Superhero: American Flashback #1 (1966-1992)

Superheroes are a huge part of global pop culture. In fact, one is easily tempted to compare them to Greek and Roman Gods. As they’ve dashed onto our screens, American superheroes have taken many different forms. They can simply be heroic, complex, silly, or almost as dark as the villains they battle. Here’s a quick selection of memorable superhero depictions, from between 1966 and 1992. It doesn’t include everything but it’s a start!

1. Batman (1966–1968)

Just about everyone’s heard about “Batman,” as one of the oldest superheroes out there. He first appeared on screen in 1943 in a black-and-white, 15-chapter theatrical serial from Columbia Pictures, However, it wasn’t until 1966 that Batman truly found his footing on the screen. Of course, Adam West’s version of Batman is a polar opposite of the dark, brooding figure we’ve come to known. In fact, even the villains of ’60s Batman are a bunch of silly billies, seemingly more in it for the laughs than the thrills, chills or dollar bills. Even the fighting was comical, with punches punctuated by sound effects like “AIIEEE!,” “ZLONK!” “THUNK!” and “SOCK!” It is an indefinable blend of wholesome Americana and self-aware, zany sarcasm. Because the show winks so often, we can more easily forgive Batman for having too many gimmicks conveniently located in his utility belt.

The 1960’s Batman was accompanied by his ever-loyal sidekick, Robin (Burt Ward), and they fought zany incarnations of villains like The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin/John Astin) and The Catwoman (Julie Newmar/Eartha Kitt). When Adam West died in 2017, it seemed to end a more innocent era of super heroes, While some of his crises could be calamitous, there was always a sense that things will work out. Now in the average super hero movie, plucky optimism has been replaced with a cocktail of cynicism and pessimism. While serious superheroes work, there’s nothing wrong with looking back at this wholesome, more Scooby Doo-like Batman. Also, you simply have to love the 1960s Batmobile. It’s a testament to how lame people are that they’re not out driving cars like this very often. Then again, a special car needs a special driver like the Batman.

2.The Incredible Hulk (1978–1982)

Lou Ferrigno, Bill Bixby as a tragic superhero. (Photo credit: Universal Television)

While not a bad show, it’s impressive that “The Incredible Hulk” lasted four seasons over at CBS. This is perhaps due to the commitment of Bill Bixby to his character, Dr. David Bruce Banner. Then again, people also like seeing Lou Ferrigno “raging out” as the Hulk (and isn’t it refreshing to see it done without any computer animation?). While it’s a ridiculous premise at first, the idea of an average man unwittingly transforming into a powerful superhero when angered has some merit. It may be comparable to the Wolfman or Jekyll and Hyde, both semi-ridiculous stories in their own right.

It also helps that “The Incredible Hulk”never conveyed itself as a joke, and was fairly critically acclaimed. How successful was it? Mariette Hartley won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for her guest appearances as Dr. Carolyn Fields! As further evidence that Bixby liked his work, he actually directed the TV movies which followed the series. In other words, this wasn’t just a throwaway role for him, which even non-fans of “The Incredible Hulk” can respect. Finally, one can’t talk about “The Incredible Hulk” without mentioning that haunting piano theme. How sad can a superhero show be? Pretty sad, actually!

3. Superman (1978)

Not everyone’s a super fan of Superman. He’s a superhero that’s just too powerful. He has super strength, super speed, laser vision, x-ray vision, ice breath and probably a zillion other powers which curtail suspense. Nevertheless, Richard Donner proved that, in the hands of a skilled director, even a relatively boring super hero can be watchable. In fact, Christopher Reeve still stands (and flies) as the best Superman/Clark Kent. Also, Margot Kidder is memorable as Lois Lane and Gene Hackman is probably a better Lex Luthor than Jesse Eisenberg (sorry, Jesse). All that being said, Superman is still too powerful for the movie’s own good, while Lex Luthor’s scheme is a little too hare-brained overall. While it’s not exactly a boring movie, there is very little to ground “Superman” in terms of relatability. He’s reminiscent of the kid playing super hero who, at a whim, accumulates any power he can think of. Where’s the thrill exactly? It is lacking.

4. Masters of the Universe (1987)

A critical and commercial failure, Gary Goddard’s “Masters of the Universe” will have the average viewer wonder, “What the hell did I just watch?” Granted, it’s not the weirdest superhero film of all time, but it comes across as a jumbled mess. Although there is a plot, the plot doesn’t really matter, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, you’ll just remember Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man haphazardly heading to earth, where he’s pursued by Skeletor (Frank Langella) and his minions over a musical key (which teenagers mistake for a synthesizer!). It’s an amusing film, being a likely blend of intentional and unintentional humor. We barely get a proper introduction to He-Man or knowledge of what he’s about. Skeletor looks like an emaciated old wreck, and one wonders how he even wields power over anyone. Robert Towers looks hilarious as the evil Karg, and is definitely one of the most fun characters to look at — a jarring feast for the eyes!

Basically, the best performance is by Meg Foster as Evil-Lyn, although much credit goes to her set of amazing eyes. In fact, according to an interview with The Boston Globe, Foster sometimes had to wear contacts because her eyes distracted people too much! This fun film also stars Courteney Cox as Julie Winston, James Tolkan as the eminently high-strung Detective Hugh Lubic, Chelsea Field as Teela and Billy Barty as the lovable Gwildor. Also, this film has a special appearance by Dolph Lundgren’s pectoral muscles. Be on the lookout for those! If you want a potent blend of muscles, lasers and slave revolts, look no further!

5. Batman (1989)

Photo: © 1989 Warner Bros.

