The Bad Movie Report

Once A Hero - featuring computer graphics - of the FUTURE!

Own It!

And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
Batman (1989)
Cold Fusion Video Reviews
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Opposable Thumb Films
Stomp Tokyo
Teleport City
Still can't get enough four-color calamity? Check out the Hong Kong
Cavalier's review of the 1943 serial

One of these days we’re going to do a roundtable entitled "TV Movies: Scourge of Mankind".

Others in the Cabal have already waxed historic about the comic book superhero and its translation, however successful (and most often not) into film. Ken has already addressed the very wrongheaded TV versions of Captain America. Nobody’s tried to address the Spider-Man TV series that a lot of people seem to have fond memories of… do not attempt to count me among them, however.

There is a basic problem with attempting to do superheroes in the TV medium. Okay, doing superheroes seriously in the TV medium, as the 1966 Batman series proved that if you take the campy comic road, TV can support the spandex theatrics. Or not – Batman provided a modicum of thrills and derring-do with the silliness and satire. Other attempts to go the purely comedic route, like Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific, withered on the ratings vine.

The actual problem with doing superheroes on TV? Money, pure and simple. Let’s review the dictum once more: Talk is cheap, but action costs money. The live action Spider-Man series was doomed to mundanity simply because mundanity was affordable. Other costumed super types? Out of the budgetary question. So the wall crawler was up against common criminals, gangsters, and scientists in suits. The measure of a hero is generally taken by those who oppose him, after all. This sort of activity, rooted in the world we move and breathe in, played well in the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk series basically because they mounted the Marvel character in a remake of The Fugitive. But when additional characters from the Universe were brought in – like Daredevil and the Mighty Thor – the results weren’t pretty.

This is why, in the 1974 Cathy Lee Crosby version of Wonder Woman, she and the villain (Ricardo Montalban!) wind up talking about Wonder Woman’s invisible plane – and talk about it in such a way that it is obvious both actors and the director felt like total jackasses. They are commenting on the material, not presenting it.

"THIS is the jerk I've gotta lose to?"Eventually, technology would catch up with TV production, and we could begin to approach the actual ambiance of the comic book with a series like The Flash – but the fate of live action superhero series remains a dicey one. I’ve yet to be able to sit through an entire episode of Witchblade.

All of which is a fairly Byzantine way to set up this review’s subject, an odd pilot for a short-lived TV series entitled Once A Hero.

After a title sequence rife with comic images, we settle into a super-scientific laboratory with a lot of guys wearing colorful vests with oversized epaulets, so we are either witnessing something that passes for the TV version of a comic book scene or an Italian science-fiction movie. Well, there are two women in fairly normal clothes tied to chairs, so it has to be…. No, wait, that wasn’t a very good distinction. So I guess it’s up to the dialogue to… oh, hell. This isn’t going very well at all. Let’s start over.

After a title sequence rife with comic images, we settle into the super scientific lab of Professor Destructo, who has not only kidnapped Rachel Kirk (Dianne Kay) and her impish sidekick Tippy Young (Dana Short), but is also planning to fire missiles filled with hypnotic gas at every major city in the world. Smashing through a brick wall to foil his plan is the eternally smiling Captain Justice (Jeff Lester), all-purpose superhero and nice guy, who informs Destructo that he’s already destroyed all the missiles (thanks to an enormous magnet borrowed from the Acme Magent Company), and Destructo and his minions had better give up before he gets really mad. While Rachel and the impish sidekick cheer. Literally: "Hooray!"

Pleasantville - it's a good place to raise your kids up in.Yes, the dialogue is painful and trite in this section. It’s supposed to be.

If you're still watching, the next scene is possibly the best conceived, as Captain Justice (in his secret identity of Brad Steele) walks down the street to his apartment. Most of the extra detail in the street scene is constructed to look two dimensional – the trees, especially, appear to be cutouts. After he buys a newspaper from a lovable street urchin (and gives him the advice that if he wants to be a reporter when he grows up, he had better start cleaning up his grammar), Steele retires within to a pad also full of 2-D distortions. He cuts out the front page story for his scrapbook, and the newspaper, true to comic book tradition, is composed of a masthead, photo, headline, and a bunch of wavy lines representing text. Confirming his suspicion, Steele tracks down an identical story in an earlier scrapbook. His adventures are beginning to repeat themselves. "What's going on, Abner?" he addresses the ceiling…

And Abner Bemis (Milo O’Shea), who has been writing and drawing the Captain Justice comic book for thirty years, wakes up sweating.

