There is a kind of wonder in the world of low-budget cinema. I’d even go so far as to call it a strange kind of magic. Massive studio blockbusters more often than not tend to play it safe, staying within established tropes, the better to recoup their studios’ investment. But the low-budget side of film can do just about anything. It’s the breeding ground of cult classics and midnight celebrations. It includes everything from El Mariachi and House of the Devil to Birdemic and The Room.
It’s in this proving ground that we find the Surge of Power series, a pair (so far) of films featuring what’s billed as cinema’s first openly gay superhero. That would be the eponymous Surge, played by writer/producer Vincent J. Roth. Caught in a freak lab accident, mild-mannered attorney Gavin is given energy-based powers that he uses to fight crime in Big City. Crime in this case often comes from his arch-nemesis Metal Master (John T. Venturini), who’s ability to manipulate metal comes from the same lab accident that created Surge.
The first film, subtitled The Stuff of Heroes, shows us the origin of Surge and Metal Master, building up to their first big standoff. The second film, appropriately called Revenge of the Sequel, expands the world of the first film as Surge travels to Las Vegas to battle Metal Master again, who’s now the probationary henchman of the supervillain Augur (Eric Roberts, splitting the difference between “here for the check” and “having a blast”). Sort of. Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
One thing that needs to be said about the Surge films is that there is a lot of heart and passion going into them. Roth is clearly a fan of comic books, and his scripts delight in both pointing out and gleefully replaying classic comic tropes and cliches. In the first film, Surge constantly has to save a nameless twunk who inexplicably always finds himself in danger. There’s a lot of debate about the practicality of his cloak, which is always being caught in doors. Surge even has a ridiculous weakness: his kryptonite is dance music, which saps his powers. This approach tends to come off as endearing more often than not.
The other thing that must needs be remarked is the fact that both of these films are very obviously micro-budgeted. We’re talking shoestrings. It can sometimes lead to some very painful moments; the second film especially has some major ADR issues. But unlike something like Birdemic or the oeuvre of Neil Breen, the Surge films tend to live very comfortably in their low-budget vibe. They’re self-aware and self-serious in roughly equal measures. Their aim is to entertain, and they never try to pretend they’re more than they are, but it’s clear that the people making them are (mostly) there for the love of the thing.
It helps that Roth and Venturini are both committed to their roles. Surge is an awkwardly charming hero. Roth certainly has the handsome look of a comic book alter ego, but Surge’s personality is much more geeking-out fanboy than steely Superman. He spends most of the second film trying to come up with a catchphrase, settling on the nonsense word “Zapuva!”, which only works because of Roth’s conviction. And even then not so much. Venturini is equally effective, clearly relishing his role. Metal Master is both a very silly villain (his helmet is clearly a toilet seat painted to look like a magnet) but also a surprisingly poignant one. We find out in the sequel that his bent for evil is a result of growing up in a homophobic and judgmental household. His desperate attempts to impress Augur are clearly the result of never receiving validation from his parents, and it makes his character arc intensely relatable.
While much is made in the press materials for the films about Surge being cinema’s first openly gay superhero, the actual reality of it in the film’s narrative is much more subdued. Surge does dedicate himself to fighting intolerance, but his main antagonists are either gay themselves or aren’t motivated primarily by bigotry. Both films feature moments where he puts a homophobic bully in their place, but they’re very much off to the side. However, it’s kind of refreshing for Surge’s gayness not to be the center of the film. His love interests in both films just happen to be men, and the broader hero and villain community doesn’t seem to have an issue with that.
The two films are very different creatures in many ways, which makes it a little hard to watch them back to back. The first film came out in 2004. It took 12 years to get the sequel produced, and it’s clear that a lot changed in Roth’s perception of Surge’s world in the meantime. The first film is much more a straight-forward narrative with a relatively limited scope. It works far better as a standalone story than the sequel, and it has an easier flow and rhythm.
The second film, however, spends a tremendous amount of time world-building and hinting at a greater conflict beyond Surge and Metal Master. It feels much more slack and unformed as a film because it spends so much time fleshing out its universe that it often seems to forget about the main plot. It has three of four stories going on at once, including Surge’s burgeoning romance with an adorable superfan named Todd, and it can’t seem to focus on any of them long enough to keep its energy sustained. There’s a lot going on, and there are a lot of fun moments that work perfectly fine on their own, but there isn’t nearly as much connective tissue here to make it seem like a proper whole.
But if you’d rather, you can spend your time watching the sequel by playing “spot the cameo”, which is sometimes more fun than the film itself. The first film hosted a few cameos from the likes of sci-fi TV icons like Nichelle Nichols and Lou Ferrigno, but the sequel is like a classic comic convention line-up. There are b-movie scream queens, Star Trek officers (Robert Picardo’s scene is particularly hilarious), nearly the entire main cast of 1994’s unreleased Fantastic Four film, and even Reb “Big McLargehuge” Brown. The sequel’s most interesting hook is the idea that these actors exist as real people in Surge’s world but that they’re also secretly superheroes themselves and might actually be superheroes in our world. The bartender as Surge’s favorite hangout is implied to have a heroic past, and he happens to be played by John Newton, who once played Superboy on TV. It’s an honestly fascinating idea, and a clear indication of Roth’s love of genre entertainment and respect for the people who make it.
Your mileage for the Surge films will vary depending on your appreciation and/or tolerance of micro-budget genre fare. It’s easy to see the homemade trailers and get turned off by the lack of gloss. But doing so would neglect a couple of films that, rough as they sometimes might be, are so earnest and heartfelt that it’s hard to dislike them. The Surge films have great bones, and it’s fun to imagine what Roth could do with them if he had an actual budget. You might cringe at some moments, but you’ll also probably laugh and maybe even have a good time. I mean, I’d watch these films for 24 hours straight before sitting through 2015’s Fantastic Four ever again.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
The first film can be streamed through Vimeo. The second film can be streamed through Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes. You can find links to streaming options on the official Surge of Power website.
Next week, we go from the comic convention to the sci-fi convention. It’s everybody’s favorite Star Trek-but-not-really adventure Galaxy Quest.