The early ‘90s were a strange time for superhero cinema.
Yes, Batman was a huge hit in 1989. But despite the comparatively dark tone of this outlier, superhero films of the era were nowhere near the serious-minded gravity of Marvel’s X-Men or DC’s The Dark Knight. Instead, audiences had to pick between a grab bag of camp (Superman III), utter crap (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), and straight-up weirdness (Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies). How’s that for a mid-’90s identity crisis?
In the shadows of such superhero heavyweights, however, the ‘80s and ‘90s did see comic book outsiders find success on the silver screen by leaning into the kind of absurdity that had undermined their better-known counterparts. Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing regrettably offered “monsters and midgets” in its goofy 1982 trailer, but Troma’s sleazy gorefest The Toxic Avenger (1984) became a midnight movie cult classic. 1989’s The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren, was B-movie silliness without substance, but 1994’s The Crow was a grungy visual feast that made history as the first independent comic book superhero movie to launch a franchise.
And then, there’s The Guyver.
Lost among this mix of mainstream failures and more niche cult classics is The Guyver, a 1991 B-movie full of hammy acting, corny jokes, and the hokiest soundtrack out there. The Guyver epitomized the era’s misguided vision of the comic book genre; but in doing so, it delivered one of the most entertaining slices of superhero schlock from its period.
A perfect marriage of wayward screen icons and cult horror stars — complete with legendary special effects artists and zany Japanese source material — the film bombed upon release and was quickly relegated to the realm of VHS rental fodder. But on the occasion of its 30th anniversary this year, it’s time we reappraised The Guyver.
Out of an unnecessarily bloated text-dump opening, a bizarre premise takes shape. At the beginning of time, so it reads, aliens came to Earth to create the ultimate organic weapon: mankind. But they also created humans who could morph into monstrous super-soldiers at will: the Zoanoids.
Eons later, their mighty alien leader, the Zoalord, heads up the nefarious Chronos Corporation, whose development of Zoanoid technology could spell the end of civilization. With world domination as their mission, only one thing can stand in their way: a bio-boosted alien armor that increases the natural powers of its human wearer a hundred-fold. The wearer of said apparatus becomes the Power Ranger-esque hero of the film’s title. He is the myth, the legend: The Guyver.
The film’s Japanese origins are no more cogent than this synopsis. 25-year-old manga artist Yoshiki Takaya was best known for his works in the realm of erotic hentai manga (titles like Perverted Old Man Blizzard and Whirlpool of Love in the Heart of Darkness) before he struck gold with Bio-Booster Armour Guyver — the latter franchise, to this day, has spanned 32 volumes over 25 years.
Within a year of its initial publication, Bio-Booster Armour Guyver was adapted as a 55-minute anime (1986’s Guyver: Out of Control), which delivered disorienting colors, sexualized female nudity, and bizarre visual jokes. When the pitch for a Hollywood adaptation of The Guyver landed in the wake of Akira’s global success, it no doubt seemed a hot ticket.
And apparently, it was. As the film’s poster misleading states, none other than Luke Skywalker himself — Mark Hamill — would play the lead role in this live-action adaptation. (In reality, Hamill takes a prominent supporting role as a CIA agent, while the Guyver is played by Jack Armstrong).
The Star Wars actor, incidentally, had only taken three film acting roles in the near-decade that had passed since the release of Return of the Jedi (his legendary voice performances as the Joker in the Batman: The Animated Series wouldn’t start until a year later). In The Guyver, Hamill finds himself in the gloriously strange company of Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, with horror icon Michael Berryman (of The Hills Have Eyes and The Devil’s Rejects) among the bizarre cast members flanking this out-of-place performance.
With cult horror producer Brian Yuzna (Re-Animator, Society, From Beyond) involved, and a one-time director by the name of Screaming Mad George attached (alongside his compadré, Steve Wang), the film’s greatest asset was perhaps behind the camera. George’s work in make-up and special effects meant he’d racked up an impressive resumé, with credits on Predator, the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, and John Carpenter’s action classic Big Trouble In Little China.
And with body-horror transformations, practical-effects wizardry, and warehouse brawls between warring alien monsters, The Guyver does not disappoint when it comes to visual thrills. The practical effects remain a sight to behold to this day.
Fins tear through the skin of a fleeing scientist as he becomes a mighty fish man in the Los Angeles River. A backstreet beat-down turns ugly when the Guyver finds himself engulfed by flailing tentacles. An Indiana Jones-style face-melting segment prefaces a pantomime showdown with a giant beetle monster.
Then there are the Gremlins-like Zoanoids themselves: a tusked troll demon, a bipedal croc, an elephant-nosed amphibian, and a bat-eared goofball henchman. All engage incessantly in an ultra-violent battle royale, complete with martial arts showdowns and quotable one-liners that reference the more popular films of the era (“Okay, Mr. Robocop, you’re going down!”). All this goes on for nearly an hour and a half, and that is absolutely meant as an endorsement.
The ‘90s would soon become saturated with CGI experiments, from Jurassic Park to Toy Story, but The Guyver is a reminder that the decade started as physical effects and creature design reached an apex.
As Marvel preps its next slate of superhero movies, we might be forgetting the true, three-part essence of the superhero genre: Bam. Thwok. And absurd visual splendor. Frankly, who needs Angelina Jolie and Eternals at the movies when you’ve got the Guyver and a clan of Zoanoids at home?
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.