|George Reeves and Phyllis Coates as Superman and Lois Lane|
Rather than the usual random lists of things to watch in late October, I thought I'd go for a theme this year. At first, I considered listing the numerous giant spider movies. Then a far grander idea came to mind...
For most of us, halloween is basically an excuse to watch old monster movies on television. Once upon a time, however, the season was noted for it's costume parties. Adult-size halloween costumes continue to be sold, but I must admit I've not heard of a single costume party being thrown during my life time. Supposedly, you'd find more of these in urban areas than in the rural paradise in which I live. Still, it's not like you regularly hear about normal people throwing costume balls anymore. The connection to the season remains, however, and I thought I'd use this halloween to examine the costumed superhero genre. I'll be limiting the field to feature films (although even this requires mentioning some TV shows).
I hasten to note that this list is nowhere near complete. Dozens of these movies were cranked out in the 60's and 70's, and these are only the examples I have some knowledge of.
Although costumed superheroes had been a pivotal part of the chapter serials during the 30's, 40's, and 50's, they really didn't begin to headline feature films until those same serials were condensed into movie format and re-issued to theaters or sold to television. Thus the first real superhero movie was SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN, which basically served as a pilot for the classic television series.
SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN was akin to a standard 50's science fiction film, albeit one in which Superman was the main character. The story follows Clark Kent and Lois Lane as they come to an isolated small town to do a story on the world's deepest drilling operation. Once there, they find the drilling has been stopped. At night, creatures from deep within the Earth climb out of the shaft...
In an unusual move for a 50's science fiction picture, the Mole-Men are presented as sympathetic explorers. Superman sides not with the frightened populace, but with the beings everyone else is convinced are monsters!
It was later broken down into a two-parter of the series itself. Much has been said of how perfectly George Reeves captured the all-American superhero, and it's true. Few actors have brought to life a character so vividly. Also of note was the fact that Reeves' Clark Kent is every bit as strong as Superman. Most actors since have tried to make the two personalities as different as possible by playing Kent as a milksop. George's Kent could hold his own series.
In SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN, Reeves' Clark Kent is more or less in place, although Lois thinks him a coward for his habit or running off when trouble starts. Superman seems a little self-righteous, though. No doubt part of the issue is trying to establish everything within an hour's runtime, thus when Superman takes charge because things have gotten out of hand, it really doesn't seem like enough time has passed for a frenzied mob to really get out of control. Superman also seems a bit deaf to the concerns of the townsfolk, in legitimate fear for their lives and having taken up arms to protect themselves. True, they get further whipped into a frenzy by the town bigmouth, but at one point Superman berates them as "acting like Nazi stormtroopers" and actively confiscates their guns! Wow.
While The Adventures of Superman was on the air, science fiction was really more popular than screen super-types, so there wasn't a flood of similar figures in American movies. Japan, however, gave us Starman.
|Ken Utsui as Starman|
Starman was the superhero of a series of serials produced for Japanese theaters (where he was known as Super Giant). These serials were condensed into feature films and released to American television in 1965 under the titles ATOMIC RULERS, INVADERS FROM SPACE, ATTACK FROM SPACE, and, most infamous of the lot, EVIL BRAIN FROM OUTER SPACE. Starman was, as explained, a sort of living robot, sent by a collective of alien leaders to help prevent Earth-based atomic disasters which could poison the rest of the universe. Starman set up shop in Japan, where he offered battle to invaders from space as well as terrorists and gangsters. In one film, he went up against an evil Martian dance troupe!
Starman made for an interesting hero. Almost always, he was a kind, caring soul, very peaceable and sometimes quite somber. Whenever he had a chance to fight off an army of bad guys however, he acted like he was having the time of his life! He'd karate chop and toss around a dozen or so baddies before striking a pose and laughing! He really seemed to enjoy his work when he got a chance to cut loose and slaughter the enemy.
About the time Starman had finished his heroics (though before they were imported to the States), along came Santo, the champion masked wrestler of Mexico. At the end of the 50's, Santo embarked on a long film career in which he continually brought the battle to the forces of evil. (His history is chronicled in my review of the Turkish film 3 GIANT MEN.)
|Samson, originally Santo|
A scant handful of Santo's films were dubbed and released in the States (four in total, making me wonder just where a boxed set is). To American audiences, he was Samson, reportedly because the distributor thought he might trick the audience into thinking Samson's films were Sword and Sandal epics. The most widely-seen of these films may've been SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN. It's really too bad more of Santo's adventures weren't brought north of the border. Fellow masked wrestler/detective Neutron, however, did get most if not all of his films imported to the States.
|Rat Pfink and Boo Boo|
A truly bizarre one came along in '65. Ray Steckler was working on what may've been his most effective crime thriller when he got bored with the material and at the mid-point of production changed it into a superhero spoof. RAT PFINK A BOO BOO (so titled because the film lab blew the title and Steckler couldn't afford to have it re-done) is a surprisingly fun -and funny- movie about a rock singer who has the secret identity of crime-smasher Rat Pfink. As a send-up of the old serials, it's quite spectacular. For some reason, Rat Pfink heroically standing up in the sidecar of a speeding motorcycle remains one of the funniest things I've ever seen!
|Rat Pfink meets Kogar (Bob Burns)|
Timing of the film's release is confusing. Seemingly Steckler's cash-in on Bat-mania, the film came along a full year before Batman hit the small screen. Ray either had amazing foresight or it was an astounding coincidence!
