With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
“I have nothing but love for Troma… that love you have for your alcoholic, abusive grandfather.”
These words come from a crew member on set during production of Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000), the most recent installment in Troma Entertainment’s flagship franchise. The documentary chronicling the calamitous process, a nasty piece of anti-hagiography called Apocalypse Soon, characterizes the atmosphere behind the scenes of Troma’s ramshackle punk productions as a cesspool of negative energy and mistreatment bordering on abuse. Studio founder and director of all four Toxic Avenger films Lloyd Kaufman speaks to all of his collaborators like they’re stooges incapable of doing anything right without careful instruction but simultaneously expects them to intuit his needs through unspecific rambling and, more frequently than not, a combination of ESP and osmosis. This raging maelstrom of incompetence, hostility, and outright harassment was business as usual for Kaufman and Troma, however. It was only natural for this toxic environment to beget their Toxic Avenger series.
The four films starring the most notable organism to have slithered out of Troma’s radioactive swamp—a hulking, turd-like, violent “superhero” affectionately referred to as “Toxie” by the insular cult that keeps Troma in the black year after year—stand as a monument to, and a microcosm of, the dysfunctional complex that churns them out. The Toxic Avenger films, to put it in the parlance of tertiary Big Lebowski characters, beleef in nussink, nussink but Troma. Through both brashly offensive rhetoric and scandalizing deeds, the series espouses viewpoints that are anti-religion, anti-police, anti-capitalist, anti-Washington, anti-Hollywood, anti-hippie, anti-woman, anti-good taste, and anti-pretty much everything else. The litany of shit too lame for Troma runs a mile long, but the only belief Toxie appears willing to commit himself to is the absolute, unquestionable purity and nobility of Troma’s films. Among the more brazen acts of self-aggrandizement ever committed to celluloid, Kaufman’s Toxic Avenger movies have stubbornly stood the test of time with a cockroach’s indomitable might. And like the lowly cockroach, these films are disgusting, and most people want nothing to do with them.
But clearly enough people find a certain adolescent charm in the the fuck-everything-but-me spirit of the franchise to merit four installments, a 13-episode TV spin-off, a Marvel comic book that ran from 1991 to 1992, a novelization, and two musicals, one licensed and one not. (Troma’s Jeremy Newberger tells me via Twitter that he and Kaufman have completed the script for The Toxic Avenger V: The Toxic Twins, and that his colleague now just needs the required funds to realize his vision of Toxie’s new life as a father to an infant daughter and son.) In fact, a rather fervent cult has formed around the giddy nihilist gospel of Toxie and his gruesome misadventures, annually congregating at the highly disreputable TromaDance Film Festival, yet another #onbrand extension of Kaufman’s dumpy empire. When Kaufman decided to subtitle his third Toxic Avenger film The Last Temptation Of Toxie, the Christ allusion was not incidental; as Apocalypse Soon would have it, few men believe in themselves and their work with the unconditional devotion of Lloyd Kaufman.
Proudly and only semi-ironically trumpeted as New Jersey’s first superhero, Toxie begins, in his 1984 origin story, The Toxic Avenger, as pitiful nerd Melvin Ferd (later, inexplicably, Melvin Junko), an off-market bootleg of Peter Parker who mans the mop at the local gym. Although he mostly minds his own business, Melvin’s mere existence infuriates the local gym bullies to the point of apoplexy, and so they form a plan to fix him up proper. After conning him into dressing up in a pink tutu and frenching a sheep—oldest trick in the book—Melvin shame-stumbles out of a second-floor window and falls into a vat of radioactive waste left unattended while the truckers transporting it mash their faces into a Ziploc full of coke. (The details are the most telling parts of the Troma universe; even the margins have been packed with depravity for its own sake.) The vague biological processes that create superpowered mutants work their magic on Melvin, who thusly metamorphoses into the towering, mop-wielding, tutu-clad defender of justice that the town deems The Toxic Avenger. Cue tacky ’80s rawk theme.
Toxie naturally gravitates toward his new calling as the protector of Tromaville, but he takes to his work with a disturbingly remorseless brio. If superhero devotees nibble their nails over Superman snapping one guy’s neck, Toxie’s blithe and nauseatingly creative killing sprees would send them out of the theater on stretchers. Despite, or perhaps because of, his underdeveloped mind, Toxie serves exaggeratedly brutal beatings to his foes that almost always culminate in sadistic murder. One scene midway through the Toxic Avenger’s maiden voyage pits the “hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength,” a phrase uttered literally dozens of times over the course of the series, against a gang of cast-offs from a cattle call for a Warriors sequel. (“Tweaked, slightly worse versions of other, more recognizable things” quickly emerges as the guiding aesthetic principle in Kaufman’s style.) Toxie dispatches them with minimal strain when they attempt to rob a taco shack, neutralizing each threat in an increasingly over-the-top manner, suffocating one by making a sundae in his mouth and dunking another’s head into the flash fryer. Our hero clearly takes a sick glee in mutilating his various enemies, which speaks to a larger and more foundational concern overall.
