Last weekend Avengers: Age Of Ultron hit the theaters to much fanfare. Superhero films are all the rage and contemporary filmgoers and comic book readers alike consider this to be the era of the comic book hero. And they would be right. Superhero films are breaking box office record after box office record with no end in sight in spite of film critics constant chicken little warnings of “superhero movie fatigue.” However, some folks might not be aware that over 3 decades ago Superheroes permeated film and television much as they do now. The main difference being that television networks and film studios back then resented comic heroes, didn’t take them seriously and even cancelled superhero shows with very impressive ratings purely because they were embarrassed to have them on their network.
In the late 70s we saw the father of all superhero films, Superman The Movie, released to cheering audiences. I know this because I was there, cheering right along with the rest of them as Christopher Reeve scooped Margot Kidder up with one hand and a falling helicopter with the other. Several more Superman sequels were released soon after.
You also had Bill Bixby finding ratings success on television as The Incredible Hulk. There was a live action Captain Marvel, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman series and a string of television movies featuring Doctor Strange and Captain America. Arriving on the coattails of this era of Superheroes was a small, low budget 1980 comedy called Hero At Large.
Hero At Large came out long before the comic book writers and readers were obsessed with the premise “what if a regular person put on a costume and fought crime?” Mark Millar’s “Kick Ass” comic book series and film adaptations are based entirely on this premise. However, in the Kick Ass comics and films, the average humans who put on costumes to fight crime perform superhuman feats that basically undermine its own premise. Even in the Golden Age of comics, costumed heroes with no superpowers were written and drawn as if they did. Hero At Large, in spite of its many flaws, was really the first film to delve into this topic and the first to do so in a relatively realistic manner.
By 1980 I was a hardcore comic book reader. I was intrigued by the idea of a regular guy putting on a costume to fight crime decades before it became a “thing.” I was also a fan of classic film. Most of the classic films I had watched by that point were the Hope and Crosby films, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, the Universal monster films and the occasional horror and Sci-Fi film. This was before VHS players were mainstream, before Turner Classic Movies and before we had a cable channel for every possible theme. Even Z Channel, ONTV and Select TV rarely showed 30’s and 40’s films. So there was a lot of classic films I had not yet seen. Meet John Doe was one of them.
Hero At Large is basically a not so loose remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe. Hero At Large retains most of the relevant, entertaining elements of the Capra film. It’s just more amateurish in it’s execution. In Meet John Doe, Barbara Stanwyck is a idealistic reporter who transforms easy going bum Gary Cooper into an idealistic national hero whose idealism and popularity with the public is exploited by evil politician Edward Arnold. Now, obviously, Meet John Doe is a far superior film to Hero At Large. But it’s really interesting to see how Hero At Large incorporates the idea of the comic book hero into Capra’s theme of nationalism corrupted. I don’t think it’s all that surprising that comic book heroes are so popular in film now. Especially in a world full of corrupt leaders, acts of terrorism, war, high unemployment, etc., any more than it was surprising that films like Superman The Movie and Star Wars were so popular in the wake of the Viet Nam War and Watergate. Meet John Doe wasn’t any different given its themes and what was going on in the world when it was released. If you go to the wikipedia page for Meet John Doe you’ll see a comment by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Crowther says something that I think perfectly encapsulates the popularity of superhero films when he says “Mr. Capra has produced a film which is eloquent with affection for gentle people, for the plain, unimpressive little people who want reassurance and faith”.
In Hero At Large, John Ritter is perfectly cast as one of these “gentle people”. Ritter plays Steve Nichols, an idealistic rube from the midwest trying to make it as an actor in New York. Ritter plays Nichols with manic optimism that at times seems to mask a fear that he‘s really just kidding himself. As a kid, I only saw a funny, regular guy putting on a costume and trying to fight crime. But watching it with older eyes, you can see a few dark undercurrents here. Steve is lonely, he doesn’t have any real friends to speak of, he’s behind in his rent, broke and about to be evicted. He is turned down for almost every part he tries out for. When his next door neighbor Jolene Marsh(played by the always enjoyable Anne Archer) shows him the slightest interest he becomes a exuberant nuisance. I mean, really, Steve is just a few failures, a few bad decisions away from becoming a Travis Bickle or, more optimistically, Joe Buck. As if to drive that point home, there are a couple nods to Taxi Driver. Steve works part time as a cab driver and there’s a scene of cabbies hanging outside the Belmore Cafeteria. And the Mayor of New York is played by Leonard Harris who played Senator Palantine in Taxi Driver.
