Tokebi

From Toxie to Tank Girl: A Look at Why Your Appreciation of the Superhero Feature Should Extend Way beyond the MCU

One of my happiest memories was the day I finished fashioning my own home-made Superman costume. To be fair it was no way near as good as the Monkey TV show outfit I had made a few months before, replete with cardboard sideburns and tinfoil tipped fighting staff, but it was pretty cool. Mainly consisting of a pair of blue nylon pajamas (worn backward), a red table cloth for a cape, football socks, and oversized underpants, I’d run about our little council estate; half-convinced I was about to defy gravity and fly over and away from the smoking chimney pots like Billy Casper’s hawk in Kes (1969). Though I often wish I could create those times, I’m about due a mid-life crisis, after all, I find nothing in the recent silver screen superhero outings of today to inspire that eight-year-old me to don a rubbish costume again.

I belong to a lot of cult movie collector’s sights on various forms of social media, and recently I’ve begun to feel like the only middle-aged bloke around who doesn’t do a bit of a wee in his pants whenever the latest dollop of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is foisted upon us. I grew up with comics, loved mainly the DC superheroes, but was not at all averse to Stan Lee’s creations too and I like to think, that they opened up my tiny world in some small way. While I may have started with the likes of Batman or Spiderman, writers like Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, and more importantly Alan Moore, awakened me to something outside of that sometimes-limited primary color fantasy. Moore, especially with his magical appeal, led me on the path which featured more counter-cultural viewpoints from music, literature, and of course film. In a hair’s breath, I had gone from Superman to William Blake, leaping over that proverbial tall building in a single bound, to find myself landed in a deeper more mysterious place. And this is perhaps my immediate and biggest problem with the MCU. Whereas my early superhero experiences always seemed to be leading me somewhere else, whether it be to HP Lovecraft, The Velvet Underground, or A Clockwork Orange (1971), all the latest MCU franchise films seem to do is lead you to the next one in their endless number, along with the accompanying merchandise. Culturally, no matter how bright and expensive they appear, they feel like an artistic dead end. 

Luckily, for all us non-Iron Man fanboys and girls, the cinematic world of the superhero is wider and weirder than the likes of Disney would have us believe, there are plenty of examples out there that happily fail to fall under the morality play restrictions of the DC and Marvel dominated multiplexes. The silver screen archives and the back-catalogue boutique blu ray stands are littered with more interesting content from the shoddy, to the sleazy to the sexy and just plain daft. Crimefighters, whether they be crap, corrupt or controversial, don’t always have to be shield-lobbing red, white and blue po-faced dullards. 

Though I would gravitate to US comics and their leotard wearing protagonists fairly quickly in my life, my first real taste of the superhero came in a distinctly British creation found in the pages of weekly kids rag The Beano. Billy the Cat and Katie were a juvenile crime-fighting team who donned ahead of their time leather suits and cool looking helmets and used wizard little gizmos to scupper the machinations of local villains and hoodlums. Think a pint-sized version of the dynamic duo with more cream cakes and village greens and you get the picture. I remember it seems better than it was, but none the less, it impressed upon me at an early age that the superhero didn’t always have to be about truth, justice, and the American way. Later in life, I would discover a much more European take on the costume-wearing anti-hero in the form of Italian horrormeister Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968).

Based on Angela and Luciana Giussani’s Diabolik – an adult strip in the style of ‘Fumetti Neri’ – roughly translating as ‘Black Comics’, is a glorious late sixties hyper-charged crime caper. Featuring John Phillip Law in the title role, the story focusses on the central character’s ability to plan and carry out (with the aid of his girlfriend Eva), ever more dangerous and bodacious heists. Not only does it look stunning, its palate rich and vibrant as those gorgeous Toho monster movies of the same era, it also pops with British, American, and most importantly, continental pizazz. Though a Bava movie, (his visual style is never ‘unnoticeable’,), the production is also alive with other cinematic references, laced with flashes of The Pink Panther (1963), The Green Hornet TV show, and of course, the Connery run of James Bond features. With his cool as fuck mod hairdo and amazing car collection, Diabolik makes for a sexy, mysterious, and slightly chilling uber-criminal. His Mrs. Peel-esque outfits and his effortless moves, ensure he exudes nothing but glassy-eyed perfection as he hatches his plans in the kind of subterranean hangout which makes the Batcave look like a shitty student bedsit. 

The movie is certainly one that dances to its own tune or at least that of Ennio Morricone, and keen classic comedy fans will be pleased if slightly perplexed at the sight of a heavily dubbed (depending which version you watch) Terry Thomas, being an absolute shower. 

