Super Heroes have been enjoying the warm adoration of pop culture lately with the high flying big-budget successes of films like X-Men I and II, Spider-Man I and II, Fantastic Four, Batman Begins, Elektra, and Daredevil. There was a time, and not very many years ago, my friends, when super hero celluloid lived much closer to the cheap and schlocky side of town. Join me now as we travel back in Hollywood time and visit some of the good, bad, and just plain miserable super hero movies and serials of the past.
First up, 1987’s ultra cheapie embarrassment, Masters of the Universe, based on the popular television cartoon He-Man. Masters starred Dolph Lundgren as He-Man and Frank Langella as Skeletor. I debated between naming Masters of the Universe or 1989’s Captain America as the worst superhero movie of all time. Masters of the Universe nudged it out by a hair based on my loathing of Dolph Lundgren’s soulless, lifeless, lobotomized portrayal of He-Man. I’ve never in my life seen a worse performance by an actor competent enough to do better.
The plot involves Skeletor wanting to be the ultimate supreme power in the universe. He can’t obtain that goal, however, until He-Man can be eliminated and all copies of the "key"s can be collected. The key’s are gateways to all time and space. He-Man, Master of Arms, Teela, and a whimsical creature known as gwildor steal a key and temporarily escape the clutches of Skeletor. Of course, Skeletor sends his henchman and a cockeyed, pointless, BOOOOORING, shoddy movie ensues.
For those of us middle 30 something’s we can remember what a huge splash the original cartoon made, how popular it was, and how really neat a live action children’s movie COULD’VE been. Dolph Lundgren looked like the cartoon. Unfortunately, he acted like the bizarro comatose zombie version of He-Man. Frank Langella made an awesome Skeletor but he was rendered completely retarded by 3rd rate prosthetics and dialogue that Ed Wood would laugh at. Poor Langella chewed the scenery wherever he could. It’s just too bad that that scenery was made out of unsalted cardboard.
For those that care, Masters of the Universe was Cortney Cox’s film debut.
Kids movies should be fun, exciting, easy to understand, and provide ample humor and heroics. It also helps if the hero has a pulse.
If you’re new to super hero movies and you want to start at the bottom of the barrel begin with Masters of the Universe. There’s nowhere to go but up from there.
Now that we’ve visited cinematic super-hero hell let us pick ourselves up by the boot straps and move up one level to purgatory. Next on the bottom of the super-dud list is 1990’s direct to video super-crap fest, Captain America!!! Oh jeeze. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT watch this film if you’re sane, sober, or have an aversion to pain. It will scar your mind for life. You will dream about this ungodly abomination at night and wake up screaming.
This cinematic outing boasts a cast of Matt Salinger, Ronnie Cox, Scott Paulin, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Micheal Nouri, Kim Gillingham. Shame on them all. Their parents should be flogged for unleashing such senseless pain upon the earth.
The movie starts off in the bloody days of World War II. Hitler wants some super soldiers to crush the puny Americans so he sets his best scientific minds to the task. A super soldier serum (try saying that three or four times) is developed that will turn any ordinary joe into a super fit, ultra lethal, killing machine. The serum is tried on a German kid who promptly becomes the homicidal, super smart, but super face challenged Red Skull. Can ya guess why he’s called that? Hint: The serum isn’t just right so it turns his head into a boney red skull.
The US catches wind of this weird experimentation and they help one of the key scientists defect. She whips up a better batch of the super soldier formula and injects Steve Rodgers who looks big enough already to crush a bear. He doesn’t undergo any hideous transformation like the Skull but he does get an Uber Cool costume that incorporates the US flag and an indestructible shield. Cool for super-heroing-not so hot for stealth and camouflage situations.
Thus born into Super heroing, Captain America charges off after the Red Skull with no other training or preparation. The Red Skull owns his butt and then further humiliates the novice hero by strapping him to a rocket aimed at the white house and lighting the fuse. Captain America enjoys the ride provided by basement based effects company and it’s only when he’s in sight of the White House that he kicks into gear (literally) and spurns the rocket away from the president’s house. Bearing witness to this strange event is a small boy with a camera who snaps a pic of Capt. riding his rocket over the White House. Thus diverged from it’s present course, Captain America eventually crash lands in Alaska. The moment the rocket ends its slide through the snow Captain America is transformed into the world’s biggest ice cube and there he rests buried alive but in perfect hibernation for the next 50 years or so. While Captain America is chillin’ in Alaska the little boy, obsessed with the strange costumed man he saw riding the rocket of death grows up to be a tree hugging hippie president that wants to heal the world with a coke and a smile.
