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Musings by an Elder Statesman of Geekery, including such topics as, but not limited to: Comic Books, Captain Action, Toys of the 1960's and 1970's, Vintage Action Figures, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Fantasy and Sci-Fi TV, Horror Films, Universal Monsters, Classic Movies, Film Noir, B-Movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Public Libraries, RPGs, Superheroes, Saturday Morning Cartoons, Dr. Who, and the History of Southern Illinois.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

From Panel to Projector: Superhero Movies That Matter

Chapter 1:  Mystery of the Box Office Bonanza

While the merits and shortcomings of Man of Steel continue to be weighed and measured all over the internet, the box office returns indicate a verdict of success so far as the ticket-buying public is concerned. For the 2013 summer cinema season alone, profits from both MoS and Iron Man 3 are solid indicators that more superhero movies will be offered up by Hollywood in the foreseeable future. The span of target audience ages may have changed, the box office receipts and the costs of production most certainly have, but our costumed alter-egos have been a silver screen staple since almost the day after they debuted in their native two dimensional, four color venues. Some adaptations and reimaginings for the big screen have been good, more have been disappointing, and a select few have ventured into greatness. Despite varying levels of financial success, critical acclaim and audience acceptance, many have been landmark projects, setting the stage one way or another for future filmmakers to tackle the task of bringing our modern mythologies to life.

As Fate (Dr. Fate, by the Helm of Nabu!) would have it, the first true superheroes to throw their capes into the cinematic arena did so almost at the same time though each took different paths. In 1941, Republic Pictures took a flying leap of faith and produced the first live-action, serialized theater film to star a traditional superhero: The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Production values were fairly high given the time constraints and limited budgets of serials in general. Tom Tyler made a convincingly powerful World's Mightiest Mortal, and if his flying was mostly low-tech (Tyler was quite athletic, and allowed himself to be catapulted and spring boarded at backdrops and screen villains) it was still pretty exciting and impressive stuff, especially for the legions of matinee-going kids quite familiar with the good Captain and his secret identity, young orphan Billy Batson. There were some pre-Comics Code Authority gaffes; did Cap -really- need to swat the villains manning the machine gun nest aside, turn the turret, and fire onto the hordes of oncoming nogoodniks when he had the strength of Hercules and the invulnerability of Achilles at his disposal? Not so much. But all was forgiven, and the way was paved for other serials of the same sort. In the years following, Captain America, Batman & Robin, The Green Hornet and Kato, Blackhawk, Spy Smasher, The Phantom, The Vigilante and Superman all took a shot at the silver serial screen. Sometimes multiple shots. But before all that...there was the first big-screen Man of Steel.

Between 1941 and 1942, the Fleischer Studios produced a pilot and eight episodes of the now-famous animated Superman cartoons for feature film release. Beautifully rendered and stylishly, painstakingly animated, they were the first cartoon adaptations in the superhero mold. The flying segments were so good that, fearing they couldn't equal them in a budget-constrained live action format, the studio used them in the Columbia Kirk Alyn serials that followed. The Fleischer folks really took advantage of the animated art form to put the Last Son of Krypton through his paces, pitting him against mad scientists, death rays, arctic monsters, giant mechanical death-bots and more. Such comic book compatible daring-do would not be seen on the big screen again until the advent of serious sfx 30+ years in the future, and the advent of CGI in the decades after that. 


In cinematic art imitating comic book life, in 1941 it was National Periodical's Man of Tomorrow vying for bragging rights with Fawcett's Big Red Cheese. Interest was certainly there, and profits were to be made. If Walt Disney could make fanciful animated movie-length features, how could more established studios not follow the same course with superheroes? They might have done just that, if not for the overall drop in superhero popularity after World War II, and the Kefauver Hearings that followed. Since it was apparent that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, the Comics Code went into play and publishers obligingly reduced a blossoming graphics art form into kiddy-friendly, throwaway entertainment. Creative, inspired and fun throwaways, but not the sort of material studios were willing to back with hefty budgets and aim at any movie-goer over the age of 9.

One semi-'superhero' film worth mentioning from this time, however, is the 1955 Paramoiunt musical comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Artists and Models is considered a milestone in movie satire for its mockery of mid-1950s pop culture. One scene satirizes the Kefauver hearings themselves as regards the dangers of violent comic books, and other targets in the film include the Cold War, the space race and the publishing business. As usual, comedy holds up a funhouse mirror first to those presenting a slanted, skewed personal bias as the basis for dictating how society should behave and what they should find acceptable. It would take everyone else decades to come to the conclusion that the only one who had a problem with most comic books and their impact on youthful readers was Kefauver. Plus, comic book fanboys find the first character we can empathize with, Lewis's young adult male hero, the comics-infatuated Eugene Fullstack. And our first crush, in a pretty and curvaceous Shirley MacLaine who plays a model that dresses as The Bat Lady to assist her artist room mate in her comic book rendering job.