Namely, that The Toxic Avenger is a real dick. He’s not a clear-cut hero and not morally or intellectually complex enough to be an antihero. He’s just some sniveling loser who fell into a vat and gained superpowers along with a bone-deep A-hole streak and decides the only thing to do is fight crime. The overt racism is one thing—nobody was expecting an advanced cultural sensitivity from the folks behind Fortress of Amerikkka, but Toxie sealing a beat-down with the one-liner, “No tickee, no laundry!” is tough to hear. Over time, Toxie becomes a holistically bad person beyond all debate. By the time the series rolls into its fourth film, he has transformed into a monster in the figurative sense as well as through the appearance of an evil twin, treating his blind lover Sarah not like a queen but like another fuck-puppet to be leered at by the men out of frame and spoiling what was once Toxie’s most admirable quality: his devotion to his gal. The Toxic Avenger movies assume the worst of everyone, inflating negative qualities to cartoonish extremes; as Melvin writhes on the ground in agony while chemical burns coagulate his flesh wounds, his tormentors scream at him, “If this guy can’t take a joke, he stinks!”
Things only get more dire and flamboyantly amateurish with each new missive from Tromaville. The Toxic Avenger: Part II makes the daring suggestion that Kaufman may have been holding back with the first film, as it piles absurdities atop one another. The entire raison d’être for Troma remains its total independence from the creativity-stifling, art-killing squares of the studio system, and so there was nobody around to advise Kaufman against inserting a handful of tuneless musical numbers into Part II or ask him why he kept integrating Freudian theories from Psych 101 into the script or suggest that maybe his film didn’t need so many topless Asian actresses. Any attempt to take notes on these films invariably devolves into a catalog of all the bizarre, shocking provocations that Kaufman and his merry band shoehorn into each installment, which in turn resemble the ravings of a madman. (“Black dwarf smashes testicles, mutant fish-head man, guy made into human ramen…”) Weirdest of all, the second installment introduces the concept of Tromatons, microscopic lifeforms in Toxie’s bloodstream that give him his powers. While George Lucas has never come out and admitted that he got one of the worst ideas in the Star Wars canon from The Toxic Avenger: Part II, the proof is in the putrid, irradiated pudding.
Part II comes closest to engaging with what could charitably be called a “theme” in its passing championing of the environmentalist cause, but even that comes out muddled. The nefarious Apocalypse Corporation announces plans to build a chemical plant in Tromaville (which, somehow, is portrayed both as an idyllic ’50s suburban haven and a vast ocean of garbage), and Toxie vehemently opposes them. But The Toxic Avenger is clearly defined as a contaminant/waste-themed hero, and he derives his power from the pollutants that the factory would pump out. The green-minded sermonizing delivered via heavy-handed voice-over narration clashes weirdly with the series’ resolute amorality and violates its lone shred of internal logic. The Toxic Avenger films evince a clear love for the paradise of trash that is New Jersey, except for the scenes in which they do the exact opposite.
As all flagging franchises eventually must, the Toxic Avenger series went meta with its third installment, The Toxic Avenger: Part III—The Last Temptation Of Toxie. We open on Tromaville’s local Hasid-run video store, where a group of pigtailed thugs from the Apocalypse Corporation forces the shop’s proprietor to stock only “top 20” videotapes, and to remove all the good, honest Troma films from shelves. Spawned from the paranoid imagination that Kaufman displays again and again in Apocalypse Soon, the scene sets the tone for what is the greatest ancient wonder of Troma’s self-obsessed world, its Colossus Of Rhodes of shameless promotion, an onanistic Hanging Gardens Of Babylon.
The Last Temptation Of Toxie plays up the holier-than-thou indie underdog angle so hard that the constant denunciations of studio filmmaking and trumpeting of the Troma touch fold in on themselves and reveal Toxie’s big, happy family to be as ruthlessly corporate as their professed enemies—selling in as selling out. The whole of the third film revolves around the politics of artistic integrity, which might seem like a weirdly principled stand to take after two films that are the cinematic equivalent of nonstop projectile vomit, but it actually makes a crooked sort of sense. The Toxic Avenger films stick to their guns, even when those guns are filled with, well, the cinematic equivalent of projectile vomit. Even when the material isn’t funny, clever, or entertaining, there’s no denying that Toxie’s true to himself.
