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Thursday, August 21, 2008

SUPERHEROES ON THE CHEAP: A REMEMBRANCE OF ZERO-BUDGET ANTI-AWESOMENESS

As the Summer of the Superhero winds down, I remember a time when a windfall of superhero movies such as we've seen this year was inconcievable, especially when one considered that the majority of such material was being brought to television and movie screens by filmmakers and studio heads who just didn't give a fuck or were coked-up to the gills. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when comic book superheroes are rendered into live action they should at least have the decency of looking kinda cool, if not outright majestic and awe-inspiring. Iron Man looked totally awesome and even the loathsome FANTASTIC FOUR movies managed to make the heroes look relatively okay (see below), but then again one would naturally expect that with today's mega-budgets and special effects now that Hollywood has finally wised up to the fact that superheroes are potentially huge box office.

Iron Man: looking up-to-date and completely awesome.

The cinematic Fantastic Four: Johnny's too old and not all that blonde, Ben looks like a walking turd, Sue's Hispanic and Reed's too young, but they at least look okay.

But back in the days when such properties were realized on the cheap and no one at the studios really gave a fuck, the results were often disastrous and occasionally hilarious. Cases in Point:

WONDER WOMAN: WHO'S AFRAID OF DIANA PRINCE? (1967). A failed and utterly unfunny "camp" pilot from the producer of the Adam West BATMAN, this is one of the worst pieces of shit I've ever seen, with everyone's favorite Amazon played by Linda Harrison, who would gain screen immortality the following year as Nova in PLANET OF THE APES. And what's with the gigantic Depends-style shorts? Putting a major hotness like Linda Harrison in those should be punishable by law.

Linda Harrison as Nova in PLANET OF THE APES (1968): an immeasurable improvement of her Wonder Woman look.

Cathy Lee Crosby as the pre-Lynda Carter Wonder Woman from 1974. This made-for-TV effort was also a stinker, but it's so bad and so totally unrelated to the Wonder Woman we all know that it's pretty much Wonder Woman in name only. The upside to this is that it's a fascinating train wreck of a film, and it's got its own goofy/cruddy charm if you let yourself go with it. And Ricardo Montalban's the villain, Latino charmer named — get this — "Abner Smith" who does nothing to hide his love/respect for Wonder Woman. In fact, my old pal and comics biz talent Amanda Conner loved this flick as a kid and drew a large portrait of the Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman in crayon that hung framed in her parents' house for years (until their house unfortunately burned down). If this turns up on cable, you have to see it to believe it. RECOMMENDED.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (1977 TV series): I've seen better Spidey suits in just about any costume shop you can name.

The 1978 Japanese Spider-Man show fared a bit better, basically substituting Spidey for Kamen Rider or any other non-Ultraman-scaled superhero, and as such it was a pretty fun show.

Japanese Spider-Man: at least he looked somewhat sinister...

The 1978 DOCTOR STRANGE televison movie: the Village People already had enough members, so they rejected "the Sorcerer."

Reb Brown as Captain America in a pair of incredibly lousy 1979 TV movies (the second of which actually featured Christopher Lee!!!). Nice motorcycle helmet, dude.

And how could I forget one of the worst things NBC ever put on the air — no mean feat considering that their output during the late-1970's was legendarily awful shit like SUPERTRAIN and PINK LADY AND JEFF — , specifically LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES, two so-called "comedy specials" that rival the infamous STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL as programming that should have been outlawed by the Geneva Convention. The first of these debacles was "The Challenge" and while that sucked hard enough on its own, its wretchedness was eclipsed a thousandfold the following week with "The Roast," an attempt at humor that was downright embarrassing to witness and about as funny as chattel slavery and Jonestown combined.

The cast of "The Roast": you know you're in trouble when Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin (and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler) are by far the most dignified figures in the publicity shot.

Following the time-tested and often stale format of the Hollywood "roast," this hour of sheer torment featured an assortment of DC Comics heroes on the receiving end of ritualized verbal abuse provided by a who's who assortment of their familiar foes, none of which ellicited the slightest titter from anyone who ever saw it, all presided over by Ed McMahon of THE TONIGHT SHOW fame. Adding insult to injury was the apparently-willing participation of Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin, each effortlessly reprising the roles they gained pop culture immortality with on BATMAN (1966-1968), and as a huge fan of that classic series I was crestfallen to see them doing this podunk dog-and-pony show. The villains fared no better, each completely stripped of his or her menace and remade as utter buffoons — the same was done on the 1960's BATMAN series, granted, but at least that show was well-acted and genuinely funny — , with even the fearsome Mordru thrown into the mix. And then there was the once-awesome Sinestro as played by comedian and Dean Martin associate Charlie Callas...

