After STAR WARS hit it big, everyone wanted to be in space. Every filmmaker in town was looking to create the next great space opera with only a few succeeding on a critical level. You would have expected the same could be said for SUPERMAN, one of the most ambitious films in cinematic history, which had been released to financial success and critical acclaim in 1978. But as it turns out, Hollywood was reluctant to embrace superheroes on the big screen. The only superheroes other than the Man of Steel were still regulated to the world of television. Shows such as THE INCREDIBLE HULK and the two CAPTAIN AMERICA TV movies joined WONDER WOMAN and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, already on the air.
Enter Spanish exploitation filmmaker Juan Piquer Simón, who not only created his own superhero, but had no problem shamelessly ripping off SUPERMAN in the process.
Supersonic (the “Man” is only referenced in the film’s title, as if the inspiration wasn’t clear enough) is an alien traveling through space while in a state of hibernation. Why he requires what looks like an enormous battle cruiser for this purpose is never made clear. He is awakened by a supreme intelligence that tells him he must go to the planet Earth to save them from the nefarious Dr. Gulik (Cameron Mitchell).
Gulik has used his SPECTRE-like army and a ridiculous tin can robot to steal important research and kidnap the well-meaning Professor Morgan (José María Caffarel). When Morgan will not agree to aid Gulik in his quest for world domination, the doctor tries to kidnap Morgan’s daughter, Patricia (Diana Polakov). Fortunately, Supersonic always seems to swoop in and thwart Gulik’s plans.
When not flying across the city or lifting cardboard bulldozers, Supersonic takes the secret identity of Paul (Antonio Cantafora, going by the Anglicized name Michael Colby), a mild-mannered, clumsy and quite smarmy bachelor who tries to romance Patricia. But if this is starting to sound a lot like SUPERMAN, don’t worry because they rip off STAR WARS too. In addition to Supersonic’s own private Star Destroyer seen at the beginning, Paul becomes Supersonic when he tweaks his wristwatch and utters the phrase, “May the Great Force of the Galaxy be with me.”
I don’t know if Simón knew he was making hilariously bad movies or if he was a man of noble intent who wound up being the Spanish equivalent to Edward D. Wood, Jr. Like Wood, Simón’s films always seemed to turn out cheesy, but you could never say they were boring. Simón is responsible for one of the goriest and silliest slasher movies of all time, PIECES and was also responsible for such howlers as SLUGS and MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND. A couple of years after SUPERSONIC MAN, Simón would turn a monster-in-the-woods horror movie into a disturbing rip-off of E.T. called EXTRA TERRESTRIAL VISITORS, better known to fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 as POD PEOPLE.
SUPERSONIC MAN is about as cornball as comic book movies got without simply whipping out the “POW!” title cards with every punch. The film also cannot hide its European roots, though it takes place mainly in America. Paul is every Lothario from Eurocrime films and softcore comedies dropped headfirst into a whimsical science fiction adventure. There is also a tremendous amount of comic relief throughout, including some incredibly dated and unfunny bits with a town drunk.
Yet despite these inappropriate bits, SUPERSONIC MAN was clearly written with the kiddies in mind. Keep in mind, we are a long way from the time when most films of this type tried to appeal to a broad audience. It’s a movie where the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined and a disco-tinged faux-SUPERMAN theme song plays over the action. Never mind the mounting body count, SUPERSONIC MAN is a Hollywood serial shrunk down to 90 minutes for the benefit of kids across the world. What they make of it is entirely up to them.
Mitchell was fairly ubiquitous throughout the 1970s and 1980s, popping up in Irwin Allen disasters and loads of exploitation films. Usually, he’s simply part of the ensemble and often seems to be there just to pick up a paycheck. But Mitchell is fantastic in this film. He hams it up so much as the villain that it seems likely he was the only one who had a sense of how this material was going to play out. He rants and raves and gives long soliloquies about the need for power, always topping it off by some irrational bit of hilarity long after he had already made his point.
Let me make this perfectly clear: SUPERSONIC MAN is a terrible movie. If we were going purely on how competent a film this was, we’d be in Worst territory for sure. But the film becomes must-see viewing for anyone who likes to have a laugh and good time at the expense of a misguided low-budget epic. Recommended.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.