Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An openly gay superhero deserves better than Bruce Vilanch and Soup Nazi cameos

Screenshot: Surge Of Power: Return Of The Sequel

The condemned: Surge Of Power: Revenge Of The Sequel (2017)

The plot: If someone were to ask, “What’s this movie about?” the only response vague enough to be accurate is, “A gay superhero who fights intolerance, but not really.” In truth, the plot of this film is simultaneously beyond simple and yet still wholly inexplicable, like if someone were to set a goal of walking across a room, then knit a sweater instead. I can describe the rare moments that advance the plot in excruciating detail, yet there were multiple times during Surge Of Power: Revenge Of The Sequel where I confess to throwing my notebook in the air and saying, out loud, “I have no fucking clue what is happening right now.”

The story, as we’ll charitably call it, is actually the sequel to another film, Surge Of Power: The Stuff Of Heroes, made a decade-plus earlier with the same creative team. This second installment again follows Gavin Richards—an easygoing and bland gay guy who gained superpowers through a freak lab experiment in the first film. (If you were worried about missing any important plot points from the original, fear not, because they spend more than a few minutes simply replaying clips from it as flashbacks.)

“Surge Of Power,” as he’s dubbed (though I honestly couldn’t tell you if that’s his full title, or if he’s simply “Surge”) is on the trail of his old nemesis Hector Harris, a.k.a. Metal Master, recently released from prison and looking to get back into evil-doing. Hector is approached by an even more powerful villain, Augur (Eric Roberts, who we’ll get to shortly), who recruits him to steal some crystals and then maybe blow up the Hoover Dam? It’s unclear. Regardless, Surge (...Of Power?) teams up with some random nobodies to stop both villains and try to save the day. Seriously, his cohorts are three people who happen to be there when Gavin confronts Hector at a remote desert hiking trail, and he ends up staying at their place and banding together to infiltrate a Vegas drag show. Hold on, because this is only going to get more inexplicable from here.

After thwarting Metal Master’s semi-nebulous attempt to do something dastardly near the Hoover Dam, Gavin ends up having a romantic night with Marvin (I think that’s his name, honestly this film is a struggle and online research isn’t helping, for reasons that will soon become clear), one of the three randos but who just so happens to be a huge fan of Surge. After their Las Vegas-set rendezvous, Surge goes and confronts Augur, who laughs off his every attack. Surge’s mentor Omen ends up arriving and sending Surge away, then defeating Augur instead, thereby negating what little plot there was to speak of. The film then ends at a pace that make The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King’s final minutes look brisk, as Metal Master and his homophobic father reconcile (I know), we’re given a cliffhanger (literally: Gavin says, “Am I sensing... a cliffhanger?”) meant to tease a third movie, and we get an extra round of sub-D-list celebrity cameos weighing in for no particular reason. Oh, god, the cameos. This final round marks the fourth montage of rapid-fire cameos contained in Surge Of Power. I’m not joking.

Over-the-top box copy: Several to choose from, though I’m awfully partial to, “A superhero comedy with 50 stars!” That’s a generous definition of both “stars” and “with,” given the closing credits are a cavalcade of mostly older genre convention regulars who were clearly handed a copy of the Surge Of Power comic book and asked to ad-lib a line about it. Also, here is a complete sentence in the mind of whoever penned the description of the film on the back of the Blu-ray: “Battle on Hoover Dam alerts a team of villains known as ‘The Council.’” Not only is that poor grammar, it happens in the epilogue of the movie, after the bad guy has already been defeated, and has no bearing on the film that preceded it. So technically over the top, in the sense that the film only delivers the scene as another glorified cameo opportunity.

The descent: As far as I can tell, the Svengali behind this project, Vincent J. Roth, had no real background in any aspect of the entertainment business prior to making the first film. That’s right: The star/writer/producer/co-director/music supervisor/post-production manager/stunt performer of Surge Of Power: Revenge Of The Sequel had no experience making films. And let me assure you, his qualifications shine through in every frame. In one interview, I learned he’s a corporate attorney in his day job, and came up with the idea for Surge years ago after parlaying his passion for cosplaying into becoming the superhero mascot for the marketing campaign of a company he was working for.

