The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger.
Troma Entertainment 1984.

Before watching the movie:

I hadn’t heard of this movie until I stumbled across it on a streaming platform, but apparently it has a cult following. It’s from about 20 years later than I initially thought, but I also thought it was played straighter. This is going for satire, not camp.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the grotesque deformity the accident that gave him his super powers came from is a specific take-that to all of the superheroes and villains that got their start from chemical or nuclear accidents and end up looking amazing, or at most with a cool scar on the face, completely unlike most things that suddenly and dramatically change a human body in reality.

After watching the movie:

Melvin Ferd works as the wimpy, awkward “mop boy” at a gym/health club. A gang of young club members, Bozo, Wanda, and Julie, have taken a particular dislike to him and decide to pull a prank on him that humiliates him in front of the whole club, causing him to run out the window and fall into a truck full of toxic radioactive waste that was parked directly outside the club. Badly burned and disfigured, Melvin also finds himself suddenly seven feet tall and very strong, with a compelling urge to beat up bad guys. Which is good news for Sarah, the blind woman he rescues from some thugs holding up a restaurant, but bad news for the crooked mayor and his gang of criminals.

This movie wants the Toxic Avenger to be an articulate, sympathetic hero, but also wants him to be a berzerk, growling, hulk of a brute. He growls and roars a lot, especially when in fights, but also speaks with a very different, very heroic voice that seems to suggest he’s still fully self-aware and mostly in control. They suggest a little bit that he’s not really in control when fighting bad guys, but one can act from a primal rage and still not sound like a wild troll.

This is movie takes a very over the top approach to violence. If (cheap, campy) gore can be on display, it will be depicted very explicitly. This is used to make bad guys less sympathetic, but also the bad guys getting beaten up get graphically brutalized as well. The public think Melvin is a hero until he attacks someone not even he knew was secretly in an illegal trade, so I don’t think it’s there to make the audience mistrust him, or to make it feel satisfying that the bad guys are getting what they deserve, but just for the chance to revel in blood and guts.

There’s such a heightened level of reality that it’s hard to take anything seriously. The stakes feel nonexistent, and the lines the movie will not cross seem arbitrary. When anybody can die in a moment with an explosion of blood, it’s hard to tell when justice, or what is presented as justice, will step in. I wanted to root for the Toxic Avenger, but I never knew what was supposed to be heroic and what was supposed to be abhorrent. He’s so graphically brutal with the people he beats up that even when it’s supposed to feel good, it was uncomfortable to watch. The bad guys have to be really, really evil to make him seem good by comparison, and they are the most paper-thin card-carrying psychotic monsters the movie can come up with, and it’s still not always enough.

There may be some people who have had the experience of being nauseated by a roller coaster, but enjoying the experience anyway, and that’s something like what I feel about this movie. It doesn’t take anything seriously, and the catharsis is undercut by the disturbing level of violence, but it’s still a little more fun than it is uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ll get on the ride again though.

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