The Toxic Avenger review: An ultra-violent superhero tonic
The Toxic Avenger is a gooey, gory reboot of the cult classic that remains true to the spirit of the original, while taking Toxie in a weird and hilarious new direction.
The Toxic Avenger debuted in 1984, to little success and even less acclaim. The tale of a bullied janitor who becomes a super-strong, heavily scarred superhero after falling into a vat of toxic waste received a limited release. Then disappeared without a trace.
But Toxie found an audience on the late-night movie circuit. Thrived on video a couple of years later. Then became a phenomenon, spawning sequels, comics, video games, and even a Saturday morning cartoon.
But the character never quite made it into the mainstream. Until now. As Macon Blair – who wrote, directed, or starred in indie darlings like Blue Ruin, Green Room, and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore – has overseen a star-studded reboot that brings The Toxic Avenger into the modern age. But remains true to the character’s over-the-top and ultra-violent origins.
What is The Toxic Avenger about?
Peter Dinklage plays Winston Gooze, who lost his wife a year previous to cancer, and presently can’t connect with his son, failing to communicate with the lad, and making an even worse job of trying to make him toast.
Winston works as a janitor for evil chemical factory BTH, which is run by the nefarious Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon), and pollutes the local area with chemical waste.
Soon after Winston discovers he has a terminal illness – in unexpectedly hilarious fashion – he also learns that BTH insurance won’t cover the cost of treatment. So approaches his boss for help. But while Bob is kind to his face, he laughs behind Winston’s back, triggering something in the mild-mannered caretaker.
Gooze initially turns to crime. But that puts him on a collision course with Bob’s brother Fritz Harbinger (Elijah Wood, channelling both Richard O’Brien’s Riff Raff, and Danny DeVito’s Penguin), as well as his gang (and monstercore band) The Killer Nutz. Who dump Gooze into chemical ooze, that turns him into the title character.
Winston Gooze becomes the Toxic Avenger
What follows is similar to the original movie. Toxie hides in the woods. Learns to harness his super-strength. And returns to town to clean the place up with his all-powerful mop.
Like its predecessor, there’s a grandstanding scene in a fast-food restaurant where Toxie removes jaws and genitals in spectacular fashion, becoming something of a folk hero in the process.
But where the original was about the Toxic Avenger finding love, here the story concerns the character gaining the trust – and love – of his son. While building towards an hilariously blood-splattered confrontation with his nemesis, Bob.
A new breed of superhero
It doesn’t all succeed. The boy’s troubles at school aren’t all that interesting. While Garbinger’s issues with a local gangster somewhat convolute proceedings. But when The Toxic Avenger works, it’s wonderfully anarchic, journeying to sick and twisted places that most superhero movies would fear to tread.
The original Toxie was pretty one-dimensional, and a bit of a dope. But this iteration is a multi-layered character who starts the film telling his boy – in the face of danger – that “sometimes it’s better to do nothing.” Then ends the movie ripping limbs off anyone who gets in his way.
It’s a wild transformation, both metaphorically, and literally. But in spite of the heightened reality – and ridiculous amounts of blood and gore – writer-director Blair does enough early world-building that it feels like Toxie’s story is grounded in some semblance of reality. While Dinklage brings a sadness and pathos to the character that’s rooted in tragedy. Which makes the film’s final few scenes unexpectedly emotional.
The Verdict: Is The Toxic Avenger good?
The Toxic Avenger gives the superhero genre a much-needed kick up the ass. The film toys with the conventions of comic-book movies, both pulling them apart, and sending them up.
But it’s all done with care and love, by people who are obviously fans of the form. The central storyline is engaging. The eco-message is important. The battle between good and evil is gripping. And Toxie’s plight is weirdly affecting.
But there’s just as much joy to be derived from the little details. From the news reader who says whats she sees, to the doctor whose bedside manner is somewhat lacking, to the gang member who won’t stop flipping, the big stuff is good in The Toxic Avenger. But it’s the small stuff that’ll live in the memory.
The Toxic Avenger review score: 4/5
Macon Blair and the Toxie team are walking a tightrope with this new movie, introducing the character to an all-new audience, while needing to keep longtime fans happy. And they’ve succeeded in spectacular style, maintaining the broad humor of the original, but lending the story layers and depth. The result isn’t just a good Toxic Avenger movie, but a great superhero movie.
The Toxic Avenger doesn’t have a release date, but you can find out more about the movie here.