“Superheroes aren’t just for kids anymore,” that’s what they used to say. The olden days of costumed crime-fighters filling funnybooks with their wholesome shenanigans were, supposedly, a timeless era of good humor and good morals.
And sure enough, it didn’t last, if it ever properly existed in the first place. Our superheroes got more disturbing, and more disturbed. The psychological background that would lead a person to dress like a bat and fight crime was analyzed, and found to be rather unsettling. And our comics — and eventually our comic book movies — evolved to match these findings.
But there is a difference between dark superhero movies that take superheroes to their logical extreme — films like THE DARK KNIGHT or James Gunn’s SUPER, for example — and films that leave us feeling icky. We expected a Christopher Nolan film to reach into the nether regions of our consciousness. We didn’t expect it from HOWARD THE DUCK.
So here we present a retrospective of seven specific scenes from seven superhero movies that made us feel dirty. These are the moments that came out of nowhere to make us question our morals, our sexual fetishes and sometimes even our very sanity.
Go grab some Wet-Naps, because we’re about to get unclean…
The Seducktion of HOWARD THE DUCK
Pop quiz: is HOWARD THE DUCK a “superhero movie?” Well, it’s based on a comic book about an alien who saves the Earth from giant crustacean monsters, using his expertise of quack fu. So I’m calling it. HOWARD THE DUCK counts.
The whole HOWARD THE DUCK movie is filled with “what the?!” moments. I’m pretty sure this is the only film of its kind in which the intergalactic hero has to take a part time job at a sex spa. But the pièce de résistance has got to be the scene where Howard, an animatronic duck, jokingly tries to seduce his human roommate Beverly, played by Leah Thompson.
It’s not clear whether Beverly actually wants to be deep-draked, but soon she turns the tables on Howard in a seduction (se-duck-tion?) scene that is equal parts erotic and horrifying. Watch the feathers on Howard’s head become erect and tell me that this is wholesome, I dare you. Howard and Beverly are interrupted before they can achieve pure egg-stacy, but even so, many people consider this scene to be the utter zenith of motion picture discomfort.
Fun fact: I interviewed Leah Thompson once and I asked her what she was thinking about when she seduced Howard the Duck. She said she was thinking about Patrick Swayze. So that probably explains why this scene plays as well as it does. Now that’s good acting!
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (and Also of Puking and Peeing)
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor aren’t the filmmakers one thinks of when one thinks of words like “subtlety,” or “maturity.” But the directors of high-octane, lowbrow insanity like CRANK were just about the perfect fit for GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. It’s a bug nuts feature film about a bug nuts superhero, with all the propriety of a biker bar after midnight.
Case in point: Ghost Rider (Nicolas Cage) has to protect the Antichrist (Fergus Riordan) from the forces of darkness — just roll with it — and he becomes a pseudo-father figure in the process. He does not do this by being a good role model. No, he does this by flaying people with hellfire in front of a child. And when the Antichrist asks perfectly reasonable questions about what it’s like to live with your head on fire, our hero responds by equating his urine stream to a flamethrower.
And Neveldine/Taylor, naturally, spend a lot of money realizing this moment through the magic of CGI. It’s such a great shot, apparently, that they use it again later, when the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) mentions the word “flamethrower” in a different context. This movie just thinks it’s funny to use your penis as a flamethrower. Really, really, really funny.
Then again, this movie also thinks it’s cool to have a pubescent Antichrist mount Nicolas Cage and projectile vomit superpowered fire into the Academy Award-winner’s mouth. So who knows? Maybe they’re right.
THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING or, That Time Heather Locklear Ate a Piece of a Dude So She Could Bang Him
It should come as no surprise that a superhero film directed by Jim Wynorski would be weird as hell. After all, this is the same guy who would eventually give us schlock like DINOSAUR ISLAND, THE BARE WENCH PROJECT and BUSTY COPS GO HAWAIIAN (although his CAMEL SPIDERS wasn’t bad, honestly).
In his sequel to Wes Craven’s 1982 horror comic adaptation SWAMP THING, Wynorski upped the comedic antics by about a thousand percent, which sounds like a lot until you remember that Craven’s movie wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. This was a campier tale about the vegetable monster named Swamp Thing (Dick Durock), who teams up with the daughter of his arch-nemesis Dr. Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) to stop an army of “un-men.”
None of that matters of course, because the whole reason this movie exists is to eyeball a young Heather Locklear, who plays Arcane’s daughter and who gets ogled by the camera at every opportunity. It’s clear that the filmmakers thought sex appeal was important to audiences who like plant monsters, so they also came up with a scene in which Heather Locklear totally gets it on with Swamp Thing. Makes sense, right? Right?
But you can’t just show Heather Locklear having sex with a plant. That would be creepy! So instead they concocted a scene where Heather Locklear eats a phallic tuber off of Swamp Thing’s body — after declaring “I’m a vegetarian” — so she can hallucinate that he looks like a normal dude and then have sex with him.
Good thing they thought of that. Otherwise this movie might have been WEIRD.
THE WOLVERINE Goes Full FARGO
The second WOLVERINE solo movie finally gave fans what they wanted: Wolverine, in Japan, fighting ninjas. And they almost had an R-rated version too, until 20th Century Fox decided to edit James Mangold’s unusually violent superhero movie down to a more blockbuster-friendly PG-13.
Most of the edits that were made to the theatrical cut make little impression when you finally watch the director’s cut, THE WOLVERINE UNLEASHED, on home video. A quip here, a few more corpses there. The film’s pacing feels a bit more natural, but nothing mind-blowing… until the blowing starts.
