Not all superheroes wear capes. Leotards, spandex and tech-powered armor are also not necessary. No, in one of the very best superhero movies ever made, the hero wore what’s colloquially known as a “wife beater” and drove a big rig, and even though you’ve probably seen it, you might not have realized that Big Trouble in Little China was a superhero movie.
But of course it is.
It’s a story about a man who gets sucked into a secret, mystical underworld full of ancient evil, inscrutable magic and kick-ass fights between groups of people with powers that far outstrip what real human beings are capable of. How is that not a superhero movie? Just because it isn’t based on a recognized Marvel or DC character? Or maybe it’s those missing capes?
Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, a hard-living man who likes gambling, truck driving and pretty women. He’s not interested in being a hero — classic reluctant hero trope — but he’s not about to let down his friend, especially when the guy owes him money, and even more especially when the bad guys take his truck. They face off against supervillains — the Three Storms and the ancient, evil sorcerer Lo Pan — and monsters. He swigs down a mystical potion (i.e. super serum) to put him on something like equal footing with the bad guys. There are some sweet battles, full of lightning and airborne sword fighting and general badassery, and in the end (spoiler alert!), evil is defeated and the good guys prevail.
Yeah, that’s a superhero story.
Don’t buy it? Well, the sequel to the story (did you know there was a sequel?) came out in comic book form, and that would argue in my favor. The bad guys shoot lightning and summon glowing doppelgangers to fight for them. The good guys power up with those aforementioned potions that allow them to commit superhuman deeds like airborne combat and perfect aim. There are secret lairs full of weird monsters, there are death traps and, behind it all, there’s an evil mastermind bent on continuing his reign and expanding his power and influence. All the classic elements are there, no matter how you slice it.
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Now, I don’t know if John Carpenter set out to make a superhero movie. Supposedly, according to Wikipedia, he wanted to make a martial arts movie. And he did make one! But also a superhero movie — not least because most of the best martial arts movies are more or less superhero movies, and also because I’m guessing Carpenter read a shitload of comics in his day and wore his influences on his sleeve.
What’s especially striking is how much better a superhero movie Big Trouble is than most intentional superhero movies. The funny parts are funny. The exciting parts are exciting. The villains are genuinely menacing. The whole thing moves along at the kind of clip necessary to keep you from asking too many questions and causing the whole thing to unravel as a result. There’s almost no exposition, and what little there is suggests a wider, deeper world rather than overexplaining the shit out of what’s going on. Most important, despite the fact that the whole thing looks more than a bit cheesy, that never negatively impacts the enjoyment of watching it. That’s a hell of a trick, and if I knew how he pulled it off, I’d stop writing these columns and go be a producer, since half the superhero movies made today, with all their insane budgets and special effects, can’t manage the same trick and fall apart at the first bad bit of CGI or clunky dialogue.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Go see Big Trouble in Little China this weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse, or fire up your DVD at home. Go into it expecting a superhero movie and see if that isn’t exactly what you get. Hell, even if I’m wrong and you just can’t see it in that light, you get to see Big Trouble in Little China again — and that’s always a good thing.