Fantastic Fest Review: The Toxic Avenger
Troma hero gets a joyfully idiotic big budget remake
By Richard Whittaker,
12:25PM, Fri. Sep. 22, 2023
The moment that Peter Dinklage, submerged in a vibrant green and purple rubber monster suit, smashes an MRA scumbag's jaw to smithereens with a caustic-chemical-drenched mop, you'll know for sure: He is the Toxic Avenger.
Back in 1984, New York super-sleazoid producer and acknowledged big-hearted hero of indie cinema Lloyd Kaufman launched a surprising franchise with the original The Toxic Avenger, a low-low-low-budget superhero spoof about a nerdy janitor called Melvin Ferd Junko III, who is transformed by industrial waste into a squish-faced juggernaut of violent vengeance, and the hero of Tromaville.
This big-budget remake of The Toxic Avenger (a term that, in itself, sounds like a joke) pays homage by having a character called Melvin Ferd, but when he gets wiped out by an evil gang/monstercore band in the opening sequence it's clear this isn't your parent's Toxie. Instead, this time it's Winston Gooze (Dinklage), also a janitor but now not some dweeb living with his mother and desperate for a date. Winston's a single dad – even more, a single stepdad to Wade (Jacob Tremblay) – who just discovered that he has a horrible brain disease and about a year to live. Blame his job at BTH, a lifestyle pharmaceutical giant run by Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon), who uses his brother, Fritz (Elijah Wood), as his enforcer. The mild-mannered Winston inadvertently takes a dip in the gunk just after getting involved with whistleblower J.J. Doherty (Taylour Paige, Zola) and emerges as the hero that the community of St. Roma's Village both needs and deserves.
That Melvin Ferd reference is one of a multiplicity of nods to the Tromaverse, the loosely interlinked continuity created by Kaufman and his coterie of wild creatives over the years. They're the most superficial signs that writer/director Macon Blair – making a dramatic leap from from his directorial debut, the mournful but soulful I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore – is a fan.
But the Austinite also understands what makes Troma special. These are kids' movies for adults: not because they condescend to the audience, but because of their giddy, guileless optimism. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good (and just about everyone has some good in them somewhere), and swearing and poop are hilarious. Most importantly, there's nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned, rabble-rousing message. In this case, it's that environmental pollution and business run amok are bad. Yeah, it's obvious, but what's wrong with that? And what's wrong with making that clear in a ridiculous, over-the-top, madcap satire?
Let's be real: More people will press play on a movie called The Toxic Avenger on a Friday night than on the excellent but decidedly art house How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Get your message out however you can.
Not that this is some dry enviro-message. Kaufman worked out years ago how to weave his politics in among all the mutated poultry gags, and Blair gets it, too. Most importantly, so does his cast. Bacon hasn't been this irrepressibly silly since Tremors, while Blair's I Don't Feel at Home... star Wood, resplendent in latex and flop sweat, is basically a combover and kohl eyes come to post-Batman Returns Penguin life. He's also not the only Austinite that Blair called in, with David Yow embracing the lunacy in the way only he can.
But most of all, so does Dinklage. Winston is sweet and timid in the most perfectly endearing ways, and even under a classic rubber monster suit (complete with usefully removable eye), he never becomes subsumed. If anything, this Toxie is even easier to root for, even more charming and sad amongst the silliness. Plus, he gets to wield a glowing mop and burn away corporate crime. Don't let the big (but not that big) budget fool you: It's Troma, baby, just how you like it.
The Toxic Avenger