I’ve been struggling to find much to get excited about in theaters lately, now that “Summer” Blockbuster Season has encroached well into Spring, and multiplex marquees are once again all superheroes all of the time. The general vibe among moviegoing audiences is that the superhero era is winding down post-Endgame, but it’s going to take a long time for Hollywood studios to adjust to that dwindling enthusiasm, since these billion-dollar behemoths take years to produce & market. Personally, I’m so deeply, incurably bored by American superhero media that I’m avoiding all four-quadrant crowd-pleasers out there, not just the usual suspects like the new Guardians, the new Ant-Man, and the new Shazam. If I stare at the poster or trailer for any tentpole blockbuster above a 6-figure production budget for long enough, they all appear to follow the same MCU superhero action template. Super Mario Bros, Dungeons & Dragons, and Fast X are all essentially superhero movies to me, each with their own invincible, quippy gods among men who save the day by extending their IP. I can’t hide from the new release calendar forever, though, so I need to re-learn how to enjoy a superhero movie or two until Hollywood fully moves onto the next money-printing fad. Given that there are already dozens of Marvel & DC movies slated for release over the next few summers, it’s likely going to take a long time for this lumbering industry to correct course. So, it’s somewhat fortuitous that the Italian supernatural action epic Freaks vs. The Reich finally landed a US release in this dire time of need, after years of stumbling over international distribution hurdles. It’s the most convincing evidence I’ve seen in a while that there is still some juice left in the superhero genre, despite Hollywood’s determination to squeeze it dry and pummel the rind.
If there’s anything more frustratingly slow than Hollywood’s response to public appetite, it’s the distribution of international art films, which often fall into a years-long limbo between their initial festival runs and their wide US premieres. I’ve been waiting to see Freaks vs. The Reich for so long that its earliest roadblocks were COVID related, and its original title has since been changed to give it a fresher, more recognizable appeal. I suppose rebranding the film from Freaks Out to its new, more descriptive title is a useful warning for the shocking amount of Nazi imagery you’ll find in this supernatural circus sideshow fantasy. It also helps explain why it’s so easy to cheer on the titular, superpowered freaks who take those Nazis down. I wonder if some of its distribution delays had to do with clearing song rights, since the main Nazi supervillain in question abuses ether to mentally time-travel into the future, returning to the battlefields of WWII with visions of smartphones, video game controllers, and old-timey renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” & Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” The inclusion of “Creep” is important to note there, since the song also happens to be featured in the more traditional, straightforward superhero epic Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which is currently eating up a grotesque amount of American screen space. Whether you think it’s more interesting to hear that song played on a Spotify algorithm mixtape to evoke easy nostalgia points or performed by a drugged-out, time-traveling Nazi supervillain is a question of taste, but I can at least personally attest to appreciating a sense of variety within this oppressively omnipresent genre template.
Freaks vs. The Reich opens with a full circus sideshow act, introducing our Italian superhero freaks one at a time as they show off their individual talents – a magnetic dwarf, an electric ballerina, a real-life wolf-man, etc. Before they can bow for audience applause, however, their tent is blown to shreds by Nazi warplanes, and they spend the rest of the movie rebuilding the team so they can end the war themselves. Caught up in concentration camp processing, Italian militia resistance, and general wartime disorientation, they are all eventually reunited by the ether-huffing, time-travelling Nazi who’s convinced he can win the war for Hitler if he assembles the freaks to fight for Deutschland. This all culminates in a grand superpowers battle in an open field (the way most superhero epics do), and I will admit that the journey to get to that predetermined conclusion can be a little overlong & draining (the way most superhero epics are). There’s at least some novelty in the film’s antique circus sideshow aesthetic and WWII historical contexts, though, and novelty is a precious commodity for a genre that’s been so prevalent over the past decade. It’s like watching the cast of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children act out the plot of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio on the leftover sets of Matteo Garrone’s live-action Pinocchio – an antique Italo horror show. You won’t find that kind of aesthetic deviance in the upcoming Flash or Captain Marvel sequels, which you can pretty much already picture start to end in your head sight-unseen. These superhero freaks are flawed, messy, and they fuck, including the wolfman archetype in what has to be the hairiest sex scene since The Howling Part II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Meanwhile, Marvel & DC are still stubbornly stuck in a chaste, sanitized universe where “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.” They also murder Nazis, a universally agreeable target that hasn’t been attacked with such sincere patriotism since Marvel peaked in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger.
I’m probably doing this movie no favors by comparing it against American superhero media, since everyone’s starting to feel the same way about the genre as we felt about zombie media 17 seasons into The Walking Dead: numbly apathetic. Within that context, though, it’s a breath of fresh ether – one of the strangest, most upsetting superhero stories since James Gunn made Super, at least five James Gunn superhero movies ago. Maybe Freaks vs. The Reich would have fared better before our culture-wide superhero fatigue fully settled (it was initially set to be released less than a year after Endgame), but I personally needed it now more than ever, just so something in this genre didn’t look like a total snooze.