Episode 2: Superhero Boogaloo
So The Avengers is here at last. It must surely be the climax of the last decade’s love affair with comic book movies, and the superhero movie to end them all. In a perfect world maybe, but seeing as it is only the first of three major superheroes hitting cinema this year, and since they all probably stand to make wicked money, it doesn’t seem likely.
However, it does seems like the perfect opportunity to take a dive into the pool of the superhero movies of yonder that made less of an impact. Because remember kids; with great power comes a hell of a lot of movies.
The (Cult) Classic
THE SUPER INFRAMAN
Hong Kong – (1975)
Director: Hua Shan
Starring: Danny Lee, Terry Liu, Hsieh Wang, Man-Tzu Yuan
”Created by science – Powered by nuclear energy… The Man Beyond Bionics”
Inspired by popular shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider, the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio brought the world the first Hong Kong superhero movie, and maybe the craziest of its kind, The Super Inframan. Maybe it is just me being unfamiliar with the genre of tokusatsu, but to me this movie comes across as completely insane. The movie starts of with a title sequence that must have skyrocketed the statistics for epileptic seizures in Hong Kong upon its release. There is so much flashing neon lights I thought I had mistaken my DVD player for a rave party. Afterwards a dragon lands in the middle of the road before becoming invisible, which causes the surface of the earth to split open, naturally. This results in Hong Kong being set ablaze, the entire city on fire. In any other movie this might have been a major plot point, but in The Super Inframan it is merely a way to introduce the hero (before he becomes Inframan) into the picture before moving along.
We aren’t done yet though as a volcano disintegrates to reveal a series of lizard-shaped caves, and then the person behind all this mayhem steps forward. It is the work of Demon Princess Elzebub, one of the Ice Age people who were buried under the glaciers some thousand years ago, back to re-claim the rule of the earth, naturally. To help her she has her army of skeleton warriors and ice monsters. The latter are a series of monsters who have been frozen in ice, each one more ridiculous than the last including such monsters as a ginger Fu-Manchu lizard man, two bumbling robots and this heavily bearded one that shoots lasers from its horns. She also has an assistant called Witch-Eye who has eyes in her palms, and both her and the Princess looks like rejects from a Lady Gaga music video. Renowned Hong Kong scientist Professor Liu realises that the earth’s only hope lies in his plan for turning a man into a super man, a super inframan. To do this he needs the bravest and strongest man, re-enter Rayma the hero from the opening scene, and so through a procedure that makes about as much sense as anything else in this movie he becomes Inframan. Unhappy with a worthy opponent Elzebub kidnaps the Professor’s daughter and tries to force him to build a second evil Inframan. He refuses and she freezes the both of them, now only Inframan can save the day.
The rest of the movie is just Inframan fighting these monsters in one crazy scene after another, culminating in one of the most explosion-heavy final acts you are ever likely to witness. Inframan does a somersault and kicks a guy, he explodes. Infrman pushes a guy into the water, the guy explodes. Inframan kicks a knife into the water, the knife explodes. Then he cuts Witch-Eye’s hands off and drops her into the earth’s core before Elzebub turns into a dragon, which he has to decapitate five times before erasing her with a laser and saving the day. Then everything explodes and they ride into the sunset on a boat. So The Super Inframan is easily the most insane superhero movie I have ever seen, but in a good way. Because it is also one of the most fun superhero movies I have seen.
Another claim The Super Inframan has to its name is that it is the only movie that has ever gotten Roger Ebert to admit a mistake in his rating of a movie. Because 23 years after his original review Ebert went back and gave The Super Inframan a higher rating, making Inframan the only superhero to perform miraculous acts both on and off the screen.
While You’re At It: Check out some early stabs at the genre from directors who would later excel within it with Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) and Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991), and throw in Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982) for good measure.
The Potential Cult Film
Chile – (2007)
Director: Ernesto Díaz Espinoza
Starring: Marko Zaror, María Elena Swett, Ariel Mateluna, Mauricio Pesutic
“He has no superpowers, just his fists and guts.”
Okay, so I kind of recommended this last time too, but it is a really good movie and it fits better with the theme this time, so sue me. (Editor’s note: AOBG does not encourage any lawsuits against this site and its associates. Please, we cannot afford it.) From Chile comes what is best described as the “odd one out” this time, it is neither based on a comic book nor does it actually feature a hero with superhuman abilities. Instead it is a about Maco, a nightclub bouncer who is very skilled at karate. Not to be confused with the raspy voiced Japanese actor. As a child he witnessed his parents being murdered and his brother abused by a criminal gang, which has left Maco socially withdrawn and his brother in a mental hospital.
