About a decade ago, a masked vigilante called Phoenix Jones began to prowl the streets of Seattle, breaking up bar fights and other small-scale crimes in his self-proclaimed role as the world's first "real-life superhero." Jones eventually inspired a whole real life superhero movement, even spearheading an Avengers/Justice League-esque organization called the Rain City Superhero Movement, featuring costumed heroes such as Midnight Jack, Purple Reign, SkyMan and El Caballero.
From roughly 2011 to 2014, Phoenix Jones and his crew were viral video stars. Jones himself was a former MMA champion, who knew how to play the PR game. But even before the Rain City Superhero Movement imploded — and long before Jones himself was arrested in an undercover drug bust — there were questions about the effectiveness of these real-life superheroes. Were they actually making a difference, or were they just making things harder for police? Was it truly altruistic, or was it all for show?
And that brings us to The Superhero Complex, a fantastic new 8-part podcast from David Weinberg and I Heart Radio that goes deep into the history of Phoenix Jones and the Rain City Superhero Movement:
When darkness falls over Seattle, a masked crusader emerges from the shadows. His name? Phoenix Jones – a charismatic cage fighter, hell-bent on ridding the streets of criminals. Welcome to the world of real life superheroes – ordinary people who put on outrageous costumes and head out to fight crime. Phoenix's team of superhero sidekicks have all turned against him. They say he's no hero and in 2020, it's Phoenix who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. So is Phoenix a model citizen fighting for a better world? Or is he a fraudster who used a superhero identity to disguise his own crimes? Journalist David Weinberg sets out on a wild journey to find out.
Weinberg scours contemporary reporting on their escapades, digs through police reports to verify their various claims (or not), and speaks directly with Jones (real name Ben Fodor) as well as some of his former costumed teammates. What emerges is a fascinating true-crime-esque character study that uses these colorful masks to explore societal issues around crime and policing, and particularly how we address things like race, poverty, neurodivergence, and homelessness. Marketing may have been part of the game for Phoenix Jones, but did that also enable him to make a greater difference? Was there a narcissistic cult of personality at the center of this superhero movement, or was it all a manifestation of some underlying mental health issues? As the podcast deftly demonstrates, the answer to all these questions is "Yes and." The Superhero Complex explores a lot of complex subjects, with a colorfully charismatic costumed character at the center of it.
There's been plenty of fiction, comics, and movies that have taken the idea of "What if superheroes existed in the real world?" and ran with it. But the true story of Phoenix Jones and the Rain City Superhero Movement honestly has more twists and turns and drama and pathos than any one dramatic could possibly make up.
I highly recommend the listen. You can find The Superhero Complex on your podcast platform of choice.