Why phrase it differently? Tim Burton’s original “Batman” frickin’ rules! How cool is it? Well, it probably inspired Prince haters to head out and buy a bunch of Prince albums! That’s right, Burton did a lot to make his movie uniquely modern, dark and visually compelling, while making it look like a big party. It changed the game for sure. So, what about Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s The Joker? They may just be the best incarnations of those characters ever, and augment each other’s performances perfectly. Both are alternately unhinged, yet oddly seem to stabilize each other.

We see Batman as a brilliant, wealthy and damaged recluse whose mysterious origins only keep us watching. Sure, we don’t really understand how he created the Batmobile, or the fifty billion other tools at his disposal. We just accept that Batman’s so neurotic that he’s obsessively preparing for every little problem he may face while battling the scum of Gotham. We also see The Joker as a former average criminal elevated by his own ego into something far more powerful (and maniacal).

This movie has an underrated angle, too: The Joker is seeing his violent crimes as art, viewing the general public as just another project. Something definitely snapped inside his brain, but there are parallels between the good and the evil in the film. There’s a sense that Batman could easily go darker. Like most worthwhile superhero stories, this film lightly touches upon the duality of man, and even hints that there’s somewhat of an abyss for heroes. This was not Adam West’s Batman, that’s for sure.

6. Darkman (1990)

Known previously as the maker of “Evil Dead,” filmmaker Sam Raimi apparently wanted to create a superhero movie. After failing to secure rights to The Shadow or Batman, Raimi had a novel idea: Make his own brand of superhero! It’s not a bad approach, and an option more people ought to keep in mind in our age of reboots and re-imaginings. As a result of crafting his own vision, “Darkman” has a rather original feel, and at times seems like a journey into madness. Then again, this was the 1990s era of superhero, wherein darkness was more pronounced and lines between hero and villain were often blurred.

In fact, Darkman (played by Liam Neeson) is hardly a conventional hero. His main power in fact is his inability to feel physical pain, somewhat enhanced strength and a palpable rage. Of course, one of Darkman’s main tools is his mastery of disguise, thanks to his ability to craft realistic duplications of others’ faces. When he faces off against the villainous gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake), it seems Darkman was destined to become gloriously unhinged. On that note, one of the most memorable scenes in “Darkman” is when the hero dances around calling himself a freak. The dark humor is both funny and sad. Finally, Durant collects his victim’s fingers as trophies. Talk about letting your freak flag fly!

7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Photo credit: New Line Cinema

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are so powerful that, frankly, people seldom mention who created them. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird? They seem to rarely get acknowledged. Everyone and their dog knows the Ninja Turtles, though! The same is true of their first highly stylish film. Before directing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Steve Barron had directed music videos such as A-ha’s “Take On Me,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and even Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Still, how many people recognize him as the director of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film? It was a smash hit and helped cement New Line Cinema’s reputation as an edgy film company. Still, it was all about the Turtle power!

What else can be said about this movie? It’s frickin’ brilliant! There is so much chemistry between the characters, so many memorable quotes and moments, and even the Turtles look good (they would tend to look worse in the follow-ups, of course). It skillfully blends childish humor with grown-up themes (Raphael says “damn” numerous times, if nothing else). The Turtles seem potentially vulnerable, which heightens the drama, Shredder (James Saito) comes across as genuinely menacing, which is important. Last but not least: Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) is cool as a cucumber, being roughly as memorable as the Turtles or Splinter (Kevin Clash) themselves. Honestly, who doesn’t love when he exchanges insults in alphabetical order with Donatello (Corey Feldman)? Of course, you also have to appreciate April O’neil (Judith Hoag) and Tatsu (Toshishiro Obata), even if they don’t contribute much to the overall action.

8. X-Men (TV Series 1992–1997)

In 1989, Marvel had tried and failed to launch an X-Men cartoon.  Even the title was clunky, as “X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men.” Among other problems, they strangely gave the Canadian Wolverine (Patrick Pinney) an Australian accent! This alone implied a lack of attention to character continuity, or dismissed it like, “This is kid’s stuff, so who cares?” So, when the 1992 series came around, it was a chance to do the X-Men right, and did they ever! Granted, it’s not a perfect cartoon, but it’s substantially better than the films (or the first three anyway). You have the classic story elements, such as the X-Men protecting mutants from being persecuted by normal humans. You have classic X-Men enemies portrayed accurately, and in really cool ways. Wolverine (Cathal J. Dodd) is actually Canadian this time!

On that note, let’s put it simply: Unlike many of the movies, the 1990s cartoon isn’t overly Wolverine-centric. Characters like Cyclops (Norm Spencer), Rogue (Lenore Zann), Beast (George Buza) and Gambit (Chris Potter/Tony Daniels) are given relatively equal time. In fact, this series reminds us that Cyclops is actually the X-Men’s leader! Also, how could the films have ignored Storm (Iona Morris/Alison Sealy-Smith) so much? She only has one of the coolest sounding names ever: Ororo Munroe! Even that is cool about her, right?

There are plenty of great villains, too. Apocalypse (John Colicos/James Blendick/Lorne Kennedy) towers above puny humans and mutants alike. Magneto (David Hemblen) retains complexity, somehow more so than in the movies (despite it being a literal cartoon). They even find time for some Omega Red (Len Doncheff) and Mojo (Peter Wildman) action! Finally, Juggernaut (Rick Bennett) tends to kick butt, and one almost roots for him despite being a villain! Quite simply, “X-Men” got a lot of things right, and the faults were so few that, honestly, they should have just made this as the template for the movies.

What are your thoughts on these superhero ventures? Let us know in the comments!

About Wade Wainio

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