Don’t get the wrong idea. The scene in question features Hugh Jackman clawing his way through an army of black-clad assassins, trying to rescue his latest lady love, with the mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) backing him up. Lots of PG-13 action movie goodness, and then Yukio gets behind the wheel of a giant snow blower, and starts plowing through ninjas as their arterial contents spray out the side.
That’s a thing that happens in a movie about a superhero that the studio wanted to be PG-13. Needless to say, it is totally awesome, but it comes right the hell out of nowhere. The moment is either laughable or jaw-dropping, and either way it comes as a complete right turn from the rest of the X-Men franchise. Imagine if, six episodes into the FAST & FURIOUS series, the entire cast stopped and executed all of their enemies, two in the back of the head, and then never talked about that time they lost their minds and became cold-blooded murderers. That’s the snow plow scene from THE WOLVERINE, for better or worse.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN’s Not So Jolly Rancher (Also: More Pee!)
Name brand products don’t just accidentally wind their way into huge summer blockbusters. Money changes hands there somewhere. The makers of your favorite soda/candy/cell phone/whatever are getting a massive endorsement from the biggest motion pictures in the whole world.
So I can’t help but wonder how much the makers of Jolly Rancher candies paid to have Jesse Eisenberg, as the supervillain Lex Luthor, lasciviously force one of their delicious treats into a politician’s mouth in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. It’s like the refrigerator scene in 9 1/2 WEEKS, except Mickey Rourke is Willy Wonka and Kim Basinger doesn’t want to be there.
Ordinarily this is where I’d set the scene, but there isn’t one. The politician just throws out some exposition and then Jesse Eisenberg slowly inserts a piece of sticky candy into the guy’s mouth. It looks for all the world like the other actor didn’t know Jesse Eisenberg was even going to do that. The discomfort flows off of the screen in waves.
And then of course there’s the scene where Lex Luthor somehow puts a giant jar of urine — presumably his own, but really, with this guy it could be anyone’s — on a podium before a senate hearing. Remember when Superman and Batman had films that didn’t have jars of urine in them? I’m not in favor of blind nostalgia or anything like that, but I can’t help but wonder if the urine thing really qualifies as some sort of progress.
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (and For a Non-Abusive Relationship With Superman)
Saying that SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is an unpopular film is like saying that GAME OF THRONES has a small cult following. The word “understatement” doesn’t cover it. But to be fair it’s not like this movie ever had a chance. It was produced by a different company, The Cannon Group, who weren’t exactly famous for their A-level productions. Did you ever see NINJA III: THE DOMINATION? Same guys. This movie was practically doomed from the start.
So the last film in the Christopher Reeve cycle was plagued by budget cuts that forced the filmmakers to reuse footage, cheap out on visual effects, and include a completely unnecessary scene of Clark Kent doing aerobics… although that probably had more to do with the 1980s than the budget, if we’re being honest. Come to think of it, the film’s weirdest moment had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with trying to keep one of the franchise’s earlier oddball moments in continuity.
If you’ll recall, at the end of SUPERMAN II, Clark Kent decides that it’s better if Lois Lane doesn’t know that he’s Superman, so he gives her a magic kiss that erases her memories. It’s a moment that makes no sense, even in the context of a film with alien superpowers in it, but in SUPERMAN IV we learn that he can give her memories back with another kiss whenever he wants. So he does, and he gets what he wants from her, and then he steals her memories away when he’s done.
Granted, “what he wants from her” is just a heart-to-heart conversation, but that whole set-up is beyond creepy. And Clark pulls this move off so cavalierly that it implies he probably does it all the time. For all we know he has an ongoing romantic relationship with Lois that, 90% of the time, she cannot remember. If they have an argument: smooch, it’s gone. If they ever seal the deal, and Lois forgets all about it, then that’s Superman spiking the punch. It’s pretty sick.
Again, we don’t know for a fact that that’s what Superman did… except he did hook up with Lois Lane in SUPERMAN II, and then he took away her memories of the incident, and in SUPERMAN RETURNS we learn that was probably when he got her pregnant. Holy crap. And people say Zack Snyder’s Superman movies are dark…
DOC SAVAGE: Addicted to Lobotomies
Before there was Superman, before there was Captain America, there was DOC SAVAGE. The fabulous and heroic pulp hero was a mainstay of magazines in the 1930s, using guts, bravery and then-unheard of gadgets like television and night-vision goggles to save the world from very bad guys. It took decades for DOC SAVAGE to finally get his own feature film. And let’s just say that his fans were very disappointed.
The 1975 film DOC SAVAGE: MAN OF BRONZE was a campy affair that overused the various marches of John Philip Sousa because public domain music was cheap, damn it. Frankly, it’s a hard film to watch, with a plot that’s all over the place and pacing problems out the yin-yang, but if you manage to make it to the end, Doc Savage (Ron Ely) finally defeats the evil Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), only to reveal that the film’s true villain is… DOC SAVAGE.
Not content with merely throwing Captain Seas in jail, Doc Savage proceeds to perform invasive brain surgery on the bad guy, removing every part of the Captain’s personality that Doc Savage doesn’t personally approve of, so that now the Captain’s only ambition in life — apparently — is to sing in a choir for a local charity. That’s it. That’s the ending. Hurray?
One can only imagine that this scene was intended promote science, psychology, and so on, but instead it implies that scientific progress is only ever one good intention away from horrifying mad science. In fact, this is the exact sort of crime we usually ask “heroes” like Doc Savage to save us from. And George Pal’s movie throws it right in at the end, just for the hell of it, like nobody would care.
Granted, this whole lobotomy thing is supposedly faithful to the original stories, but in the forty years that had passed since Doc Savage’s creation, society had come a long way. The idea of cutting open the head of people we don’t like and making them more like us, whether they wanted to be or not, had become the sort of fantasy that only monsters would have. Monsters… like DOC SAVAGE.