Batman, of course, was a parody of the genre of superheroes. It was also a very clever parody. Kids tuned in by the millions completely unaware that the subject was satire (much as had been the case of The Bullwinkle Show). Adults tuned in to laugh themselves silly, and so they did thanks to some incredibly sharp scripts. Batmania had the Nation in a tizzy, and soon the big screen was caught up in it too.
|Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin|
BATMAN was a feature spin-off meant to sell the series in England. Pulling out all the stops, the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder are called into action when master criminals The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, and Catwoman join forces to hold the United Nations hostage. The film did very well here in the States, and the increased budget allowed the series crew to build some expensive new props that could be washed back into the show itself.
|Kathryn Victor as Batwoman|
One of the first attempts to cash in on Batman's success was THE WILD WORLD OF BATWOMAN. Jerry Warren crafted this bizarre comedy about a lady crimefighter and her army of young women in battle against a masked mad scientist (he lifted from a Mexican wrestler epic) named Rat Fink. Kathryn Victor, Warren regular, plays the titular hero. Although she wears a mask, the bat tattooed on her chest would probably give her away at all but the most formal of functions!
This picture is depressingly dreary. Too small in scope to really do anything action-wise, and too flat to serve as a good comedy. It's as static and sterile as anything you've seen, and even the frequent groupings of pretty go-go girls can't breath any life into the proceedings. Steve Brodie is thoroughly wasted, though he possesses enough talent and star charisma that he comes off a lot better than he should. The few amusing gags (like an out-of-nowhere seance in which Batwoman's spirit-guide is interrupted by a Chinese voice) are generally drawn out far beyond their place. Just a terrible picture, even by Jerry Warren standards!
BATMAN's peculiar blend of adventure and humor reportedly didn't make a lot of sense to the Brits, although the rest of Europe quickly caught bat-fever and began to crank out their own costumed super-types. There were so many, in fact, that I'm only familiar with a scant handful.
|Ken Wood as Superargo, with Monica Randall|
From Italy came Superargo, a sort of Santo through a James Bond filter. In SUPERARGO VS DIABOLICUS, we see how super-powered masked wrestler Superargo leaves the ring following the death of his opponent. He's recruited by the Secret Service to take on super-criminal Diabolicus -who plans to wreck the economy with his artificially-created gold. Superargo was impervious to almost anything, including extreme temperatures. Electricity could cause him pain, but not kill him. He could also heal instantly, even from a deep knife wound -though he does require a bullet-proof suit.
|Superargo's action music is an almost note for note copy of The 007 Theme!|
SUPERARGO VS DIABOLICUS ends on a promise of further adventures for our hero. Indeed, Superargo would return a couple years later with a more comfortable-looking mask and a new swami sidekick for SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS.
|Ken Wood's Superargo is joined by Kamir (Harold Sambrel)|
|Superargo battles the Faceless Giants!|
SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS saw our hero again hired by the Secret Service to investigate a bizarre series of abductions of athletes by indestructible robot-like creatures. American star Guy Madison plays the heavy. Superargo picks up a few new powers this time around, thanks to his new mentor/sidekick Kamir. Although Kamir first appears to be a mystic, his abnormal abilities come with rational (well, let us say scientific) explanation. Superargo has proven such a dedicated study that his powers quickly overshadow those of his teacher! Among Superargo's new tricks are telekinesis and levitation. Sadly, this was the last Superargo picture.
|Brad Harris, Tony Kendall, and Aldo Canti as the Three Fantastic Supermen|
THE THREE FANTASTIC SUPERMEN saw cop Brad Harris teaming up with a pair of acrobatic costumed thieves when a scientist's duplication machine is stolen by an evil organization plotting to destroy the world economy. Much of this one was played for laughs. There was at least one sequel, THE THREE FANTASTIC SUPERMEN IN THE ORIENT (which I haven't seen). Actually, according to the IMDB, there was a whole series that lasted into the 80's! How many of these ever made it beyond Italy, I couldn't say.
|Not entirely accurate poster art...|
|Roger Browne as Argoman|
THE FANTASTIC ARGOMAN, or THE INCREDIBLE PARIS INCIDENT, was apparently an attempt to take the subject into more adult territory in response to all those swinging secret agents. Thus, Argoman is a bit of a skirt-chaser despite the fact that his bedroom antics cause him to lose his superpowers for a period of several hours. Like the Green Hornet, Argoman is on police record as a criminal. Fortunately, he chooses to use his super-abilities to help people. When he comes up against a female mad scientist heisting the Royal Jewels for some sort of duplication machine (a very popular element in this genre, no?), Argoman must contend with thugs, superweapons, and even a big clunky robot!