“Colleagues of mine who were helping me promote The Stuff Of Heroes kept nudging me to make a sequel,” he says. “They kept saying, ‘You have to make a sequel; every superhero needs a sequel.’ They said, ‘We’re filmmakers, too, we can bring down crew and help you shoot it.’” So he had fun making his first film, and colleagues who claim to be filmmakers helped him shoot the sequel. It leads me to wonder if his colleagues are lawyer friends from work, and whether their claim stems from seeing the first one and saying, “Oh, that’s all it takes? Then yes, we’re filmmakers, too.”

The theoretically heavenly talent: Regardless of how shamelessly they’re shoehorned into the movie, one can’t deny Roth worked overtime getting a veritable who’s-that of old-school genre actors to pop up in his movie, even if most of them are just of the “let’s quickly film you saying one silly line in between autograph sessions at this hotel” variety. Some of them have actual roles in Surge Of Power: Linda Blair plays Hector’s mom, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century star Gil Gerard is Hector’s father, and Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols has a few scenes reprising her superpowered mentor role of Omen—yes, the one who saves the day at the end, though for no discernible reason her character morphs into a man, played by Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo, because why not?

“Why not?” was presumably a recurring refrain on this project, as many roles seem created solely to give yet another semi-known actor a part. Perhaps the most egregious of these is professional joke ruiner Bruce Vilanch, who turns up for a fleeting minute or so of swiss-cheese dialogue as the AI system in Gavin’s fancy Surgemobile. Even Roth seems to realize no one would buy Vilanch as an intentionally created personality, however, because he’s immediately replaced in the AI role by Shannon Farnon, a.k.a Wonder Woman in the old Super Friends cartoon. And good news: The guy who played the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld turns up just long enough to bark, “No superhero for you!” That was around the exact moment I started wondering if my weed guy made rush deliveries.

Again, though, it’s important to stress just how much of this film is cobbled-together montages of sub-famous actors delivering a line or two of mugging, all-in-good-fun jokes, usually based off their own claims to fame. Thus, former scream queens scream, former aliens make “out of this world” jokes, and Lou Ferrigno says he’s so mad, he wants to smash something. It’s almost a blessed relief when Nicholas Brendon (sadly credited here as “Zander” from Buffy) uses the 10 seconds of time that Roth trained his camera on him (obviously backstage at yet another convention) to ignore the Surge comic entirely and just make goofy jokes about gonorrhea.

The execution: If you accidentally changed the channel one afternoon and caught this on TV (you won’t), you would spend the entire time waiting for the sex to start, because this is shot with the exact clumsy and overlit aesthetic of a low-budget softcore porn. Or regular porn, really, as softcore tends to have a baseline competence level when it comes to mixing, editing, and the like. Particularly in the sound department: This movie would function as an excellent introduction to ADR and how not to do it, as a staggering portion of it is bludgeoned into the mix—but in another unusual choice, very often only one actor (usually Roth) will be ADR’d clean, with the ambient sound of the other person’s lines that were recorded live making jarring intrusions between every dialogue exchange. Watch this scene, and try not to be driven mad by the disparity:

The other big takeaway from this film is that seemingly a fourth of the damn thing was just filmed in the Surgemobile, as the character tools around talking to various people: his assistant, his AI, really anyone who can help to pad out the running time and insert yet another shot of the car cruising down a road—the back of it helpfully painted with “www.surgeofpower.org,” the website for Roth’s production company. It got to be so that I dreaded every time Surge approached his automobile, knowing I was in for another round of Drive Time With Surge.

