At a time when superhero movies have a seemingly limitless grip on the popular imagination, a micro-budget indie like Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore's Special stands out for suggesting why that might be. Without the money for big effects—or more than a handful of locations, for that matter—the film instead looks inward, ruminating on how the superhero myth can tap into private fantasies and delusions of grandeur. Through the story of a comic-book fan who becomes convinced he has special powers, Haberman and Passmore take the subgenre to a comic/melancholic place that's common to a lot of independent films, but nonetheless affecting and sweet. Its ambitions are limited—though at 81 minutes, wisely proportioned—but its heart is in the right place.
Stepping out for a rare lead role (not including his regrettable Fox sitcom The War At Home), Michael Rapaport carries the film with his loveable earnestness and a meek disposition that belies his giant frame. As the film opens, he lives alone and works as a Los Angeles parking-meter cop, undoubtedly the least respected position on the force. On the side, he participates in a clinical trial for a drug called Specioprin Hydrocloride (or "Special"), which is designed to limit the user's sense of self-doubt. The drug does all that and more: Not only does Rapaport gain new confidence, he can also levitate, read people's thoughts, and walk through walls. Naturally, he dons a homemade costume and uses his newfound powers to exact some small-scale vigilante justice, mostly on would-be shoplifters and stick-up men.
The trouble with Rapaport's powers, of course, is that only he's convinced he has them, which leads to some funny scenes where he runs smack into walls and belly-flops onto the floor. (He dismisses the nosebleeds and cuts all over his body as a necessary toll.) With its ironic take on heroism and a dreamy music score by Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, Special recalls a minor-key Donnie Darko, but its vision is much more limited, and it sinks into Indiewood cliché whenever it reaches for profundity. But many people will see themselves in Rapaport's half-crazed stab at greatness.