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Cavalier's review of the 1943 serial Batman!
of these days we’re going to do a roundtable entitled "TV
Movies: Scourge of Mankind".
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the dialogue is painful and trite in this section. It’s supposed
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…
Abner Bemis (Milo O’Shea), who has been writing and drawing the
Captain Justice comic book for thirty years, wakes up sweating.
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.
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.
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?"
once more, Abner, as an earthquake hits. Or CJ crosses the Forbidden
Zone. Or a bunch of grips shake the walls of the set.
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.
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.*
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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
to think of it, being roughed up by the Corey Haim Clone’s short
balding father is probably much more demeaning.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
Kybo does, drawing a pistol and firing. The bullets bounce off.
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.
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.
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.
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.
fellow playing this actor? Adam West.
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.
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.
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
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.
no punch-ups. No violence on TV. Sure, Gumshoe slaps around Kybo,
and later goes "goon dancin'" with 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.
my kvetching it's too bad that the series never made it further
- it might have been interesting to see where it went.
that final image, of the happy child reading a comic book and
smiling - well, that's hard to argue with.