The one acting job that Steve does get is dressing up as comic book character Captain Avenger, traveling to theaters to promote a live action film adaptation of the comic hero. Steve happily wears his belief in the ideals of heroism on his sleeve but deep down we know that part of his love of the role of Captain Avenger is that he actually has a part to play for once. After an evening of promotion, still in costume and wearing a trench coat, he stops off at a local mom and pop market to buy some milk. Two street toughs come in to rob the place and Steve, imitating a scene from the Captain Avenger film, swoops in to foil the robbery. At first, he’s dying to talk about the incident to whoever will listen but he really doesn’t have anyone to tell. Meanwhile, the city is cheering the mysterious costumed vigilante.
Anne Archer plays Steve’s neighbor Jolene Marsh. Jolene is an ambitious set designer dating her boss, a jerk who is the director of dog food commercials. She finds Steve mildly amusing but is put off by his inability to take no for an answer. Archer actually gives the film a connection, tenuous though it might be, to Superman The Movie as Archer did a screen test for the role of Lois Lane. It’s actually a great test and after seeing it I wish she had played the role instead of Margot Kidder. Archer is wonderful as the put upon career woman, stuck between a boyfriend//boss who treats her like crap and a manic neighbor nice guying her to the point of exhaustion. I like how Archer’s character dumps her jerky boyfriend, letting him know that he doesn’t own her and makes it crystal clear to Steve that she prefers a career to his needy, romantic inclinations. Archer really does a great job in this role that, well, really isn’t all that different from most of the roles she played in her heyday. That said, I am an unabashed fan of Archer.
When Steve’s luck continues to get worse, he falls back on the one empowering thing he has in his life: Captain Avenger. He listens to a police band radio while driving his cab dressed as Captain Avenger. He stops a couple drug dealers but realizes that he might be in over his head when he is shot by one of the criminals. Jolene, mildly turned on by his new wounded stray status, takes Steve in to her place to heal. Meanwhile, oily PR man Walter Reeves(played by perfectly cast Bert Convy and basically doing the Edward Arnold role from Meet John Doe) is having trouble getting the Mayor reelected. He sees the growing popularity of Captain Avenger and sets about finding the vigilante in the hopes of exploiting his popularity to get the Mayor’s approval ratings up. He does find Steve eventually and seduces him with flowery speeches about the need for Captain Avenger and possibly being able to get him the role of Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. But Steve doesn’t feel right about it. That is until he becomes disillusioned after Jolene ends their brief attraction and a cynical reporter on television denigrates the idea of Captain Avenger and heroism itself. He takes Reeves up on his offer and foils a staged train robbery as Captain Avenger. Now he’s even more popular than ever but feels terrible about taking part in fooling the public.
Hero At Large ends very much like Meet John Doe. Just as Cooper makes his speech about all the good of the movement he’s started, Steve makes a speech about how all people can be heroes and how, in spite of what happens to him, that it’s the idea of Captain Avenger, of every day people helping others, that matters more than anything. But the ruse is discovered and Steve is vilified during a public unmasking on “Captain Avenger Day”, an event Reeves uses to promote the Mayor’s campaign. Steve hits rock bottom and goes into hiding until he can leave town. But a burning building gives him a chance to redeem himself and restore the public’s faith in heroes. Ritter made Hero At Large at the height of his television popularity even if his film efforts in the 80s were dismal failures(although personally, I think the subversive, 1979 comedy Americathon is underrated). But in Hero At Large, Ritter is, I think, perfectly cast as the idealistic actor with just a tinge of insanity required to be a costumed vigilante or just to be an actor in New York.
As a kid, I was seduced by the films Capra’esque idealism without even knowing who Capra was. Once I discovered Capra films, I was drawn to characters like Deeds and Doe and Smith because Capra’s heroes had that thing that I loved about comic book heroes. In a review of Hero At Large, film critic Roger Ebert called it “a big, dumb, silly, good-hearted albatross of a comedy”, and I think that’s a pretty spot on description. However, when it comes to comic book superhero movies, I think big, dumb, silly and good-hearted is a good thing. Hero At Large isn’t a great film but it’s a fun curiosity with loose ties to classic films(did I mention it also starred Kevin McCarthy and Kenneth Tobey?) and seems to have a new relevancy in this new age of superhero dominance in film and television.