Sunday, March 20, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: Legends of the Superheroes -- The Original Dawn of Justice

This week sees the long-awaited, much-anticipated release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and while I'll have plenty to say about that in a couple of days, I figured I'd take a look back at the first attempt to team up DC Comics' most recognizable heroes in live action. That's right, I'm talking about Legends of the Superheroes. What's that? You have no recollection of this? Congrats. That means you're one-up on the cast and crew, who have to live with this waking nightmare every day (the ones that are still around, anyway).

Produced by Hanna-Barbera as kind of a sidelight to their Super Friends animated show, Legends of the Superheroes was a pair of TV special airing on NBC that had the distinction of bringing Adam West and Burt Ward back as Batman & Robin after a decade-long interregnum. But that's about where the project's appeal begins and ends. Where Batman walked the narrowest of tightropes between playfulness and mockery, Legends of the Superheroes went all-in on the latter, looking like even more of a joke in the process.

The first special, titled "The Challenge," aired on January 18, 1979, and the premise had Batman & Robin, along with various other DC heroes such as Green Lantern, the Flash, Black Canary, Captain "Shazam!" Marvel, Hawkman, etc. (all played by a bunch of unknowns) gathering at the Hall of Justice to celebrate the impending retirement of one of their elder members, the Scarlet Cyclone (who the hell...?). Things take a turn when the Legion of Doom (including poor Frank Gorshin, back as the Riddler) shows up and starts trouble, and, eh, whatever. Here's the intro:

So, yeah. That's horrible. Now, given that this thing was overseen and supervised by variety and game show vet Bill Carruthers, it's easy to see why it all looks so chintzy. I'd say West and Ward are the only ones who escape with some dignity, and that only because of audience familiarity with them in their roles. That said, they're surely not helped by having to perform banal comedy routines like the one below. All you need to know is that Robin has just crashed the Batmobile:

If it matters, the clip above is actually from the second Legends, special. Airing one week after the first, the next installment was entitled "The Roast." The bit here was that the heroes were now gathered together for a celebrity roast MC'd by Ed McMahon. Seriously, not making this up. Again, the Legion of Doom shows up, and again, a distinct lack of hilarity ensues. Take a look at what I'm pretty sure is one of the lowest point in the entire genre of superheroes-to-screen adaptations: Ghetto Man.

That's comedian Brad Sanders* as Ghetto Man. And I have no explanation for why anyone thought any of this was a good idea. Regardless, you'll note that Superman and Wonder Woman are conspicuously/mercifully absent from these festivities, and that's because they were tied up with the then-ongoing feature film series with Christopher Reeve, and the TV series starring Lynda Carter.

This of course meant that we'd have to wait until just a few days from now to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman actually occupy the same frame in live action. Legends of the Superheroes disappeared quickly after its ignominious initial airing, and didn't actually hit home vid until just a few years ago. You can buy it here, but know that it'll be the furthest thing from legendary.

* Sanders also voiced the character Big Lob in the animated G.I. Joe movie, which, by chance, I happened to cover three years ago.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Sledge Hammer! -- Dirty Harry Ad Absurdum

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Getting in the Crib With Muppet Babies

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: The First G.I. Joe Movie

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Highlander: The Animated Series -- Yep, This Exists

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