Written by Mugo del Jefe
Musgo should know better. When you ask for companies to empty their vaults, sometimes you get just what you asked for. The Warner Archives Collection may be one of the more wonderful things that a company has done for the movie lovers in the past decade. Instead of milking some of their more obscure releases for anniversary editions or part of holiday promotions, they’ve made no-frills editions of the movies available online as made-to-order DVDs. This has been a boon to those of us who have scoured used VHS racks for previously out-of-print films. This collection has given us Brewster McCloud, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Bad Ronald, Slither, and Americathon. These films wouldn’t survive on the shelves at a major retailer but they find their homes on the Internet.
The same company that has released Goober & The Ghost Chasers and Funky Phantom collections has recently released two episodes of a lost show from the Seventies – Legends Of The SuperHeroes. For those of us old enough to remember – the name is a way that NBC tried to link these two live action episodes back to the Super Friends cartoons airing on Saturday mornings. In January 1979 when these episodes aired the Super Friends was an hour long Saturday morning show featuring Challenge Of The Super Friends as the second half hour – still one of the most entertaining of the incarnations. At the same time, the early Seventies creations of Sid and Marty Krofft including H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and Land Of The Lost were still finding audiences on daytime and Saturday morning television through syndication. Out of this odd mixture of influences came two specials – The Challenge and The Roast.
The specials aired on consecutive Thursday nights on NBC in January of 1979. As an 11-year-old, young Musgo immediately found the ads for these shows in his TV Guide. They promised live-action versions of superheroes that I hadn’t seen except in comics or cartoons. At the time, there were repeats of the Batman live-action series and there was Wonder Woman. That was the beginning and end of DC characters I could see in “person” on TV. And my big screen Superman was still a year or two away.
The Challenge is an hour-long traditional comic book story. The Justice League of America consisting of Batman, Robin, Flash, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Black Canary and Huntress are gathered to celebrate the retired Scarlet Cyclone’s birthday (a great bit on Superman). At the same time, the Legion Of Doom (Mordru, Solomon Grundy, Riddler, Weather Wizard, Dr. Sivana, Giganta and a funny moustached Sinestro) unleash a deadly bomb that will blow up the Earth in one hour. The plot has our heroes spreading out to find the bombs, losing their powers, having a chase on cool ’70s-era jet skis, and trying to disarm the bombs with seconds to spare.
The Roast is a gathering of the superheroes at a celebrity roast hosted by Ed McMahon. There are several side skits that have little to do with the roast including an entertainment-style report by Rhoda Rooter, a song by Mordru, and a stand-up routine by Ghetto Man.
Both specials are shot on videotape with a very obvious laugh track to simulate a live audience. The special effects are largely done with a green screen and sound effects. They have the same feel as the ones being used on the Krofft shows of the day including Wonderbug, Bigfoot and Wildboy, and Dr. Shrinker. Green Lantern and Sinestro’s rays from their rings could be right out of an episode of Magic Mongo. The look of videotape does not go well with the stylized world of comic book heroes. It’s disconcerting to see Batman and Robin battling Solomon Grundy at a gas station while cars pass by and onlookers from the Italian place across the street look on.
The acting is another interesting combination. There are familiar faces from the Batman series – Adam West and Burt Ward play Batman and Robin again, as does Frank Gorshin as a very disinterested Riddler (check out his belly as he lounges in his chair in The Challenge). And then there’s the odd casting like Charlie Callas as Sinestro. I never imagined Sinestro with a Wise Guys Brooklyn accent. The best casting might be Howard Morris as Dr. Sivana. The character usually battles Captain Marvel as an evil genius. But here Howard, best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show plays him completely over the top in a way that only would be matched by an early Robin Williams.
The roast is where the show really can’t find its mark. It runs more like another Krofft product – The Donny & Marie Show or other variety shows of the day – more than it resembles a Dean Martin Roast. Ed McMahon is a perfect straight man but in many of the skits it’s clear that no one in the cast is up to the level of Johnny Carson to take advantage of his skills. There’s a skit with William Schallert as the Scarlet Cyclone. It’s one of the more cleverly written skits on the show and even with Schallert’s talents it just screams for Johnny Carson or a Jonathan Winters to play this elderly character.
It’s not surprising that these two episodes never turned into anything more. The ratings were horrendous and it disappeared quickly. But as with most things related to superheroes – especially the big names like Batman, the show became a thing of legend. Copies of it from really bad VHS copies circulated at comic conventions for years. People were curious to see what they had missed and people who were 11 years old at the time remembered it fondly 20 years later. But in its DVD glory here – the memories become too real. What looked presentable on a grainy, fourth-generation VHS copy – looks just as grainy and bad on DVD. The show hasn’t aged well, even as a cult item, there’s little to recommend. There’s a tiny excerpt of a deleted scene and outtakes and even that feels accidentally left on the disc.
But play on Warners. This is what we asked for. Warts and all. If every one of Legends Of The SuperHeroes helps to unearth more classics like Macabre and the upcoming Classic TV Christmas Collection then bring it on. And now Musgo must fly away like Ghetto Man . . . “Kareem!”.
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