Captain America is discovered by some scientists who de-thaw him for 10 or so minutes before he crashes through the ice cube, grabs his shield and makes off for home. The Red Skull has spent the last 50 or so years having cosmetic surgery done to his face. He learns that Captain America is back in action and sends his daughter to kill him. Meanwhile, Captain America returns home and finds his girlfriend is now more like his great grandma so he gets the super hots for her daughter who is like 25 years younger than she should be. Together with his babe, Captain America rejoins the service of protecting the president and has a final snooze off with the evil Red Skull.
Matt Salinger provides a Dolph-Lundgren like performance as the worlds most patriotic super hero. This movie commits one of the cardinal b-movie sins. It fails to entertain–on any level. Its as boring as watching paint dry. People will forgive (and even applaud!) poor effects, bad dialogue, and hammy acting. I know this because I’m here…and so are you! But, if you’re not being entertained you’re being put to sleep. Captain America falls waaay below cheesy. It has no charm and what camp value it musters is drowned in boredom. Captain America is only for the very, very strong hearted.
I don’t know about you but I’m ready to climb entirely out of hell. Let’s move things up a definite notch or two with 1949’s Columbia serial Batman and Robin Staring Robert Lowery as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Johnny Duncan as Robin/Dick Grayson, Jane Adams as Vicki Vale, and Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way from the beginning, shall we? What the HELL are they looking at? Each episode begins with Batman and Robin running into the frame from opposing sides and looking wildly around like the sky is falling while the credits are superimposed over them. It’s hilarious! It was worth the 15 or 20 bucks I spent on this title just to see them do that.
Lowery makes quite a wonderful Bruce Wayne, actually. Bored, rich, lazy, far too good to get his hands dirty. He certainly looks more like Batman/Bruce Wayne feature-wise than Michael Keaton did in 1989s big screen effort. Johnny Duncan is fine as Robin. 20 years too old for the part, but let’s not quibble. it’s a serial after all.
The costumes are fairly wretched. Batman’s bat-ears droop so hard that I don’t think even Bat-Viagra could’ve stood them back up. The bat cave, though cheap, is really effective as a set piece. It looks like a bat cave and not some subterranean Microsoft office. So, kudos to the Bat cave. The Bat signal is an interesting flashlight/television device. The main baddie in this cliffhanger is a mysterious dude called the wizard that has a secret island hideout, looks through a periscope all of the time, wears a stocking on his head and is inclined to say at least once a chapter that "I am the Wizard. I ALWAYS has a plan!"
The plot has something to do with the Wizard stealing a remote control device that can control practically anything from 50 miles away. The remote control device runs on diamonds too…that’s important. This isn’t one of the better written serials but since Batman is a favorite hero of mine I can’t help but be enamored with this serial. The important part is seeing Batman and Robin kick butt (while simultaneously keeping their capes from wrapping around their heads-funny!). We get lots of that. They crash cars and airplanes and have at least 2 big fights a chapter. Batman and Robin is just plain escapist cheeeeeeesy fun!
One question that does nag at me is how come Police Commissioner Gordon never notices that Batman and Robin drive Bruce Wayne’s car?
Moving on from one Batman to another, let’s examine the 1966 big screen adaptation of the caped crusaider. Yes folks, it’s Batman The Movie time! When I consider this film a piece of Batman’s dialogue instantly springs to mind, "Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!" I rate this version of Batman marginally higher than the 1949 serial though for the fact that considering the comic book at the time this version is truly (albeit painfully) amazingly faithful in casting and gadgets and costumes to it’s 4 color roots. This incarnation of Batman is burned into my brain from early childhood. I forgave (or didn’t notice) the outlandishly absurd plots and dialogue just to be able to see my favorite comic book come to startingly cool technicolor life, particularly in the case of Ceaser Romero as the Joker and Burgess Merideth as the waddling penguin. I will always consider the casting genius.
