Superargo vs. Diabolicus

I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.

Now the preceding paragraph, if you even bothered to finish reading it before just giving up and going to look at some porn, undoubtedly left you with some questions, first and foremost of which was probably: “Um… Superargo?” And by way of an answer, let me whisk you back in time to behold that unruly and prolific beast that was the Italian film industry of the 60s. Between the years of 1965 and 1968, that industry was largely preoccupied with churning out countless cut-rate spy movies in response to the Bond phenomenon, but it would on occasion take a break from that practice to churn out a cut-rate costumed superhero movie, with the result that there are today a good number of such specimens available for our perusal on gray market DVD.

Of course, these superhero films, in terms of content, hewed very closely to the template set by the Eurospy genre, but with the added incorporation of elements drawn from one of three sources. The first and most obvious of these sources were the Italian fumetti that gave birth to such costumed characters as Kriminal and Diabolik, but, as the decade progressed, the seemingly inescapable influence of the self-consciously campy Batman TV series could also be seen. Finally, there was the influence of the Mexican lucha movies, specifically those starring Santo, which can be seen particularly in those movies that were produced in participation with Spain, a country in which Santo’s movies were embraced almost as eagerly as they were in his country of origin.

The Italian comic book movie hit its high-water mark in 1968 with the release of Maria Bava’s Diabolik, one of the best comic book movies made in any country pretty much ever. That movie cast such a long shadow that those less polished and well appointed stabs at the genre that preceded it end up looking pretty pale by comparison — and such comparisons are hard to resist. Still, that doesn’t mean that there’s not plenty of enjoyment to be wrung from such affable and relatively rough-edged entries as Fantastic Argoman (aka The Incredible Paris Incident), Flashman and, yes, Superargo vs. Diabolicus.

I have to admit, though, that I haven’t always given Superargo the fair shake he deserved. In fact, there was a time when I was quick to drag his name through the mud. Ironically, that disrespect on my part was the indirect result of Superargo’s initial success. For not only did Superargo vs. Diabolicus meet with enough positive public response to merit a parody in the form of Fantastic Argoman, but to also lead to a sequel, 1968’s Superargo and the Faceless Giants. Now, I watch a lot of movies and, as a result, there are occasionally times when I think that I’ve seen a movie that I actually haven’t. I have, however, seen Superargo and the Faceless Giants, and it left me considerably underwhelmed. So underwhelmed, in fact, that I began to use it as a low-water mark — an anti-Diabolik, if you will — when judging other Italian superhero movies. “Goldface, the Fantastic Superman“, I might say, for instance. “May be no great shakes, but at least its better than Superargo and the Faceless Giants.” In time things degenerated to the point where my attacks became more ad hominem, and I would simply go on about how lame Superargo himself was, comparing him unflatteringly to a much more swanky peer like Argoman or Flashman.

It was at this point that Keith decided to speak up in Superargo’s defense, inspiring me to give this odd red-suited character a second chance (I’m referring there to Superargo, not Keith). After all, if not for Keith, I never would have watched Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf or Kiss Me, Monster and — well, let’s just say that, for reasons mysterious even to myself, I decided to give Superargo’s debut, Superargo vs. Diabolicus, a repeat viewing. Only, it turns out that it wasn’t a repeat viewing, as I realized a short way in that I had not, in fact, seen Superargo vs. Diabolicus, and had instead been basing my entire opinion of its hero on that movie’s wan follow-up. This, I quickly realized, was a grave mistake, because Superargo vs. Diabolicus is actually kind of awesome.

Superargo vs. Diabolicus, a co-production between Italy and Spain, is one of those Italian comic book films whose hero owes much to Mexican lucha movies, and to Santo in particular. Superargo, like Santo, is a masked professional wrestler who fights crime, and he even has a white sportscar much like Santo’s to drive himself between assignations. On the other hand, Superargo vs. Diabolicus is also a film that sticks very closely to the conventions of the Eurospy genre, and, as such, in many ways comes across like a typical 60s spy caper with a masked wrestler inexplicably plopped down in the middle of it. In this sense, it reminds me a lot of Operacion 67, Mexican studio America-Cima’s attempt to launch Santo as a 007-style super agent in a film very much in the European mold. And, while both films would be plenty engaging if they just had a sharp suited Ken Clark or Richard Harrison at their center, the presence in both of a figure encased in tights and a face-obscuring wrestling mask adds that certain, ineffable “X” factor that makes them oh, so much more.

