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Remembering Swamp Thing’s TV & film roots

Before the premiere of DC Universe’s new series, let’s remember all the good times we’ve shared with Swamp Thing!

On Friday, May 31, the DC Universe streaming service will be premiering its latest offering of original programming, Swamp Thing. Based on the heroic monster created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing will bring a more horror-tinged tale to DC Universe as its third live-action series, following successful seasons of Titans and Doom Patrol.

However, this series will be far from Swamp Thing’s first appearance on screen. In fact, not too long after Christopher Reeve made audiences believe that a man could fly, and years before Michael Keaton asked Jack Nicholson if he wanted to get nuts, the Protector of the Green made his first live-action appearance in a Hollywood motion picture, kicking off a filmed legacy that continues to this day.

In honor of the new Swamp Thing television series, let’s take a look at Swampy’s previous starring roles to see what they got right and what should have gone back in the bog.

Swamp Thing (1979)

Swamp Thing (1979 film, dir. Wes Craven)

Yes, that Wes Craven. Hot off of The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing, Craven was tapped to bring DC’s muck-monster to the silver screen, bringing with him a cast full of well-regarded performers. Ray Wise portrays a pre-accident Alec Holland as a sort of lovable horndog, Louis Jordan plays the evil Dr. Anton Arcane with a subdued suaveness, and Adrienne Barbeau turns up the heat as Swampy’s love interest, Alice Cable, a damsel who punches distress in the face.

Portraying the titular beast in this flick is stuntman Dick Durock, who does the best he can with what he’s given. What works against Durock’s portrayal is the obviously-restrictive suit, which looks like an extra-small morph suit stretched taut over Durock’s large frame and plastered with a few vines here and there. The early scenes, shortly after Holland’s transformation, are the most convincing in terms of Swampy’s appearance and physicality, as he rightly spends those sequences lumbering around in a confused and angry daze. Durock himself isn’t the problem, and his portrayal would stay with the franchise for quite some time.

The real embarrassing bits come toward the end, however, when Dr. Arcane transforms himself into some kind of ManBearPig monstrosity and throws down with Swamp Thing. These sequences most closely resemble the “grab arms and kind of body slam each other” fight choreography seen in the original Ultraman series. It’s not exactly a titanic showdown of good vs. evil, is what I’m saying.

Still, for all of its faults, it’s a lean hour-and-a-half monster movie that should still appeal to fans of the genre. It has that gnarly, can-do spirit that early Roger Corman flicks had, so it’s still worth a watch.

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989 film, dir. Jim Wynorski)

While the first film was an earnest creature feature with slight shades of body horror, this sequel says “to hell with it” and veers right into the realm of action-comedy. While it may be as far from the source material as possible in a tonal sense — keep in mind, this came out after Alan Moore’s character-redefining run on The Saga of Swamp Thing — the result is a film that is surprisingly much more entertaining than the original entry.

Even the returning actors, Dick Durock and Louis Jordan, appear to be having more fun in this one. Durock’s line delivery is less labored, as though Swampy has finally gotten the hang of his new life. The cavalier way in which he literally says, “I’m Swamp Thing,” with a sly grin and a nod, barely feels a step removed from Adam West’s sincere/comedic take on Batman. It doesn’t hurt that he’s clearly able to move and emote more in the sequel’s costume, which looks leaps and bounds better than the one from the preceding film.

Meanwhile, Louis Jordan, at this point just a couple of years removed from playing the antagonist in Octopussy, really puts the “arch” in “arch-nemesis.” He practically purrs his way through his lines. Heather Locklear has a “gee whiz” quality to her line delivery that is nothing short of charming, perfectly selling her unlikely romance with Swamp Thing.

The monster on monster action of the first film is amplified with a whole slew of grotesque un-men, culminating in a massive showdown that gave a young Nathan nightmares as a lad, but which plays like a sadistic episode of Power Rangers now. The Return of Swamp Thing is not art, make no mistake about that, but damn, is it an entertaining, trashy confection!