DANGER: DIABOLIK was based on a comic strip and is considered a classic by many. Honestly, I never got the picture. John Philip Law plays the titular anti-hero super-thief wanted by the law and underworld alike. No challenge is too great for Diabolik, always ready for the next heist.
|John Philip Law as Diabolik|
I think one reason the character has never appealed to me is that he seems to be motivated entirely by selfish means. He wants something, so he takes it, despite the best efforts of others to keep him from it. (There's a Washington DC joke in there somewhere, I just know it...)
|Marisa Mell as Diabolik's moll|
A major part of the plot involves Diabolik stealing a rare necklace for his feminine partner-in-crime's birthday. A mob boss abducts her and ransoms her back to Diabolik for the necklace. The exchange takes place during a police raid and the bad guy is gunned down. Diabolik takes a pill that simulates death and later wakes up in the morgue just prior to his autopsy! Diabolik then collects his necklace, hidden inside the cremated remains of the mob boss! Fortunately, this picture moves swiftly enough that you don't really think about how absurd it all is.
Marisa Mell plays Diabolik's moll, and much of the film's fame is probably due to her presence here. A very similar character to Diablok (though a bit less homicidal, and sporting an entire harem of girls) can be found in the more recent Japanese character, Mouse.
|Johnny Dorelli as Dorellik, with Margaret Lee|
HOW TO KILL 400 DUPONTS was a comic take on material very similar to that of DANGER: DIABOLIK. I can't say if it was an intentional spoof of the John Phillip Law picture, but the similarities rather make me think so. Johnny Dorelli plays master criminal Dorellik, hired to wipe out an entire family so his client can claim an inheritance! Margaret Lee is also on hand.
SUPER STOOGES VS THE WONDER WOMEN was apparently a comic Sword and Sandal movie with costumed heroics. I haven't seen this one, but I saw a preview once. It seems to cover all the bases, with amazons on the march confronted by a rebellion organized by the Super Stooges -a trio of super-types of various skills. One is a costumed acrobat/magician, one an African superman described as "the black Samson", and the third an Oriental martial arts expert. I gotta admit, it looks fairly entertaining.
|Inframan! One wacky flick...|
INFRAMAN was an import from China, and is about as berserk a film as you'll ever see. A cabal of prehistoric monsters awakens from ages of slumber and goes to war against mankind. Their leader is a mini-skirted blonde in a viking helmet by name of Princess Dragon Mom! Her army consists of a whole bunch of expendable look-a-like foot soldiers and a few featured monsters of the wildest sort you'll see in a feature film. One man volunteers to become the bionic super-guy, Inframan, and several dizzying fight scenes follow.
Imagine watching every Mighty Morphin Power Rangers episode at the same time and you'll have some idea of what this movie is like! It came to home video through Goodtimes, but the film was re-edited. The original titles were removed and in new titles the monsters highlighted by someone who wasn't paying attention (an obviously plant-based creature is dubbed The Octopus Man, for example). It recently came to DVD in a widescreen transfer, under the Chinese title "The Super Inframan" rather than a release of the actual US print. It also suffered from that occasional issue of digital remastering, which is to say parts of it look like it was shot on video tape. All the same, though, this is a whole lot better than the old Goodtimes tape. It's being in scope allows one to get a better idea of what's going on in any given scene!
|Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman... sorta|
Cathy Lee Crosby starred in WONDER WOMAN, a telefilm supposedly based on the popular DC comics character. Since this Wonder Woman bore no resemblance at all to the established character, the film went down as a legendary flop. It's remained a very obscure item. Even I haven't seen it!
Not long after, another station tried their hand at a much more traditional pilot film starring Lynda Carter....
|Lynda Carter as the real Wonder Woman|
THE NEW, ORIGINAL WONDER WOMAN followed in the camp footsteps of Batman. It was the note-perfect casting of Lynda Carter that made the film a hit.
The pilot film follows the traditional Wonder Woman origin. The world is at war and pilot Steve Trevor is shot down over Paradise Island. There, amazon Diana Prince finds him and nurses him back to health. In the process, she falls in love with him and follows him back to the States when he recovers. Disguising herself as a Wave, she becomes Trevor's personal assistant, always ready to done her star-spangled bathing suit to aid the Allies! Here, she breaks a spy ring headed up by Red Buttons and Stella Stevens.
