Superheroes Must Die first played film festivals under its original title of Vs. Shot in two weeks for a very meagre budget this was the second film from multi-hyphenate indie auteur Jason Trost. Clearly a talent to watch, Trost gives a commanding and charismatic performance as the most conflicted of the heroes but truly shines as a director. He utilizes his limited resources extremely well creating an ominous atmosphere of suspense and intense drama with no small amount of visual ingenuity and strong performances all round. Co-star and co-producer Lucas Till, who played Havoc in the considerably healthier budgeted X-Men: First Class that same year, acquits himself well while veteran James Remar proves a nicely sardonic and imposing evil genius.
The “bunch of heroes held captive by a crazed villain” is a staple scenario of comic books but rarely adapted for the screen although Smallville once did a Saw-inspired episode. Despite the Saw comparisons the film arguably draws more from Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Each of the cruel no-win scenarios concocted by the fiendish Rickshaw tests the heroes’ stoicism and morality. He lures them into situations that confront these hitherto superhuman beings with pain, loss and mortality, slowly crushing their spirit. Throughout the ordeal, Charge proves strangely pragmatic which injects an additional layer of ambiguous tension as we wonder how far he will go to stay alive. In his introduction to the film on DVD, Trost mentions his boredom with origin stories in superhero films. Hence he refrains from giving us that much background on his protagonists and instead fills in the blanks with brief black and white flashbacks that prove suitably compelling and enlightening without disrupting the suspense narrative.
Aspects of the plot flirt with absurdity but for the most part Trost captures the tone of contemporary comic books, particularly the revisionist cycle of the 1980s, without once lapsing into camp. The cast invest their roles with admirable gravitas, emoting in full costume throughout something rare in superhero films. On the other hand the film is remarkably downbeat and bereft of humour. It may hold less appeal to the kind of mainstream film-goers that flocked to Avengers Assemble (2012) or Iron Man 3 (2013) than seasoned comic book fans who seem to prefer the darker end of the superhero spectrum these days. It also stands as one of the best looking no-budget features in recent years with striking cinematography by Amanda Treyz that should inspire numerous aspiring filmmakers. George Holdcroft supplies a fine score that has an appealing John Carpenter vibe.