Monday, November 13, 2017

JLA Week: 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.

1 comment:

  1. I was 14 when this aired, so I was too old to be taken in by the mere fact that there were superheroes on prime time TV. I had no idea it would be on and stumbled across it partway through. I watched about 10 minutes and turned it off. I felt so sorry for Adam West and Burt Ward who looked like they were involved in some college film doing guerrilla filmmaking in random public locations. I was further surprised the following week when "The Roast" episode aired. I didn't even think the Dean Martin Roasts were very funny, so this just looked like a travesty. Another bizarre chapter from goofy 70s TV.