THE NEW, ORIGINAL WONDER WOMAN was a massive success, and a series followed. The first season retained the World War 2 setting. It started out as campy as the movie, but eventually fell into a more straight-forward stride which made it one of the coolest shows on television! Particularly interesting was a two-parter in which Wonder Woman must convince a Martian that the Allies are just and the Nazis evil. Another neato-boss episode guest-starred Roy Rogers!
|Wonder Woman in her television series|
It was a wonderful time for pulchritudinous sci-fi super-types. Batgirl, The Avengers, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., and Honey West kinda kicked it off in the 60's, and the 70's continued with Wonder Woman, The Secrets of Isis, and Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl -to say nothing of the assorted Policewomans and Charlie's Angelses.
|Lynda's updated uniform for the 70's|
Later, the series moved Wonder Woman into more cost-effective contemporary times. It was around this point that superheroes on the small screen became big business. Numerous characters were given TV movies and/or series in hopes of creating another successful franchise.
|Lou Ferrigno as The incredible Hulk|
By far the best show was The Incredible Hulk, introduced via the pilot feature THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Bill Bixby stars, as the tragic Dr. Banner who searches for a means of unlocking the hidden reserves of power that allow a mother to lift a car that's pinning her child. Banner accidentally unleashes his violent animal side after exposure to a gamma ray projector, resulting in the unstoppable Hulk taking over his body whenever Banner becomes agitated. Bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno became a household name as Banner's uncontrollable rage given green form. The film and following series stayed grounded in reality while most similar shows were very cartoony. It remains the version against which more costly remakes are judged.
There were actually two pilots. THE INCREDIBLE HULK established the premise, but the first follow-up was the telefilm THE INCREDIBLE HULK: DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which really laid the groundwork for the series that followed.
|Caroline Munro as Stella Starr in STARCRASH|
Adventuress/pirate Stella Starr was played by Caroline Munro in the film STARCRASH, one of the earliest cash-ins on STAR WARS. I'm unaware if Stella Starr appeared in comic strips prior to the film, but some did follow in the fandom that has kept the film alive for decades. The inclusion of STARCRASH here isn't quite on topic, but it's also within the limits of colorful costumed heroics. Stella teams up with an assortment of weird and wild characters when the universe is threatened by the latest despot to rule from an armed space station -this station shaped like a huge claw!
Of course, big-screen superheroes were still considered kiddie matinee fodder. Of the American superhero movies, only BATMAN sported a healthy budget -and that was played for laughs. A similarly spoofy, high-camp musical version of Superman was done on stage and later brought cheaply to television as the feature IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE... IT'S SUPERMAN. I mention it only to be complete, but was unable to find a shot of it. It may've only aired once.
In the late 70's, motion picture and superhero history were made when a gigantic budget was pinned to bring the legend of Superman definitively to the big screen. This event kicked off the first wave of superhero blockbusters that wasn't to end until the 90's.
|Christopher Reeve as Superman|
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was still amusing, but for the most part took it's subject seriously. Following the familiar story, infant Cal-El is saved from the destruction of the planet Krypton by being sent to Earth, where the boy becomes Clark Kent and grows into city-saving Superman. He draws the ire of criminal genius Lex Luthor and it's up to our hero to prevent Lex from re-shaping the West coast with atomic missiles. The ending has never made sense, this being the film where Superman turns back time (by flying around the globe) to save the life of Lois Lane. (Even if I buy that, it doesn't explain why the earthquake doesn't crush her car the second time around...)
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a box-office smash the world over. Sequels would follow, and in fact the first one had already been half-shot. The same producers had earlier done a pair of films about the Three Musketeers, shot at the same time and basically functioning as two halves of the same story. Superman was handled in a similar fashion, but director Richard Donner split when production became too hectic. He finished the first film, and it's success demanded the second film be completed. Richard Lester, who had earlier helmed the Musketeer epics, came in and finished the film. More on that in a moment.
|Richard Yesteran as Supersonic in SUPERSONICMAN|
A cheap, European knock off of Superman released in 1979 was SUPERSONICMAN. I haven't seen this one yet, but it's on my 'get' list since it features Cameron Mitchell and a killer robot! Directed by notable drive-in movie maker J. Piquer Simon, the film was reportedly so terrible that it's recent DVD release has tried to pass itself off as an intentional comedy. Simon has an interesting filmography, including as it does MST3K favorite THE UNEARTHLING (known to MSTies was "Pod People"), and early slasher PIECES -which may be the most blatantly exploitative movie I've ever seen, so imagine how shocked I was to find it was actually pretty entertaining. Simon gave us giant rubber monsters in WHERE TIME BEGAN and MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND. He also helmed the surprisingly decent SLUGS.
|Adam West, Burt Ward return for LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES|
Possibly the most bizarre superhero "movie" was the television special LEGENDS OF THE SUPER-HEROES, a prime-time event about the Justice League of America. Adam West and Burt Ward returned to play Batman and Robin, and Frank Gorshin came back as the Riddler. This was played purely for laughs, which may be why the show looks so cheap. Aired over two nights, the two segments share little in common aside from the same cast (which includes such luminaries as William Shallert, Howard Morris, and Charlie Callas -who actually makes for a pretty good Sinestro).
The first segment is a comical take on a typical Justice League adventure. The Legion of Doom has hidden a bomb that could destroy the world, and the JLA must find it before it goes off.
The second segment, on the other hand, is a parody of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials that had been spun off of The Dean Martin Show. Ed MacMahon is the celebrity MC, and even Ruth Buzzi stops by!