Danger: Diabolik was produced by Dino de Laurentis, and in the mid-seventies and early eighties he would become synonymous with blockbuster titles like the remake of King Kong (1976) and of course Flash Gordon (1980), and just as the latter had been spurred on by the famous early thirties cinema serials, so was an earlier, and much dirtier take on that well-known space adventurer. 

Flesh Gordon (1974), ‘Not to be confused with Flash Gordon’ as its poster’s screamed, is a crude, fun and ultimately not too shabby soft porn parody of the Buster Crabbe original. Riffing as it does on its heavily suggestive obscenity, it’s fairly standard schoolboy stuff, but it still manages to raise a smile in even a dead-eyed hack like me. The basic plot involves Flesh (Jason Williams) and his helpers, Dale Ardor (Suzanne Fields) and Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Joseph Hudgins) as they travel to the planet Porno to thwart evil Emporer Wang (William Dennis Hunt), who is bombarding the Earth with deadly cosmic Sex Rays. Of course, it’s not the subtlest of offerings, its fizzing penis-shaped rocket ships, and clunky one-liners place it somewhere between Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) and Barbarella (1968). Flesh ponces about in tights and everything in it is about as on the nose as you’d expect, and yet, it’s pretty great in places, the aforementioned space vehicles, despite their ridiculousness look great and the stop-frame animation sequences are surprising well-handled (ooer). But beware, it clatters along best if watched in dodgy VHS style format or crappy YouTube upload, if the presentation doesn’t get you reaching for the imaginary tracking button, you probably aren’t looking at this thing the right way. But If Flesh bought the willies to back to the superhero genre, then a few years later an ill-fated TV movie starring a certain make-up clad pop band, would certainly bring us the sillies. 

While it feels a bit daft still liking Kiss when you’re in your fifties because let’s face it, even in their glorious 70s hey-day, they were always really fucking stupid, I can’t help but be drawn in by those larger than life, grease-paint wearing, costumed super-twats. It’s not just that some of their bubble gum rock anthems like the incredibly simplistic ‘Love Gun’ are hugely satisfying, or that they defied all the too cool for school music critics by daring to be popular while looking happy about it, it was that they were, at least for a thirteen-year-old me, the full package, the look, the heavy sound, rocket launching guitars, fire-breathing and a blood vomiting Gene Simmons, was the pyrotechnical mutts nuts. Unlike many teens who grew up in crappy mining towns in the eighties, I wasn’t seeking bands like The Smiths or The Fall who were simply pointing out how shitty things were for me – I already knew – what I wanted was a full-on escape. Kiss were the comic book come to life that I had been waiting for. So, when I found out that back in 1978 they had not only been stars of their own Marvel title (made with droplets of their own blood no less) but had actually in actually starred in their own prime time TV movie, it’s safe to say that my excitement levels felt like they wanted to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll all Night and Party Every Day.’ 

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) which sought to cash in the group’s undoubted superstardom, was, at least according to the band, initially meant to have been an action-packed horror movie, a sort of Halloween special incorporating Star Wars (1977) style effects with a creepy House of Wax feel. However, Hannah-Barbera had other ideas. The production company, best known for their endless run of hit animated shows like Scooby-Doo Where Are You? The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and dozens of others, quickly recognized that the kabuki masked pop group had shifted considerably away from their darker origins and were now sitting in the quickly to be mined sweet spot between teeny-bopper pin-ups and highly merchandisable commodity. Long since spurned by the more serious rock crowd, Kiss was then seen as a jokey gimmick, who seemed more fixated with their latest action figure line or commercial status than with their recorded output. So, exec producer Joseph Barbera oversaw a more fitting family-friendly affair. This thinking, alongside a rushed shoot and seriously low budget, led to a ham-fisted, half-baked live-action cartoon style movie. The band, who far from being the supercool heroes at the center of the piece ends up looking like nervous guest stars in an unlikely episode of Columbo. Yet there’s something about this piece of TV trash which is still fairly beguiling and ultimately more entertaining than more polished affairs. Perhaps it’s the way that the band’s doubles look nothing like them, even with the make-up and costumes, or it’s the way that drummer Peter Criss has been dubbed by another actor after he refused to come back and take part in looping sessions, or it’s the way that Ace Frehley, clearly pissed out of his mind, manages to irritate the hell out of the more serious-minded Stanley and Simmons. But there is something oddly pleasing about it, even if the band ends up looking like a hammy set of embarrassing doinks. 

