The male libido is a Hollywood fixation. Testosterone-fueled fantasies have been a selling point for as long as the medium has been around, stretching back to Thomas Edison's 1894 kinetoscope short featuring Prussian bodybuilder Freidrich Wilhelm Müller, in which the muscleman struck a number of poses not unlike those currently adorning posters for the latest iteration of "Conan the Barbarian." Sometimes it seems like the only real evolution in movie spectacles is the ticket prices.
On another plane of cinema, however, masculinity has become a place for less posturing than deconstruction. This weekend alone, there are several alternatives to the unabashed brawniness that makes properties like "Conan" into potential cash cows. Their serendipitous arrival allows them to comment directly on the tenuous appeal of this weekend's larger sword-wielding figure at the multiplexes.
A wry, quirky Australian riff on superhero conventions, "Griff the Invisible" (which opens in select cities today) examines the exact fantasy in which "Conan" and its ilk freely indulge. In "Griff," the sad-eyed office drone played by Ryan Kwanten spends his off hours imagining himself as a spandex-clad vigilante lurking in the shadows to keep the streets safe.
Among the quieter installments in the ever-expanding "average Joe" superhero trend, a subgenre that also includes "Kick-Ass," "Super" and "Special," Leon Ford's directorial debut follows Griff through his dual lives: By day, he's a garden-variety loser; by night, he's the savior of desperate mugging victims everywhere. That's all in his mind, of course: Posing in front of the mirror and practicing one-liners, he's an enthusiastic 10-year-old trapped in a man's body.
Griff's playground antics alienate him from everyone, save for an equally downtrodden outcast (Maeve Dermody) who finds Griff's flights of fancy utterly captivating and even oddly arousing. She becomes his audience of one, in a sense embodying the core moviegoers who give Hollywood studios the confidence to keep making outlandish entertainment on autopilot.
"It's not a choice," Griff says to his cynical older brother. "It's a responsibility." Griff's eventual goal of crafting an invisibility suit takes his social detachment to a new plane and has obvious (maybe a little too obvious) symbolic value. While his dedication to costumed antics suggests he's a little crazy, it also shows him in the possession of a lively imagination. By sympathizing with Griff and pitying him at the same time, Ford taps into the double-standard driving most rudimentary superhero movies and their ape-like "Conan" brethren: The masses might laugh at Conan's cheesiness, but they also enjoy the blunt archetype enough to empower it.
A similar fantasy leads to more maniacal results in "The Last Circus," Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia's enjoyably morbid and phantasmagorical period piece about a nutcase clown killer driven by a need for revenge. Opening in 1937 amid the Spanish Civil War, "The Last Circus" follows young Javier (Carlos Areces), whose circus-clown father finds himself abruptly recruited to take an entire platoon of Nationalist soldiers, whom he abruptly slaughters. Imprisoned for the remainder of his tragic life, Javier's father provides his despondent son with dubious advice: He must become a sad clown, the old man says, and his only chance of redemption lies in revenge.
Cut to some 30 years later and Javier has grown into a chubby pariah lost in his own mind, not unlike Griff the Invisible, but with a heavier grief complex. He joins a demented circus headed by another clown, the tyrannical alcoholic Sergio (Antonio de la Torre) -- a self-appointed Conan the Barbarian for his kingdom of freaks. Javier quickly falls for shapely trapeze swinger Natalia (Carolina Bang), a disillusioned flirt inextricably trapped in a relationship with Sergio. Javier vows to rescue her.
Although initially a classic vengeance-prone hero, Javier eventually slides into lunatic territory, establishing a showdown between two equally deranged men in makeup. With its combination of vibrant carnival imagery and dark psychotic behavior, "The Last Circus" instantly recalls Alejandro Jodoworsky's masterfully surreal "Santa Sangre," although De La Igelisia takes the material into an elevated level of derangement that's part B-movie exploitation and part expressionistic head-trip.
Well aware of the conventions he's overturning, the director toys with the very idea of cinematic heroism, making it hard to root for a madman, no matter how raw a deal he's been served. When Javier gets the courage to save his woman, committing an act of violence he considers just, he's met with horror and derision. It's like the barbarian stepped off the screen and found the real world not so willing to forgive him. When "Conan" becomes real, he's a lot harder to root for.
Perhaps the definitive treatise on the dangers of male chauvinism, "Bellflower" rounds out the current trio of "Conan" alternatives. This supremely expressionistic look at two "Mad Max" fans who build a flame-spewing car to pick up girls masterfully wanders from a place of innocuous hedonism to psychological angst, with the main pyro man-child (writer-director Evan Glodell) busting out his homemade flame-thrower to get through a nasty break-up.
Never quite a hero and in constant danger of self-destruction, his childlike obsession with a non-existent post-apocalyptic world makes literal the holes in the male desire to win every battle. Glodell explores a truism that rarely makes its way to wide release: In the real world, barbarians are deeply unhappy people.