I must stress, however, that, despite surface appearances, Superargo is very different from Santo. You see, unlike the fearless and unflappable Santo, Superargo has problems, and it is Superargo vs. Diabolicus‘s examination of those problems that makes it by far the superior of the two Superargo films. In fact, it could be said that the Superargo of Superargo vs. Diabolicus is the neurotic, psychologically burdened silver age Spiderman to Santo’s square-jawed, two dimensional silver age Superman — and, had he had more of an impact, he might have caused a paradigm shift in lucha libre films comparable to the one that Marvel spawned in the world of comics. Imagine Mil Mascaras, overwhelmed by the responsibility of defending Mexico from Watusi-ing vampire girls, questioning whether he ever wanted to be a monster fighting masked wrestler in the first place, or Blue Demon allowing the space spiders to get the drop on him because he’s too preoccupied by his inability to win Santo’s approval. This is the lucha cinema that Superargo vs. Diabolicus boldly imagines.

The film begins, appropriately enough, with a wrestling match, but one in which Superargo’s opponent ends up getting tossed out of the ring by our hero and having his head split open so badly that he is actually and irreversibly dead. Overwhelmed by guilt as a result, Superargo lapses into a deep depression, and spends his days in his office, moping around and drinking while still wearing his suit and mask. Concerned over his mental well being, Superargo’s girlfriend, Lidia (Monica Randall), goes to see Superargo’s friend Colonel Kenton, who happens to be the head of the Secret Service. She tells Kenton that Superargo won’t go to him on his own due to his suffering from an “inferiority complex”, and both of them agree that Superargo is indeed a very sensitive sort. Kenton proposes as a solution that Superargo be recruited to help the Secret Service, and he pitches the idea to the reluctant Superargo by saying that the experience will help him regain his “self respect and sense of being useful”. In other words, his becoming a secret agent will be a form of therapy to help him overcome his debilitating insecurities. What’s more, it’s a type of work that will actually benefit from his apparent unwillingness to ever remove his costume.

Superargo vs. Diabolicus may very well be an intentional parody of the Mexican wrestling genre, but it is just as likely that it is an entirely earnest film about a neurotic wrestler who refuses to remove his mask while battling both his nagging insecurities and a middle-aged supervillain in a spacesuit with an octopus insignia emblazoned on its chest. It’s tough to say, really. That’s because — even though its vintage and subject matter might lead you to expect the kind of winking, intentionally campy approach that was becoming increasingly common in movies of its type — Superargo vs. Diabolicus, like the best lucha movies, plays its material completely deadpan. In comparison to more light-hearted, overtly satirical films like Flashman, it comes off as downright grim in its comportment, even as its piling on one absurd turn after another. This, of course, makes it that much more loveable. For, if there’s a joke to be gotten, it doesn’t spoil it for you by tripping all over itself to let you know that it’s in on it, too. And, if it’s serious, well, how can you help but be charmed by a film that would present such a goofy concept with such completely sober intentions?

After Kenton finally manages to cajole Superargo into joining his team, a demonstration of his super attributes is staged for the benefit of the other bigwigs in the Secret Service. These attributes include blood that coagulates so super-fast that a knife plunged into his arm leaves no wound, super lung power that allows him to stay under water for long periods of time without diving gear, super stamina, the ability to withstand intense heat and cold, and self-regulating blood pressure that stays steady despite even the greatest exertions. Afterwards, with the bigwigs suitably wowed, Kenton explains Superargo’s powers with hard science:

“The somatic configuration of Superargo’s organism is identical to that of any normal human, but his metaphysical equilibrium is so perfectly balanced that it gives him superhuman resistance.”

Once Superargo has been properly vetted and kitted out with the requisite spy gadgets and bitchin’ car, it is time for him to make good on the “vs. Diabolicus” action promised in the films title. Diabolicus (Gerard Tichy), as mentioned above, is a graying criminal mastermind who spends the whole movie wearing a bulky spacesuit with an octopus insignia on the chest. Aside from that, he comes complete with all the accoutrements a Eurospy supervillain requires, including a beautiful and equally evil redheaded mistress (Loredana Nusciak), a legion of uniformed minions, and a hidden island compound filled with all kinds of exotic, high-tech devices designed solely for the purpose of making people suffer slow, agonizing deaths. He also comes complete with an overly complicated and implausible plot to rule the world, which involves a process by which he can turn non-precious metals into gold, but which in turn requires him to loot the world’s uranium supplies in order to accomplish it.

Now, whether I should even be calling him Diabolicus is unclear, because, at one point, he tells Superargo, “My friends call me Diabolicus.” This suggests to me that Diabolicus is his first name, though his last is never mentioned. I’m guessing that it’s something fruity that would explain his overcompensating behavior, and that his full name is something like Diabolicus P. Merriweather III. But everyone just calls him Diabolicus, anyway, which suggests that he considers himself on much better terms with the rest of the world than his actions might suggest.

