The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension 1984
I don’t often spend a lot of time thinking about my criteria for what makes a superhero movie vs. some other category of film similar to a superhero movie. Like the difference between a superhero movie and a straight up sci-fi movie, or a cop vigilante film, or a martial arts film. I have thought about it in the past, enough to come up with a specific set of criteria that still allows for enough wiggle room for my personal preference to come into play. No matter what anyone tells me, I don’t think I’m ever going to be convinced that Baby Geniuses 2: Superbabies is actually a superhero movie because there’s no way I’m going to actually watch it. Looking specifically at this film based on my criteria: it wasn’t based on a comic book but it did have a comic book published to tie in with the film’s release. He doesn’t have any superpowers, but he is a neurosurgeon, particle physicist, rock star, action hero, and gains the ability to see camouflaged aliens and shock Penny back to life. He doesn’t have a secret identity, but his name is Buckaroo Banzai for goodness sake. And when you look at his supervillain for lack of a better word, he is very much over the top and highly theatrical in nature, and his defeat does in fact, save the world.
Of course, just because it will be classified as a superhero movie for the purposes of this site, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good film in the end. It has a cult status for a reason. There are many moments, visuals, and lines in this film that are highly enjoyable often for the wrong reasons when taken out of context. But when taken as a whole, there is no real plot to follow along with. It’s all just a series of vaguely interconnected events that are usually an excuse to highlight how amazing Buckaroo Banzai is at what he does, and he is able to do just about everything. Besides that, nearly everything that happens in this film doesn’t make a lick of sense, and it’s never explained either. It’s difficult to follow, and it’s unlikely that a third or even a fourth viewing would clear it up for most people without ancillary information.
Something that I thought really encapsulated my own feelings about the film was a throwaway joke that Jeff Goldblum’s character tosses out around the midpoint of the film where they are chasing the aliens through Banzai’s basecamp and he points out a random watermelon sitting in the middle of some sort of contraption and ask “what’s that watermelon doing there?” and the response is “I’ll tell you later.” And that’s exactly what the philosophy of this film feels like, it will show the audience something completely random with the promise that it will explain what just happened later, and yet that explanation never comes. Instead, it’s just filled with more watermelons, like two alien races that look exactly the same name either black or red Lectroids, John Lithgow electrocuting himself in order to have a flashback, Buckaroo Banzai stopping in the middle of his concert because he hears Penny crying and decides to put a spotlight on her to ask what’s wrong.
What is impressive about this film is the sense of world building it has. Even though we only get to see these few snippets of Buckaroo Banzai’s adventures, the implication is that he is much greater than the sum of the parts we get to see. While we do get to see him take part in brain surgery, an experiment in crossing the 8th dimension, and play with his band in a club, there’s also this entire cult of personality surrounding him that’s only hinted at through the film. He has comic books within this world based on his adventures, he has the president calling him for advice, he has an arcade game, he even has this network of agents presumably across the country that are willing to drop everything to come to his aid. There’s even this entire backstory where he had a life when he was married to Penny’s identical twin who died without ever knowing she had a sister, but it’s barely a blip on the radar of this film’s story. There are so many layers upon layers, and it’s likely that nearly everything shown has a deeper backstory that’s skipped over, and while that makes for a fascinating piece of fandom that can be pored over in depth, it makes for a rather inaccessible movie. While it’s fairly obvious that there is plenty of backstory within this world that has been thought of, there’s just not enough of it to latch onto and form a coherent plot on a first time watch, and most of it has to be willingly sought out in materials outside of the film such as interviews, trivia tracks, and the like. Which is great if you’re someone willing to devote that amount of time, otherwise it’s honestly fairly obvious why this wasn’t a success when it was first released. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.