Once you get past the cool uber color of Batman the Movie and the spot on casting, praise evaporates fairly quickly. As I stated before this movie reflects the shoddy stories of the sixties and only mildly amps the camp factor from what it was in the comic book. A lot of die hard Batman fans will nearly seizure with disgust at the very mention of this movie since by the sixties Batman’s darker side was all but ignored in favor of zany outer space adventures and the like.
Batman the Movie was slapped together and rushed through production and hit movie audiences between the first and second season of the Batman television series. It features a healthy dose of stock footage, cheeeeap props, and painfully, painfully rendered "effects". I almost hate to even utter the word effects and Batman the Movie in the same breath. There’s a rubber shark early on in the movie thats so bad it’s funny. Ceaser Romero refused to shave his famous moustache for the movie so they just globbed joker paint over it and in many scenes it’s obnoxiously obvious.
The script is high octane camp. Only, isn’t it better if camp is actually, you know-funny? Very few jokes pay off in the film. Some of the site gags in the Batcave are fun and the scene with Batman running around with a huge bomb, trying desperately to find a place to rid himself of it is funny but that’s about it. The plot involves The Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Cat Woman teaming up to steal a (get ready for it) dehydralizer device that will suck all the moisture out of a person, leaving only a technicolor dollup of dust behind (sound familiar? It should to Star Trek fans because there was an original episode where basically the same plot device was used). The dehydralizer is used on the United Nations and Batman and Robin have to come to the rescue.
One of the best-or worst, depending on your point of view, aspects of Batman the Movie is Adam West’s portrayal of the strangely wooden and sappy Dark Knight. Nobody is going to believe me but YES Adam West is a good actor. In Batman the Movie he was ACTING like that on Purpose. He did such a good job at essaying Batman as an 8 year old goodie goodie boyscout that he’s lived under the stigmata of that performance for the rest of his career. Batman fans who aren’t afraid to face the skeletons in the closet of Batman’s long history in comics and in film should definately check this film out. Its a time in Batman’s career that I’m ohhh so glad is in the past! Now let’s turn to another hero that’s certainly no stranger to being serialized. I refer, of course, to the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. If Masters of the Universe took us down to Schlock Hell then certainly Flash Gordon elevates us to Schlocktastic paradise!!
Flash Gordon is loathed by as many people as adore it – a true sign of a schlock classic. In this telling Sam Jones essays Flash Gordon, a football player who finds himself at odds with a galactic menace in the form of Ming the Merciless, played to absolute perfection by Max Von Sydow. Where do I start? This is one of my all time favorite b-movies.
Arbitrarily, let’s just start with the casting. Sam Jones is perfect as Flash Gordon. So he can’t act, big deal! Who watches Flash Gordon to please their inner Shakespeare? Do you? Not me! Jones was a hunky guy who just needed to be blonde haired and please the female audience just as Melody Anderson had to be hot as Dale Arden and Ornella Muti had to be sizzling as Princess Aura. This movie gives the 13 year old in all of us a sleazy good time. Everything in this film screams "CHEESE!" Topol takes the clichéd part of the whacky half-mad scientist Zarkov and owns it! He turns one of my all time favorite crazy doctor performances.
Flash Gordon is to Cheese what Vincent Price was to Horror which is a class act. The script is that sort of campy fun that kids fail to comprehend and adults laugh at while young and old alike have about the same amount of fun. This movie works as camp, as cheese, and escapism. It’s one of the few comic book movies that has fun with the source material without ridiculing it.
Even the soundtrack to this movie by the rock group Queen is memorable. Flash! Ahh-hhaaa! He’ll save everyone of us!
The plot of this movie revolves around Ming the Merciless toying with the earth. Flash is on a plane with Dale Arden that is forced to crash land due to one of Ming’s flaming hail storms. Unfortunately for Flash and Dale they crash land into Zarkov’s house and are forced at gunpoint onto a space ship Zarkov’s built. They blast off and head for Mongo to stop the evil mischief of Ming. Glorious cheesy fun ensues.
I like the design of the space ships in this film. They reflect a lot of the comic strip in their designs.
Also of note in Flash Gordon is an early appearance by an actor not entirely in command of his acting craft yet-Timothy Dalton.
Well, that’s about all the room we have for this installment. Keep your eyes peeled for the eventual sequel Bargain Bin Heroes II: The Adventures Continue!