At least now we know why they wear masks.
Take another look at The Dark Knight before you watch Legends of the Superheroes. Revel in its thematic complexity, expertly plotted action, narrative sophistication and performances from the best actors in the world. It will help you appreciate just how far comic book adaptations have come from… well, from this. Hit the jump for my complete review.
Legends of the Superheroes exists in the same circle of hell as The Star Wars Holiday Special: a perverse curiosity so mind-numbingly awful that it achieves a bizarre sort of perfection. To look upon it is to flirt with madness; you don’t so much watch as gape in saucer-eyed disbelief that real, actual grown-ups signed off on such a mess. It stems from an era when “children’s entertainment” served as an excuse for all matter of creative sins, from shoddy production values to horrendous scriptwriting to performances that wouldn’t pass muster at a community dinner theater.
Stemming from the unholy swill factory of Hanna-Barbera, it attempts to create a live-action version of the studio’s Superfriends cartoon while emulating the camp formula of the Adam West Batman TV show. West returns as Batman—now in his forties and struggling to keep from spilling out of his girdle. Burt Ward joins him as Robin, along with a gaggle of embarrassed-looking actors portraying Captain Marvel, Black Canary and various other DC characters. The first half of the program sends them against a stripped-down version of the Legion of Doom, led by Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and populated by an array of summer-stock rejects in supremely unflattering spandex. The second half entails a roast of Batman, hosted by Ed McMahon and featuring various villains and fourth-tier celebrities launching old vaudeville jokes at the assembled do-gooders.
Directors (and I use the term loosely) Bill Carruthers and Chris Darley hang a series of barely developed comedy sketches on their premise, as the heroes scour the Earth in search of their nemeses, who in turn befuddle them with an array of cheap disguises and silly accents. Legends of the Superheroes clearly hopes to engage both sides of the child-adult equation, as the kids lap up their four-color idols and grown-ups snicker at the cornball jokes. It’s not hard to pull off, even back then (witness The Muppet Show) but you wouldn’t know it to look at the results here. The content remains painfully amateurish, with gags scribbled on cocktail napkins and handed to professional nincompoops in a vain effort to pass them off as “fun.”
Credit Gorshin for giving it the old college try. He deploys his signature giggle like a Dutchman with his finger in the dike, working feverishly to entertain us by sheer force of will. West and Ward fare far worse, both having clearly gone to seed and now struggling through their decade-old shtick in what has to be a career low. The remainder of the cast either stands around like sleepwalkers, or hams it up in an effort to counter Gorshin (Epic Fail in every case). If you look closely, you can spot some of them wondering if they should just bolt off stage mid-shot , and whether that would keep them from getting paid.
As unintentional comedy, it edges into Ed Wood-level immortality. The video stock and 70s-era special effects (straight from Sid and Marty Krofft) carry a certain nostalgia value … provided you’re drunk enough and have copies of actual good superhero movies to minimize the pain. Having said that, you’ll still need to wade through the canned laugh track, impromptu musical numbers and piece de resistance–a “minority superhero” named Ghetto Man who truly must be seen to be believed. Those inclined towards such carnage may find it amusing enough, but the faint of heart need not apply.
And even with the Golden Turkey vibes running high, Legends of the Superheroes betrays an underlying pathos that ruins the fun. West deserved far better than this, the sad death rattle of his once-enjoyable romps that reminds you how great he was and how far he fell. Indeed, Legends of the Superheroes truly succeeds only as a measure of just how bad it can get, lending some perspective to the Catwomans and Fantastic Fours of our modern era. It doesn’t so much scrape the bottom of the barrel as punch through it to the shrieking void on the other side… a void where it really should have stayed.