The summer movie season is upon us and thus far, one thing is clear: Superheroes still sell. While The Mummy, Alien: Covenant and Baywatch all fizzled pretty much right out of the gate, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Wonder Woman have been the only surefire hits of the summer so far, and Spider-Man: Homecoming seems all but set to join their ranks. While studios are hesitant to take any chances with other genres, nowadays it’s clear that even with rough reviews, costumed heroes can be a license to print money.
But what’s a studio to do when they don’t have a stable of classic comic book characters, but still want to cash in on the superhero craze? Simple, they just create their own. Sometimes, in the case of Unbreakable or The Incredibles, these characters become parts of the cultural discourse and spawn franchises all their own. Other times…well, they’re The Adventures of Pluto Nash. But every once in a while, the end result is so bizarre that the “superhero” stays in the mind long after the film itself is forgotten. From a magical “whooping’ belt” to a super sense of smell, we’re counting down the strangest superheroes of cinema.
Did you ever watch Guardians of the Galaxy and wish it had worse effects and was infused with patriotic nostalgia for a failed socialist state? Then you’re in luck! After August Kuratov threatens the safety of contemporary Russia with an army of clones, the government has no choice but to reassemble a tam of Cold War-era superhuman to fight back.
Sure, three of the team have your standard powers: control of water, control of earth, super agility. But then there’s Ursus the werebear. Of course, turning into a bear is one thing, controlling how much of oneself becomes a bear is a whole different story; the film notably contains one scene wherein Ursus maintains a human body to fire a machine gun whilst inexplicably giving himself a bear head. Any chance we can get a special investigator to look into why Russia did this, too?
When Lloyd Kaufman was scouting locations for Rocky (yes, that Rocky), he got the idea that a gymnasium would be a good setting for a horror film. How he went from there to an awkward nerd named Melvin Junko falling into toxic waste while wearing a tutu and becoming the Toxic Avenger, only he knows. But luckily for us he did.
The Toxic Avenger was a huge success, singlehandedly elevating this tiny indie outlet to cult status, spawning four sequels, an animated series, a Marvel comics series, and even an off-broadway musical. Though the studio had other successes, Toxie remains the mainstay and mascot, and talks have floated for years of a mainstream movie reboot, with names like Guillermo del Toro and Arnold Schwarzenegger circling the project. The Toxic Avenger is proof that it's not a matter of budget or name-recognition; if you're sincere and want to tell a good story, folks will want to hear it.
A lot of folks of a certain age have fond memories of underrated actor/director Robert Townsend’s superhero story, memories of moms in Blockbuster aisles finding that one black superhero in a pre-Blade era. Relax, we’re happy to report that the odd but earnest film still mostly holds up, except the presence of a certain once-beloved sweater-wearing comedian. That doesn’t mean, however, that all the powers make sense.
Jefferson Reed, a timid school teacher in D.C. tired of the gang violence, gets struck by a meteor and soon gets a reputation as the mighty Meteor Man. He takes on a fearsome gang led by original Riddler Frank Gorshin (whose members range from a young Don Cheadel to rap icon Big Daddy Kane), using his powers of super strength, invulnerability, the ability to memorize an entire book by touching it (but only remembering it for 30 seconds) and…talking to dogs.
A Thai superhero film from some of the team behind the legendary Ong-Bak martial arts movies? The story of a Bangkok fireman who gets impaled by a Tibetan amulet and acquires superpowers, including producing massive amounts of heat from his body, super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound? How on Earth does something like that get dumped as a direct-to-DVD release in the US?
Well, could be because Mercury Man’s arch-nemesis isn’t some supervillain or some evil corporate executive, but rather an Afghan terrorist who wants to use the magic amulet to launch a chemical attack against the United States. But lest you think this is some poor taste attempt to capitalize on the worst tragedy in American history, rest assured this is totally different. This terrorist’s name is Osama bin Ali. See? Totally fine.
No, not the Mrs. Incredible you’re thinking of from the beloved Brad Bird classic The Incredibles. No, no, we’re talking about the unholy hybrid of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and totally not Pixar’s The Incredibles in any way and that’s totally not why they changed the character names after the fact to Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman. Got it? This is a totally unrelated movie about a married couple of retired superheroes dealing with the banality of daily life and a desire to get back into the game.
