2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet

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Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Power Rangers (2017)

I cried during a Power Rangers movie. I’m not sure if that’s something to be proud of or embarrassed by, but it’s true regardless. The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Their gradually-earned cohesion as a team of superheroes who sport what look like full-body bike helmets & drive robo-dinos through the streets of their home town looks an awful lot like nearly every generic action thriller released in the wake of the ongoing MCU & Transformers franchises, but it means so much more here than it does in the similar, but lesser work of its contemporaries. Just thinking about the film’s, “Together we are more” tagline gets me a little emotional. The only way you can earn that kind of genuine outsiders-vs.-the-world pathos is by investing real time & genuine effort in character work before your teen heroes suit up & kick alien ass, which is exactly what makes Power Rangers such an overwhelming success.

Now that I’ve gotten that confession about my idiotic blubbering out of the way, it’s time to admit that this is still a deeply silly film adapted from even sillier source material. It takes a long while before the audience gets to see fully-costumed Power Rangers battling their sworn enemy Rita Repulsa and her rock monster army of “puddies,” but the film announces the silliness at its core right out the gate. The very first scene in Power Rangers involves a prank that escalates to one teen jerking off a bull and another crashing into several cop cars. Off-handed references to cramming crayons into assholes & masturbating in the shower similarly cut through the heavy-handed teen drama, despite its team-building training montages and its campfire confessions about what’s been getting the poor lot down. From there, Power Rangers embarks on a daring journey of cobbling together several genre-disparate films from cinema past: The Breakfast Club (where a group of alienated teens on weekend detention struggle to relate to peers outside their respective social circles), Explorers (where kids stumble into an out-of-this-world adventure after discovering a real-life space ship), Chronicle (I have no idea what that one’s about; it just sounds right), and so on. Just about the only movie Power Rangers doesn’t resemble in some way is the 1995 feature Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which arrived during a very specific era of ooze-obsessed children’s media. Instead of that film’s purple slime, you have to settle for a little post-Dark Knight grim & grime, but the 2017 version does find its fair share of heightened camp within its few recognizable actors: Elizabeth Banks as a drag routine version of Suicide Squad‘s The Enchantress, Bill Hader as a pot-bellied robot named Alpha 5, and Bryan Cranston as an all-knowing, floating alien head named Zordon (not to be confused with Zardoz), who more than vaguely resembles the Engineer aliens from Prometheus. And by the time the whole thing reveals itself to be a feature-length ad for Krispy Kreme donuts, the emotional resonance of its character-driven build-up is an absurd thing to have to reconcile with its campier tendencies.

The machinations necessary to set the cookie cutter plot in motion aren’t all that interesting to recount. Five teens gather at an operational gold mine for various personal reasons, discover color-coded Infinity Stones/Coins, board a buried space ship, and wind up staging a battle against a 65 million year old mummified alien and her gigantic, liquid gold prometheus. It’s all simple enough. Much like how Lucas Black spent the entirety of Tokyo Drift searching inside himself for the ability to drive sideways, these teens come together to look inside themselves for the ability to “morph” into their inner Power Rangers & form Voltron to defeat the evil, donut-eating space alien. If I were a little more academic and a lot more frivolous I’m sure I could mount an argument about how the team of horny teens’ initial failure to morph is metaphorically related to their frustrated inability to achieve orgasm. This subtext almost becomes explicit in a transition where the Yellow Ranger’s campfire confession of her closeted queer identity is immediately followed by Rita Repulsa appearing under her sheets and roughing her up in her bedroom. The truth is, however, that the gang’s transformation into an ancient, transferable line of intergalactic superheroes isn’t nearly as well thought-out or thematically rich as the various revelations of their troubled home lives, nor does it need to be. Beating up giant golden monsters in dinosaur-shaped mech suits is rad enough on its own not to require any such justification. This is a superhero origin story about a group of teens saving the world by learning to perform a communal, pro wrestling-style suplex on a giant space alien baddy. How much more plot do you really need?