In Last Temptation, the good news is that humankind has finally developed a cure for blindness. The bad news is that the experimental treatment is the intellectual property of Apocalypse Corporation. The worse news is that they’re demanding a princely sum for entry into their trials. In a grander sense, the worst news of all is that their CEO is secretly a maggoty-mouthed Satan. Before the climactic showdown between the devil and
Jesus Christ The Toxic Avenger, the film constructs a straightforward analogy for the tribulations of an artist in a world that neither understands nor appreciates him. Toxie attempts to scrape together the necessary funds by landing a job with the IRS, but the pitiable lot of a taxman weighs too heavily on his heart (this is a moron’s version of Llewyn Davis asking if people who don’t make art for a living are content to merely “exist”), and eventually he relents, offering his services to the Apocalypse Corporation.
There’s an excellent movie to be made here. Toxie’s ambivalence about returning Sarah’s sight and consequently exposing himself as an abomination to the beautiful young woman could fill a run-time but lasts a minute or two. Instead, the film ascends to a higher plane of lunacy with some of the franchise’s best quips—“Back at the Apocalypse Corporation, the plot was thickening, and I was to be the corn starch,” our hero narrates—and deranged set pieces, such as a surreal dream-fight between id Toxie and superego Melvin. Most importantly, however, this third film reveals the most crucial hypocrisy in the gnarled little heart of Troma: They’re every bit as preoccupied with commerce and expansion as Sony or Fox, like a wily rebellion leader who can’t wait to install himself as dictator once the revolution winds down.
The final installment, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, unexpectedly anticipates the age of reboots by dynamiting everything that had come before it and starting from square one. Er, square two: Citizen Toxie doesn’t claim to be an all-new Toxic Avenger mythos, only to overwrite the two sequels that came before, making it the first sequel and second movie overall. How best to communicate this convoluted chronology? Why, simply explain it in a prologue to the film proper, concluding with a definitive “This is the real sequel!” The rationale for Troma’s backtracking is foggy, considering that there weren’t any behind-the-scenes squabbles over rights that would necessitate starting anew. But coming to a Toxic Avenger picture for cogency is like going to a sex shop in search of a good sandwich—you’re unlikely to find it, and even if you do, it’s best not to trust it.
The best guess would be that Kaufman hit the reset button so he could introduce a bundle of new concepts without the burden of having to spell out where they came from or how they got here. (Which, astonishingly, proves that Kaufman could sink lower still after the lazy narrative construction of the first three films. Just when you think the franchise has hit rock bottom, it whips out a motorized drill and bores a hole even deeper into the Earth’s mantle.) Citizen Toxie already runs 109 minutes long, the lengthiest run-time of the series, so the film simply doesn’t have the time to provide adequate explanations as to why Toxie now has a morbidly obese sidekick named Lardass or why Troma’s second-string star Sgt. Kabukiman is on the scene or how a cameo from noted sex-haver Ron Jeremy made it through the editing suite. The already shambolic franchise completely falls apart in its fourth go, now uninterested even in hawking Troma’s own wares, letting its attentions wander to the grossest thing in its immediate proximity.
Wedged between a superhero named The Masturbator, who mightily jizzes onto his nemeses, and a James Dean-type named Tito The Retarded Rebel, the only semblance of an actual idea in Citizen Toxie concerns our hero’s internal duality. While this could have theoretically expanded on the Melvin-Toxie dichotomy established in the previous film, it does not, and in fact shrinks it with a literal-minded Bizarro-universe Toxic Avenger clone named The Noxious Offender. He surreptitiously replaces the genuine article and goes to work destroying Toxie’s sterling reputation around town by murdering some people, engaging in some lighthearted blackface, and coercing Toxie’s blind girlfriend into a three-way. One thing leads to another, and before you can say “I never should have agreed to write a piece about all of the Toxic Avenger movies,” Noxie and Toxie are having a lightsaber duel as their respective unborn progeny have a fetal lightsaber duel inside of Sarah’s fertile womb.
This must all add up to something. It has to. I’ve now spent far too many hours of my life watching and thinking and talking about The Toxic Avenger for it to not. It’s not too straw-graspy to posit this franchise as a case study in the helpful influence that studio oversight can have on a production, an ironically exact reversal of the one moral in this psychotic superhero property. On-set studio representatives, in the simplest terms, are there to make sure everyone can keep their shit together until all investments have been safely recouped. The Toxic Avenger movies are what happens when zero people involved in a production have their shit together, but then continue failing upward (or maybe just, like, laterally) due to a rabid fan base that subsists on spectacular failures. The Toxic Avenger franchise plays like a 13-year-old’s joyride behind the wheel of a stolen hot rod, temporarily enthralling in the sheer disastrousness of it all, but chiefly a reminder of why the state gives out licenses for this sort of thing.
1. The Toxic Avenger: Part III—The Last Temptation Of Toxie (1989)
2. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
3. Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000)
4. The Toxic Avenger: Part II (1989)