Swamp Thing (1990-1991)

Swamp Thing (1990-1991 animated series)

Yes, much like other adult-oriented properties like Rambo and Robocop, Ol’ Swampy got his own animated series for children, complete with an anti-pollution theme and plenty of tie-in merchandise. There was a Nintendo game, Halloween costumes, action figures, the works. All for a show that lasted five whopping episodes.

Yeah, this one was kind of dumped on the air (I distinctly remember having a VHS tape of the first episode), but every second of this show might as well be the word “TOYETIC” filling the screen in big, flashing, neon letters. The plot follows Dr. Anton Arcane mutating himself and several of his henchman (Un-Men in name only) into various action figure-friendly monster forms and attempting to capture/destroy Swamp Thing. The heroes and villains all use insane vehicles to fight one another. The theme song was a low-rent cover of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” with a couple of lyrics search-and-replace’d (if you guessed which lyrics, then congratulations — you may have a future in early 90s animated broadcasting).

The biggest sin committed by the Swamp Thing animated series is that it’s simply uninteresting. The “bad guy makes mutants” plots were already being done better in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, and the animation was stiff, but not terrible. It’s not goofy enough to become a cult classic like Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos nor decent enough to be remembered as an underrated gem like Pirates of Dark Water; it’s just pretty dull and underwhelming. The human characters are stock “meddling teens” and the titular hero is too grandstanding and, well, heroic to really feel anywhere close to the brooding, all-powerful loner of the comics.

For the curious, the first episode of the series has been uploaded to YouTube. It’s worth a look, but don’t expect too much.

Swamp Thing (1990-1993)

Swamp Thing (1990-1993 TV series)

Swamp Thing’s most recent starring role on the small screen came in the form of this syndicated series in the early 90s. Dick Durock reprised his role as the title character and was given the best-looking Swamp Thing suit seen prior to the new series. He genuinely looks like something that just pulled itself out of the earth, with Durock’s Frankenstein-esque movements finally feeling earned by the otherworldly look of the character, rather than seeming to come from a limitation in the suit.

Joining Swampy for this series was a rotating cast of Louisiana residents, all of them aware of the weirdness in their swamps to varying degrees, as well as Mark Lindsay Chapman as a reimagined version of Anton Arcane. This Arcane was a handsome devil who somehow felt more in-tune with the original character from the comics, almost a Dr. Doom of the bayou, who would just as soon turn someone into a bird-man as he would hypnotize them, Dracula-style.

The show is a fun time, but it’s definitely a rocky mix of tones and styles. One week will see Swampy fighting poachers and the like, while the next will see him confronting a ghost or some other supernatural entity. Not only that, but the show was retooled to be more adult-oriented after the initial batch of episodes, necessitating a quick send-off to one of the child characters of the show, who was kidnapped and presumably killed off-screen. There’s major overhauls, and then there’s that.

Basically, it’s a bit of a mess at times, but it’s a fun watch, as it essentially gave viewers a mini monster movie every week, complete with some decent acting and neat low-budget effects work. It’s hammy and full of cliches, but there’s a real charm to it all.

Swamp Thing (2019)

And that pretty much covers it! Although Swamp Thing has made smaller appearances in animated series like Justice League Action and animated features such as Justice League Dark and Batman/Harley Quinn, the 90s live-action series was his last starring role until this year’s DC Universe series!

I’ll be reviewing the pilot for the new series when it drops on Friday, so be sure to keep an eye out for that! In the meantime, I’d urge to check out the shows and flicks I talked about here. Even in the worst of them (the cartoon), there’s some fun to be had! Also, to get a look at some of the wackier bits of merchandising ephemera and to feel the genuine hype for the new series, check out Roots of the Swamp Thing, which celebrates all things Swampy and proudly shows off the the world’s largest Swamp Thing collection. Trust me, It’s a sight to behold.

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