Charlie Callas as the Green Lantern's arch-foe, Sinestro...CHARLIE FUCKING CALLAS?!!?

William Schallert's turn as Retired Man — the old coot located next to Robin in the group shot — was equally cringe-worthy, but nothing could have prepared America's viewing public — or the world at large, for that matter — for the simultaneous debut and farewell of — I shit you not — Ghetto Man.

Brad Sanders as Ghetto Man. Yes, you read that right; motherfucking Ghetto Man. I swear to God.

Yes, dear readers, Ghetto Man, an alleged hero from the inner city who innappropriately dishes out black humor common to the period that simply wasn't funny in the least. This guy's material was so bad that not even Richard Pryor or Paul Mooney could have given it life. Thankfully both Ghetto Man and the guy who portrayed him, Brad Sanders, faded into instantaneous obscurity, and I'm amazed that there was apparently not one word of protest from anyone about the character. Ah, the coke-fueled Seventies...

And the crapiness didn't end with the death of disco; one of the all-time worst superhero translations to the screen was the unaired 1997 JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA pilot that featured alleged comedy and unsuccessfully aped FRIENDS, only replacing the wacky New Yorkers with barely recognizable versions of assorted DC Comics Mainstays.

The 1997 JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, another sorry and thankfully obscure pilot.

The only things of note about this were David Ogden Stiers (not pictured) as the Martian Manhunter — a bizarre bit of casting if ever there was one — , Miguel Ferrer playing the Weather Wizard live action as opposed to also giving the character voice on the WB Superman cartoon, and Kim Oja as Ice, who would later go on to play lifeguard Kimberly Clark on the far superior and much funnier SON OF THE BEACH. Otherwise, avoid this like the plague.

Some of you may be wondering where the TV version of THE INCREDIBLE HULK fits into all of this, but I left Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk out of this piece because that show overcame its potential for total cheesiness by successfully ripping off THE FUGITIVE and reimagining that character as a kinda wussy, hitchhiking doctor (Bill Bixby) who turned into a 'roided-out, green-painted Italian dude from Brooklyn.

You can say what you want for the rest of these, but you don't fuck with Ferrigno.

But, to be honest, the thing that got me started on this Bataan Death March down memory lane was a brain-fart flashback to the horrendous live action SHAZAM! show (1974-1977), a show that desecrated one of the greatest superheroes ever, Captain Marvel, unintentionally giving new meaning to criminal super-genius Dr. Sivana's derisive nickname for him, "the Big Red Cheese." The show starred Jackson Bostwick in the part and was the textbook example of a cheap kid's show from that era, complete with endless footage of a Winnebego driving the dusty back roads of Southern California and nauseating morals and lessons and shit that were supposed to make you better citizen or something. Captain Marvel's awesome mythology-related powers never got much of a workout on the show, and about the most you really got out of him was a poorly-matted flying scene where he was awkwardly counterbalanced on wires in such a way that it made him look like he was zooming desparately in hope of finding a toilet before he lost all control and took a massive burrito dump in his red tights.

Yes, kids, these were the dark days before CGI could make this kind of stuff look good.

And while Captain Marvel was suppsoed to inspire the awe one might feel if they met a demi-god, Jackson Bostwick evoked either a drunken uncle at a fancy dress party or a politician from Monty Python's Silly Party.

Was Captain Marvel channeling the mighty powers of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, hence his inability to stand up straight? Seriously, is this shot all that far removed from a randomly strange character one might find on MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS?

Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus stop-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel (Michael Palin) of the Silly Party: the spiritual ancestor of Jackson Bostwick's Captain Marvel?

Let's just hope that if they ever make a SHAZAM! movie, Captain Marvel will finally be given the awesomeness he displays in the comics.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

And thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you too can witness this monument to coked-up 1970s trash!

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=LEGENDS+OF+THE+SUPERHEROES&search_type=&aq=f

Anonymous said...

Captain Americas shield doubled as a windshield that he placed on the front of the motorcycle that he drove.

pia guerra said...

I'm shocked at how many of these I've seen and I will also pass along the geek love for the Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman. A very odd and kooky little film.

But come on, you haven't mentioned the grand daddy of all low budget superhero films: The Fantastic Four bootleg! A dismal budget, craptastic SFX, a shaky script, and The Boy Could Fly as Johnny Storm and yet it's incredibly charming. It's worth a look if only for the full on way the actors attack their roles. They are just so into it and you can't help but love them for it.