Superargo’s battle with Diabolicus runs pretty much the standard course for a movie of this type and era. As with any secret agent worth his salt, his being put on the case sets off an immediate wave of unsuccessful assassination attempts by Diabolicus’s goons. Then there is the infiltration of the island compound, followed by a brief capture and a torture session at the hands of his nemesis, culminating in lots of running around through gleaming space-age corridors firing automatic weapons as faceless minions go “GAAAA!” and fall from elevated walkways, topped off by one of the absolute worst miniature shots of an island housing a supervillain’s hidden compound exploding that I’ve ever seen. Still, all of this is somehow delightful, and there are three reasons I can think of to account for that. One, as I’ve already stated, is that our hero is a guy who is wearing red tights and a mask for absolutely no practical reason. Two is that, while all of this climactic action is playing out, we are eagerly anticipating the moment when Superargo will have a psychological break and start crying. Three — and this is probably the most important one — is that director Nick Nostro handles all of this like an attentive, consummate professional, keeping things at an appropriately breathless pace throughout without an ounce of narrative fat.

While certainly not equipped with a blockbuster-sized budget, Superargo vs. Diabolicus is a slick little picture. In addition to Nostro’s deft direction, it boasts an eye-catchingly colorful production design by Juan Alberto Solar, as well as scope photography by Francisco Marin that suggests just enough of the epic to help the film stand alongside the upper tier of Eurospy films on a technical level. You never get the sense of having settled for a weak substitute that lesser efforts in the genre leave you with. On top of that, Franco Pisano’s music apes John Barry’s Bond scores just closely enough to avoid being legally actionable, but serves to ennoble the action on screen so much that the nagging similarity quickly stops being a distraction. Acting-wise, you get the impression with Giovanni Cianfriglia — appearing here under the name Ken Wood — that his performance wouldn’t be any less inexpressive without his Superargo mask on, which might explain why, other than the Superargo movies, he was mostly relegated to bit and supporting roles. Still, that stiff inexpressiveness, paired with how all of the other characters react to and talk about him, somehow serves to make the character just that much more quirky. It’s as if poor Superargo, racked by crippling doubt and self-loathing, just doesn’t know how to be in the world, and so negotiates it blank-faced and awkwardly, until its time to break someone’s neck with his bare hands or mow down a line of armed cronies with a machinegun.

The thing that I love most about Superargo vs. Diabolicus is how, completely unlike lucha movies — in which no one reacts in the least to the fact that the hero, whether he be wrestling a mummy or standing in a bank line, is wearing a colorful head-enveloping mask — absolutely everyone reacts to the fact that Superargo is wearing one. Even Diabolicus has an opinion — and, remember, we’re talking about the guy in the octopus emblazoned spacesuit here. At one point the supervillain and his mistress have Superargo unconscious and strapped to a table, and they start to speculate about why exactly our hero sees the need to conceal his face in this manner. Maybe he’s disfigured, ventures the mistress. Overcome by curiosity, Diabolicus removes the mask, looks, and then shrugs, saying, basically, “I still don’t get it.” (The audience, on the other hand, isn’t allowed to gaze upon Superargo’s unsheathed mug.) His mistress, however, starts visibly, indicating that Superargo is either super hot or an old boyfriend from college.

The second Superargo film, Superargo and the Faceless Giants, directed by Paolo Bianchini, would squander all of Superargo vs. Diabolicus‘s good work by mostly ignoring the quirky back-story and simply putting Giovanni Cianfriglia back in the Superargo suit to walk through what turned out to be a pretty ponderous and uninvolving adventure. And thus was born the injustice for which I am now doing penance. Superargo, I am not a man who apologizes easily, but I am truly sorry. You are awesome, and I am merely a man who watches so many crap movies that he can no longer keep track of which ones he’s seen and which ones he hasn’t. It is I who should wear the mask of shame, and not you.

Wow, it really feels good to get that off my chest. In fact, now that I’ve seen the error of my ways and watched Superargo vs. Diabolicus, I feel that my whole universe has been set right. You could even say that my metaphysical equilibrium is in perfect balance. I am identical to any normal human. Except for one thing!

Release Year: 1966 | Country: Italy, Spain | Starring: Giovanni Cianfriglia (as Ken Wood), Gerard Tichy, Monica Randall, Loredana Nusciak, Artemio Antonini, Fortunato Arena, Bruno Arie, Giulio Battiferri, Francisco Castillo Escalona, Jose Castillo Escalona, Enrico Chiappafreddo, Geoffrey Copleston, Gilberto Galimberti, Veriano Genesi, Valentino Macchi, Emilio Messina, Amerigo Santarelli, Sergio Testori, Pietro Torrisi, Bruno Ukmar, Franco Ukmar | Writers: Jaime Jesus Balcazar, Mino Giarda | Director: Nick Nostro | Cinematographer: Francisco Marin | Music: Franco Pisano | Producer: Ottavio Poggi