Thursday, October 21, 2010

Culture Shock 10.21.10: Is the world ready for ‘Legends of the Super Heroes’?

It’s no “Star Wars Holiday Special,” but another bizarre, seemingly forgotten 1970s television oddity has emerged, improbably, from Hollywood’s vaults.

As campy, cheap, absurd and embarrassing for all involved as it was 30 years ago, “Legends of the Super Heroes” must be even more so now.

I was there, and it wasn’t pretty.

Imagine a time before Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. It’s 1979, and despite the worldwide success of “Superman: The Movie” starring Christopher Reeve, when most people think of superheroes, they see in their mind’s eye the “bams” and “pows” of the 1960s “Batman” TV show.

Now imagine something even worse.

That something is “Legends of the Super Heroes,” now available as a made-on-demand DVD, with never-before-seen outtakes, from the Warner Archive online store,

Produced by animation studio Hanna-Barbera as a live-action companion to its “Superfriends” cartoons, “Legends” is comprised of two prime-time TV specials, “The Challenge” and “The Roast,” each featuring a cast of DC Comics superheroes and villains, along with characters created just for the show — characters we’d mercifully never see again.

Along with well-known heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash were B-listers like the Huntress, the Black Canary, the Atom and Hawkman, all portrayed by actors you’ve never heard of. Superman and Wonder Woman are suspiciously absent — in reality because other studios held the rights to use them in live-action productions.

Batman and Robin, however, are not so fortunate. They’re at the center of the proceedings, played once again by the dynamic duo of Adam West and Burt Ward.

A confession: I love the ’60s “Batman” TV show. Is it campy? Sure. But it never insults the audience; it lets you in on the joke. And both West and Ward are perfect in their earnest, deadpan performances.

But watching West and Ward struggle with what they’re given in “Legends” causes me physical discomfort. They deserve better.

In “The Challenge,” the heroes must do battle with the Legion of Doom, a club of villains who include the Riddler (Frank Gorshin reprising his “Batman” role) and Sinestro (comedian Charlie Callas). The plot — we’ll call it that — conveniently involves the heroes losing their super powers, allowing Hanna-Barbera to save money on not-so-special effects.

The second episode, “The Roast,” is a celebrity roast modeled after the old Dean Martin roasts or the recent Comedy Central roasts, only it doesn’t include off-color jokes about sex or race. Actually, I’m not sure it includes any jokes at all. On the plus side, it also doesn’t include Lisa Lampanelli. The villains from “The Challenge,” however, do return to menace our heroes, while other, more obscure heroes, like Retired Man (William Schallert), show up to roast Batman and company under the direction of roastmaster Ed McMahon. Seriously.

I’m amazed Warner Archive has dusted off this show. Obviously, someone demanded it, and bootleg tapes have circulated for years. But “Legends of the Super Heroes” isn’t so bad it’s good. It’s more like a train wreck, in a Third World country, where half of the passengers were riding on top of the train cars.

Is it worth $19.95 to own a pair of TV specials second only to the “Star Wars Holiday Special” in their infamy?

That depends on your tolerance for pain. (Yeah, I’m thinking about it.)

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