Heck, just take Mrs. Incredible, for example. You see, Pixar’s Mrs. Incredible can stretch her body, but Hong Kong’s Mrs. Incredible? Why, she earns the title of Aroma Woman because she has a super-powered sense of smell. Is super smell enough to keep evil at bay? Who knows, but it seemed to be enough to keep the Disney lawyers at bay.
If any movie has been due for a critical revisit, a cult following and midnight movie screenings across the country, it’s The Return of Captain Invincible. A musical comedy starring Oscar winner Alan Arkin as the titular hero, a World War II-era icon driven out of the country by the McCarthy hearings who must retake his heroic mantle to battle Mr. Midnight, played with devilish delight by Christopher Lee.
Captain Invincible not only has the power of flight but also magnetic abilities. Not like Magneto, mind you. Metal just sticks to him sometimes. And if you think that’s odd, just wait till you see the scene where Invincible reveals he gained his powers when aliens spied on his conception. Sure, it sounds weird, but stick with the flick until Lee’s Midnight seduces Invincible back to alcoholism with the show stopping “Pick Your Poison.” You won’t regret it.
Troma, America’s longest-running independent film studio, got its start making sex comedies until they struck gold with a certain mop-swinging superhero in 1984, whom we’ll touch on later. It was in the wake of that character’s surprising success both at home and in Japan that director Lloyd Kaufman was approached by representatives of Namco, who wanted a Kabuki-themed superhero film, and offered Troma $1.5 million to make it happen.
That Kabukiman possesses powers like heat-seeking chopsticks and poison sushi demonstrates Troma’s traditionally silly humor, but unfortunately, the film itself also exhibits Troma’s flair for gore and sexploitation, much to the chagrin of the Namco corporation, who had hoped for a family friendly film. The story of NYPD officer Harry Griswold would be shelved for six years, but Kaufman would get the last laugh, as Kabukiman would go on to cameo in Moby’s “We Are All Stars” music video and Tromeo & Juliet, the screenwriting debut of future Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn.
Vampires fighting crime is hardly a new concept. Whether its Blade or Nina Price, Blood Ties or Forever Knight, it’s a tried and true trope of the genre. So how does the 2006 South Korean film Vampire Cop Ricky set itself apart from the pack? Well, you see, police officer Na Do-yol isn’t a vampire all the time. Oh no, his vampiric powers only appear when he’s…aroused.
Yes, if you like your vampire crime-fighter stories with the kind of perverse lampooning that only South Korean sex-comedies can muster, you’re in luck. Vampire Cop Ricky bends over backwards to put its hero in the most awkward of positions, including accompanying his partner on a lingerie shopping trip and having to mask his fangs with a pair of panties. It’s hardly a noteworthy film, even in the “vampire cop” genre, but hey, it’s still better than Angel Season 4.
While it didn’t make the waves of, say, The Dark Knight or The Avengers in the global market, for the Malaysian film industry Cicak Man is a milestone, raking in record box office receipts when it was released in 2006.
A response to the recent success of films like Spider-Man and X-Men, Cicak Man is the story of a mild-mannered citizen of Metrofulus who develops strange powers after drinking coffee that had come into contact with a gecko infected with a dangerous virus. After discovering his powers range from wall crawling to making chirping noises and…bug eating, Hairi Yatim dons the mantle of Cickaman to take down the evil Professor Klon while winning the heart of his secretary, Tania.
The truth is, the story of the making of Abar, the First Black Superman (later retitled In Your Face) is more engaging than the actual 1977 blaxploitation film itself. Conceived in part by a Louisiana pimp and shot partially in an actual brothel, the production at one point employed a black motorcycle gang to surround the cars of officers who had shown up to shut down the unauthorized production.
The film itself tells the story of the Kinkade family, whose patriarch, the scientist Dr. Kinkade is disgusted by the racism he faces in the predominantly white neighborhood he moves into. He concocts a super-soldier serum and gives it to John Abar, who develops fantastic powers, like being able to turn wine into milk and turning stoners into college graduates.
