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Legends of the Superheroes
October 26, 2010

I never imagined that I’d see a formal DVD release of these two 1979 specials that have been talked about for years, circulating in badly dubbed, multiple-generation copies. This Warner Archive release just premiered on DVD for $19.95, and right now it’s on sale at 10% off. Unlike other made-on-demand discs, this one has been

meticulously restored from the original Two-Inch Master (once thought lost)

and includes bonus footage, in addition to the two shows, “The Challenge” and “The Roast”, that originally aired as one-hour specials. It’s definitely really good visual quality — in the service of outrageously cheesy material. This is a sitcom approach to superheroes.

The Cast

Legends of the Superheroes

The stars of the show are Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, returning to their famous roles. To support them, both specials feature the same cast of superheros, introduced with a brief description of their abilities and catchphrase, as narrated by Gary Owens (Laugh-In). The lineup is

  • Captain Marvel (Garrett Craig) (who sadly never gets to use most of his powers)
  • Green Lantern (Howard Murphy)
  • an incredibly well-built Hawkman (Bill Nuckols) described as someone who “fights the evils of the present with the weapons of the past”
  • the underused Flash (Rod Haase)
  • and thankfully, two women: Huntress (Barbara Joyce) and Black Canary (Danuta) (in an extemely low-cut costume)

According to the credits, all this is “based upon the characters appearing in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA magazines published by DC Comics, Inc.” (as represented by consultant Sol Harrison). I was thrilled to see one of my all-time favorite characters, the Huntress, included, but she doesn’t get to do or say much of anything. Oddly, in her intro, she’s wearing orange (probably a video processing artifact from the original special), but when she’s running around in the woods (in “The Challenge”), she changes to pink.

In terms of villains, we get a bunch of semi-well-known 70s comedians mixed with exaggerated physical types:

  • Riddler (Frank Gorshin), who handles the bad guy roll call as a series of questions but doesn’t return for “The Roast”
  • Solomon Grundy (Mickey Morton) is my favorite, creepy and huge with excellent makeup
  • Sinestro (not pink-skinned, instead with a deep fake tan) is played by Charlie Callas
  • Weather Wizard (Jeff Altman)
  • Giganta’s (A’leshia Brevard) origin as a former gorilla is mentioned, then she plays with an obviously rubber “steel bar”
  • Dr. Sivana (Howard Morris) with goofy voice
  • Mordru, Master of the Universe (Gabe Dell), can’t get his fellow villains to shut up and pay attention to him

The makeup overall is pretty good, and the costumes are faithful to their comic counterparts (which sometimes ends up looking ridiculous, as with Hawkman’s mask).

The Challenge

In the first special, a doomsday machine created by Dr. Sivana provides the plot. The bad guys have set it to go off in an hour, destroying everyone on the planet but them, and they’re going to give the heroes clues to find them … “but too late!” The laugh track makes all this more ridiculous, especially when they’re laughing at the power displays. The dialogue, as you might guess from the casting, is “comedic”, full of bad gags and setup-setup-punchlines.

All the heroes have gathered to honor “Retired Man”, formerly the Scarlet Cyclone (William Schallert), when they hear of this threat. The rest of the show just washed over me in bits of memorable moments: Batman keeps using ridiculously non-gendered language, “in deference to the ladies”, which makes him look like an ass. The team decides, in lieu of having any communication devices, to leave messages for each other at the gas station down the road. That causes Mordru to dress Grundy up as the gas station mechanic. Black Canary has a stunt cycle, which is cool but not seen nearly enough. And Batman’s cowl isn’t tucked in, reportedly because West didn’t remember how to wear the costume.

Logic is absent, or sacrificed to the need to avoid special effects. No one ever flies. Sinestro messes with the Batmobile by hand, instead of using his ring. Batman and Robin ask Grundy for mechanical help, before they recognize him, and then Robin tries to talk Batman out of fighting the villain. The heroes end up walking off, leaving the car behind. Later, the Dynamic Duo jog down the street in order to set up Altman’s turn as a used car salesman.

Meanwhile, Sinestro is in drag as a gypsy fortuneteller to taunt Green Lantern, who recites his oath before using the ring on the villain. When facing off with Captain Marvel, Gorshin does a variety of voices (quite well) while playing a psychiatrist. Marsha Warfield (Night Court) cameos as a fan in the phonebooth at the gas station. She also gets her share of punchlines.