Okay, now I know the true meaning of pity.Bemis is having similar problems in the real world. He holds court before a group of ten year-olds, telling them his latest Captain Justice adventure, only to have the fanboys tell him he already did that one, in March of ’77. Further criticisms from the Peanuts gallery run to the tenor that Captain Justice just isn’t contemporary enough, and should probably kill some bad guys, start carrying a gun, or something.

Abner is horrified. He’s always written Captain Justice to be a symbol of purity, an absolute to which all should aspire. Even worse, Woody (Josh Blake) – whom we know we’re going to hate, as he is an 80’s precocious wiseass kid – is detaching himself from his reputation as CJ’s number one fan. Woody’s got problems of his own, as we later see, when he and his artful dodger friends tote up the swag from a day’s worth of pick-pocketing. Too bad their last mark of the day is a little faster on the uptake (and his feet) than the others. Say hello to the nice policeman, Woody.

Come on, for the dresses alone, they deserve to die.Back in 2-D land, Rachel and her impish sidekick have been captured by yet another supervillain, though this one has a better costume and seems to generally be more into the supervillain bit than Destructo. Enter, through a nearby brick wall, Captain Justice. (The impish sidekick's sole function seems to be to say "The Crimson Crusader!" immediately whenever Rachel exclaims, "Captain Justice!") A small problem develops, though, when CJ and his two female second bananas start to go all transparent. CJ’s seen this before, when the real world stopped believing in another character, and he simply faded away forever. Only one thing to do, and that’s fly across the Forbidden Zone to our reality, and remind people just who Captain Justice is. Realizing that his existence is also in danger, the bad guy agrees to be a good boy while CJ is gone: "Just go, willya?"

Awaken, once more, Abner, as an earthquake hits. Or CJ crosses the Forbidden Zone. Or a bunch of grips shake the walls of the set.

Lost in the recap thus far is Woody’s Mom (Caitlin Clarke), who (because she is a character in a TV show) is a single working mom with an apparently troubled (albeit precocious and wiseass) child. Also, since she is in a show involving a superhero, she is a reporter, currently chafing under her assignments to cover feminine puff pieces. Part of the agreement allowing Woody to avoid a criminal record is that they enroll in some kind of "Weekend Dad" program, where – astoundingly – she drops Woody off at a community center without even meeting his "Weekend Dad". So Abner, peeking in a window, convinces the Kid to skip the required community service and help him find Captain Justice.

CJ feels like he's having an origin.CJ is currently making a nuisance of himself at the corporate headquarters of Pizzazz comics, where he is nonplussed to find that not only does Abner not have an office, but that the Captain Justice comic book is being discontinued. Pizzazz Comics also apparently shares a lobby with Marvel Comics, because all the pieces of art on the wall feature Marvel characters. For those keeping score, a couple of Marvel characters also cropped up during the credits. The exact extent of Marvel's participation in this movie is unknown to me, however.*

Abner and Woody return wearily to Abner’s home after a day of fruitless searching for Captain Justice, only to find a new comic story on the drawing board, apparently drawing itself. One panel shows CJ at the Pizzazz office; the last one reveals CJ standing just behind Abner and Woody. As, indeed he is. Time for a commercial.

After the message from our sponsor, CJ reveals his mission to our reality, prompting Woody to explain why he feels Captain Justice has dwindled in popularity of late: no contemporary relevance. Why, for instance, have he and Rachel had a thing going on for 30 years and yet "not hit the sheets once!" "I’ve wondered about that," says Justice, fixing his creator with a questioning gaze.

The Wizard of Oz - now with 50% more Bogey!Meanwhile, in 2-D, a figure dressed in a trenchcoat and an oversized fedora approaches a room draped in dry ice fog and confronts a huge head floating in mid-air, referring to itself as "the Great and Magnificent". "Save it for the munchkins," growls the trenchcoat. Coming from behind the obligatory curtain, the true Great and Magnificent asks petulantly, "Couldn’t you just once play it my way?"

Our hat-wearing character is Gumshoe, played by Robert Forster, and he’s not happy to called away from his business, which is investigating his latest partner’s murder. (Because "When somebody kills your partner, you’re supposed to do something about it." "Why?" "Because you just are, that's why.") The Great and Magnificent tells him that Captain Justice has "crossed The Forbidden Zone, which is strictly… uh….forbidden. Hence the name." He wants Gumshoe to follow the peripatetic hero and return him to his rightful place in 2-D. The real world, he feels, will be dangerous for Justice, and he thinks it best the hero return to quietly fade out with dignity.

