Even in a post-Marvel Cinematic Universe world, there is always going to be a desire to make movies about superheroes. There’s so much potential in them: the coming-of-age aspect, the tensions between the “real” world and the supernatural, the government censorship and more. The problem is that, when there have been hundreds of superhero films made in the last 50 years, it’s difficult to make something truly new. “Freaks: You’re One of Us,” a German superhero film that dropped on Netflix last week, does its best — with a result that is entertaining, if not quite unique.
The film centers around Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel, “Heidi”), a woman in her late 20s working as a fry cook to support her family. Her husband Lars (Frederic Linkemann, “Die verlorene Tochter”) and son Karl (Finnlay Berger, “Der Geburtstag”) are kind and sweet, and the three of them are a great family even when they struggle with money. Still, her job as a fry cook is less than ideal: She gets paid little money and can’t work up the courage to ask for a raise.
But, as is always the case, there is more to the story. An opening scene featuring an ominous view of an elementary school with a gaping hole in the wall and a sobbing young Wendy gives us the clues we need: Wendy is gifted with superpowers. Still, the incident as a child has led her to repress those memories, and a special daily pill, prescribed from somewhere in the government, physiologically represses her powers. As a result, she has no idea what she’s capable of.
So when Marek (Wotan Wilke Möhring, “Who Am I”), a strange man with apparent invincibility, tells her to skip her pills, she discovers that she has super-strength. There are people with powers hidden throughout her society — even her somewhat goofy coworker Elmar (Tim Oliver Schultz, “The Red Band Society”) is gifted with power over electricity. Wendy’s powers lead to a transformation beyond the ability to bend metal trays in half: She becomes more assertive about taking what she wants, but also starts becoming more reckless.
This film has a lot of promise in terms of creating something new. One of the biggest things that sets Wendy apart from other superheroes is that her life is already established before the inciting event. Many superhero movies are about loners; Wendy, on the other hand, has her family unit, which only makes the stakes all the more intense. Because of this, “Freaks” explores interesting tensions surrounding power and family.
The movie also dares to pose the question: does the presence of people with superpowers mean that there’s a need for superheroes? Elmar — whose obsession with comic books greatly influences his understanding of his powers — views superheroes in a very idealistic way; Marek, on the other hand, takes a more pragmatic approach. Over the course of the film, Wendy must decide which approach she wants to live her life by.
In the end, the shortfalls of “Freaks” come from underdeveloped worldbuilding. You meet a few people with various superpowers, but the majority of the superheroes are extras in the background that you never get to meet. Wendy’s “psychiatrist” Dr. Stern (Nina Kunzendorf, “Phoenix”) serves as the face of the institutions keeping superheroes hidden — yet we get little information about these institutions beyond the basic goals. Much of the film is predictable, filled with moments that come off as cliché — possibly a result of translation from German, but most likely because of the somewhat formulaic plot.
“Freaks” does well enough for what it is: a superhero movie with an unconventional protagonist and a conventional plot. Within somewhat fluid pacing, there are enough amusing moments and cool visual effects to keep an audience entertained — not to mention a chance to watch Wendy absolutely thrash a group of catcalling creeps. “Freaks” is a very solid international film about power and responsibility, playing under a solid ’80s soundtrack from Wendy’s sticker-covered CD player. I just wish that it was a little less predictable.