Man-Thing–Before the MCU, audiences got a glimpse at the Marvel monster in his own movie

Review by C.J. Bunce

Two Hulk and five Spider-Man movies didn’t do it, but Jon Favreau did.  He made a fairly forgettable character from comic books into something huge, something everyone on the street knew about and was talking about–Iron Man.  Iron Man?  The 2008 movie sparked one of Disney’s biggest properties as Kevin Feige began to deliver a wide, wide vision of Marvel Comics on the big screen.  But one of the last movies out of the gate before the Marvel Cinematic Universe took off focused on a lesser known monster from a niche of the publisher’s past.  His name?  Man-Thing, also known as a guy named Ted.

You probably missed the 2005 movie Man-Thing, originally slated for movie theaters but instead transitioned to fodder for the Syfy Channel (under its previous name) with little fanfare.  It is absolutely a B-movie, and not of the quality that now defines the MCU.  But it’s also a solid B-movie, a Rated-R trip not unlike the similar vibe of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing with Dick Durock and Adrienne Barbeau.  Man-Thing rides the line between bad and good, and not bad and not good.  But it has its points, and as Marvel Studios’ new release Werewolf by Night on Disney+ features Man-Thing as its signature monster of the moment, maybe now is the time to check out Man-Thing the movie, now streaming free on Tubi TV.

The 2005 movie feels a lot like the more successful brother from another publisher, DC Comics’ Swamp Thing–the TV series.  It makes some sense–Len Wein wrote both Swamp Thing and Man-Thing issues in the early 1970s, and Gerry Conway at Marvel Comics was a roommate of Wein at the time.  Conway and Marvel’s Roy Thomas thought the origin stories too close, but nobody did anything about it.  Visibly the characters are unlikely to be confused, and in some ways that’s the most that divides them.

The movie stars Matthew Le Nevez as Kyle, a new sheriff come to town who stumbles into a rash of murders.  Something or someone is killing people in this swampland community headed up by corporate polluter type Mr. Schist, played by Star Wars prequels’ Cliegg Lars actor Jack Thompson, just off his stint in that other big Disney property before it was a Disney property.  Thompson brings the gravity almost at the level of Will Patton in TV’s Swamp Thing (almost, but not quite).

It all starts with a cheap nude scene–a young couple getting attacked in the swamp–that and horror effect gory victim bodies are the kinds of things that keep this movie firmly in the B-movie/Rated-R realm.  But along the way director Brett Leonard and cinematographer Steve Arnold lean into those monster moments we’ve seen in pictures like Anaconda and the Sharknado movies, the kind of film-making the Syfy Channel is now known for.  The difference here is the effort–Man-Thing is more like the Bill Pullman creature feature Lake Placid–one of the high points of the genre–and less like Jaws 3.

The swamp looks like a swamp.  The villains are easy to spot.  Le Nevez and Taylor have that kind of relationship later mirrored by Andy Bean and Crystal Reed in the Swamp Thing TV series.  Pay attention to the victim’s names.  Mike Ploog, Val Mayerick, and Steve Gerber are homages to Man-Thing creators.

What you wouldn’t find in a Man-Thing update today is the movie’s half-hearted effort at pulling in a Native American mythology.  It doesn’t work at all in the movie, and the motivations of the purported chief instigator of swamp crime and the creature itself are a muddled mess.  The henchmen of Schist, played by John Batchelor and Ian Bliss, are foul–Deliverance-neighbor foul–types.  The framework for a story at least as good as something like Iron Fist is here, and it’s prime material for a reboot even bigger than Werewolf by Night.  If you’ve made it through Morbius, you’ve seen worse.

But a high point is an early appearance of Tasmania actress Rachael Taylor, the MCU’s future badass superheroine Patsy Walker aka Hellcat in Netflix’s Jessica Jones series (now streaming on Disney+).

Man-Thing the monster is unfortunately a one-note baddie who looks less like the Cthulhu of the comics and more like the love child of Boba Fett and an Ent.  But that’s all you get for a $5 million production budget.  We can only guess at his origin story, his motivations, his story arc.  Unless it’s as simple as “pollution=bad,” “corporations=bad.”  Comics readers know there’s more to Man-Thing.

An easy watch when you’re staying up late catching up on missed flicks from the past, Man-Thing is playing now free on the streaming channel/platform Tubi TV.  You can also find it here on Prime Video, or grab it on DVD here at Amazon.

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