Let’s advance the plot. We find out that Woody has been reduced to picking pockets so that he and the rest of the Anthill Mob can pay protection money to a teenage gang headed up by a Corey Haim wannabe. It’s humiliating enough to be bullied, but getting bullied by a Corey Haim clone... that’s beyond the pale.

The 80s have so frickin' much to answer for.Justice’s solution, of course, is to inform the Haim’s father about his son’s criminal activities. Unfortunately for Captain Justice, the father turns out to be a mook named Eddie Kybo (David Wohl), who has been running an extortion racket himself, and is quite proud of his son's misbehavings. When Captain Justice threatens to take Kybo in himself, Kybo’s thugs – who like to wear warmup suits (it is the 80s)– rough him up and throw him out, pretty much sealing CJ’s loser status in the eyes of the nearby Woody.

Come to think of it, being roughed up by the Corey Haim Clone’s short balding father is probably much more demeaning.

You see, it’s the real world, there are no superheroes, and therefore no superpowers. Justice finds himself whining under the threat of iodine to one of his wounds. Things go rather downhill from there, with Gumshoe introducing our hero to bourbon, Mom forbidding either CJ or Abner to ever see Woody again, and finally, Abner telling CJ off, saying that he has finally realized that when he first created the Crimson Crusader as an avatar, he didn’t understand that it’s easy to be good when you’re invulnerable, and true heroism comes from conquering your fears and blah blah blah.

"Let's see, it says:  Mumble mumble, mumble mumble, mumble."So Justice returns to 2-D and begins to drink heavily. He tries to bed Rachel – who is good, even if she’s not drawn that way, and refuses– and then declines to accept his 189th Key to the City, preferring to stay at home, tear up his scrapbooks full of "Lies! All lies!!!!", and drink his cartoon bourbon.

Meanwhile, in the Real World, Gumshoe is on the job, because "When someone roughs up your pal, you’re supposed to do something about it." Plying his trade, he gathers information about Kybo’s illegal activities and presents them in a fat file to Mom. "What am I supposed to do with this?" she asks. "You ain’t exactly Lois Lane, are you, toots?" he responds.

Kybo, visiting his Godfather (a Mr. Avalon), finds out that he isn’t going to be getting that promotion to numbers racketeer that he was hoping for because a mole at the newspaper just found out that some reporter is going to be a doing a story on Kybo. Disregarding Avalon’s advice, Kybo goes looking for the reporter.

Driving Miss Daisy 2:  Electric Bogey-loo.  (alright, alright, I'm ashamed of myself)She’s being motored about by Gumshoe, gathering even more information on Kybo, until the detective notices that they’re being trailed (to be truthful, it wouldn’t be hard to follow him, since he’s driving something like a 1938 Studebaker). "What are you going to do?" Mom asks. "Well, I generally speed up and try to lose them in traffic, then they catch me and rough me up. I always get caught and roughed up."

All goes according to Gumshoe’s prediction, and the two are hustled into a criminal’s best friend, an abandoned warehouse. Watching this in the Great and Magnificent’s Big Head TV is a shocked Captain Justice. "The Forbidden Zone is over there," helpfully points out the G&M.

Yep, Gumshoe is getting roughed up, and Kybo is preparing to do away with Mom (while Abner and Woody watch these events transpiring in another self-drawing comic book.). But who should burst through a brick wall (I want the styrofoam brick concession on this series!), but Captain Justice! Mom is surprised, and everyone in 2-D cheers. Once more, I find myself distracted by a Marvel icon, although a minor one. Spider-Woman is in the cheering crowd. The hell-?

What's SHE doing here?We also find out another important difference between 2-D and the Real World: our thugs aren't that stupid. When Kybo tells his Head Sweatsuit to "Do something!" the thug replies, "Boss, he just busted through a brick wall - You do somethin'!" Kybo does, drawing a pistol and firing. The bullets bounce off. Justice wins.

As the cops cart off Kybo and his gang, photos are taken of CJ and Gumshoe for Mom's front page story. Justice insists on having a photo taken with Abner and Woody, who (through clenched smiles) demand to know how the hell he pulled that off. "I'm a superhero," he responds. After an icy silence, he admits, "Okay, a small explosive and a bulletproof vest." Man, it's a good thing superheroes don't have to know about things like physics, or somebody might have gotten hurt there. The Crimson Crusader then announces that he's going to be sticking around for a while, spreading the gospel of Captain Justice.

So begins a montage showing CJ chasing after purse snatchers, busting car thieves, Abner happily watching Justice's image being reinstated in the lobby of Marvel ... uh, Pizzazz Comics, the comic book itself being revived, and finally, a kid buying a copy of said comic book and happily reading it under a tree. The end.

