As part of our coverage of the 18th annual Fantastic Fest, Lisa Gullickson reviews Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger reboot, a film many probably never imagined possible. Follow along with more coverage in our Fantastic Fest archives.
With great IP, there must also come – great responsibility. Remaking a beloved, low-budget cult classic is always a touchy endeavor. The charm of The Toxic Avenger (1984) is its ragged edges. Say what you will about the subjective quality of his films; Lloyd Kaufmann made making movies look attainable. With an atrophying box office clinging fearfully to the superhero genre, there has never been a more apt time for the return of Toxie, an irreverent parody of our saviors in spandex.
Macon Blair takes Lloyd Kaufman’s treasured Toxic Avenger by his bloated, purulent hand and escorts him lovingly to the drawing board – a new name, new middle-aged priorities, and a significantly bigger budget. No longer the sexually frustrated bachelor of Tromaville, Milton Ferd, Blair’s Toxic Avenger is a single dad of St. Roma’s Village who desperately tries to connect to his gen-z son.
The broad strokes of the toxic mop are the same – a sad-sack janitor falls into a vat of toxic slime and becomes a sickening superhero and, in the spirit of The Toxic Avenger Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, is ready to take on the evil corporation of the moment. Instead of the chemical company Apocalypse Inc., it is a malevolent wellness corporation BTH hawking dubious “bio-boosters” while churning out pollutant sludge.
The first big digression of Macon Blair’s Toxie is assembling an uncannily overqualified cast. Peter Dinklage, Jacob Tremblay, and Elijah Wood all deliver performances that are far too sincere for the subject matter. Peter Dinklage infects Winston Gooze, the Toxic Avenger, with a depth of gravitas that is, frankly, uncalled for in a splatstick comedy gorefest. His complicated relationship with his stepson is the pulsing heart that thrusts life into this film’s extremities. Early in the movie, Winston disappoints Wade in a way that makes him feel ashamed, and while that shame is not an instigator of his avenging, it is a motivator. All rejections are painful, but the rejection of a child that you call your own cuts the deepest. Dinklage embodies this hemorrhaging desperation to elevate himself in his son’s eyes. Jacob Tremblay reads as a highly authentic myopic teen with no sympathy or curiosity for his stepdad’s suffering. It’s compelling.
The only actor who seems to know what movie he’s in is Kevin Bacon, who plays the morally bereft CEO of a noxious nostrum-singing wellness corporation. He portrays Bob Garbington as colorfully as the oil slick on a pavement puddle and every bit as deep, which is appropriate. The last thing we have patience for as a culture is to be asked to be sympathetic towards someone who is amassing their wealth by failing to provide their employees with a safe working environment and adequate health insurance. Am I right?
I found the film endearingly lopsided. While Winston Gooze’s paternal struggle is more nuanced than Milton Ferd’s struggle to find romantic love as an underdog in The Toxic Avenger (1984), Macon Blair’s reboot reverently maintains the obscenity of the original. If the cartoony hyperviolence with severed limbs and fountains of orangey blood is why you come to The Toxic Avenger, you get what you paid for. Garbinger’s heavies are a punk band called The Nasty Lads, who vape from a conch and do frenetic scissor kicks while asking, “Are you triggered?” You want to see these jackasses toxic-mopped into a steaming pile so it comes to pass. But, if it wasn’t for the exorbitant gore, the flapping phalluses, and the titillating (for comedy!) tits, I would argue Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger is downright wholesome.
There is a sore thumb in The Toxic Avenger (2023) – the ill-fated attempt to modernize the carnage with CG. Enrobed in pestilential practical makeup and swinging his septic swab, Peter Dinklage is a glory to behold. Still, the spell is immediately broken when he connects mop to face, and we see the superimposed corrosive effect. It reminds me of when Buffy the Vampire Slayer would dust a vamp in the late 90’s. It makes the film look like a throwback in a less fun, flattering way and not in the spirit of the original. CG blood and horror effects are an exceedingly difficult trick to pull off in the most grounded of flicks, but in a movie that is purposely and perilously teetering on schlock, a poor CG effect is not doing it any favors.
Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger is kind of like an elderly pug. It’s too cute to be repulsive but too snorty and leaky to be not gross. The grandest departure from the original, in my estimation, is that The Toxic Avenger (2023) is not a high-budget take on a superhero parody but a comparatively low-budget but loving take on a mainstream, rated-R superhero movie. Ben “The Thing” Grimm of the Fantastic Four, Hank “Beast” McCoy of the X-Men, Wade Wilson aka Deadpool were all struck with powers that made monsters out of them. Not every firefighter is calendar-worthy. Not every superhero looks great in spandex. That’s the norm. Blair’s painfully relatable take on Toxie, combined with Peter Dinkledge’s grounded depiction, shakes all of the spoof out of the roots of The Toxic Avenger – planting him more directly into a venerated lineage of cursed heroes. Too earnest to be satire and too well executed to capture the countercultural spirit of the original, The Toxic Avenger (2023) still manages to worm its way through my guts and into my heart.