At one point in Gabriele Mainetti’s Freaks Out, the Nazi villain – twelve-digit pianist and seer Franz (Franz Rogowski) – refers to the circus freaks he has captured and wants to use in an attempt to forestall the fall of the Third Reich as his ‘Fantastic Four’. The debate about the merits of big ticket superhero movies as cinematic or cultural-industrial phenomenon usually brings out the worst in either side of the argument. It’s seldom noticed that there has been a real trickle-down effect from the mainstreaming of conventions, story concepts and imagery of superhero comics. The last few years have seen a flourishing of superhero variants from around the world, or in the margins of various industries, where the sort of vigorous reimagining pioneered by the likes of Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns in the 1980s (or even the original runs of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four which now seem so central to the tradition) has led to a mushroom growth filmography it’s going to be down to some future historian to put together. Just to take a random sampling, look at Unbreakable, Super, The Innocents, Freaks, The Witch Part One, Chronicle, Brightburn, Archenemy, At First Light, Harmony, Jupiter’s Moon and Mortal — or even fringe-of-the-big-name-franchise works like Legion, Deadpool, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, WandaVision, Joker and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. There’s a lot more going on here than spandex fanboys or purist cinephiles have got their heads around.
An approach with precedents in comics and mainstream comics movies (often traceable to Chris Claremont’s X-Men run) is to look to earlier forms of fabulism and pick out elements that happen to mesh with superheroics. The first X-Men film began in a concentration camp, and this epic elaborates on that theme with a carnivalesque feel that owes a lot to Fellini and Tod Browning (one character appears to homage Annie Girardot in Marco Ferreri’s La donna scimmia/The Ape Woman). As indicated by a throwaway prophetic sketch, Freaks Out takes place in the same cinematic universe as Mainetti’s Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot/They Call Me Jeeg Robot, and might even serve as an origin story. In 1943, Jewish ringmaster Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) provides shelter and employment for four unique misfits, who are all interestingly spiky, difficult screen presences. Hot-tempered wolfman Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) looks like Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law and has Wolverine-style strength and berserker spells. ‘Insect boy’ Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), a gawky albino, can control bugs and worms, some of which he generates in his own body. Mario (Giancarlo Martini), a cheery dwarf, masturbates a lot and can manipulate metal like an unambitious Magneto. Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), the Marvel Girl/Phoenix of the group, has potentially awesome electric powers she’s reluctant to use thanks to an earlier tragedy.
When the circus is bombed and Israel rounded up for deportation to a death camp, the four squabble and split up. An offer is in from Franz, a mad Nazi mutant whose deformity makes him a great concert pianist but unsuitable for military service, to join his kitschy swastika-swathed circus, but there’s a nasty hidden agenda. Quite a few superhero franchises have an issue with balance – Batman is often upstaged by more interesting villains, while the MCU has often tended to go with underwhelming bad guys – but Freaks Out gets it about right. Franz, who uses his power of prophecy to plagiarise hit songs from the future, is an alpha-level threat but also interestingly pathetic and at his worst when lashing out pettishly rather than working out calculated evil schemes. Matilde, most dangerous of the group, falls in with the Hunchback (Max Mazzotta) and a band of mostly maimed partisans, and tries to resist being turned into a weapon. A convention that this uses which grates on me is the character who admirably refuses to kill people but is put in a circumstance where going full-on Carrie White is the only way to get a climax … and this goes part of the way down that route, then kinks a little.
The connection between the gaudy displays of circus and superheroics is interesting and not that often made – there is a Marvel baddie called the Ringmaster, who started out very like Franz as an opponent of the 1940s Captain America – and Mainetti takes advantage of this to stage big battles, rescues and escapes like circus acts. It’s a long movie (two hours and twenty minutes), which means that its large cast all get proper development (except, perhaps, Mario – though he appears in a very weird full-frontal nude scene) and subplots satisfyingly wind together as in a twelve-issue comics maxiseries. Jeeg Robot was a fun, scrappy little picture with a lot of ideas and a big heart; Freaks Out is a major advance – a big, confident, exhilarating, horrifying wild ride.