I imagine it was funny to the kids of the time, and in fairness the special has some pretty good laughs sprinkled throughout, but it's so bizarre! Discerning tykes undoubtedly got a lot more out of this than did the adults, who probably found it tiresome and a bit dull. I don't know how it did in the ratings.
There is a good bit, though, where Robin must tell Batman that he has totaled the Batmobile.
Most superhero movies of the day were defacto pilots for proposed series, as the Wonder Woman movies had been. With the success of The Incredible Hulk, other characters from the Marvel line of comics began showing up in feature films and short-lived series.
|Reb Brown as Captain America...|
Believe it or not, the above image is that of CAPTAIN AMERICA. Reb Brown was brought in to play beach-bum cartoonist Steve Rogers, sought desperately by a law organization to carry on the work of his father -a crusading spy his peers jokingly nicknamed "Captain America." Rogers is more or less forced into becoming Captain America when a secret serum is used to save his life after an accident. He quickly falls into the part, however, and the organization even designs him a colorful costume based on one of his sketches.
Although the story was written that the original "Captain America" wasn't a costumed hero, audience reaction to the re-designed uniform was so harsh that a new ending was filmed in which Rogers dons the more traditional costume. To justify this, they have a line looped in where Rogers desires to wear his father's uniform...
At any rate, the film is lethargic and dull. Someone in the production obviously felt a series could still be sold, however, and a second film followed in the form of CAPTAIN AMERICA: DEATH TOO SOON.
|Reb Brown in DEATH TOO SOON|
This time around, Steve investigates a strange small town where people and animals are prematurely dying of old age. Turns out Christopher Lee (!) is looking to hold youth for ransom!
CAPTAIN AMERICA: DEATH TOO SOON is a giant step up from the first film, though it still didn't sell anyone on a series. It's relatively entertaining, though, and has recently been issued on DVD alongside it's parent film.
Back on the big screen, that second Superman movie was in release, and was generally a hit with fans as well as critics....
SUPERMAN II finds Superman/Clark giving up his superpowers in order to live a human life with Lois Lane. Unfortunately, some Kryptonian super-villians have been released from their Phantom Zone prison and decide to take over the Earth. We never actually see how Superman gets his powers back, but he does so in time to defeat the bad guys. Somewhat more troubling is that Kent, after regaining his super abilities, returns to a truck-stop in order to beat up the bully that hassled him when he was minus his strength. This lack of turning the other cheek, and his earlier bedding of Lois Lane, and his taking the Lord's name in vain a few times, paint Superman in a less heroic, all-too-human light that was only to become more vivid as the franchise moved into the 21st Century.
|Christopher Reeve, back in blue|
Still and all, SUPERMAN II was a massive success. A third film was called for, and it came along in 1983.
|Walter George Alton as The Pumaman|
THE PUMAMAN was subject to an earlier review. Cheapo flick finds American researcher heir to the powers of the Pumaman, a protector of Earth established by creatures from space. Pumaman must stop Donald Pleasance from taking over the world with a hypnotic golden Aztec mask. Bizarre music score seems to think it's a toothpaste commercial...
|Michael Crawford as Condorman, with Barbara Carrera|
CONDORMAN is among those I haven't seen yet. From the end of the cycle of Disney's live-action family adventure films, the picture was advertised as an adventure/spy/superhero/comedy. My exposure to it has been limited to that clip parade that used to end Disney videos back in the 80's. What was visible there looked polished and fun.
SUPERMAN III is often overlooked, but it's a pretty solid affair. In it, industrialist Robert Vaughn has computer genius Richard Pyor design the ultimate, living computer in order to rule the world. They try to kill Superman by exposing him to artificial Kryptonite, but it instead releases Superman's selfish inner beast when it causes him to go insane. In my favorite moment of the series, evil Superman battles a manifestation of good Clark Kent.
Back to his senses, Superman takes on the super-computer. I don't want to spoil it or anything, but Superman wins.
With three successful Superman pictures, Christopher Reeve was ready to move on. The producers, riding high on the success of the franchise, began looking for ways to expand the series. A later syndicated television series focused on Superboy's adventures. Before that, though, the big screen saw the arrival of SUPERGIRL!
SUPERGIRL followed the adventure of Superman's cousin coming to Earth and getting into a war with a witch.
That's probably why you've never heard of it.
|Helen Slater as Supergirl|
SUPERGIRL was technically polished, with some of the best effects work the series has to offer. Unfortunately, it's script lacked much interest. The film failed to get the warm response audiences had for the Superman movies and any planned sequels were cancelled immediately. To put it in a charitable way, it simply failed to find an audience.
Whatever it's problems, it must be noted that Helen Slater's Supergirl was perfect casting.
Following the film's failure, the producers turned back to Superman himself. In an effort to keep costs down in the wake of the SUPERGIRL fiasco, the production of the fourth Superman feature was farmed out to Cannon -the then-prolific smaller studio cranking out numerous economic-but-successful action films. Cannon's output defined 80's drive-in entertainment as AIP's had in the 50's and early 60's.