Despite some flirtation with the new home entertainment sensation of television, superheroes were absent from any screens for more than a decade. The Adventures of Superman was a small screen success, but not one that the networks seemed keen to try and duplicate after the death of star George Reeves. It would take a nation needing wholesome distraction from the violent news footage of the Vietnam war before networks again turned to the cape and cowl set for inspiration. But when the time was right, the impact was felt around the globe. 1966's Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward may have done campy disservice to The World's Greatest Detective, but it brought about a bonanza of similar products. Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, and in a more serious vein, The Green Hornet lit up TV screens during the week while Filmation's Superman/Batman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure graced Saturday morning television. Marvel Comics rallied with the static Marvel Super Heroes syndicated package, and eventually the animated Fantastic Four and Spider-Man toons on ABC. Hanna-Barbera, known for their anthropomorphic funny critter cartoons, jumped on the superhero band wagon with Space Ghost, Birdman, The Mighty Mightor, and other caped and winged crimefighters. The Batman live action show also led superheroes back to the big screen.

Flush with ratings success on television, a theatrical film starring mostly the same cast of characters and actors was rushed into production, and Batman the movie hit theaters in late 1966. Largely dismissed by critics and loved by kids, the film did break some new ground...hard, infertile 1960's ground...with a budget that allowed for such coolness as a Batboat, a Batcopter, and a Penguin-themed supervillain submarine for the heroes to play with. The first big screen, non-serialized adaptation of a superhero had arrived. But it was still pretty silly stuff, an absurdist piece with plenty of BAMS! and POWS!, but not a lot of substance. Still, the soil was tilled.

The first seeds planted and the first harvests reaped were, being kind, pretty scrawny. Spanish and Italian filmmakers combined their budgets and their themes to present a superhero/wrestler/espionage agent for world-wide B-movie distribution in 1966's Superargo. After accidentally killing an opponent on the ring, masked wrestler Superargo quits wrestling and, following the advice of his friend Col. Alex Kinski of the Secret Service, becomes a secret agent, using his superhuman abilities (think Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt monk and mind magicks as taught by a handy guru/spiritual guide) to stop villain Diabolicus' plans to wreck the global economy by turning uranium into gold. Let's face it, for a kid of that era, this one had everything -except- a budget. Familiar comic book origin (could have been lifted, or more generously, inspired by Bill Finger's classic Golden Age hero, Wildcat, a prize fighter who killed an opponent in the ring and had to take on a masked identity to elude police while he found the ones actually responsible for the death), masked wrestler as the hero (in these pre-WWE days, the masked villains of the ring were a staple and a source of fascination for kids), and an espionage plot that made the already cool hero into an International Man of Mystery to boot (while helping itself to a thinly disguised version of the James Bond Goldfinger script). It had lots of action, a fairly effective costumed guise for the hero, and it didn't play the theme for laughs...though many audiences snickered at the overall production values. Nonetheless, it made enough money to merit a sequel, Superargo and the Faceless Giants by 1968.

But with the 1970's, TV decided to give superheroes a shot in prime time. With sci-fi themes picking up in popularity, and with hits like the plainclothes but superheroic Six Million Dollar Man in prime time and Shazam! & Isis live action fare for Saturday mornings, ABC and CBS decided to test the more serious superheroic waters again. They hit Nielsen's pay dirt with first TV movies and then series based on The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. Less successful were tries at Spider-Man, Dr. Strange & Captain America. But the four-color die was cast: adult audiences were open to more sophisticated and more comic book-accurate depictions of superheroes. DC Comics took the plunge for a big screen, big budget revisiting of their Favorite Kryptonian Son.

Superman: The Movie sold a lot of popcorn in 1978 cinemas. And a lot of tickets. With a script that was fairly true to the source material, some humor but not at the expense of our hero, and said hero portrayed in charmingly downplayed fashion by Christopher Reeve, and a lot of special effects for the time, Superman led the way for all serious and big budgeted superhero movies to follow. It promised audiences would believe a man could fly, and we did...with grace, speed and a wake of appropriately gaping onlookers. SPOILER ALERT It's somewhat lost today, but the film has some truly shining moments that you had to be present, in the theater of 1978, to appreciate. When asked by Lois Lane why he was 'here', Superman says earnestly, 'I'm here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,' and people cheered. Three years after the fall of Saigon, after Watergate, after a decade of dirtied, destroyed and tattered dreams about America and the national identity, it took Chris Reeves as Superman to deliver that message of hope and not to be laughed at, but cheered. By contrast, in the currently successful Man of Steel, the sound of a character's neck being broken elicited cheers from some audiences. Therein lies the difference in both film and in audience. END OF SPOILER ALERT Superman II delivered the goods again, with even more action and an aerial Kryptonian dog fight over Metropolis. The two films broke the superhero screen image forever from 'only kiddy fare' to 'box office blockbuster'. They almost made up for the dreadful Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and Supergirl. Almost.