Fortunately for Melvin Ferd, embarrassment wasn’t a factor especially when you’d just been dunked into a vat of nuclear waste. Bought to us by the infamous Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment, The Toxic Avenger (1984), is a wonderfully entertaining bit of zero budget carnage. Following the normal comic-book origin tale, where a picked upon weedy kid, suddenly finds himself with special powers, the film differs in that the transformation doesn’t leave the kid in question looking like a skin-tight lycra-clad Adonis, it renders him physically deformed. His hideout is no gadget-handy Bruce Wayne style tech lab, but a grotty looking junkyard, and while most super-dudes draw the line at homicide, Toxie is not so fussy, his vengeful deaths on criminal types, easily spilling into splatter movie territory. Working like a twisted version of Marvel’s The Hulk, the preposterously batty storyline also pulls in other elements, and becomes, though comic in nature, one of the first movies of that era to really combine fantasy, body horror and heroics with modern fears about possible atomic holocaust, toxic waste and growing pollution levels. Interestingly, around the same time the aforementioned Alan Moore, was creating his own considerably more nuanced version of a Toxic Avenger character in his run on DCs Swamp Thing. ‘Nuke face’, an irradiated tramp, who got steaming drunk on chemical sludge rather than cheap booze, trudged around the Mississippi bayou leaving footprints behind him that glowed in the dark. Kaufman’s movie though is all about the fun and it delivers that by the barrel, even if those barrels come with suspicious-looking skull and crossbones stickers on them. 

If The Toxic Avenger summed up many of our anxieties about the eighties, Tank Girl (1995) though set in 2033, was unquestionably fixed in the nineties. It’s difficult to imagine a film that so reflects that strangely anonymous decade more accurately than Racheal Talalay’s adaptation of Jamie Hewlett’s antipodean post-apocalyptic comic book. The movie, a sort of Mad Max adventure squeezed through a Baz Lurhmann style kaleidoscopic lense, is a mish-mash of pre-millennial, pre-social media flotsam and jetsam as if the 20th century had decided to purge its dying stomach by spewing what was left of its innards onto the silver screen for all us all to pick through later. But despite it being a vomity-mess of steampunk, girl power, and big booted quirky arrogance, channeling as it does the kind of dated imagery reminiscent of L7 or Gwen Stefani, its pro-feminist outlook is still pretty groovy even when viewed through our weary 21st century, cynical eye-sockets. It retains certain credibility largely due to its conduction of energy from the earlier more experimental part of that decade, that bought us more interesting stuff like Suede, Pulp, or movies like Orlando (1992), Ed Wood (1994), and Bad Lieutenant (1992). Lead Lori Petty of Point Beak (1991) and more recently, Netflix series Orange is the New Black, is the kind of fishnet-clad anti-heroin, that only seemed to exist within a tiny window of opportunity that opened briefly before the rest of the nineties devolved into an Oasis, Brit Pop, yawn fest of rife sexism, sadism and reality show arseholery. Talalay’s movie is an undeniably cult piece of filmmaking, Tank Girl punches, kicks, and stomps its way through its hour and a half runtime, forcefully rejecting any sense of hetero-normativity, in a whip-smart, powerhouse bit of Mondo madness. And if all that’s not good enough it also stars Malcolm McDowell in full-blown baddy mode, Iggy Pop as a ratty kiddy-fiddler and Ice T as a mutant kangaroo, and with a full-blown Margot Robbie reboot planned, what’s not to love? 

While I could pinpoint other ‘alternative takes’ on this sub-genre including the powerful and unashamedly brutal Super (2010), or the fairly untalked about Special (2006), starring Michael Rappaport as a clinical trial patient with delusions of superheroism, or indeed the still superlative Unbreakable (1999), what it really boils down to is this. Without wanting to piss on the MCUs chips, I do think there is more to this whole thing than pure spectacle, while superhero adventures can be bombastic, larger than life, and bursting with technical brilliance, I’m not sure that should always be the starting point. Surely, as the recent (and highly profitable) Joker (2019) has proved, comic book movies don’t always have to end in a predictably explosive scrap. And, at the risk of sounding like a tired old fart, I’m genuinely glad I came out of an era where, superheroes, Superman (1978) aside, in any shape or form, were almost impossible to do justice to on the screen. The mid-seventies kid had to be satisfied with slightly wobbly, distinctly un-CGI crime fighters. British tellies were bursting with American cast-offs like The Incredible Hulk, starring a muscle-bound Lou Ferrigno in green paint and tiny trousers, or The Amazing Spiderman featuring the Sound of Music’s Nicholas Hammond as a hopelessly miscast Peter Parker. Looking back, they were a bit rubbish, but what else did I have? And at least they gave my imagination something to do. In light of any ‘good’ effects, I would become a dreamer of adventures that I could never really experience, at least on a realistic visual level. In some ways, I would argue this is better than other types of superhero features which become fixated on how expensive they look rather than how rich they are in ideas. Often these movies are so busy thinking for us that our brains become adept at switching off and we end up with more and more vacuous experience. And if we have nothing left to dream about what good is a cinematic universe if it locks us in one place, rather than offering us other areas to explore?   

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