This has been a conscious decision on my part, and I know that it’s occasionally frustrated some of my regular readership. I’m contacted from time-to-time and asked why I’ve rarely spoken up or provided reviews of some of the genre’s biggest hits, and my response is usually the same: I only venture into such territory when I can assure myself that nostalgia will play little to no part in what I have to say. You see, I’m human (after all), and I know that there are some projects that I just can’t dissect impartially because they mean too much to me on a personal level. As such, I’ll shut these away – considering many of them rainy day pursuits, if and when the mood strikes – and only bring them up once I know I can separate my younger self from my older self for the purpose of critiquing what was.
Well, I think it’s more than past time that I start sounding off on a few of them, and perhaps the first big blow will be a critical look at 1984’s The Toxic Avenger.
For those caught unawares, it’s the film that truly put Troma, Tromaville, and Troma Entertainment on the map. According to a blurb online, founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz put together their operation focused on the creation and distribution of B-movies; and they’ve had the good fortune of releasing well over 1,000 titles across their trail-blazing careers. While I’ll never concede that Troma products are for everyone, I think there will always likely be an audience for such subversive fare because we’re arguably a society of voyeurs. We can’t look away, no matter how good or how bad or how bloody or how silly some moments might be; and Troma has been proudly ‘disrupting’ entertainment in only the way it truly can.
So buckle up, friends, and let’s take a deep dive into the world’s first superhero … from New Jersey!
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Tromaville has a monstrous new hero. The Toxic Avenger is born when meek mop boy Melvin falls into a vat of toxic waste. Now evildoers will have a lot to lose.”
OK. A little information about myself.
I was in high school during the early 1980’s, and – like most teenagers – I absorbed more than my fair share of movies. I grew up in a small town in the middle of Nowhere, America, so a good portion of my and my friends’ free time was spent watching movies on VHS and/or laserdisc. (Ask your grandparents, kids.) And precisely because we weren’t what you’d call ‘discerning viewers,’ we’d watch damn near anything that looked like it could get a rise out of us, a sentiment that most definitely carried over into my college experience (with all new friends) as well. Such is the nature of being young and inexperienced: you’re willing to enjoy the good, the bad, and the ugly until you either grow up and/or know better.
Flash-forward to 2022: I’m older – probably not a whole lot wiser, mind you – and one of my side interests is serving as a volunteer judge for the state’s high school speech and debate program. (Yes, in my youth, I participated as a speaker, so I have some modest experience upon which I can offer advice to some of these young skulls.) In fairness, speech team is a reasonably ‘highbrow’ affair – you work with some exceptionally talented youngsters who have a lot of fire and passion about some of our society’s most pressing issues – but there are a few events that allow and encourage these young clowns to have a bit of fun.
One such speaking event that lends itself to some interesting choices is called Humorous Interpretation. These speakers are tasked with delivering a ten-minute program wherein they bring to life a work with comic sensibilities. A huge trend on the circuit – for better or for worse – is that these students have taken to adapting some of their favorite films into this vastly shorter speaking format. As you can guess, this isn’t always an easy affair – for example, most films are 90-minutes or more, so compressing a tale and preserving an understandable arc, message, or moral to the story presents challenges – and you might equally acknowledge that judging such an effort can be difficult as well.
Lo and behold, one contestant got up to the stagefront, introduced himself, and announced that he’d be performing his Humorous Interpretation of “The Toxic Avenger.”
To my surprise, he was. He was surprised that I’d heard of it. I told him that not only had I heard of it but that I’d interacted a few times with the film’s creator on Twitter. The kid was obviously impressed, and that’s where I left it, telling him to go ahead and begin when he was ready.
And he did a spectacular job.
Succinctly, The Toxic Avenger is that kind of film that probably means more to folks who discover it when they’re of a certain age. This isn’t to say that older viewers won’t appreciate its wonders and lunacy; rather, the kind of general silliness at work from start-to-finish just typically resonates more with those who haven’t been worn down by the weight of life on their shoulders. There isn’t a serious thread in its glorious 82-minutes, and this kind of seditious humor may not exactly be found all that funny if you’ve cut your teeth on the latest Merchant Ivory production. This isn’t Academy Award stuff, and it shows.
However, Avenger still retains a great deal of relevance from the era in which it came to be.
For example, toxic waste was just an emerging issue in the 1980’s. Such subject matter had become a talking point on the evening news, and anyone who was a prominent figure in news circles most definitely had an opinion of how such corporate run-off was ruining our cities and the environment. Tromaville – as the toxic waste capital of the world – pulled that focus as much from the front page as it did from the pages of the comic book, using these magical and mystical substances as the catalyst for transforming the nebbish Melvin Junko (played by Mark Torgl) into the hulking and deformed street vigilante eventually known as ‘Toxie.’ Hell, even Peter Parker needed to be bitten by a radioactive spider, so what’s to say falling face-first into a drum of green-glowing sludge couldn’t produce a modern Prometheus?
Furthermore, the health club was really assuming its place in the American consciousness. As much as it was a place for men and women to go to bulk up, it became a hunting ground for where males and females could watch one another, talk with one another, and – dare I say? – hit on one another. The sexual revolution would face an all-new battleground, so it was only natural for Melvin to draw the ire and condemnation of his genetic betters. He was ostracized by everyone there, putting our collective fear of being inferior up in the light for Troma to exploit.
And even more topical was the reality that places like fast food restaurants were drawing the unwanted and unwelcome lunatics of society’s most violent. Back in the 1980’s, lunatics had begun acting out on their darkest desires, and it became daily news when the corner McDonalds or Burger King restaurants were sites for major shoot-outs the way some grade schools have become targets for such evil today. So the inclusion of such an incident – in which Toxie shows up to save the day eventually – represented just how Troma had its finger on the pulse of the era.
The Toxic Avenger (1984) was produced by Troma Entertainment. DVD distribution (for this particular release as being one part of The Toxic Avenger Collection 4K) is being handled by the fine folks at MVD Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I can happily assure you that this is likely the best the film has ever looked: Bluray.com reports that this is an all-new 4K restoration, and – despite some of the usual flaws to things shot fast and on-the-cheap – it’s an impressive upgrade from what I’ve encountered with the flick previously.
Lastly, as for the special features? Wow. This is an impressive collection, indeed. The disc boasts two audio commentaries along with some newly produced introductions and a prologue. Furthermore, there are cast and crew interviews, a handful of making-of bits, and the usual assortment of photo galleries and theatrical trailers. As this is coming available at this time as part of an all-new 4K release, there are some additional extras – packaging and artwork stuff – thrown in for good measure as well. I suspect fans will be happy to spend the bucks necessary to pick this one up fresh off the shelves. Yes, it’s that good.
As much as any other high-fallutin’ film of the 1980’s, The Toxic Avenger taps into so much of what was going on socially and culturally in its day that I’ve always argued there are more than a few kernels of genius in its sometimes-shoddy framework. Rarely does high camp resonate with so many social observations – especially with the passage of time – but this one undeniably captures the trends of its era and adds a measure of comic absurdity for pure entertainment value. Of course, Avenger isn’t going to be for everyone – no film ever truly is – but the audience that has found this little gem and continues to enjoy its humble wonders is as special as Toxie himself.
Long live Toxie!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Entertainment Group provided me with a complimentary set of The Toxic Avenger Collection 4K by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.