Warner Brothers was not pleased with the resulting film, and sued Cannon on grounds that some of the allotted budget was passed on to in-house productions.
Christopher Reeve, meanwhile, was lured back into the role of Superman when he was asked to help shape the script. Always the tireless activist, Reeve felt this was a chance to tackle some important issues cinematically.
|Superman vs Nuclearman|
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE may well be the most idiotic superhero movie ever made. In it, Superman declares war on atomic weapons and goes about ridding the planet of them. Lex Luthor uses this to his advantage, however, and creates Nuclearman to confront the man of steel...
Words really can't describe how blatantly stupid this film is. It's right up there with fellow vanity message fiascos ON THE BEACH and THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK... Only SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE didn't do nearly as well at the box office.
The franchise was scuttled right there, and it took decades to get another Superman movie off the ground. (Interestingly, the cinematic Superman of the 21st Century is a moody, immoral, self-centered jerk very much like the compromised hero of SUPERMAN III.)
|The Hulk meets the mighty Thor (Eric Kramer)|
Quite a bit a better was THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS, the first in a series of telefilms to follow up the beloved series. In this one, Dr. Banner finds himself joining forces with the mighty Thor to take on the latest bad guy. Thor was another hero from the Marvel comics universe, and this film was no doubt an attempt to launch a new series. The superhero craze of the 70's was more or less exhausted by the end of the 80's, however, and no new franchise was born of this unique pairing.
Of course, the decade ended with a real jolt to the genre...
BATMAN was Tim Burton's big-screen epic that shocked audiences by ignoring everything that came before it and returning the concept to it's origins. Bruce Wayne still donned the guise of Batman to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, but did so this time in a dark and violent world filled with profanity and casual murder. Top-billed Jack Nicholson wowed audiences with his psychopathic take on the Joker. Michael Keaton was cast as the Bat, which seemed at first an odd choice as the actor was known mostly for comedic roles. Pat Hingle is Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams plays crusading D.A. Harvy Dent, and Jack Palance puts in an all-too-brief bit as a mob boss. Kim Basinger is Vicki Vale, the Lois Lane of the Batman universe.
Although it took people by surprise, BATMAN was a monstrous hit. This stylized-yet-gritty realism was a dramatic departure from anyone's expectations, though it seems to've been the right move at the time. The film was a subsequent massive success in video rentals. Pop camp and colorful imagery may've defined the genre before, but no longer. Dark and dreary was the new mold for comic book movies.
|Rex Smith as Daredevil in TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK|
THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK followed BATMAN's lead and set itself within a gritty urban jungle where violence was coldly casual. This time, Banner meets up with another Marvel character, Daredevil, and takes on kingpin John Rhys-Davies.
Also in the wake of BATMAN was THE PUNISHER, about a vigilante cop at war with the underworld after the death of his family. The character had been an anti-hero knocking around Marvel Comics Group since the late 60's, which is why I've included the film despite it's lack of any masks or colorful costumes. The film isn't bad, though it's budget-conscious to be sure. Basically, it's a typical 80's action B movie, though given to some colorful flourishes after the influence of BATMAN.
|Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, one last time|
I haven't seen DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK yet, but it was the rightly-named climax to the franchise. Reportedly, further sequels were planned, but Bill Bixby's untimely passing prevented continuance. Bixby leaves behind a legacy of supreme likeability, charming comedic parts, and sensitive dramatic roles. His like is missed greatly.
|Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy|
1990 saw the return to screens of famous comic strip detective, DICK TRACY. This most recent adaptation was quite colorful and did everything it could to copy the look of an old newspaper strip. The cast was also filled with familiar names, although most of their faces were hidden behind heavy make-up to simulate the look of the strip's exaggerated villains. The film flopped, and I can see why. It's a movie I desperately want to like. I really, really want to. The problem is I just... don't.
|Billy Campbell (or his stunt double, who knows) as The Rocketeer|
Disney provided one of the absolute coolest movies of all time in the shape of THE ROCKETEER. Based loosely on the sporadically-printed comic strip serial by celebrated cartoonist Dave Stevens*, the film was set in the late 30's. Stunt pilot Cliff Secord discovers a personal jet-pack sought by Hollywood gangsters and Nazi spies, and flies into action against both! Timothy Dalton is the Erroll Flynn-like heavy. Also on hand is Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes -inventor of the stolen jet-pack!
Throwback to the old Rocketman serials, THE ROCKETEER was sheer slam-bang, feel-good adventure of the sort that influenced the Indiana Jones franchise. This one has everything. Rocket-packs, gangsters, Nazis, spies, G-men, airships, airplanes, Hollywood glamor, beloved character actors, high production values... It's just a beautiful and fun movie. Fans also delighted in one character's visual recall of tragic horror star Rondo Hatton.
Despite everything in it's favor, the film under-performed. It wasn't a flop or anything, but it didn't do the kind of business expected. Sadly, there were no sequels.
