The Bad Movie Report

Super President!

It looks like Sam Raimi's Spiderman movie is a bona fide hit, being well-regarded amongst critics and fans alike, racking up over 40 million dollars in receipts on a school day. With this, a similarly successful (critically if not as financially) Blade II , and the upcoming Zu Warriors, it's shaping up to be a good year for superheroes. With the additional appeal of the mold-breaking X-Men (a comic book movie which neither sucked nor exactly lost money), we can expect a flood of comic book movies in the near future.

The last time we had superhero fever at anything quite approximating the current pitch was back in the mid-60s, sparked by the Batman craze. In the wake of the 1966 series and theatrical film, there was a sudden flood of super hero entertainment on TV - mainly on Saturday mornings. Well, there were a few attempts on Prime Time; but The Green Hornet was too serious, and Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice were too silly. They failed to claim the same broad audience Adam West and Burt Ward had managed to capture with their petite, campy cliffhangers.

No, if superheroes held reign anywhere, it was in the cartoons. Mighty Mouse, of course, had been in reruns since the last megafauna died, but the 60s saw the production of many more. Some were made up from whole cloth, like the durable Space Ghost or the deeply weird Herculoids. There were old standards like Hanna-Barbera's remarkably faithful rendition of The Fantastic Four and Grantray-Lawrence's version of Spider-Man (which employed a young Ralph Bakshi, as did the Mighty Mouse-paired The Mighty Heroes).

"I am NOT a loser!  You are BANNED from the Press Corps!"And there were, inevitably, losers like DePatie-Freleng's Super President.

Super President ran a mere season from 1967-68 on NBC, who arguably showed some of the worst children's entertainment of the 60s (Those who would argue in favor of such fare as H.R. Pufnstuf obviously were not in the audience at NOWFF 2001, which howled like injured dogs in pain and dismay while watching the feature version). I know I watched it, mainly because I had seen everything that was showing on CBS and ABC in its time slot. Super President was on fairly late in the morning, and I was drawn to its odd, no-frills stories and especially its memorable (to me) piano-dominated score. There was also the unmistakable cachet of enjoying that certain something that nobody else knew about....

Another powerful lure for me, even as a child, was the voices. Even the tender age of 10, I was a great fan of the voice of Paul Frees, who here doubles as narrator and the voice of Super President. Also present were Ted Cassidy, Daws Butler, Don Messick, and a sadly underused June Foray.

Oh, yeah.  I remember this guy.Super President was James Norcross, who gained his powers in "a cosmic storm". If there was ever an origin episode, I missed it - this was revealed in the show's opening, which also detailed those powers, as Super President battled some formless monster made of the words Hate, Evil and Fear (it was, after all, 1967, when such sights were commonplace. Don't get me started on the psychedelic moiré wipe effects). Norcross, you see, can change the molecules of his body to any format he desires, like steel or granite. Steel was usually employed for bullet-weilding villains, and granite for bad guys with a penchant for flame throwers. Though a particular favorite of mine was when he was up against a laser beam. "Must change my body's form to....ozone!!!!" So that's what ozone looks like!

He is also incredibly strong, and thanks to some tiny rockets on his belt, he could fly. I have absolutely no idea how those rockets were fueled, and chances are I don't want to know, either. Irrational Games recently released a computer game called Freedom Force which puts you in control of a squad of Jack Kirby-1964 style superheroes, which is cool enough... but the game also allows you to create your own heroes; and using this "Everybody put your hands in the air!  And wave 'em like you just don't care!"new-fangled "skinning" technology, you can give them practically any appearance you want. It was heartwarming when I discovered that someone had actually gone through the trouble of making a Super President skin. Especially since I spent years trying to convince people that the series actually existed.

While trying to quantify SP's powers, however, I came to realize something: his abilities are almost entirely defensive. Sure, he could fly and pick up heavy things, but his major advantage was that he could foil any attempt to hurt him by changing to lead or antimony or pitchblende. After that, he relied on a good old-fashioned American sock in the kisser. So there is the last major failing of the character - though the makers may have been trying to teach us something about maintaining a strong defense, Super President, in the final analysis, was no more compelling than a common street fighter.

Actually a very good symbolic representation of the White House during the Clinton years.  But let's not go there."Born of a cosmic storm", eh? Unless I missed that particular two-minute snippet on The Weather Channel, this implies some science-fictiony backstory that was never directly referenced again. The time period of Super President is a bit hazy - we got glimpses of futuristic tanks and guns, and Norcross lived in the most bizarre White House - an amalgam of the current residence, the Washington Monument, and some Florentine arches tossed in for good measure (and as we see in one episode, it's located on the coast.) It was never called the White House, either. It was always "The Presidential Mansion".

