Thursday, November 27, 2014

From the Rental Vault: Big Darn Heroes

In one sense, every movie is unique, even if it's a sequel, remake, shot-for-shot homage or mockbuster cash grab. The cast is different, the story treatment is different, the technology is different, and so on. Some quality -- or lack thereof -- distinguishes a movie from all of the others like it, so even though it's yet another version of a hundred-and-twice-told tale, it has something of its own. But often, even though that something is real, it's irrelevant.

But 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! is unique in the other way -- there's never really been anything quite like it. You can sum it up in one sentence: Peter Weller plays Buckaroo, a physicist/neuro-surgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero who has to lead his team in saving the world from the 8th dimensional Red Lectroids from Planet 10 and their evil leader Lord John Whorfin.

But that one sentence leaves out so many things -- Weller's deadpan take on the role at face value, John Lithgow's maniacal scenery chomping as Whorfin/Emilio Lizardo, the great throwaway lines (Christopher Lloyd growling, "It's not my G-----n planet, monkey-boy" or howling at Lithgow's fiftieth mispronunciation of his name), the resemblance of the good Black Lectroid aliens to laid-back Rastafarians, Ellen Barkin's goofiness, Jeff Goldblum's neophyte membership in the Hong Kong Cavaliers (Buckaroo's band and team of troubleshooting heroes). Buckaroo has to be watched repeatedly to get it all, and has to be watched to get it at all. Words alone won't do it, and even then there's no guarantee a viewer will get hooked.

Like the Adam West Batman TV series and movie about 15 years or so before it, Buckaroo is a Precambrian version of modern geek culture, where even the most fantastic of situations is permeated by a kind of ironic self-awareness. Without Weller's Buckaroo, there's probably no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no Malcolm Reynolds, no Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark, no Chris Pratt/Peter Quill, etc. But don't watch it because of that. Watch it because there's never been a better physicist/neurosurgeon/test pilot/rock star/superhero ever shown on a screen, of any size, anywhere.
Silver-Age Superman fans know Brainiac as the green-skinned evil super-genius who menaced the universe while wearing a pink bodysuit and pink boots. The "menacing" part might have to have been taken on faith, given the outfit, but Brainiac was responsible for shrinking Kandor, the last remaining city of Krypton, down to bottle-size and keeping it for display.

Geoff Johns rebooted the hyper-intelligent supervillain in a 2008 story arc called Superman: Brainiac which morphed him into an unstoppable cyborg bent on amassing universal knowledge and the destruction of whatever he didn't need. That storyline is the basis for the 2013 DC Universe Animated Original movie Superman: Unbound, the 16th in the DCUAO series.

Superman's encounter with an exceptionally tough alien probe brings a mystery, part of which is solved by his examination of the probe at his Fortress of Solitude and part of which is solved by the memories of his cousin Kara Zor-El, Supergirl. She remembers the probes attacking the Kryptonian city of Kandor before it was sliced from the surface of its world by the mysterious skull-shaped ship of the Coluan cyborg Brainiac. Kara knows Brainiac will eventually follow his probes to Earth and repeat the pattern, so Superman begins a hunt for the collecting evil genius. An initial fight at Brainiac's ship leads to another fight in Metropolis and elsewhere on Earth, in which Kara must overcome the fear that still lingers after witnessing the Kandor attack and being powerless to stop it.

Unbound has a neat touch of showing the difference between Superman, who's been an immensely powerful being for as long as he can remember, and Supergirl, who knows what it's like to face overpowering opposition. It does fine at telling the straightforward action story of the two Kryptonians vs. the evil genius, and also adds in Clark Kent/Superman's problems in his relationship with Lois Lane. The two relationship subplots give the movie its extra depth, even though Kara's character design is the cheesecake-y version from that time frame that is kind of squicky when used on what is supposed to be a teenage girl just old enough to drive.

Those issues aside, Superman: Unbound makes for a solid entry in the DCUAO series and has the added bonus of deviating enough from the comic book arc as to leave out any need to revisit the interminable, clunky and highly uninteresting "World of New Krypton" mega-story that followed it in print.


Todd Bergman said...

Anyone who reads Silver Age DC comics have to take menacing villains on faith.

Friar said...

You mean you're not affrighted of a giant starfish?