If you analyze the characters in terms of results, it works out that Robin is the smartest hero, and Solomon Grundy is the most effective villain, actually capturing two of the heroes. Yay for Grundy!

The Roast

“The Roast” starts with the same opening as “The Challenge”, and the jokes are similar, but they’ve gotten rid of much of the action, instead substituting host Ed McMahon. In addition the returning Weather Wizard, Dr. Sivana (with doctor jokes), Solomon Grundy (yay!), and Retired Man, each of whom gets a skit, we meet Hawkman’s mom (Pat Carroll); Ghetto Man (Brad Sanders), who points out that Green Lantern doesn’t qualify as “colored people”; and a superhero gossip columnist (June Gable), who interviews new couple Giganta and the Atom (Alfie Wise). Plus, Batman and Robin play charades, Sinestro gets a new costume, and Ruth Buzzi appears as Aunt Minerva, described as the “Zsa Zsa Gabor” of supervillains.

It’s all capped off with a musical number in which Mordru sings! You can’t even imagine how this looks until you’ve seen it.

Extras and Final Thoughts

They’re billing this as “a must see for any Batman/superhero fan” with never-before-seen deleted scenes. Those bits of footage are historical curiosities, but it’s easy to see why they were left out. The only actual scene is extra bits of Dr. Sivana messing about with Batman and Robin from “The Roast”. The rest of the extras are samples of the outdoor footage (from “The Challenge”) ruined by airplane or car horn noises or setup problems, plus a click track version of Mordru’s number. It’s unlistenable, but it indicates how they’re really trying to give us anything they could find. Other Warner Archive releases have been bare bones, so the idea of adding extras may be an experiment with this project. It’s one I’d like to see them continue.

As for the former statement, it’s true this is a must-see if you’re a completist, or if you want to see just how far superhero TV has come from where it has been. It’s kind of sad that the only examples of Adam West and Burt Ward in their signature roles are either this or the Batman movie, since Fox and Warner haven’t been able to come to terms over collections of the series. Kids spoiled by all kinds of good superhero movies and cartoons may find this a hoot, and older viewers can appreciate just how good fans of superheroes on film have it these days. I’m glad to have this, as a significant part of superhero media history, but I can only see watching it again with a few glasses of wine under my belt. Especially once we get to the jetski chase between Batman, Robin, and Mordru. Poor guy — his beard mats when it gets wet. (The studio provided a review copy.)

6 Responses  
Grant writes:  

Enjoyed the review. Funny stuff. I wonder why Marvel didn’t try somthing similar? Maybe they thought the Spider-Man/Hulk live action was serious and they didn’t want their characters to look as silly as DC’s did in this special. Although looking at the Spider-Man live action show it’s hard to think that didn’t look silly even in the 70s.

Incidentaly, there’s a back issue of Back Issue (cant remember the iss number) that has a pretty good article about this, including a section on what happened to the actresses that played Huntress and Black Canary.

 
Johanna writes:  

Is it Back Issue 25, from November 2007? That one includes a mention of “Legends of the Superheroes” in the description.

 
wr writes:  

It’s really sad that this is the closest we ever came to getting the superheroes as they truly appeared in the comics, complete with their accurate backstories, costumes and characteristics, on film.

 
The Last Dinosaur » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[...] a third category of movie they put out, though, which is flat-out so-bad-they’re-entertaining disasters. In that category falls The Last Dinosaur, a 1977 TV movie co-produced with a Japanese [...]

 
Warner Archive Geeks Out With Con-Season Sale » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[...] as mailed, continued with images of The Last Dinosaur (showing geek favorites), the comic-focused Legends of the Superheroes (promoting pulp heroes), and The Herculoids, for their significant collection of animation [...]

 
Xav writes:  

A blogger by the name of Marc Tyler Nobleman recently unearthed some information on Barbara Joyce, who played Huntress. She past away last year.

http://noblemania.blogspot.com/2011/09/super-70s-and-80s-legends-of_24.html

I still remember what she and Danuta Wesley (Black Canary, now Danuta Pfeiffer) looked like in costume, though I was only 8 when I saw it.

 

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