One night while heading home Maco comes across a home invasion in progress. He knocks out one of the robbers and takes his mask before interrupting the rest of the invasion by beating the crap out of all the thieves. One of the people he saves turns out to be a reporter for the news and Maco’s heroics becomes a big story. It is then that Maco realises what is his true calling, he should become a crime fighter, a defender of those in need. He becomes Mirageman, a masked hero who takes crime fighting requests per mail. He mainly ends up fighting petty thefts on the street, and while the public mostly sees him as a joke, one person gets very invested in Mirageman. Maco’s brother starts idolizing the masked hero and becomes less withdrawn as the Mirageman craze goes on. Maco finally gets his first real case when he receives a tip regarding a pedophilia ring and decides to break it up. It doesn’t go over well and Maco is almost killed. He decides to throw his mask away and leave his masked hero days behind, but can the world manage without Mirageman?
Mirageman is a little like a more realistic take on the same ideas seen in Kick-Ass. A regular guy becomes a super, but where Kick-Ass had the motivation of “why not?” Mirageman gives you a character whose back story and simple mind makes it seem like a choice this kind of person might do. With a good balance between humour (Maco has to hitch a ride, as Mirageman, from a garbage truck after his clothes are stolen while he fights crime), pitch-black drama (remember that pedophile ring?), and great action (star Marko Zaror can really throw some kicks) Mirageman is well worth a look. Throw in a little take on how the media might abuse the situation and you have a movie that delivers a lot more depth than you would think, even if the storytelling is a bit clunky at times.
While You’re At It: Check out Black Mask (1996), Defendor (2009), and Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
The Hidden Gem
Australia/United States – (1989)
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Starring: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett, Jr., Jeroen Krabbé, Kim Miyori
“What the fuck do you call 125 murders in 5 years?”
“Work in progress.”
Hidden beneath its own reputation we find the first Marvel movie to head for the big screen after the first comic book movie boom in the mid 80s; The Punisher. Made on a modest budget, at least when compared to DC’s rival offering Batman, it was shot in Australia with Sydney doubling for Frank Castle’s hometown of New York. Never released theatrically in the US it has since fallen off the radar and nowadays it seems to often find itself mentioned in the same breath as Batman & Robin; the textbook example of a comic adaptation done wrong. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but Batman & Robin took a gritty and dark comic and turned it into a nipple heavy children’s movie with a pun overload. On the other hand The Punisher took a dark and gritty comic and turned it into a dark and gritty movie. So why does it have the bad reputation? The one that primarily gets on fan-boy’s tits, just all over them, is that in an attempt to do a more realistic take on the material they decided to drop the whole “giant torso covering skull” part of The Punisher’s appearance. They even threw a reference to it by having the skull featured on his knives, but to no avail, if there was not a huge skull covering his upper body the film simply had to suck. There is even a really nice fan-boy touch where Castle’s daughters wear Spider-Man pyjamas in a flashback as a reference to The Punisher first appearance which was in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. Still it was not a giant skull.
The rest of the complaints are located within the story, so let us do a quick rundown of the plot. Several years ago Frank Castle’s family was murdered by the mob, the specifics are changed from the comics, but the reason for his actions remains the same. He now resides in the sewers of New York where he frequently has conversations with God whilst stark naked, and I must say for a character obsessed with vengeance the religious aspect makes a lot of sense. Now this next part is the second biggest complaint the movie gets. So deciding to move in on the mobss territory, the Yakuza kidnaps the children of the local mob bosses, and The Punisher decides to save the children after being persuaded by his drunken hobo friend. He manages to save all the children, except mobster Franco’s son, and gets himself arrested in the process. Then Franco breaks Frank out of jail and asks him to help him save his son, instead off just killing Franco he agrees to help, and all the fan-boys in the audience had an aneurism. So The Punisher helps him save his son, kills the entire Yakuza in the process, and then he murders Franco right in front of the boy before telling him to not follow his father’s sins. Damn, that is cold.
While it may be a sloppy, or loose, adaptation of the comic The Punisher is still a very solid movie that never gets the credit it deserves. Delivering some very good action scenes, and one of Dolph Lundgren’s better performances as he goes into full stone cold killer mode, this is one comic-book movie that deserves a second chance.
