In keeping with the modern trend toward horror movies metaphorically exploring trauma, Macon Blair’s The Toxic Avenger leans into the buried serious side of the story, focusing on its aching humanity, particularly the emotional strain of single fatherhood and the trials of economic desperation.
Nah, just kidding.
The new Toxic Avenger, an update on Lloyd Kaufman’s infamous 1984 cult movie, is gnarly, messy, and packed with goofy visual gags and fight scenes where the combatants get melted or mutated, sometimes exploding into wall-splattering showers of vivid, chunky gore. But by casting Peter Dinklage in the title role, Blair — star of Jeremy Saulnier’s terrific revenge movie Blue Ruin and director of Netflix’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore — sets up the possibility that this is a more serious Toxic Avenger, one where the emotional layering matters more than the kills. And that’s because Peter Dinklage just doesn’t get as many comedy roles as he should.
Dinklage has always been a fairly serious actor. He’s best known these days for his run as Game of Thrones’ long-suffering Tyrion Lannister, a man thanklessly tasked with building a stable kingdom while being endlessly undermined by his hateful family. (And arguably, endlessly undermined by his hateful showrunners, too.) His career has mostly been a long run of serious dramatic roles, from his breakthrough in 2003’s The Station Agent as an isolated loner in a small town to his lovely singing role as the title character in 2022’s Cyrano. He isn’t the actor most people would think of for a role like the one in Blair’s Toxic Avenger, which is part slapstick, part over-the-top emotion, part butt of the joke.
The Toxic Avenger makes a solid argument for him as a comedic actor, though. At this point, Dinklage has established his dramatic bona fides thoroughly enough that he can afford to spend a movie alternately leaping around in a tutu and plodding around in a full-body mutant suit, hamming it up for the cult crowd. If anything, the pained and purposeful roles that have defined his career make it funnier to see him apologetically threatening to murder a co-worker with a steaming toxic mop, or sheepishly trying to convince his reluctant stepson (Luca and The Book of Henry’s Jacob Tremblay) that toast burnt to the consistency of charcoal is delicious.
Like the original Toxic Avenger, the 2023 remake is strictly for fans of cult comedy-horror: The cast, particularly Kevin Bacon as villain Bob Garbinger, a health-and-wellness tycoon whose business is crumbling around him, aims their performances for the rafters. And the plot is drawn in the broadest possible parameters. Hapless janitor Winston Gooze (Dinklage) finds out he has a terminal brain disease caused by working in Bacon’s pollution factory. (We never learn what the disease is, because of a running gag where loud construction crews drown out Winston’s doctor every time he offers specifics.) He seeks his boss’s help, and gets rebuffed under appropriately comedic conditions. Soon, Winston is a green-skinned monster with thick blue goo for blood, and he’s out for revenge. Simple enough.
Almost inevitably, Dinklage does bring a little soulfulness to the role. Winston really is a single dad trying to raise a grieving stepson, and a blue-collar worker dismissed as unimportant by his rapacious corporate master, who’s casually putting toxins into the environment and then shrugging off responsibility. But for every heartbreaking moment where Dinklage’s face momentarily lights up with unwarranted hope at some sign that his luck might be changing for the better, there’s another where he’s frantically screaming at a weird jenkem addict in a forest prominently labeled as “Yonder Spooky Woods” or intoning, in heroic voice-over, “I didn’t want any of this. Certainly not the heroic voice-over.” His ability to play the role’s dramatic notes helps a lot when things start to get silly.
Part of what makes Dinklage an enjoyable comic actor — here and in other notable departures, like 2016’s The Boss — is just the contrast of seeing him play against type. For someone who’s brought so much pain and pathos to so many roles to embrace this kind of goofiness feels like a gift he’s giving the audience, like an act of trust that at this point in his career, no one’s going to typecast him as a kind of living comedic prop. (His very first acknowledged movie role, in 1995’s Living in Oblivion, gave him a memorable scene where he’s castigating a young director for doing exactly that, casting a little person as an element to make a dream sequence feel weirder.)
But Dinklage is also just a funny guy, especially when he throws himself physically into a role. (See again: The Boss, a not-great film where he does hilarious physical comedy work opposite Melissa McCarthy.) Watching him leap around in a pink tutu, trying to cheer up his recently embarrassed stepson, is a highlight of the new Toxic Avenger that plays sharply against a lot of the movie’s crueler and more gleefully ghastly humor. There’s a transgressive, giddy joy in watching as Dinklage wrenches an arm off a smug gangster, or recoils in outsized horror at what’s hidden under another gangster’s ever-present chicken mask. But it’s also enjoyable just getting the sense that he’s having fun on screen for once, that he’s completely letting himself go. “Letting go and letting loose” is really the theme of the new Toxic Avenger. It’s a theme Dinklage could certainly stand to embody more often, if directors recognized his full comic capabilities.
The Toxic Avenger premiered at 2023’s Fantastic Fest film festival. Legendary Pictures has not yet announced its release date.