Somebody was reading Marvel comics, too, because the bad guys were mainly aliens or mutants... or, as we used to say it in the 60s, "mew-TANTS". There were few human Oh no!  Terrorists! And a Thug, to boot!opponents - and then they were always radical elements of otherwise friendly foreign lands (Hey, we're America! How could anybody not love us?). There was one turban-wearing "embittered scientist" who would easily be labelled a terrorist today, and a witch doctor who poo-pooed his chief's statements of "But the white men have always been our friends...." Oh, how I love that one! And of course it was the Witch Doctor. It's always the Witch Doctor. Can anybody name me a time when the Witch Doctor was up to something good?

We were never quite sure whether Norcross got his super powers after he was elected, or before. Or what bill got rammed through to pay for that secret door in the Oval Office that led to the Super President Cave, or the Omnicar, Norcross' answer to Supercar. It flew, became a submarine, had all sorts of nasty weapons - but apparently no locks on the door, because bad guys kept stealing it, even the Steel Guy in that one episode - and he didn't even have any hands!

"Hmph! I am NOT a pseudo-intellectual! Take that back!  Darn Republicans!"Aaagh!  My young psyche!!!   Burning!!!!!!!Super President's sidekick was Jerry Sayles, who I always assumed was his Press Secretary or something, but was only ever identified as Norcross' closest adviser. Sayles was a roly poly pipe-smoking pseudo-intellectual whose major strength was his ability to pilot the Omnicar and then get captured. Sure, the first talent saved on whatever fuel those tiny belt rockets were carrying, but the second was likely one of the reasons Super President never hit the big time: shapely female assistant in bondage = big time ratings and faithful following. Fat guy wiggling in bondage = emotional scars and future therapist bills.

The world of Super President was almost entirely male populated, too - the only female characters I have evidence of appeared in the second feature in "I'm not bad - I'm just drawn that way."the half-hour, Spy Shadow (like I said, Foray was under-utilized). If the youthful James Norcross was a wishful resurrection of equally young president John F. Kennedy, so too was SP's companion piece a salute to Kennedy's favorite fictional character, James Bond. And tellingly, the female characters were the most badly drawn of the lot. I was cartooning a lot in those days, and my male figures were okay, but I couldn't draw a woman that was recognizably human. Spy Shadow's girlfriend looks a lot like those painful attempts.

Ace Interspy employee Richard Vance, having learned "the Power of Concentration" from some wizened Tibetian gentleman, is able to make his shadow come to independent life and do his bidding. The Shadow is actually a pretty cool creation, possessing the voice of Ted Cassidy, being able to slip under doors and through cracks, untouchable and yet able to touch.... seeing as how Vance was always getting into trouble and the Shadow was always getting him out, it's quite surprising that Interspy didn't simply fire Vance and put his Shadow on the payroll.

"Alright Cobra - step away from the Rabbi."But we were trashing... uh, talking about Super President.

Another strike against the series was its internal inconsistencies, which is admittedly a problem shared by many of its kin. After all, exactly how many different rays was Space Ghost able to coax out of his power bands, which had only six buttons? The major stumbling block for me was whether or not Norcross' costumed vigilante was public knowledge - and frankly, the answer to that changed depending on the needs of a particular story. For the most part, the world seemed blissfully unaware of the red-and-white pajama-ed guy (except, of course, for Sayles). But then, in certain episodes, bad guys would shout in surprise, "Super President!!!!".... well, with a monicker like that, exactly what is the point of a secret identity???!!! I mean, who else could he be? Super President of what? Union Carbide?

We won't even get into the fact that he's wearing Canadian colors. Sorry, colours.

And there is also the question of time management. In the 60s we didn't quite have the pervasive press coverage we have today (24 hour news networks will do that to you) and we can be forgiven for thinking that the President had time to go chasing down evil-doers. We're a little more conscious of how time-consuming the job can be, these days. Though chances are we probably wouldn't mind "Ha! Who's laughing NOW, Mr. Hussein?"a Chief Exec who could be more pro-active with the evils in the world, just like James Norcross. Just don't expect the budget to get balanced (wait a minute... it doesn't get balanced anyway!).

I really did spend many years trying to convince people this show actually existed. "Come now", they would say, "Super President?" I finally managed to find a tape of the show (from Cool Stuff Video), prompting my wife to ask me, "So who was President when this was on?" The answer was LBJ, though the country, as I mentioned before, was still pining for Kennedy. After Super President went off the air, the President we got was Nixon. And if there is a lesson there, it is far too twisted for me to even attempt to discern.


Man, I watched some crap when I was a kid.

- May 12, 2002