(*Stevens, famously, was largely responsible for the 90's re-discovery of 50's pinup queen Bettie/Betty Page. In fact, the comic strip Rocketeer's girlfriend was patterned after Page, and named Betty. Reportedly, Disney thought Betty too racy and replaced her with the more wholesome Jenny, as played by Jennifer Connelly. Stevens would go on to produce art for an actual Bettie Page comic book.)
|Michael Keaton returns|
BATMAN RETURNS came along in '92. Despite it's unimaginative title, the film was much anticipated and accompanied by an advertising frenzy that had it on everybody's mind. Batman this time must go up against a sleazy industrialist played by Christopher Walken, who is backing Danny DeVito's half-animal aristocrat The Penguin in a mayoral race. Also lurking about is Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, this time a murderous psychopath traumatized by a murder attempt that had her falling several stories and then fed upon by alley cats.
This chapter was even darker than the previous film, but it was again a massive hit. The film was also a touch more comic-bookish than the last one, a trend soon to get way out of hand! Merchandising tie-ins were all over the place, including numerous toys.
|Michelle Pfeiffer as the 90's Catwoman|
Of course, the film is mostly remembered for Miss Pfeiffer's stitched leather catsuit. This was as iconic in it's day as had been Carrie Fisher's metal harem wear from THE RETURN OF THE JEDI.
1992 also saw the birth of a new prime-time animated version of Batman which created what many consider to be the most definitive version of his universe yet committed to film. Voiced by Kevin Conroy, this Batman lived in a quasi-30's aesthetic that became known as "Dark Deco" by the production crew. This version of the character caught on just as Burton's had, and a feature spin-off was hitting theater screens in 1993.
|Kevin Conroy's Batman battles Mark Hamill's Joker|
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM delved into Bruce Wayne's past and saw him reflecting on how he became the Terror of the Night, while also rekindling an old flame who has hit town. Also in town is the masked assassin The Phantasm, out slaughtering Gotham's crime bosses. One of them goes to the Joker for help, and we eventually learn the laughing lunatic is also on the Phantasm's hit list... It was a very fine series, and the movie is just as good.
|The Forgotten Four|
THE FANTASTIC FOUR was reportedly made only to re-secure a copyright, and was never released. Some unofficial copies have surfaced, happily. Though the film has a poor reputation, it's generally agreed that the picture is still superior to the monstrously expensive misfires that have come since. Remaining more faithful to the material, this version is on par with a TV movie. The budgetary limitations are evident, but the picture is still a fun watch. Produced by Roger Corman.
Following the basic premise of the property, we watch Dr. Reed Richards and his friends take a space flight which ends in disaster because their rocket's power crystal has been replaced by a fake. Exposed to a cosmic anomaly, the group finds themselves possessing strange powers. These will come in handy with the maniacal Dr. Doom out to control the world!
Again, this is about on par with a 70's TV movie. It suffers mostly in it's crude effects work, aside from the rather fantastic make-up/animatronic/costume for the Thing! Whatever the issues with the low budget, the cast is good, the script strong, and Dr. Doom is perfect.
|Alec Baldwin as The Shadow|
I don't really remember anything about THE SHADOW, and I'm not even sure I ever saw the whole thing in one sitting. Based on the old radio show, it told of a socialite who learned from Tibetan monks the ability "to cloud men's minds" and battled the underworld of the 1930's. I really don't recall much. Starred a young Alec Baldwin. I remember Max Wright had a cameo as a security guard or something... Let's move on to the next picture....
|The Power Rangers on the big screen|
POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE was a big screen spin-off of the wildly popular teleseries Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The series took the bulk of it's action/fight/monster footage from a Japanese show and combined it with new footage of American actors. The feature goes all-original, and even gives our teen heroes some spiffy new uniforms. The plot tells of how an evil despot (Ivan Ooze!) imprisoned for 6,000 years is unearthed by a construction crew (coincidentally enough in Angel Grove, the city the Power Rangers call home), and resumes his war with Zanon -self-appointed protector of the universe. Zanon uses as his field agents teenagers assembled into a fighting force known as the Power Rangers. When Ooze invades Zanon's secret HQ and destroys it, the Rangers must fly off to a distant planet to recover a lost power source. Back on Earth, Ooze enslaves the parents of Angel Grove and forces them to excavate his robot monsters.
