I ran across Special, a film from a couple years ago, a while back on Netflix. The viewer quickly finds that Les, the protagonist, has entered himself in a clinical trial for an experimental drug called Special, which may or may not be an antidepressant. Soon after Les begins taking the drug, he finds that he is able to float, then quickly develops other powers, such as telepathy and the ability to run through walls. When Les attempts to show these powers to the doctor running the clinical trial and his friends who own a comic book store, we learn that Les appears to be experiencing things a bit differently. As Les believes he is levitating above the ground, the doctor sees that Les is sprawled on the floor. As Les believes he has run through a wall, his friends see that he ran into a wall and busted his nose. Despite objections from those around him, Les decides to take to fighting crime, but soon finds himself being chased by the mysterious men in suits, who participated in the drug’s development and marketing.
A prevalent theme in the film is that of being special, or extraordinary. Les is clearly extraordinary as he believes himself to have superhuman abilities, and he is extraordinary to the others around him simply due to his distinct “other-ness” and non-conformity. Not only has his apparent break from reality made him something beyond normal in the eyes of his friends, but just by his method of crime fighting – going around tackling people – which has made him enough of a local oddity to land himself on the news. Les marks himself as different from everyone else as he dons a white jumpsuit-costume, branded with the logo for the Special drug. Even at work as a parking enforcement officer, before the drug’s effects kick in, his boss has him repeat a mantra: “I’m important, I matter.”
Due in part to this outside-the-norm nature, Les is a very isolated and solitary figure. His most significant relationships through the narrative are with his two friends at the comic book store, the girl at his grocery store that doesn’t talk, and the doctor running the trial. Even his relationship with his friends seems somewhat tenuous, as they invite him over to watch a movie, but he responds lamely to the offer and does not attend. He doesn’t have strong relationships at work, and apparently has a history of being teased by the other parking enforcement officers. As Les becomes known on television for his crime-fighting antics, it quickly becomes clear that Les is a lone vigilante, without the support of the city.
Despite this isolation, Les still bears this feeling of burden, and a concern for others. Les feels that if he has superpowers, he must use them to protect others. Les isn’t satisfied at work, and when his superpowers provide him with the ability to make a difference and protect people, he jumps at that possibility and quits his job. Even when he is on the run from the villainous suits, Les stops and takes his time to protect a random passer-by from a purse-thief.
Les even seems to have a certain sense of leadership as he takes charge in any situation presented to him. As he fights crime, he goes on the offensive and tackles each offender, preventing them from committing any possible crimes. When an armed thief attempts to rob his grocery store, everyone else freezes, unsure of what to do, but Les brings the man down, causing the gunman to flee. The film also offers quite a bit of a graphical representation of Les having a certain superior presence. Physically, Les is a big guy, and is noticeably taller than the other characters. Plus, he floats – gently rising above the concerns of others. There are even several shots where he is physically placed above others, such as when he jumps from a one story building onto the purse thief. And just by the very nature of his crime fighting – by tackling people, he is jumping at them and bringing others lower, placing himself bodily over them.
These themes coincide with frequently prevailing themes in superheroes. Obviously, this is something of a superhero film, and it is great that it mirrors the hero genre in that way. However, the film takes a different turn in placing those themes in relation to a man having a psychotic break from reality due to an adverse reaction to an experimental medication.
Les is hallucinates throughout the movie on multiple sensory spectrums, and that certainly places him in the realm of the extraordinary. He is clearly different, and special. He’s the only member of the clinical trial to experience an effect like this, and when he begins to develop paranoid delusions about the police and the men in suits, he becomes a more isolated person than he was before.
Batman is extraordinary and isolated. Wolverine is extraordinary and isolated. What’s different from those diagnosed with mental illnesses? Leadership and a concern for others are certainly important qualities for any superhero, but even those are traits present on the level of us common mortals, and even those with mental illnesses can exhibit them. One person with schizophrenia may take charge of a situation by continuing to take their medication. One person with depression may decide not to commit suicide out of concern for their loved ones.
So is this movie a touching “everyone is special, everyone can be a superhero deal”? No, because that’s not the case. It reminds us that ordinary people can be placed in extraordinary circumstances, and still come out on top. People still matter, even outside typical experiences of reality.