But let’s walk through some of the key moments, because after days of trying to process what transforms this deeply weird production to the level of outsider art, I think I’m finally realizing the key: It’s the result of a film that has no real desire other than to give its creator the chance to dress up in a costume, meet his favorite old-school actors, and live out the fantasy of starring in a superhero movie despite not knowing what that should look like, sound like, or even resemble in any logical way. (It’s why the other ongoing project of Roth’s is Surge Of Power: Big City Chronicles, which is essentially nothing but him in character as Surge conducting brief interviews at conventions with actors he geeks out over.) It’s the equivalent of a home movie made by a kid play-acting at creating a real movie, but done by someone with enough resources and financial capital to actually send it out in the world, a simulacrum of a normal indie film. It’s impossible to hate—Roth is far too guileless and earnest, especially in his push to try and send a message about tolerance and LGBTQ rights. But it sure is the modern-day version of neighbors trapping you on the couch to show slides of their vacation in Cabo.

Nothing embodies the “No, really, this’ll be good, I swear!” ethos of Roth’s endeavor than the meta conceit running throughout the film, in which it’s actually contained within a comic book being read by a skeptical comic-store customer introduced at the beginning of the movie. The film periodically cuts back to the store owner and his patron, as the latter wonders why he’s wasting his time with this crap, and the former insists, “Just keep reading, it gets better!” Nothing screams “defensive” quite like a movie trying to preempt any criticism by saying, hey, come on, we’re all just having a good time here:

Despite that, there’s plenty of strange amateur-hour mistakes that continually rescue Surge Of Power: Revenge Of The Sequel (a genuinely dreadful title) from just garden-variety badness. Consider this early moment, in which Gavin takes a break from talking to fresh-out-of-prison Hector in order to check out a band—for roughly 23 seconds:

When Eric Roberts makes his first appearance, those who missed the first film are shit out of luck. He’s not even named as “Augur” until well after the initial appearance, and the movie assume viewers not only know exactly who he is, but what his powers are, and why he’s here in the first place. Same goes for “Metal Master” Hector, and it’s a good 20-some minutes in—well after we’ve watched Hector argue with Gavin, place a call to his homophobic parents, and get recruited by Augur—before the film stops to explain who he is, what his powers are, and how these people know each other. By film’s ending I still had no idea what the hell Surge’s powers actually were.

But none of that matters for viewers who may suffer from car sickness, because you’ll be queasy from the constantly shaking camera work long before then. At one point I was convinced Linda Blair was being shot on green screen, the background was shaking so much; but then it kept happening, over and over, in obvious actual sets, so I realized it was just awful camerawork.

With 15 minutes left, nothing much has happened, and nothing seems to be en route to happening, so a character in the film literally says, “Okay, let’s just skip to the climax,” and cuts to a showdown between Surge and Augur. From there, it’s hard to describe the silliness of what happens, so let’s just watch:

Yes, the Surgemobile turns into a Transformer, apropos of nothing. And that’s pretty indicative of the movie as a whole: It all just sort of happens. There’s no point to anything, save Gavin getting to go on a date with that guy he saved earlier, which is part of the movie’s vaguely touchy-feely “tolerance is good” message. Marvin and Gavin also share what is arguably the most chaste kiss in the history of queer cinema, thereby ensuring that a “G” rating might be a bit harsh.

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Doubtful. It’s very, very strange, but it’s also incredibly exhausting to watch. The pace is glacial.

Damnable commentary track or special feature: No commentary track, but there’s the next best thing: a 20-minute featurette of Roth explaining why the movie is the way it is. For example, he said fans from the first film wanted to know, “Why is the villain bad?” “We tell you,” he informs us. He also says that Hector’s parents—who make up a grand total of three scenes, mind you—are “the heart of the movie.” In another featurette, the DP claims to be “a real fanboy,” which, no shit, you guys basically made Fanboys: The All-Cameo Movie. (No, not that Fanboys.) Again, Roth reveals himself to be an innocent, essentially the most harmless person on God’s green earth, meaning there’s nothing to dislike. There’s just one hell of an ineptly made film to marvel at. He should be proud—making something this deeply, off-puttingly awkward is a rare talent.