In Paris, 2020, superheroes no longer fight crime in colourful costumes but have assimilated into society. While some lay low, others court internet celebrity or use their powers for mundane everyday tasks. Detective Lieutenant Moreau (Pio Marmaï) used to be a police liaison for the city's number one super team, Pack Royal, until a tragedy led them to disband. But when criminals start secretly abducting metahumans in order to synthesize a dangerous new street drug that grants regular people superpowers, Moreau reluctantly partners with the fastidious Lieutenant Schaltzmann (Vimala Pons) to investigate. What they find ties in to Moreau's past and dredges up his own closely guarded secret.
This high concept French comedy-thriller puts a cinematic spin on ideas pioneered by 1980s comics like Grant Morrison's Zenith and Alan Moore's Watchmen as well as incorporating some conceits and themes from classic X-Men. Here society adjusts to the presence of super-beings with rapid and disheartening pragmatism. What once seemed magical long since became mundane. Superheroes hold down regular jobs, grapple with psychological issues (to the point where there now exists a specific area of psychiatry dealing with problems faced by super-people), host cooking shows and bicker about power rankings on Instagram. Moreau was once civilian sidekick to the masked hero Monte Carlo (delightfully played by veteran Benoît Poelvoorde) who now crashes on his couch, grappling with unstable teleportation powers, getting wistful about the glory days. His clairvoyant former teammate Callista (Leila Bekhti), stricken with early symptoms of Parkinson's disease, runs a centre for wayward kids trying to make a difference out of costume until drawn deeper into the mystery (actor-comedian Clovis Cornillac also makes a brief cameo as the ill-fated third member of Pack Royal).
Adapted from a novel by Gérald Bronner, How I Became a Superhero touches on the psychological and sociological toll wrought by the assimilation of super-humans into French society. Yet it does so with little depth compared with the comic books it seemingly draws from. Shot with a grit and verisimilitude more reminiscent of an episode of NYPD Blue than a Marvel or DC movie (indeed the Moreau/Schaltzmann relationship ticks all the buddy cop clichés) the film's tone wavers from comedy to noir-ish drama. Despite the odd broadly comic performance (Poelvoorde performs as if he is in a much more lighthearted affair) the atmosphere wavers from familiar crowd-pleasing heroics to disarmingly downbeat and oppressive. Nevertheless the story remains compelling despite some comparatively lackadaisical storytelling. To his credit director Douglas Attal takes a creative approach staging some clever low-budget suspense and action sequences. However these sit alongside other clumsily executed sequences over-reliant on dialogue to convey vital plot details. A subplot concerning misfit high school girl and burgeoning superhero Lily (Léonie Souchaud) comes across like Euphoria with superpowers. Yet while tied into the main narrative it is frustratingly underdeveloped and pays off with a post-credit scene that does not feel earned. It helps that the cast are uniformly engaging, particularly Oscar Isaac-lookalike Pio Marmaï as the candy-addicted, outwardly disaffected but actually empathetic Moreau.