Film Talk Friday: In Praise of The Alternative Superhero Movie

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Moviegoers can’t get enough of superheroes.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “ambitious crossover” event, Infinity War, passed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the highest-grossing opening of all-time. Six of the top 11 top domestic box-office earners of 2017 — Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, Justice League and Logan — were superhero movies.

This isn’t a new fascination, either.

The opening-weekend title Infinity War holds once belonged to Spider-Man. And the success of Spider-Man set off the wave of comic book movies that have gained momentum in the past half-decade or so. Ironically, though, the initial trend spurned traditional superheroes, or even superhero stories altogether.

Before Disney ramped up its vision for MCU, the comic book adaptations hitting big screens included Ghost World; The Road to Perdition; Sin City; V for Vendetta; 300; The Watchmen; Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. 

Results varied, but bringing these characters and stories to cinemas defied convention (as much as is possible when jumping onto a trend).

With comic book movies becoming increasingly popular among audiences, it’s surprising filmmakers have not mined the fertile ground of alternative comics more. Marvel has to some extent; Guardians of the Galaxy was a dormant property transformed into a blockbuster, but simply as a function of Disney’s grand vision for Infinity War. The FilmDrunk Frotcast’s Vince Mancini once described MCU as a movie-making algorithm, and the resurrection of unlikely hit Guardians was necessary to plug a few more digits into the equation.

Deadpool Rob Liefeld’s empire is Marvel’s alt property, in the same way Dane Cook is an alt comedian. Hocking everything from tequila, to TV dinners marketed primarily on the idea fat guys want to make love to frozen macaroni, to 7-11, Deadpool is Krusty in “The Last Temptation of Krusty,” had The Simpsons klown skipped directly to shilling for Canyonero.

And, again: It’s a Rob Liefeld adaptation. Ugh.

In fact, a comic book adaptation may not be the best course for creating a memorable, alternative superhero movie.

America’s most prolific factory of B-grade cinema, Troma Entertainment, found its two greatest and most mainstream successes well before the superhero boom with a pair of original creations: 1984’s The Toxic Avenger, and 1990’s Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD.

The Toxic Avenger touts its titular character as “a different kind of superhero,” and they ain’t kidding. The movie plays up standard Troma tropes heavily — sex, nudity, hammy acting and cartoonish ultraviolence — within the template of a standard superhero origin story.

Sgt. Kabukimani NYPD never gained quite the same cult following as The Toxic Avenger, but is the superior film in every way. It’s the most polished Troma movie of its era in terms of cinematography and features some impressive special effects and stunt work. It’s certainly the most accessible Troma film for a more mainstream audience.

Lead actor Rick Gianasi is hilarious as both Detective Harry Griswold and Kabukiman; frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t appear in bigger budget movies based on his performance here.

I reference two titles that are three decades old in part because they’re two of the earlier examples of well-done, low-budget, alternative superhero movies…but they’re also two of the only such examples.

Despite the genre’s eruption in popularity, there’s a shocking dearth of independent ventures. Perhaps that can be attributed to the budgetary limitations in contrast with the high-dollar value of major studio’s superhero efforts.

But lack of budget doesn’t deter the 2015 independent Canadian film Turbo Kid.

Turbo Kid works on a number of different levels. It begins as an obvious ode to low-budget films of the 1980s, made evident with its vision of a dystopian…1997. Its visual style and call-backs to the 1980s are reminiscent of Stranger ThingsTurbo Kid’s post-apocalyptic setting pays homage to films like The Road Warrior without being a lame copy. 

The Hero’s Journey of the titular character ostensibly makes for a superhero movie, made clear with The Kid’s comic-book fascination. However, Michael Ironside’s role as lead antagonist Zeus adds a dash of horror. And what a brilliant casting choice, as Ironside is a veteran of both horror and sci-fi. 

Excessive and cartoony gore injects comedy into the narrative, as well, giving the film a style comparable to its Troma predecessors. But the strongest comedic element comes from the show-stealing performance of Laurence Leboeuf as co-lead protagonist, Apple. 

Turbo Kid is the kind of movie I could envision Guardians director James Gunn — a Troma veteran with 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet and a breakout star with the 2006 horror/comedy Slither — making 20 years ago.