Kinda makes your skin crawl, doesn't it?Where to begin? I suppose it would be best to talk about the series itself, which lasted about four episodes. Justice's sweetheart Rachel would also make it across the Forbidden Zone, but the only thing I remember about that episode is the merrily humming heroine happily tying herself to some railroad tracks so CJ would rescue her. The most memorable for me is the episode when Justice's version of Lex Luthor - Lazarus - also decided to cross into the Real World, 'cause evil can win out here. (Anybody else having Last Action Hero flashbacks - or forwards - here?). The fact that Lazarus was played by Richard Lynch absolutely put the bad guy icing on that cake. The best scene was when Abner confronted the villain in his new lair, and Lazarus revealed that basically he was doing this out of sibling rivalry, because his creator loved Captain Justice best. Then Abner revealed to Lazarus that he was actually Abner's favorite character, the most fun, the most rewarding to write - reducing the world's greatest villain to tears.

Once A Hero was canceled before its fifth episode, which is too bad, as it seemed to be finding its stride, and that unseen episode - where the actor who had been portraying Captain Justice for years, ever since a hit TV series, and was now reduced to playing the character at supermarket openings - when the actor was about to be banned from playing CJ anymore, because he was getting too old, and hey, there was a real Captain Justice running around... The actor responded with great bitterness, because his identification with the comic book character had prevented him from landing any other roles, any other gainful employment.

The fellow playing this actor? Adam West.

Bob, you need to be in a remake of The Big Sleep.  Badly.The casting in Once A Hero is its greatest strength. Robert Forster is the perfect Gumshoe. Forster and Fred Ward are, in my estimation, two severely under-used, underrated actors; men with lived-in faces who are solid performers, and if we had a film noir renaissance right now, they'd be working 24-7. Mom (alright, the character's name is Emma) is Caitlin Clarke, and the name and her face nagged me until I realized: she was Valerian in Dragonslayer. Pretty girl, good actress - whatever happened to her? O'Shea, Wohl, heck, even Josh Blake - Woody, remember - are all capable actors.

The writing is frequently clever. On Justice's initial meeting with Mom (he's wearing his Brad Steele civvies), upon finding out that everyone knows that CJ's secret identity is Brad Steele, the hero must come up with a new last name quickly, and blurts out "Kent!" When Kybo threatens to make Justice "eat your own cape", he icily replies, "I don't wear a cape. You're thinking of that other guy." And my favorite: CJ flies across The Forbidden Zone. Gumshoe has to drive.

But the nail in the coffin of the series was also the writing. As I mentioned, Ira Steven Behr's script is often clever, and plays well off our knowledge of conventions and our expectations. Yet the problem inherent in the series is best presented by Woody's posse near the very beginning of the movie: Captain Justice is being written as if he were still in the 50s, impossibly good, ever smiling, ever dull. The bad writing and cliched setups presented in the comic book world talked down to comic readers in a big way, and that is precisely the target audience that could have saved the series. But this is the demographic that was chewing through Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, exulting in grittier, more compelling, more mature storytelling. The comic reality of Once A Hero in comparison, seems the creation of a non-fan, of someone out of touch with contemporary graphic storytelling.

Truthfully, given the setup, that's the way it should be. But seeing and hearing intentionally bad writing and acting representing something you love is not going to make you tune in week after week. Having your nose rubbed in the fact that society at large considers one of your favorite storytelling mediums to be fit only for children or the socially retarded (by a medium that is generally fit only for children and the socially retarded, no less) won't build much of a fan base. The fact that Gumshoe, the hero's second banana, was far more interesting and entertaining than the red-clad Boy Scout doesn't help much either.

Also: no punch-ups. No violence on TV. Sure, Gumshoe slaps around Kybo, and later goes "goon dancin'" with Ah, Dr. Freex.  The Early Years.  If you lose the gay hat.his thugs, but I'm sorry - violent conflict is one of the central tenets of the superhero genre. Because of TV's then-current squeamishness toward being perceived as violent (they still profess to be squeamish, but the violence is there), Kybo's comeuppance is limited to being forced to agree with Captain Justice that "Crime doesn't pay." Damn, you almost expect CJ to break out the Hostess Fruit Pies to defeat the bad guys.

Despite my kvetching it's too bad that the series never made it further - it might have been interesting to see where it went.

And that final image, of the happy child reading a comic book and smiling - well, that's hard to argue with.


Then again, Once was probably enough.

- May 19, 2002