Thursday, February 04, 2016

Cult-TV Flashback: Legends of the Superheroes: "The Challenge" (January 18, 1979)

“For centuries, the world has been protected by a group of extraordinary men and women who have dedicated themselves to fighting crime.”

-opening narration to Legends of the Superheroes.

The next time I voice a complaint about the written-by-committee, over-produced, generic and yet simultaneously over-long nature of the 21st century MCU movies, please politely remind me of this production: Legends of the Superheroes: The Challenge (1979).

“The Challenge” and its sister episode “The Roast” aired in January of 1979 and served as a kind of live-action version of The Super Friends animated series.

That description, however, is an insult to The Super Friends.

Although “The Challenge” stars such Batman (1966-1968) alumni as Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin, it is not a happy reunion in any way, shape, or form. In fact, this episode is a disaster.

Woefully under-budgeted, and written with a cloying, condescending brand of humor, one can be grateful and comforted by the fact that there were only two episodes of this Hanna-Barbera series produced.

In short, Legends of the Superheroes: “The Challenge” is a horrible insult to the beloved characters it features, and a significant reminder of the bad-old days of my favorite decade (the seventies), when comic-book characters were sometimes treated as jokes instead of as respect-worthy individuals from a consistent and fascinating universe.

In “The Challenge,” the Legion of Doom convenes. After The Riddler (Gorshin) calls roll, Dr. Sivana (Howard Morris) introduces to the membership his “doomsday machine,” a bomb that will detonate in one hour and destroy the world’s population.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Heroes, Batman (West), Robin (Ward) and the other members of the Justice League (including the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, the Huntress and Black Canary…) catch wind of Sivana’s plan while honoring Retired Man (William Schaellert), an aging superhero. 

The League leaps into action to find the bomb. They search for it a gas station, at a used car lot, and at a park.

Unfortunately, after drinking poisoned lemonade, made by the Legion of Doom the heroes lose their powers. 

Now they must find the bomb (at Hidden Island Lake) without benefit of their remarkable abilities.

Right down to its final chase on jet-skis, Legends of the Superheroes: “The Challenge” resembles nothing so much as a stage attraction designed and destined to be performed at Sea World.

There are only two main studio sets here -- the Legion of the Doom and the Hall of Heroes -- and they are filmed in totally underwhelming fashion.

Basically, the scenes set at these locations are filmed as if this production is stage play, with a camera well-back from the action, filming everything under the proscenium arch in long shot, and then featuring cut-ins of mid-range shots (probably gleaned in a second take). 

The script is pretty bad and unfunny anyway, but by filming in such long shot for so often, the humor quotient is reduced considerably. This is a TV show that's about as funny as a heart attack.

The episode’s exterior sets are not much to write home about, either.They are (in order): a gas station, a used car lot, a park, and a lake with a pier.  

Yes, all the greatest superheroes and superhero villains in the DC universe have gathered at these mundane settings, but never actually really fight in any of them. Instead they run around, interrupt picnics, and frequent lemonade stands. The final battle is back at the Legion of Doom HQ, on the stage setting.

Thus the production values of this series -- politely speaking -- stink. The special visual effects are similarly weak, dependent entirely on old-fashioned chroma-key tricks. Those could still pass muster in the seventies on Saturday morning programs. But this series was meant for prime-time.

And the teleplay?

Well, if this gives you any idea, it begins with a toast to a hero called, jokingly, Retired Man, features a line about the 1978 Warren Beatty movie Heaven Can Wait, and culminates with the superheroes losing their powers because they all stopped -- one by one, apparently -- at the same suspicious lemonade stand and got a drink there.

Of course, for Batman and Robin, this shouldn’t be a problem, since they don’t possess any powers. to begin with.

There, I just thought more about the script than the writers apparently did.

The element that transmits most powerfully, really, is the total, rampant disrespect for the DC comic characters and their universe.  

The original Batman series was campy, it's true, but the production values were good enough to qualify the series for fame as some brand of sixties “pop art.” This show, shot on cheap videotape, looks as thought was made by producers taking a vacation in and around their resort town vacation home. 

Every detail of the show is miserable.

This result is all the sadder because Legend of the Superheroes: “The Challenge” is one of the few opportunities that fans have had to see such characters as Solomon Grundy, Giganta, Sinestro, The Huntress, Hawkman, and Black Canary in live action. 

What a waste that they aren't rendered more respectfully.

I remember watching both episodes (“The Challenge” and “The Roast”) as a child, and loving the fact that heroes such as Green Lantern and The Flash were finally getting some attention. Yet their costumes are dreadful, the effects work surrounding them is, politely put, primitive, and the conception of the characters as campy, dopey do-gooders, is insulting to the intelligence. Even to a nine year old, like me, at the time.

Is there anything good about Legends of the Superheroes?  

I cannot deny that it is a thrill to see Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin back in costume, in their most famous roles. Also, the original series Batmobile is featured here too, and that’s still my all-time favorite Batmobile.

Beyond the presence of those individuals and that car, this episode is a travesty, and an insult to the characters it portrays.

Despite their popularity, I don’t believe that the MCU movies are very good, as a rule (save for Iron Man [2008], and the Captain America entries) but those efforts look like Shakespeare in comparison to this drivel. 

At the very least those films begin with a crucial factor: respect for the characters they feature.


  1. I always wondered how these specials ever got the green light. As you pointed out, the production values are completely Saturday morning and this show could only appeal to small children, so why not show it on Saturday morning or as an after-school special? I watched about 5 minutes of it when it aired and walked away briskly from the set. This had to have been on NBC because they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel in 1979.

  2. John I saw both Legends of the Superheroes episodes in '79 too and expected so much more. I loved seeing Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin. I was very disappointed when Legends of the Superheroes was not in the same quality realm as both the Batman '60s series and the serious SuperFriends '70s animated series.
    Legends of the Superheroes felt like a bad SNL skit film. Legends of the Superheroes had the production level of Sid & Marty Krofft '70s Saturday mornings, but neither episode had a good script. The stage like sets took away any sense of it engaging the television viewer. Legends of the Superheroes just mocked the super heroes.

    John, I also totally agree with your thoughts on the MCU films.


  3. Daniel4:46 PM

    This posting made me think of an interview released earlier today on Slate with New York Times film critic, A.O. Scott. In the interview, the writer and Scott display a sneering disdain for the super-hero genre as a whole. To me, it's fine if people don't like certain films (to each his own), but to dismiss an entire genre out of hand strikes me as snobbish and (counter-intuitively considering the publications each writer works for) unserious. It would be like dismissing all westerns or all bio-pics. No serious critic would ever do that. And yet the super-hero genre seems like the last genre for which this is critically acceptable.

    Like you, I'm not a huge fan of the Marvel films (I find them entertaining but ultimately too glib for my tastes), although I do really enjoy the darker, more serious, more melancholy approach of most of the DC films released to date. That said, I do think that the main innovation that these super-hero films have brought to the medium--namely the interconnected film universe--is a very exciting idea worth exploring further. I think the potential for this storytelling approach for the medium as a whole has not yet been creatively exploited anywhere near its fullest potential. And yet, because it's being employed in the super-hero genre, I think it too easily and too quickly gets dismissed as a gimmick.

    What are your thoughts on this? Is there a critical bias against super-hero films that doesn't exist for other genres?