I’m of two minds about the 2017 Power Rangers movie. On the one hand, I was totally on the hook for its emotional character work where isolated teens console each other with lines like, “You did an awful thing. That does not make you an awful person,” and discover a newfound sense of community among themselves. At the same time, I was tickled stupid by its robo-dino battles, donut-flavored ad placement, thrash metal Tai Chi, and self-deflating meta humor, like when Hader’s pudgy robot declares, “Different colors, different kids, different color kids!” Overall, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. In the long run, it’ll likely lead to nothing more than a handful of forgettable, diminishing returns sequels. I still bought right into what it was selling, though, just like I greedily ate up every other recent reboot of similar bullshit media I loved as a kid: Ghostbusters, GoosebumpsTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Maybe that makes me a sucker & a rube, but this rube had a good laugh and a good cry at a kids’ movie this past weekend, which is more than anyone should have been able to ask for out of a property this old & this inane.

-Brandon Ledet

Invaders from Space (1965)

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The made for TV cheapie Atomic Rulers of the World introduced me to the inane, interplanetary wonders of Starman, a blatant Superman rip-off & star of the Japanese mini-series Super Giant. Super Giant was cut down & re-edited into several made-for-American-TV movies, starting with Atomic Rulers, which was mostly a standard atomic age plot about the alien council of the Emerald Planet deploying Starman to prevent an inevitable nuclear holocaust by disrupting the dangerous gangsterism of some shady arms dealers. Invaders form Space starts with the exact same introduction, a shot-for-shot copy of the Emerald Planet council’s scene in the first film as they choose to employ Starman to once more save Earth. This helpful preamble provides not only context for Starman’s origins, but also a concise overview of his powers, both the ones he was born with (he’s made of the strongest steel) and the ones afforded to him by his fancy “globe meter” wristwatch (flight, radio activity detection, language adaptability). Thankfully, though, Invaders from Space didn’t repeat much else from Atomic Rulers’s basic structure. Instead of fighting off evil nuclear warmongers in this case, Starman does away with an alien invasion of artsy theater types with a proclivity for witchcraft and the results are deliciously ridiculous.

The titular alien invaders in this film are known by name as the Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman. When undercover, they dress like mobster types with black surgical masks covering their hideous alien faces. When letting their freak flags fly, however, they’re alien-frog humanoids with steel-tearing claws and radioactive fire breath. Their uncovered, mutilated faces recall The Joker or a nameless Dick Tracy goon. They fly UFOs seemingly made entirely of light and hide among humanity as “an unusual dance troupe” who put on a “weird performance” at an arts theater that makes its entire audience sick with radiation poisoning. The one female Salamander is a witch that chases children around a suburban home; the salamander people’s temporary home on Earth is a phallic palace with a blatant dickhead on its tallest tower; their second life as an avant-garde dance troupe means that there’s tons of cartwheels & gymnastics included in their hand-to-hand combat styles. So much of Invaders form Space resembles the exact tone of Atomic Rulers of the World that it’s impossible to ever forget the series’ origins as a television property instead of proper cinema. The film still stands out on its own in comparison to Starman’s introductory title, Atomic Rulers, though, mostly because of the absurdity of the Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman are such a perfectly comic strip-oriented type of foe for our bargain bin Superman to thwart.  Another film where Starman bucks against arms-dealing G-men might’ve been a monotonous slog, as we’ll see in a future sequel, but the UFO attacks & interpretive dance combat of Invaders from Space make for a highly entertaining sequel, one that might even surpass the original film on the basic level of enjoyability.

Cobbled together from the 3rd & 4th entries in the Super Giant series, The Mysterious Spacemen’s Demonic Castle & Earth on the Verge of Destruction, Invaders from Space finds the Starman franchise hitting its full stride. The introduction of Ken Utsui’s spandex-clad space alien hero in Atomic Rulers was  a delightful novelty, but just like most superheroes, the strength of his world relies heavily on the shoulders of his villains. The Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman don’t exactly elevate Invaders from Space into a higher tier of cinematic quality above Atomic Rulers; this is still an even keel of made-for-TV schlock that the Super Giant series is operating on. They do, however, keep the series interesting after the initial charm of Starman & his atomic menace foes settles and the reality of watching four of these ventures becomes a potential chore. Starman’s introduction remains static & carbon copied at the top of each feature. There’s no room for him to grow or change as a character from movie to movie, so it’s up to the villains he defeats to provide a sense of variety & continual novelty. Modern dance fish people from outer space who exhale radiation and live in a dick castle are more than fascinating enough as villains to maintain that novelty and Invaders form Space is one of the most interesting entries in the Super Giant series thanks to their gloriously weird presence.