But the floodgates had been opened, and what followed was eventually the torrent of comics-to-films that we are used to today. Most of that expanded first wave were misses, and some were just unusual choices. Sheena, The Return of Captain Invincible, and Disney's try at combining comics with secret agents a la Superargo, Condorman, may have had some moments, and probably didn't cost tons to make. But the road from a comic or original comic character to screen riches was still pretty much a pig path, and these projects got lost along it at some point.

One small, quiet film in the aftermath of the Superman film phenom ends up as one of my all-time favorite Guilty Pleasures, though. Is it a great piece of cinema? Nope. Does it have special effects wizardry that oooohs and ahhhhhs? Nope. But it has the heart of heroism taken from comics characters and distilled into a story that made me weep as a teen. Now I can be sappy nowadays. Age grants passes for a little heart-string-tugging sappiness. But I wasn't a sappy teen. I was like most teens, which means getting acclimated to the School of Hard Knocks and girding for the tests of the Real World. I liked fantasy, sure. But I didn't -feel- the higher ideals of the fantastic very often. This movie hit me with a double barrel of Why I Love Comic Book Heroes, and I never even saw it coming.

1980's Hero at Large drew me in thanks to John Ritter. I thought he was funny on Three's Company, and I figured he'd make a funny superhero after watching the previews. Basically, Ritter plays a struggling actor who takes a job playing 'Captain Avenger' along with a host of other 'Captain Avengers' sent to theaters across New York city for 'personal appearances' at the release of a movie about the fictitious superhero (OK, they're all fictitious, this one was just made for the film and wasn't based on any actual comic book hero). But unlike most of his costumed cohorts, Ritter's Steve Nichols is a decent guy who enjoys playing the role and signing autographs for the kids....some of whom disdain him and the film-within-a-film and the whole spandex hero thing in general. Knowing what I know now about the gregarious and giving nature of Mr. Ritter, this may have been his most true-to-life role, an actor always eager to take on challenging roles and even more eager to help friends and fellow actors whenever he could. (Billy Bob Thornton and others credit him with giving them a start in the business by guiding them to roles he was offered, but which he thought they would perform better.) A scene in the film reflects this as well. Nichols is having lunch with his agent when a fellow young actor drops by their table to thank Nichols for suggesting a part in a commercial, a part the other actor got. 'Schmuck! I sent that audition to you!,' the agent growls. 'Yeah, but he needed the work more. He's a nice guy,' defends Nichols to a refrain from his agent of, 'Double schmuck!' Part of HaL's charm is that the world isn't a fantasy one...it's New York in all its gruff, concrete and big city native splendor. Which makes the unlikely tale ring truer and shine brighter by contrast.

One night after a Captain Avenger appearance, his costume still on under his trench coat, Steve stops to get a snack at his neighborhood Mom & Pop grocery store. When two men come in to rob the place, he doffs the coat and surprises them from the back of the store as...Captain Avenger! A few fists fly and two robbers are scared away. But the media picks up the story, and everyone begins to wonder...who -is- this real life hero? Is there really a Captain Avenger watching over the harried inhabitants of the Big Apple and trying to protect the city? Seeing the hope his actions instill, Nichols begins to go 'on patrol' as Captain Avenger. Eventually his identity is deduced by an unscrupulous local politician looking to get re-elected, and he gives him the choice to do a few heroic deeds on his behalf, or get outed and sued by the film company who owns the rights to the character. An eventual public fall from grace takes place, and he has to flee from an angry crowd. Everyone thinks his actions were all part of a publicity stunt, his strings pulled by City Hall, his altruism just another phony front foisted on gullible citizens. Packing up to leave town and the acting life once and for all, Steve, still in his torn and dirtied costume, sees an apartment fire down the block. With the ceiling and walls dangerously weakened, police and firemen evacuate all the people they can find, but there are still some unaccounted for. The word goes out: It's too dangerous for anyone to risk going inside the collapsing structure to look for anyone else. Then, a spotlight finds a man on the rooftop, running toward the flames. A man in a bright costume, braving the inferno to re-enter the building. Nichols manages to free survivors, but a wall falls in leaving him trapped. Inspired by what he's done, cops and firemen defy orders and in turn rush into the burning building and rescue the hero. Because heroism, bravery and selflessness...even in a place like New York City...inspire others to be heroes, too.

Told you it was sappy. Budget had to be a concern, because it's short and the cast is modest. It's not even a great piece of cinema art, overall. But no movie has ever captured the soul of the selfless masked hero, and the man under that mask, better than this film did. It didn't make much money at the ticket window. It's not easy to find a copy. But if you can, it's worth a watch.

Coming in Chapter 2....a World's Finest follow up...Independent's day at the movies...the Adventures of Marvel Mouse begin...and a Hall of Shame in which we induct some of the worst superhero movies ever!


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