“The Toxic Avenger” has returned.
The character, originated by director Lloyd Kaufman and his ultra low-budget production outfit Troma in 1984, has gone on to spawn several sequels, a stage musical and even a Saturday morning animated series called “The Toxic Crusader,” aimed squarely at the demographic that probably should have never been exposed to the character in the first place: children. But there’s never been a Hollywood remake of the movie — until now.
Macon Blair, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Jeremy Saulnier (and his role as Oppenheimer’s lawyer in “Oppenheimer”), has written and directed a new take on the material that both modernizes the character and keeps it firmly entrenched in the anything-for-a-laugh Troma mentality. This time around the character is played by Peter Dinklage, a sad sack single stepdad who gets exposed to toxic waste, turns into a monster and gets revenge on the company that made him that way (led by a deliciously evil Kevin Bacon). It’s a hoot.
TheWrap spoke to Blair hours after the movie’s world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, about his relationship with the character, finding actors who were on the movie’s wavelength and where the franchise could go from here.
What was your relationship to the property before you signed on? Had you always loved “The Toxic Avenger?”
I mean, don’t want to say that my life’s goal has been to remake “The Toxic Avenger.” It never occurred to me until Legendary approached me. I had done some dialogue work for them on one of the “Godzilla” movies, so I knew Alex [Garcia] was a producer on the movie and a big Troma fan. And when the rights became available, he pounced on them very quickly and developed this relationship with [Troma founder] Lloyd [Kaufman]. And they asked me to pitch him a version of the story, which I did and that’s how the movie came to be.
But it was really going back to, I don’t know, 25 years before because I saw the movie when it was first released on VHS. It would’ve been like ’85 or ’86 or something. And I was at just the right age where that type of entertainment and then my lack of experience with movies, it just landed at just the right time and became very formative for me.
And it’s funny, but it exposed me to independent filmmaking. In a lot of ways, I was into movies, but it was mainstream box office type stuff. And this was the first time it seemed like they just shot this. They just went outside and shot a movie. It was not spaceships. It was not like this grand spectacle and it was still very entertaining. That go-for-broke, whatever you can do to get a chuckle out of the audience sort of PT Barnum mentality that Lloyd brings to his movies was very formative for us.
And that was what I pitched to them. I was not sure when we first started having these discussions, are you guys trying to do a more mainstream PG-13 movie? I was like, “My version would be R and it would be an actor in a suit and it would be dumb on purpose,” and all those things from the original. And they kept saying, “Yes, us too, us too, us too.” And I was like, “Oh, shit. OK. We actually are aligned in what we want to do.” And they were very supportive in those types of choices, which I was delighted with.
I was going to ask if that tone was always there. Because you can easily imagine someone coming in and wanting to do a more serious approach.
I was like, is this going to be the “Dark Knight” version? A good example is it’s toxic waste that gives him muscles. You can imagine the version of the movie where you’ve got a scientist’s character. And we kind of made fun of it in this one where there’s some credible reason where they explain why the Batmobile exists. Well, it’s a military vehicle for what? It’s a fucking Batmobile. He’s Bruce Wayne. It’s the same thing. It’s just like, “I don’t know. It’s fucking toxic waste. It gave him muscles. Shut up. We’re not concerned about that.” It’s beating up bad guys with a mop and everyone’s sort of onboard. Yes, toxic waste gives you muscles. We’re all aware of that. Cars grind you up if you put your head in them, not sort of deliberately being like, “We’re not going to explain that.” Everybody’s on board for this type of entertainment.
Even before we knew what the actual story was, it was more a tonal conversation like, “I don’t know what the adventure is going to be, but the vibe of it is going to be very silly.” I talked about the Zucker Abraham Zucker movies a lot. It is going to feel closer to “Police Squad” than “The Avengers” for sure. And that was the moment where I was like, they’re either going to ask me to leave the room right now, or we’re going to keep talking. And they kept saying, “Yeah, us too.” And so I was like, “Oh, we are coming at it from a common point of view.”
Was it challenging to find actors who were on that same wavelength?
They’re very exposed, and when you read it, it really is kind of like, this is really fucking stupid. Are you aware of that? Absolutely. It’s actually on purpose. And then you’re kind of like, “OK,” because it can be interpreted in the wrong kind of stupid as opposed to kind of joyous. It was convincing them that I would take care of them and protect them, and they would not be made to look foolish, but they would be allowed to go way far afield from what they usually do.
Kevin Bacon, for example, is way over the top, and he was delighted with that. He actually was not interested at first because all he heard was villain. And he was like, “They keep asking me to do villainous characters,” like the X-Men movies, and he’s always a shady cop or something like that. And I was like, “No, no, no. It’s very cartoonish and very over the top.” And then for him, this is what he said to me anyway, was that he never gets to do that. He’s a very funny guy, but he’s not known as a comedic actor. For him it was getting to do that. Peter was actually kind of in the other direction where I was like, “You actually need to play it quite straight and real because everything around you is going to be so heightened and so absurd that you kind of have to anchor it.” And he was down for that as well.
Are you hungry to remake something else?
No, I mean, I don’t really have anything else. I didn’t think I wanted to remake anything. What it was, was “Toxie” was a cornerstone of independent movies and also a sensibility that I really liked when I was 11 and I kind of moved away from. But I did have original stories that I was trying to do that had a lot of DNA in common with “Toxie,” but they weren’t based on anything, and so they were unmakeable. And so when there was an opportunity to get into Toxie, it was not that I wanted to remake “Toxie.” I was like, “Oh, this is how I could do that type of movie that I wanted to, which is very silly and sweet and gross and has monsters, all of these disconnected ingredients.”
I don’t know that there’s something else out there that I would want to do that would need to be a remake.
At one point it seemed like you were going to go full “Toxic Crusaders.”
Well, that’s why I think once the character is established and you’ve got the origin story set up, the world is totally wide open for… The whole reason for him being Toxie is there’s something in your genetics. To me, it’s just sort of like, oh, there could be dozens of them out there. I would love that.