Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War recently made more money in a single evening than just about all of us will in a lifetime. Black Panther hit home media with the film still screening in over 1,000 theaters across the country, continuing its billion-dollar worldwide run. Deadpool 2 has smashed a record or two of its own as far as R-rated flicks go, and later this year Ant-Man of all characters is appearing in a movie of his own for the second time — I repeat, Ant-Man. Two movies. It's hardly news at this point but superhero movies are the biggest thing in the world today. There's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
This streak has been running pretty hot ever since 2000's X-Men brought superheroes back to the big screen in a big way, and the market has only gotten bigger and better since then. Not only are superhero movies a billion-dollar industry these days but most of them also happen to be at the very least pretty good. Sure, there's the occasional Suicide Squad, but for the most part filmmakers have figured out the formula that makes for a great superhero movie.
But where does that leave room for experimentation? The bigger the superhero movie industry becomes, the more airtight and restrictive the medium becomes. Success leads to precedents and precedents that are so consistently reinforced become harder and harder to break. Here and there a Logan or Iron Man Three may manage to slip through the cracks, but superhero films that defy convention have become a rare breed. To find the ones that truly break the mold you have to go back to a time before the mold existed. Few films exemplify that time like The Return of Swamp Thing, which recently received a pristine Blu-ray restoration chock full of interviews with the cast and crew courtesy of MVD Rewind.
That the film is directed by Jim Wynorski of Chopping Mall fame tells you all you need to know. Wynorski is a true king of trash cinema with over 100 feature films under his belt, an astoundingly large number of which are erotic parodies of genre films. Luckily, The Return of Swamp Thing skews more towards the Chopping Mall end of the spectrum.
The film hit theaters in May 1989, a mere month before Tim Burton's Batman set the world on fire and created the superhero movie boom of the '90s (ironically, both films share a producer in Michael Uslan) and a full seven years after the original Swamp Thing film dropped. Bearing little resemblance to the original outside of Louis Jourdan returning as the villainous Doctor Arcane, it dropped any semblance of seriousness established by its predecessor and instead creates a Swamp Thing film that more or less aims to function as a screwball sci-fi comedy.
It's a befuddling decision, especially considering that the film was released in the wake of Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette's definitive reinvention of the character in the pages of the comics, a legendary run that elevated a pulpy character to literary heights. The material necessary for a smart, mature take on the character was there. They went with the guy that did Chopping Mall instead.
Mind you, that decision is befuddling but not necessarily a failure. The thing about comic book characters that we tend to forget is that they're inherently malleable. As long as key elements of the character are in place, any tone can be taken. If a character is defined enough, you can stick them in any type of story or situation and something will play out.
The result of the approach and craft in The Return of Swamp Thing isn't conventionally good, but when it works it's a pretty good time and when it doesn't, at least it's an interesting failure. Swamp Thing himself isn't played as a broody creature in the midst of an existential crisis so much as he is a strapping conventional superhero, albeit one covered in plants and goo. Heather Locklear as Abigail Arcane is similarly campy, with the character taking on the vibe of an '80s valley girl down on her luck and looking for the right guy (or plant) to sweep her off her feet.
It's when the movie pairs these two up that it feels most out of its element. It's clearly aiming for something conventional if not quirky but the result is tonal dissonance from the rest of the film—albeit the best line of the movie is Abigail's response to Swampy telling her he can never give her what she wants from a man physically: "I'm a plant." "That's okay. I'm a vegetarian."
It's when the film breaks away from Swamp Thing and Abigail that Wynorski is able to flex his trash cinema muscles. From the goofy mercenaries Arcane has recruited to protect his compound to Darryl and Omar, two kid best friends who find themselves wrapped up in Arcane's plot to create an army of disturbing genetic hybrids known as the Un-Men, Wynorski creates a delightfully campy cast that are significantly more entertaining than the titular hero or his love interest. Pair these goofballs with some legitimately rad creature effects and you've got a great movie to throw on at two in the morning with friends after a long night.
From the opening credits cheekily set to "Born on the Bayou" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Return of Swamp Thing knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Despite not being a conventionally good movie, it's shockingly coherent in terms of vision, far more so than modern failures like Suicide Squad or X-Men: Apocalypse, movies that get so lost in trying to figure out what they want to be that they never find it. Even if we'd all rather sit down for a well-crafted superhero blockbuster these days, there's still plenty of fun to be had in going back to the early days of comic book movies and exploring lost gems like The Return of Swamp Thing. It is, if anything, an excellent bit of perspective on how far we've come.