The Kung Fu Superhero in Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms

Like his fellow members of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA fell in love with kung fu cinema spending his adolescence in the grindhouses of New York City’s 42nd Street, where double features of the most gravity-defying, body-bending fight films could be seen for as little as $7. Years before directing his own kung fu pastiche The Man with the Iron Fists, RZA gave an interview with Film Comment, where he discussed the origins of his love for martial arts extravaganzas:

“There was a movie directed by Chang Chen (sic) called Five Deadly Venoms [78] and when I saw it, I was totally geeked out. The plot was crazy, and the characters . . . The Toad, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Snake, the Centipede! They seemed like superheroes.”

In this seminal classic from pioneering kung fu production company Shaw Brothers Studio, RZA sensed some shared ground with the comic book narratives that he and the other members of the Clan would reference in their rhymes in the decades following. With this audience overlap, the culture was ripe for genre-hybrids. While American comic companies had already explored the kung fu world via characters like Marvel’s Shang Chi (1973) and Iron Fist (1974) and DC’s Richard Dragon (1975), this fusion of tropes came to celluloid when Five Deadly Venoms dropped in 1978.

Five Deadly Venoms (sometimes screened as Five Venoms) was the first hit film of a Hong Kong-based collective of actor-choreographers dubbed the “Venom Mob,” which had a structure of principle and second-tier members that presaged the Wu-Tang Clan’s own always-expanding network of affiliates. The film focuses on the five members of the Five Venoms House and the war they wage on each other while searching for a treasure in a small village. However, their battle is complicated by the fact that the clan members are ignorant of each others’ civilian identities. The Toad, the Lizard, The Scorpion, the Snake, and the Centipede have only seen each other as their masked alter-egos and must rely on fighting prowess and shifting alliances in order to come out on top in the struggle.

 The Toad

The Toad

 The Lizard

The Lizard

 The Scorpion

The Scorpion

 The Snake

The Snake

 The Centipede

The Centipede

In his 1992 book Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, Richard Reynolds outlined the archetypical elements of a superhero story: Lost Parents, The Man-God, Justice, The Normal and the Superpowered, The Secret Identity, Superpowers and Politics, and Science Is Magic. All of these elements combine in Five Deadly Venoms to capture the minds of comic-book obsessed kung fu fans like the young RZA.

1. Lost Parents

As Reynolds notes, "few superheroes enjoy uncomplicated relationships with parents who are regularly present in the narrative.” In the story's first scene, the Head of Five Venoms House makes a dying request of his last pupil Yang Tieh to protect a treasure from his former students. He then passes away.

Throughout the film, the clan members refer to each other as “brother." If they are brothers, then surely the deceased Head of their clan—who unites them in purpose and creed—is their lost "father.”

2. The Man-God

The Toad's unique skills allow him to be unharmed by sword, spear, or fist, a physical superiority that is almost otherworldly. His invulnerability so outpaces his brothers’ skills that—in his final battle with the Snake—the Toad taunts him with the film’s most famous line, sampled in Wu Tang’s 2007 track “Weak Spot": “Try to find my weak spot and still. You. Fail.” His Achilles’ heel is discovered when the Scorpion foils the Toad's powers by stabbing his temples and captures the once-omnipotent fighter.

3. Justice

Shortly after the Toad is bested in battle, he is subjected to a series of tortures (more on this later) meant to extract a confession from him. After the final torture planned by the Snake and the Centipede, the Toad’s hand is dragged through a signature on a confession while the warrior is unconscious. The Snake and the Centipede's legal injustice ensures that they will be dealt a crippling loss by story’s end, balancing the scales of moral justice.

4. The Normal and the Superpowered

The story is rife with characters less powerful than the masked Venoms, strengthening the perceived superhuman nature of its superhero/supervillain characters. After the Toad’s defeat and subsequent murder at the hands of the Centipede, the Snake and the Centipede cover their tracks by disposing of their “normal” co-conspirators. The mortals are dispatched with very little effort and no evidence of their involvement when the duo uses a “brain pin” to tracelessly stab a crooked constable. By showing how easily destroyed humans can be, the viewer understands by inverse the strength and cunning of the films’ superhuman characters.

5. The Secret Identity

Earlier in the film, the Toad comments that, “The students of the Five Venoms dare not reveal their backgrounds.” Just as a fundamental part of the Superman narrative is that he never personally reveals his identity as Clark Kent (with exceptions for trusted friends and allies), we know from the beginning that the Venoms likewise eschew disclosing their true natures. Secret identities are so crucial to these characters that some exceed the concept of a dual identity. The Centipede is known by his arthropod identification, his civilian identity Tan Shan-Kui, and the more descriptive nickname “The Thousand Hands.”

6. Superpowers and Politics

The superhero’s “loyalty and patriotism are above his devotion to the law.” Early in the film, the dying master reminds his pupil that the Five Venoms House is an “enemy of the martial arts world,” placing the group and its members firmly in opposition to their world's social order. And when these characters interact with the world of law and order, they bend it to their own needs first and the needs of the clan second. Both the Scorpion and the Lizard—unbeknownst to each other—serve as local constables together, rerouting the course of investigations and intimidating witnesses to get the results that best promote their self-interest.

7. Science is Magic

Finally, superheroes exist in a world where science and magic are intertwined and “capable of both good and evil.” The tools and machines used in the Toad’s brutal capture, interrogation, and death show the interplay of science and magic. After the Scorpion finds his weak spot, the Toad is kept from escaping in a spiked coffin called "The Coat of a Thousand Needles." He is rendered unconscious before his “confession” by a torso-sized brand called “The Red Stomacher.” And his eventual death is caused by increasing layers of wet tissue paper covering his face until he suffocates. The Toad’s much-hyped invulnerability is bested by technologies derived from the human mind. With the Toad’s death, we see the best possible argument for science as magic: if employed properly, technology can fell a man-god.

The film ends with the Lizard and Yang Tieh killing the Snake, the Centipede, and the Scorpion in battle. They discuss finding the hidden treasure and spending it on charity and then leave the site of their final battle as credits roll. Even as the film wraps, we see an old superhero trope at play: the heroes’ adventures will continue to another day.

Jon Hogan lives in Astoria, Queens, and does things with film and comics. Those things include journalism, fundraising, and curation. Take a peek at the things he sees on Instagram.