It’s a story we all know, of course, but let’s recap anyway: thousands of years ago, aliens visited the Aztecs, created the superhero Pumaman to guard a golden mask which can control minds. Classic story. Well, Pumaman features the evil Dr. Kobras (played by frequent John Carpenter collaborator Donald Pleasance) obtaining the golden mask and, wanting to prevent the Pumaman from coming for it, orders his men to begin throwing any orphaned Americans in London out of tall buildings. Naturally.
We finally meet the Pumaman in the form of Tony Farms, played by medical malpractice attorney and notably not an actor Walter George Alton, who possesses the puma-like powers of night vision, teleportation, and flight thanks to his magic belt and puma blood. If any of this actually does sound familiar, its likely because the film, while lacking any home video release of its own, was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Maybe you caught the film at 3:00am on Comedy Central, maybe you even remember the character from his early appearances on The Chris Rock Show. Odds are, Pootie Tang has been on your periphery for a while now. Yet, since its release more then 15 years ago, neither time nor its distinction as the directorial debut of patron saint of disgruntled white dudes Louis C.K. have done much to help the film’s legacy.
So who is the titular hero? He’s a ponytail sporting ladies man, a top-selling musician and movie star and inspiration to children everywhere whose powers include the ability to dodge bullets (and deflect them with said ponytail), and a magical ass-whoopin’ belt handed down to him by his father, Daddy Tang. Blaxploitation was better skewered in Black Dynamite roughly a decade later, but does that film have a spanking scene featuring esteemed actor Robert Vaughn? We think not. Point: Pootie Tang
He may look like Space Ghost on his poster, but there’s nothing nearly so whimsical about the titular hero of the Italian superhero/spy film Argoman the Fantastic Superman, known as The Incredible Paris Incident in the US. Argoman is a bizarre blend of Batman, James Bond and the Italian comic book character Diabolik. His alter-ego, Sir Reginald Hoover, is simultaneously a super-spy and also possibly a criminal? Well, possibly a criminal in the sense that the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not he is ultimately a thief. He is definitely a criminal in his actions towards women.
Oh yes, unlike James Bond, Argoman actually has super-telekinetic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to straight up abduct women solely for the purposes of sleeping with them, but loses his powers for six hours every time he has sex. To say such a “funny” premise hasn’t aged well is an understatement.
If you haven't seen the cult-hit The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, add it to your Netflix queue before the inevitable bland remake sours you to it, because the 21st century won’t let us have nice things anymore. Buckaroo Bonzai is an absolute bonkers homage to vintage genre films that also attempts to be a sincere '80s adventure that succeeds at both by ultimately never really being either.
Case in point: the title hero. Buckaroo Bonzai is a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, crimefighter and frontman of a rock band named the Hong Kong Cavaliers, which includes Mr. Krabs voice-actor Clancy Brown and Jeff Goldblum as a neurosurgeon and cowboy named New Jersey. What sells this absurd character is how little sense Robocop star Peter Weller makes in the role, far too handsome to be a neurosurgeon, too stoic to be a rock star, yet it's this very inexplicability that sells him in the role.
If you thought Disney’s first dip into the superhero game was 1991’s The Rocketeer, don’t feel bad. This goofy Cold War comedy has been all but forgotten, though its central character has enjoyed a subtle revival in recent years. Condorman is a 1981 film about Woodrow Wilkins, a comic book creator who refuses to have a character do anything unrealistic, and takes it upon himself to test the various stunts his character is intended to undertake. As such, Wilkins spends his days in full Condorman costume, galavanting around Paris attempting to fly, crashing with his CIA operative pal.
It’s this CIA connection that gets Wilkins entangled in the defection of a Soviet spy, for which the government recruits his Condorman services and seemingly exhausts millions of dollars to placate Wilkins’ every Condor-related whim. The film was a flop, but when Marvel was acquired by Disney in 2009, Spider-Man editor Stephen Walker talked about bringing the character into the Marvel universe, and references to the hero have popped up in a Toy Story short and the popular Disney Infinity video game.
What are insanely bizarre superhero movies are out there? Tell us about them in the comments!