The Hidden S in Phone Booth

Welcome to "The Hidden S in Phone Booth." Your writer is Mark Rhodes, a man known within many magazine circles including The Christian Science Monitor, Opera and Wizard. He runs a site called the European Film Report that looks at the art of filmmaking, and will tackle whatever he feels like writing about (similar to Tedd in Hank McCoy (Before the Fur) except with less love of Dazzler). This week is the first part of a series on live action superheroes on television, so make sure you tear yourself away from the latest episode of "The Incredible Hulk" and check back in next Wednesday for the second part. The history of Live Action superheros on TV (Part I) The history of superhero style series on television is a mixed legacy at best. Some of the series achieved great popularity while being hated by serious comic fans (Batman). Other series achieved a real sense of craftsmanship and authenticity but were ignored by the television watching public (The Green Hornet). In any event, here is a short sketch of the history of superhero televising series (Part I). The Superman series from the 50's was the first superhero series in television history and remains very beloved and surprisingly watchable. The special effects are not good and despite the popularity of the show, the series seems to have been made very cheaply. What lifts the series out of mediocrity is the sharp performance of George Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent. Reeve to me is the best portrayal of Superman and Kent. Fanboys might kill me for this, but I thought Christopher Reeve's performances as Kent tipped far too much into a nearly masochistic wimpiness for my taste. George Reeve gave Clark Kent a kind of film noir detective quality that was very appealing, but appropriately separate from Superman's persona. I also liked the authority and insouciance of Reeve's Superman as opposed to Christopher Reeve's sensitive male portrayal which was a 70's era male response to the heyday of the women's liberation movement. The Batman show in the 60's is still the cause of a lot of pain for Bat fans everywhere. As wildly popular as the show was at the time it was incredibly campy and a direct outgrowth of the Warholian sensibility of the late 60's. A lot of fans who grew up with the Neal Adams/Frank Miller grim Batman have real problems with this show. Batman worked on two levels (hence its popularity with kids and their parents) and as much as I enjoyed it as a very young kid, I did not get some of the truly risqué double entendres (especially when Catwoman was around) thrown around by Batman/Bruce Wayne (a great Adam West). Fortunately, I get them now. The undiluted silliness still rankles a lot of Bat fans; so much so that there was real fanboy outrage when Michael Keaton was chosen for the cowl in the 1989 Batman feature for Tim Burton (they thought it would be a campy treatment in the vein of the 60's show). The show was surprisingly well-done with many celebrity cameos and also strangely influential to the comics (it created the Barbara Gordon/Batgirl character for instance and turned the Riddler from a second banana villain into a major player in Batman's rogues gallery). Also, it is worth noting that the Batman portrayal in this show is not exactly out of left field as it reflects some of the influence of the artist Dick Sprang who was fond of primary colors and large props/objects in his take on the Batman and Robin universe. The show doesn't exactly hold up as much as it is a strange and fascinating product of the times. Adam West is much like William Shatner who somehow turns bad acting into a kind of epic performance art. His Batman is not the best portrayal by a long shot; it is, however, the hippest portrayal of Batman thus far and definitely the most entertaining. Ironically enough, at about the same time, the Green Hornet was on television as well. The series was based on an old radio serial from the 30's featured Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day and a vigilante superhero Green Hornet at night. The Green Hornet (who was related to the Lone Ranger in the radio series) fought crime with his faithful Oriental valet Kato. The Green Hornet was portrayed by Van Williams and Kato was portrayed by the immortal Bruce Lee. The series avoided camp and has held up quite well (though not officially available on DVD). The television Green Hornet was really more of a criminal (the series intro makes note of this) which is an interesting twist for mainstream superhero stuff. Lee's portrayal of Kato was very influential as it was one of the first times that mainstream America was introduced to a serious martial artist. Lee's black suit, mask and cap have been referenced in films such as Jet Li's Black Mask and in Tarantino's Kill Bill series (Al Hirt's "Green Hornet Theme" was also used in KB). The series had a couple of memorable crossovers with the Batman series as well. (Seth Rogen is set to begin filming a feature with the great Stephen Chow as Kato). Tastes in television supermen in the early 70's ran towards science fiction and quite a few of the superhero type series followed this formula, most notably the Six Million Dollar Man who, technically not a superhero, had some of the genuine characteristics of superheroes like super strength, super-speed and superhuman eyesight. Despite this, the character’s origin was more science fiction oriented and the world Steve Austin inhabited was a recognizable 1970's America for the most part. Other series followed suit like The Invisible Man with David McCallum and The Gemini Man with Ben Murphy which had these science fiction elements, but didn't make any real headway in the public's consciousness. The mid to late 70's saw the series Wonder Woman make a considerable impact on the public and the Nielsen ratings as well. Wonder Woman is a unique superhero as she is the only woman who is indisputably in the pantheon of immortal superheroes. She is also the only one of this group who is a genuine sex symbol. As with many other successful superhero productions this one was memorable because of superb casting, mainly in the truly Amazonian Lynda Carter whose poise and impressive dimensions wearing a star spangled swimsuit stoked the libido of many a young red-blooded American male (including yours truly) during the late years of the "Me" decade. This series reflected the times in a big way as this was the era of Ms. Magazine and Womens' Liberation (ironically enough Carter became a minor-pinup celebrity as a result of this series). Although this series rarely gets the credit, it seems likely that the relative success of Wonder Woman (which ran in one form or another for four years), helped pave the way for the Superman feature in 1978. A couple of Saturday Morning shows in the 70's also attempted live action versions of classic superheroes. One, Shazam! was an updated version of the Captain Marvel character. Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and his Mentor (Les Tremayne) travel the country in a Winnebago (!) writing wrongs. The series was fairly faithful to the comics in most respects (the classical heroes Solomon, Atlas, Mercury, et al acted as metaphysical advisers to the young Batson). The Captain Marvel Costume was a straightforward reproduction from the comics as well. The production values of the show were not great, but typical of the era. 1977 saw the first attempt to bring a Marvel character to the small screen with the Spider-Man television film. As with many of these films/series' this was a product of the time. This is seen in the very urban sounding soundtrack which was popular in television shows like Starsky and Hutch, but seems out of place and humorous now. The show was a reminder of why Spider-Man is a tough sell for an actor as your face is completely covered, and without a filmmaker of Sam Rami's skill and an actor of Tobey McGuire's deftness (and anything short of an exceptionally skilled and well-cast group of supporting actors) this early attempt was a respectable miss, but a miss nonetheless. The best and most interesting comics show from the 70's and arguably the best of all time is The Incredible Hulk. The series was anchored by the very moody, very expert performance of the very reliable Bill Bixby as Dr. Banner. Lou Ferrigno (the champion bodybuilder) made a very convincing non-CGI Hulk. The stories were timely and done with seriousness. The show was more similar to The Fugitive or even Les Misarables than say Batman or Wonder Woman in that it had a dynamic representation of an innocent character running from the law and as a result it had a gravitas that no other superhero series has matched (much less attempted). The special effects were low tech but imaginative and the series had one of the great catchphrases in television history (“Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I am angry”). Next week -The 80's to present