Half Man, Half Ant: The Body Horror of Superhero Movies

By  · Published on July 20th, 2015

In order to become something more than human, you have to change.

This is the core element that connects superhero movies to films we more regularly think of as “Cronenbergian,” and the release of Ant-Man may be the perfect time to talk about this connection. For one, the concept of a man who shrinks to minuscule proportions and controls an army of insects is the stuff of 1950s creature features. For two, Ant-Man is one of the rare superheroes with the luxury of powers that don’t affect him after he stops fighting crime. Beyond vague talk of Pym Particles slowly turning you into a crotchety old Michael Douglas, Scott Lang can enter a world of atoms, kick ass, and then leave the suit at the office while he grabs a celebratory fruit smoothie.

Consider that in relation to Iron Man, the other major superhero with a super suit. Lang steals his and learns to harness its cosmic cherry jelly-fueled powers from the suit’s creator. Tony Stark, on the other hand, builds his after a traumatic injury that leaves shrapnel inching ever-closer to his heart – the suit, with its central power source in his chest, is an extension of the gaping hole left where flesh used to be.

His rise to uber-human is grueling and necessary, and the pain it leaves behind is brought up regularly as a reminder of how Stark has changed and how that alteration still directly affects him (through Iron Man 3). It also allows for some disgusting imagery that is played for laughs.

Iron Man/Marvel

Videodrome/Universal

On the other end of the tonal spectrum is Videodrome, where Max Renn also gets to toy around with the new hole in his chest to far, far less lighthearted of a result. The shared imagery here is fantastic – two cocky men challenged by a significant missing part.

Despite the dimmer switch from comedy to horror, the core visual is the same. Both Stark and Renn are fundamentally, physically flawed – which, counter-intuitively, gives them power. One character is driven to madness while the other is driven to brave acts (and alcohol-fueled madness).

The tie between superheroes and body horror goes back to the birth of genre and serialized comic storytelling itself, where grotesque and fantastical illustrations intermingled to shock, thrill and amaze. You have the obsessed scientist figure in both worlds, toying with elements beyond his control. In one genre he merges with a fly. In the other, he excruciatingly and uncontrollable rage-morphs into a monstrous green beast with brute strength and invincibility. Or he gets slammed with space radiation, turning into an elastic freak and dooming his family and friends to lives of invisibility, boulder skin and flames.

Obviously these aren’t easy transitions.

Sometimes superhero movies, like body horror films, revel in the ghastly nature of the moment a human being becomes something else. It’s really intriguing when modern superhero movies utilize the horrifying aspect of body modification instead of always playing it quick and campy. On that front, the Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man movies are goldmines of horror-inspired transformations. That makes sense for a series launched by the director of The Evil Dead, but even Marc Webb’s vision of Peter Parker’s rogues gallery gets gruesome.

The Doc Ock surgery scene is especially cool because it combines body horror (an unconscious man with metal tentacles in his spine flinging murderously around the room) with classic horror elements (who leaves an operating room that dimly lit??) and 1950s creature feature tropes (close-up on the screaming face with a shadowy killing in the background). The big difference, as you can tell from these clips from Spider-Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man and American Werewolf in London, is one of intensity. Had Sony had the gall to linger on a disgustingly slow transformation from man to lizard the way John Landis did for his werewolf, the pre-teen audience would have shat itself… then instantly declared The Amazing Spider-Man their favorite movie of all time.

However, the distinction is an understandable and forgivable one: it’s the gap between PG-13 and R. Superheroes can play with body horror imagery, but they’re never going to embrace them fully without losing their general, kid-friendly appeal.

As for Spider-Man, his own transformation (a clear metaphor for puberty) isn’t all that easy, and his cinematic world is filled with a guy who is shocked beyond all human recognition, a best friend whose body deteriorates at a cellular level until he’s driven insane and a photojournalist whose body is tortuously inhabited by an alien symbiote.

Another interesting element of this marriage between superheroes and body horror is that Marvel tends to utilize it far more than DC, at least in films. Superman, for all his prowess, would be an average Kryptonian on his home planet, but our yellow sun invisibly alters him into something that can leap tall buildings. Batman, too, endures physical conditioning, but remains fundamentally human. Three exceptions might be Burton’s Joker, who goes through a minimal amount of on-screen chemical vat transformation, his Penguin, who is revolting, and the bursting-headed Hector Hammond from Green Lantern.

Those aside, mutation is the key, and Marvel does a lot of it.

Wolverine is the most overtly tormented in the X-Men franchise – from the early confusion of why his body was different, to lengthy experimentation and a secondary layer to his bone structured powers, to being manipulated by Magneto, to his endurance of pain exploited by the team because he’ll survive. The sight of his claws emerging has become both normalized and a cause for fan applause, but, as he tells us, it hurts every time. Sometimes we get to see it hurt.

It’s also excellent that superhero movies give equal opportunity to heroes and villains to be monsters, but the bad guys tend to get the short end of the ugly stick (while The Hulk somehow gets the girl). If you’re looking for a body horror connection, look no further than the guy with the bloody, skinless face or the guy whose forehead balloons to Goodyear Blimp proportions.

Red Skull/Marvel

Hector Hammond/Warner Bros.

The Fly/Twentieth Century Fox

The juxtaposition with Cronberg’s Fly is meant to prove again that body horror imagery is all done by a matter of degrees. Dr. Brundle – like Bruce Banner, Hector Hammond, Reed Richards, Doctor Octavius, et al – meddles with the primal forces of nature and pays a vomit-inducing price for it. Whereas superhero movie characters end their evolution while remaining mostly human, he goes all out R-rated to become a gangly, fuzzy-legged terror. Superhero movies rarely feature that extensive a transformation (particularly for their protagonists) because they aren’t tragedies and because they’re never full-on horror. Bruce Banner can’t exactly go Re-Animator on everyone (although it would be cool if he did), and there are other elements of the story to focus more attention on.

But body horror isn’t always about swollen heads, fused body parts or gallon buckets of pus. Teeth is the rare example of a body horror movie that can also double as a superhero film. The main character, Dawn, is a young woman with a mutation/super power (her vagina has teeth in it) which she uses regularly to fight evil (rapists and sexual abusers). She experiences relatively no pain regarding her situation, but still has to live with a body that’s different from everyone else’s, and the fear she could hurt someone she loves (a common superhero/secret identity trope). The grisly bits come from torn off body parts, not from the mutation itself.

So Teeth may be where the two genres collide the strongest, but there is connective tissue between superhero movies and body horror films all over the place. I’m really only scratching the surface here. What’s most important is that the core element of accidental/inevitable/uncontrollable changes to a character’s physicality isn’t simply a cosmetic one; it’s designed to initiate the drama. Superheroes, comic book movie villains and horrific former human nightmares are all who they are because of the transformation(s) they endure.

I imagine that’s at least partially why Ant-Man feels lightweight within the troubled universe of superheroes. His struggle to be a good father (which he attacks by literally becoming a hero) and to regain his family isn’t an insignificant one, but he isn’t plagued or scarred like a lot of other superheroes whose abilities are stitched directly onto their bodies. There’s a dramatic depth to the anguish and alteration.

Ant-Man can walk away from the thing that makes him special, but for a lot of superheroes and villains, their power is literally (sometimes disgustingly) part of their DNA.

Related Topics:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.