While You’re At It: Check out the made-for-TV trilogy The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), The Trial of The Incredible Hulk (1989) and The Death of The Incredible Hulk (1990), which co-stars characters such as Thor, Daredevil and Wilson “Kingpin” Fish.
United States/Yugoslavia – (1990)
Director: Albert Pyun
Starring: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Scott Paulin, Kim Gillingham
There are many movies that are infamous for never having been completed. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote or Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, are both movies that sadly were left unfinished and never got to see the light of day. One such film that doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as the previous two, or at all for that matter, is The Cannon Group’s failed attempt at making a Spider-Man movie. When comic book movies started getting in the wind again in the mid-80s Cannon secured the rights for Spider-Man from Marvel, but time went by and nothing happened. Then Marvel told Cannon that if they didn’t have a movie ready to go into cinemas by the end of 1989 they would revoke the license. Cannon got the wheels turning on a cheap production, planning to shoot it back-to-back with Masters of the Universe 2, when the company’s entire economy imploded after years of questionable money juggling. Production on both films was shut down and we never got to know what might have been. One of the main reasons why it is seldom mentioned as a loss is that one year later former Cannon head honcho Menahem Golan’s new company, 21st Century Film Corporation, did produce a superhero movie directed by Albert Pyun, the supposed director of the unmade Spider-Man movie. The result, Captain America, was less than impressive.
The movie doesn’t stray far from its comic book counterpart and tells the tale of how young Steve Rogers is deemed physically unfit for military service (here it is due to polio so that they can justify Steve’s pre-Cap build), but is turned into the super-soldier known as Captain America, and his battles with the evil Nazi agent Red Skull. However one thing makes the movie interesting and that is that 11 out of 10 times the movie makes the absolutely worst decision possible. What should be the setting for the title sequence of a film about a hero so American his name is written in red, white and blue? The massacre of a family in 1936’s Italy, of course. How do we let the audience know a character is a Nazi spy? By having him do a Nazi salute and shout “Heil, Hitler!” before killing someone, of course! Now here is a tricky one; how do you portray a Nazi agent whose defining feature is his red skull? As a modern day mob kingpin who’s had plastic surgery so he merely looks Caucasian, of course!! Did I forget to mention that the movie is for the most part set in present day, or 1993’s present day at least? Because it totally is.
On his very first mission Cap ends up chained to a missile headed for the White House, but he manages to redirect it to the Alaskan tundra at the last minute by kicking at it. An explanation as to why it doesn’t blow up when landing in Alaska is never even attempted. Cap remains frozen in the ice for fifty years until he is found and dug out. So the President of America, who is the only person who saw Captain America save the capitol from annihilation in 1943, sends his reporter friend to fetch Cap in Alaska. But the news of Cap’s resurfacing has also reached Red Skull, or “Caucasian man with slightly odd looking face” as he should be known now, who sends his daughter to kill him. This mess goes on for the rest of the movie, with Captain America trying to not be assassinated at the same time as he attempts to locate Red Skull, who has kidnapped the president to brainwash him. Somehow this will result in Red Skull becoming President Skull. The movie does however manage to fit in Captain America escaping from assassins on a bicycle. The only other superhero movie I have seen put its hero on a bike was Italian Batman, and that was porno. Although that is not the only thing the two share, as both features Cox in central parts.
Captain America is a hilariously inept film, with a terrible story structure that seems more interested in getting to the end than actually telling the story. A script featuring lines like “She may not have known camouflage, but she sure did love the red, white and blue” does not help it any. I have to give some credit for the costume though which is an exact rendition of Cap’s original costume from the comic. However it does in no way translate to live action though as the tiny plastic wings on Captain America’s head makes him look like a complete dork, not that the rubber ears help at all. The studio rejected both Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the part of Captain America, and Val Kilmer rejected them. Instead opting to cast Matt Sallinger, son of author J.D. Sallinger, who may look the part, but has the screen presence Columbo’s wife. Rarely has a superhero movie tried harder and failed more miserably than Captain America, which makes it quite the entertaining viewing.
While You’re At It: Check out Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), The Fantastic Four (1994), and anything marketed as Turkish [Insert Superhero Name].
Not sure when the next one of these will be, but I am sure that I am not encouraging anyone to go see a Tim Burton movie made after 1995 so there will be nothing for next weekend. Also, don’t go and see Dark Shadows, just don’t.