‘Koala Man’ and Australia’s long lineage of bumbling screen superheroes

The new Disney+ animated sitcom’s title character is just the latest silly screen superhero facing symbolic villains that satirise Australian icons and culture

In the first episode of Disney+’s irreverent animated sitcom Koala Man, we encounter an absurd enemy: a huge, monstrous, anthropomorphised plant that rises from the garbage dump and wreaks havoc – all because the townspeople forgot to put their bins out.

This villain, called Tall Poppy, takes its name from “the tall poppy syndrome”, an Australian phenomenon involving distrust or contempt towards others who’ve achieved success. The uneasy attitude we have towards representatives of aspirational values is perhaps also the reason Australians tend to like their homegrown superheroes to be self-effacing average Joes rather than hardcore do-gooders of the American ilk – like Superman, Captain America or the rest of the MCU brigade.

The titular character in Koala Man is the latest evidence of our fondness for, shall we say, modest heroes who don’t make us feel hopelessly inadequate. Voiced by the show’s creator, Michael Cusack, his real identity is Kevin: a chubby middle-aged slob who works a dull office job for a civil servant named Big Greg (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and lives in the burbs with his wife Vicky (Sarah Snook) and their two kids, Liam (also voiced by Cusack) and Allison (Demi Lardner).

Koala Man
Credit: Disney+


Many jokes revolve around Koala Man’s dopey brand of heroism: how loads of people know his true identity and how fellow residents in the town of Dapto (where the show is based, and an actual suburb in Wollongong, NSW) are sick to death of his antics. Koala Man’s modest missions involve harassing loiterers on the street and going to war against tradies.

The protagonist does receive larger-scale challenges – including fighting the aforementioned Tall Poppy, battling Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque alien enemies, and saving the town from attacking emus (a reference to Australia’s real, historic Emu War). But the point is repeatedly made that the guy is a total doofus, who succeeds here and there but probably creates more problems than he solves. Koala Man’s blundering shtick continues a trend in Australian motion pictures in which superhero protagonists are stupid, unwell, or a combination of both.

In the 1983 film The Return of Captain Invincible, for instance, Alan Arkin plays the titular character: a high-flying hero dubbed the “Legend in Leotards” who once fought Nazis and busted up criminal syndicates. He falls out of favour with American authorities, however, who prosecute him for flying without a pilot’s license and wearing underwear in public – so he buggers off to Australia and becomes a pathetic booze hound. When Captain Invincible’s arch villain Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee) re-emerges, he reluctantly agrees to return to superhero duties – but he’s now fat and feeble; an anti-hero at best.

Then there’s Ryan Kwanten’s character, Griff, from 2010’s Griff the Invisible: a very strange superhero-ish movie in which the protagonist fights Sydney street criminals, dressed in a schmick black and yellow suit. I say “superhero-ish” because the big twist (spoiler alert) is that Griff is highly delusional: he thinks he’s a hero but his crime-fighting adventures exist mostly in his head. He’s just a nobody with delusions of grandeur.

Koala Man’s blundering shtick continues a trend in Australian motion pictures in which superhero protagonists are stupid, unwell, or a combination of both

Koala Man, Captain Invincible and Griff aren’t exactly morally upright characters who turn up in the nick of time and perform acts of chivalry and valour. Neither are the characters in the little-seen 2015 film The Subjects, who gain superpowers after participating in a pharmaceutical drug trial. One exception in the canon of dopey Aussie heroes is the television character Cleverman (played by Hunter Page-Lochard) from the show of the same name. This guy actually has cool powers (such as telepathy and a self-healing body) and, after a bit of adjustment, takes his abilities seriously. But Cleverman is far from a conventional hero, being an Indigenous character belonging to a dystopian future world inspired by stories passed down by Aboriginal Australians for tens of thousands of years – thus very much an exception, standing outside the usual superhero rabble.

If Australian film and television is light on superheroes, what about supervillains? Besides the aforementioned emus and Tall Poppy, other baddies Koala Man goes head-to-head with include a group of kids’ entertainers called The Tinglies (parodying The Wiggles) who hold onto their youth by eating children. Each of these villains represent (and satirise) larger aspects of Australian culture, a symbolic approach to villainy that’s a recurring trend in local productions. In The Return of Captain Invincible, the hero’s big showdown involves Mr Midnight tempting him with booze – appealing to his inner demons and satirising Aussie drinking culture. In Griff the Invisible, the villain is practically non-existent as Griff faces fictions inside his own head. In Cleverman, the real enemy is the system itself: a society that oppresses and monsters its most vulnerable people.

Koala Man continues this trend of depicting villains that are real in some senses, symbolic in others. In several ways, Cusack’s series is an anomaly: both distinctly Australian, splattered with humour that’ll resonate with local audiences, but also packaged in a snappy style palatable for international audiences. Will overseas viewers appreciate the show’s fidelity to Aussie-style heroes and villains? Maybe not – but, if they do go looking for Australian superhero stories, they’ll find a small but curious collection, full of strange saviours and symbolic villains.


Koala Man is now streaming on Disney+ in Australia


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