-Brandon Ledet

Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)

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It almost seems unfair to review the public domain cheapie Atomic Rulers of the World as a legitimate feature film, because it has such a ludicrous pedigree. Edited together for American television from two Japanese shorts in a series titled Super Giant, this is a work that just barely qualifies as proper cinema. As far as made-for-TV schlock goes, though, Atomic Rulers is too fun to resist. In a melting pot plot of for-kids camp that touches on sci-fi, espionage, and Adam West-era Batman vibes in its all-encompassing quest for genre thrills, Atomic Rulers of the World is a live action comic book sugar blast that literally & figuratively represents the best of old-fashioned serial storytelling. The first of four films following the out-of-this-world superhero Starman as he attempts to save Earth from destroying itself in a nuclear holocaust, Atomic Rulers looks, feels, and resonates like comic book camp. In a modern context, where all comic book cinema is super serious & adult-oriented, though, its particular band of Saturday morning inanity is oddly infectious.

There are several more infamous superheros Starman could be compared to (as well as some more obscure reference points like Fletcher Hanks’s Stardust character), but there’s no clearer reflection of his character than, arguably the most famous superhero of all time, Superman. Like Superman, Starman is a bulletproof alien with movie star handsomeness, inhuman strength, and a frequent indulgence in green screen flight. The only aspects he’s missing are the adoptive parents & laser beam eyes. Instead of crash landing in Kansas as a wee babe, Starman lives on a distant world known simply as The Emerald Planet. The high council of The Emerald Planet (who look like every episode of the 1950s Dr. Who series smashed together as a dinner party theme) becomes concerned with Earth’s impending doom as the radiation from atomic weapons testing leaks from the atmosphere & poisons other worlds. They deploy Starman, who can master intergalactic flight without any kind of vessel, to stop an evil nation from deploying “atomic superweapons” that would lead to intentional nuclear peril. The alien superhero occasionally does Superman-esque things like landing on the outside of the airplanes to physically steady their landings or alternating between skin-tight supergear & sharply tailored suits, but for the most part Starman acts as a solo agent in Cold War espionage. When a gangster accuses, “You’re a police agent!” he responds “Not of this earth,” which isn’t exactly a denial. By the time he fences like a swashbuckler & engages at length in hand-to-hand martial arts, Starman seemingly encompasses all genre film cliché in a single vessel, but Superman certainly provides his basic framework.

Paced & narrated for television, Atomic Rulers of the World occasionally suffers a boring stretch of narrative or a rigidly episodic story structure, but it’s a format that works well in a superhero cinema context. In the first half of the film, Starman sets out to rescue an orphan boy kidnapped by an evil organization attempting to hold Japan hostage with “atomic superweapons.” In the second half, he has to rescue a second hostage, this time a young woman, while thwarting the impending nuclear holocaust. As this was made for 1960s children’s television, it goes without saying that Starman succeeds in both instances (even though one encounter ludicrously requires him to survive a mini-nuke in an enclosed space). If I hadn’t known that there were three more Starman films to follow, I might have found the story a little slight, but it at least feels totally self-contained. At the end of the movie Starman decides not to destroy the atomic superweapon, but to return it to the “good guys,” urging them to “use it for peace.” It’s a simplistic solution for a massively complex problem (that still hasn’t been solved half a century later), but it still works well enough as a standalone product in an episodic series. I’ve certainly seen films in the MCU with less in-the-moment stakes & frustratingly unresolved “until next time” conclusions.

Anyone who’s curious about watching Atomic Rulers of the World isn’t likely all that interested in the film’s narrative ambition, though, and it’s a work that survives largely on the novelty of its multi-genre thrills. The villainous nuclear cult that plans to take Japan hostage boasts some interesting details in the meth lab futurism of their secret base & their preferred execution method of the world’s most convoluted, slow-moving guillotine. There’s also a quaint charm to the film’s cheap production design, with its half-assed dubbing & green screen flight. The real joy of Atomic Rulers, however, is the introduction of intergalactic superhero Starman. Actor Ken Utsui’s near nude outer space get-up & everything-to-everyone invincibility/versatility turns the character into something of a campy joke, but I do have a strong nostalgia for this kind of over-the-top cartoon superhero media. Some of Atomic Rulers‘s best moments are when Starman is simply delighting an orphanage full of kids who ooh & ahh as he demonstrates his ability to fly or to mangle firearms with his bare hands. I often found myself getting giddy right along with those impressed & overwhelmed tykes, as Starman is a high camp superhero I didn’t know I needed back in my life until Atomic Rulers showed me the way.

-Brandon Ledet