Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Italian Superhero Roll Call: Supersonic Man (Spain/Italy, 1980)

Up until now, the subjects of Italian Superhero Roll Call have been exclusively products of the 1960s. That’s because, with the exception of the mysteriously unkillable Three Fantastic Supermen franchise, the boomlet of Euro superhero films seen in that decade petered out well before the advent of the 1970s. This would change briefly in 1980, when the worldwide success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie would inspire a mini resurgence of European costumed hero films –- a resurgence that would consist pretty much entirely of Alberto De Martino’s soberingly incompetent The Pumaman and the film that I am reviewing here, Spanish director Juan Piquer Simon’s Supersonic Man.

Plot-wise, Supersonic Man doesn’t waste any energy on originality. A super-powered alien called Supersonic is sent by his superiors to Earth to intervene in Man’s war-like, nuclear aspirant ways. Once there, he assumes human guise as the luxuriantly mustached private detective Paul (Supermen Against the Orient star Antonio Cantafora). Paul lacks Supersonic’s super abilities, and is, in fact, extremely susceptible to head trauma, which makes it all the more baffling that he so often insists upon taking on the bad guys on his own without assuming his infinitely more powerful alter ego. This never works out for him, and, as a result, he ends up spending a lot of time unconscious in the trunks of henchmen’s cars.

On the other hand, in addition to super strength and being able to fly, Supersonic counts among his super powers the ability to make objects both large and small dematerialize at will. At the same time, he is also equipped with a keen awareness of the need to pad Supersonic Man out to feature length, and so uses this particular power very sparingly. Benefitting from this conservative application of super resources is our super villain, Dr. Gulik, who is played by Cameron Mitchell. Handily filling out the remaining blanks in the “Superhero Movies for Dummies” Mad Lib, Gulik has kidnapped a prominent (scientist), with the intention of using his knowledge to build a powerful (death ray), with which he hopes to (rule) the (world). Of course, that scientist also has a (beautiful daughter) who enlists our hero’s aid, forming a romantic attachment with his earthbound alter ego, while at the same time harboring something of a (lady boner) for Supersonic himself.

 Not even Hall & Oates are safe from the wrath of the evil Dr. Gulik!

Given its steadfastly generic narrative, the only thing we can count on from Supersonic Man to provide any kind of entertainment value is its cheesiness, and thankfully there is that in abundance. Not only do we have laughable dialog augmented by overwrought English dubbing (“Liar! You Lie! You Lie!!”), but also a blissful abundance of remedial special effects in which everything in the toy box is subjected to the torments of lighter fluid and homemade fireworks. And that’s all not to mention the much talked about scene in which Supersonic mightily raises above his head a steamroller that has obviously been substituted for by a two dimensional balsa wood cut-out.

Unfortunately, some of the bad aspects of Supersonic Man have the unexpected quality of being actually unpleasant. Chief among these is the musical score by Gino Peguri, Carlos Attias and Juan Luis Izaguiree, which sounds like a vaguely melancholy reinterpretation of John Williams’ Superman theme played using the factory settings on a dollar store Casio knock-off. It’s hard to conceive of something being at once so overpowering and underwhelming, but this music could indeed make even the experience of someone repeatedly punching you in the face boring.

Also consigned to the negative column is the film’s aforementioned tendency to pad. For example, the captured scientist Professor Morgan’s principled bickering with Dr. Gulik, which would be fine for one scene, is instead turned into something of a motif. The man seems so inexhaustible in his ability to righteously hector a guy that it’s a wonder the villain doesn’t muzzle him, if not outright put him out of our misery. And then there is the near omnipresence of the film’s comic relief drunk, who is hauled out to do a drunken double-take every time something putatively out of the ordinary occurs.

Still, it can’t be said that Supersonic Man doesn’t deliver the exact kind of good natured stupidity that one hopes for in a movie of this type. Cameron Mitchell’s voracious scenery chewing, a killer robot that looks like a giant wind-up toy, the goofy shots of Supersonic flying over the New York skyline, and other such elements should be enough to make the kind of person who’s drawn to this type of film in the first place forgive its less charming flaws. The film’s singularity also serves to imbue it with a bit of mitigating underdog appeal; like most European screen superheroes –- excepting Superargo and, again, the Fantastic Supermen -- Supersonic never returned for a second adventure. I doubt it was only the unimaginative mad scientists of the world who were untroubled by that fact.

 Mama mia!


Radio Schmaydio said...

That is my new favorite cinematic steamroller ever, narrowly beating out the one in Roger Rabbit used to kill The Judge.

Keith said...

I feel much of the time like this movie is less "in the spirit of Superman" and more in the spirit of, say, Condorman.

Still, it's a hell of a lot better than Phenomenon and the Treasure of Tutankhamun.

Tars Tarkas said...

Why do aliens always interfere in our plans to kill ourselves off? Get outta here, aliens!! We'll just grow more powerful and kill them anyway.

Todd said...

Radio Schmaydio: I don't remember, but I'm sure the one in Roger Rabbit was more realistic.

Keith: So is it a spoof? If so, that's something that got lost in translation with it's English language release. I know it was marketed in the U.S. as a comedy, and it wasn't lost on me that there were a lot of attempts at "comedic" content, but I thought that was just in the perceived interest of making it more kid friendly. (It also would've helped if any of the intentional comedy was, you know, funny.)

Tars: I know! It's just like the damn guv'mint telling me I can't wear a necklace of M-80s on the Fourth of July.

Keith said...

I wasn't thinking in terms of spoof, but rather in terms of general quality level

Todd said...

Oh, so Condorman isn't very good then? Disappointing.