Fun picture was a huge hit. Being lighthearted adventure, the film features a few surprisingly good laughs. It also features a lot more cheesecake than one might expect. Special effects fans will like knowing the film features some very nice miniatures, but the actual fighting robots are computer generated cartoons -and look it. Some impressive stunt work is in evidence, usually actually featuring the real cast! Entertaining flick.
|Billy Zane is The Phantom, with Kristy Swanson|
THE PHANTOM was based on a long-running and very popular comic strip. "The Ghost Who Walks" is only the latest in a long line of men who have donned the purple suit of the Phantom, thus perpetuating a legend of an undying hero. When an evil Treat Williams plans to take over the world with the aid of three mystical carved skulls, it's up to the Phantom to ride to the rescue. Fun picture, but I couldn't say how well it did financially. There were no sequels, I notice. Too bad. This one was nearly on par with THE ROCKETEER.
|Val Kilmer as Batman, with Nicole Kidman|
BATMAN FOREVER (or is it FOREVER BATMAN? The on-screen title is just FOREVER) was a mixed bag, to be sure. Overall, it was a pretty good movie. Val Kilmer (an actor not known for subtle performances) gives a fine portrayal of the caped crusader, and Tommy Lee Jones is quite outstanding as Harvey Two-Face (one-dimensional the role may be), replacing Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent (reportedly, Williams made more money being bought out of the role in favor of the more marketable Jones than he would've made playing the part).
The film is far more colorful than the two Burton films (though Burton is the producer here), and one thing that detracts is the overall visual design. The film is made to resemble a typical contemporary comic book, and comic books in the 90's tended to be entirely too cluttered and super-detailed to a point of aesthetic discomfort. One gets that same sense here, with swirling light patterns, scenes crammed with extras, blinding color hues mixed too randomly, etc.
The story itself isn't bad (just over-done), as Batman faces off against former D.A. Harvey Dent, now the psychotic madman Two-Face after acid was thrown on half his head. Two-Face tries to draw out Batman at a circus event being attended by Gotham big-wigs, and slaughters the family of acrobat Dick Grayson (in a particularly poor bit of casting, Chris O'Donnell is even more mature than Burt Ward was -though he does show himself to be a decent actor in his two turns as Robin). Meanwhile, the Riddler (top comedy star of the moment, Jim Carrey) comes into being, and he feels he has a score to settle with Bruce Wayne...
As noted, Kilmer makes a good Batman, but he wasn't to return to the role. BATMAN FOREVER was a smash hit, and another sequel was quick in coming. It was perhaps too quickly...
|Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, George Clooney as Batman, Chris O'Donnell as Robin|
BATMAN AND ROBIN (lifting it's title from the second 40's serial) was a massive bomb, and more or less ended the superhero boom of the 90's. Repeating the new colorful elements of BATMAN FOREVER, and then enhancing them, the film consciously recalled the 60's parody by infusing it's story with quite a bit of high camp. The opening sequence and much of the climax particularly suffer from this. In addition, the film is so massively huge that millions upon millions were poured into the budget, including the hire of an all-star cast. The film was predicted to do huge business, and plans were being made for a fifth Batman before the 4th had even hit theaters. All that changed when the film proved to be a disaster in almost every sense.
It should be noted, however, that there is some good stuff buried in there. Top-billed Arnold Schwarzenegger manages to give a pretty solid performance in a few scenes where he isn't required to camp it up. So too does George Clooney in his star-making role of Batman/Bruce Wayne, who makes a better showing than one might expect (or really notice upon first viewing). His attempt to reach what might be left of Mr. Feeze's humanity is a surprisingly powerful moment. O'Donnell gives a pretty good performance, too, I must note.
The plot this time around concerns Mr. Freeze stealing diamonds to power his freeze-ray. Meanwhile, insane research scientist-turned-deadly sexpot Poison Ivy has come to town and wants to eliminate Batman and Robin. Back at Wayne Manor, Alfred is getting sick and his niece has showed up. By the movie's end, she's become Batgirl. While Alicia Silverstone isn't bad, it remains true that Yvonne Craig has nothing to worry about. (And weirdly, apart from Batgirl's briefly-seen motorcycle helmet, her uniform has no bat ears!)
As noted, the film did so poorly that the franchise was scuttled right then and there (the Batman series' echo of the Superman cycle is eerie -though Batman was later to be resurrected to much greater audience support). The turn of the century saw superhero movies in a real slump. With SPIDER-MAN, however, the genre was rejuvenated. Once again, comic book/superhero movies were hot properties, and blockbuster after blockbuster has been issued in SPIDER-MAN's wake. That cycle is still with us, in fact.
|Maura Monti as Batwoman|
I end this piece with a 60's Mexican flick (which was sadly never imported or dubbed into English) because I think BATWOMAN deserves all the press it can get!
BATWOMAN is a masked wrestler and crime-fighter of the Santo mold. Her adventure places her at odds with a mad scientist who can grow his own gill-men! Seldom have I seen a picture so wonderfully wild and crammed with 60's pop. Batwoman's costume is basically a bikini with Adam West's cape and mask. Everything is here. Cheesecake, adventure, monsters, a mad scientist, espionage, thugs, boats, beaches, sports cars, secret labs, jazz music, etc, etc, etc!
We will likely never get an official home video release here in the States (or even in it's native Mexico, though it does occasionally turn up on television there -and I guess it made it to Europe, since the Database records a 1970 release year for Austria). Such a pity. I believe the film can be found on YouTube, at least.
Have a happy halloween, gang!
Very special thanks to Messrs Ken Begg and Morgan McDannell, without whom this piece could never've been realized.