Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
Night Man -- Marvel's Short-Lived Media Star

In this age of Marvel Studios starting up new film franchises the way Starbucks used to open java houses, it seems hard to believe -- and almost comical -- that there was a time when the comic company was a total joke when it came to transferring its properties to any medium other than print. By the mid-'90s, while DC had enjoyed quite a bit of success with its Superman and Batman movie series, all Marvel had to show was the triple threat of terribleness that was Howard the Duck, 1989's The Punisher, and 1990's Captain America.

A long-planned, long-promised Spider-Man movie headed up by James Cameron was languishing in legal limbo, with no end in sight, while an X-Men movie was also no closer to reality. And things weren't much rosier for Marvel on the television front, with no small screen successes to speak of other than the '77-'82 Incredible Hulk series -- which was itself almost twenty years old. It all turned around for Marvel in fall of '97, though, thanks to the emergence of a property that became, ever so briefly, Marvel's biggest media star. That's right, I'm talking about Night Man.

Created by writer Steve Englehart as part of the "Ultraverse" superhero line for the now-defunct Malibu Comics, the Night Man (note the definite article) was actually Jazz saxophonist Johnny Domino, who gained the ability to "hear" evil telepathically following an accident that also robbed him of the ability to sleep. The character ran in a self-titled book for an unremarkable run in the early '90s, but languished creatively after Malibu was acquired by Marvel in '94. Languished, that is, until 1997, when producer Glen A. Larson (da-da-DAH) took an interest in bringing Night Man to television.

Now, if you've read any of the other times I've made sport of Larson here, you already have a pretty good sense of where this story ends, and sure enough, when TV's Night Man debuted in syndication in September '97, it looked like this:

I do find it odd that Larson gets a "created by" credit, while Englehart's name is nowhere to be seen in those credits (though he did end up writing a few eps, so I assume he was okay with it). And even though the show was actually pretty true to the comic in terms of its premise, from the Cinemax "After Dark" music to the horrible special effects to the by-the-numbers cast, this was pretty ghastly all the way around, so, about par for the course for a Glen Larson production.

What is somewhat surprising is that the thing actually managed to find an audience, becoming something of a minor syndicated success when it premiered, enough to garner a secons season. And simply by virtue of being renewed for a second season, Night Man became, for one brief, shining moment, Marvel's biggest media star. That's how low the bar had been set.

Then, two things happened: First, Blade hit theaters between Night Man's first and second seasons, and realigned how even the company's second-tier properties could be exploited successfully. Second, and more importantly, ratings completely collapsed in the second season (though I'm not entirely sure why, as I don't get the sense that they suddenly reinvented the wheel for year two), and by May '99, that was that for Night Man. Today, the show serves as a weird artifact of a pre-savvy Marvel (though a quick look at IMDB tells me that star Matt McColm, who played Johnny Domino, has kept himself busy, so, y'know, that's nice).

Weirdly though, the one thing that kinda-sorta affords Night Man "TV footnote" status isn't even the fact that it's a Marvel property. No, it's because it allowed for the return of another much-derided Larson TV hero. No, not that one. Thaaaat one. Yep, after popular demand (well, demand, anyway...), Jonathan Chase, the lead character of Manimal, met Night Man for one episode in the second season that had Simon MacCorkindale on hand to reprise his role as the mammalian morpher. As you'd imagine, this team-up of TV titans was as shrug-inducing as it sounds:

Watching clips from Night Man today, it feels like even more of a bizarre aberration than it did at the time. It's certainly not hard to see why the show didn't last especially long. The budget constraints are comically evident at every step, and the costume, which is actually a faithful adaptation of the character's comic book look, just looks silly when actually put on the screen. Also, not helping matters was the subpar acting and subber-par writing. Then again, that didn't stop Ghost Rider from getting not one, but two tries, so I guess hope springs eternal for Night Man's big comeback...though I hope he's not losing much sleep waiting for the phone to ring.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are there really no posts on this? Night Man is the coolest comic book figure of nineties... I think?