Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hero at Large

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 6.5/10

A struggling actor with a good heart lands a role promoting the superhero film "Captain Avenger".  When he finds himself foiling a late night stickup at a corner grocery, he is drawn by the idea of being a real world costumed hero but quickly discovers it's more dangerous than imagined, and that comicbook morality doesn't mesh well with real world politics.   

This is a mostly-forgotten film starring the late John Ritter, fresh off his Three's Company years at the time.  In many ways, it's the forerunner of today's stream of gritty "real life" superhero movies like Kick Ass and Watchmen, movies founded on the idea of, "What would it REALLY be like to put on a costume and go out to fight bad guys?"  While Kick Ass answered this question with lots of gory, OTT violence, Hero at Large was a much gentler film even though our hero's antics nearly get him into as much lethal trouble.

It's a simple formula pic and it didn't do very well when it was released - I recall watching it back in 1980 and being disappointed because it was a "John Ritter movie" and we expected it to be a wacky comedy full of sitcom slapstick instead of the largely serious adventure/romance/vigilante film it is.  Approached with the right expectations, it's a surprisingly enjoyable and heartening flick.  Eternally-struggling New York actor Steve Nichols lands a job dressing up in costume as "Captain Avenger", a popular comicbook star getting his own big-screen movie.  Steve's job is to turn up at theaters, sign autographs, talk to fans, etc.  While the rest of his busload of fellow "Captain Avengers" loathe the job and feel ridiculous, Steve embraces it with enthusiasm and enjoys the chance to personify the hero of lots of children.

One evening after a long day of appearances, he finds himself in a corner grocer that's being robbed.  He overpowers the crooks while wearing his costume and the story becomes a media sensation, with the whole city stoked up to hear more about the mysterious masked hero who saved the kindly old shopkeepers.

Instead of being a comedy, the movie follows a fairly dramatic path from here, alternating between Steve's attempts to romance his beautiful next door neighbor and his internal debate over what to do with his sudden Captain Avenger fame.  Viewers looking to see loads of KickAss-style ultraviolence will be disappointed, since the bulk of the film is about the choices Steve makes instead of his outings in costume.  He does make further attempts to live the role of the hero and is promptly shot by real bullets, discovering quickly that armed criminals are a lot more dangerous than they seem on the comic page.  Meanwhile, genre conventions are further undermined by how easily city officials are able to discover the real identity of their new superhero and start working to make his popularity work for them.  Eventually Steve is conned into a faked crimebusting encounter that's dismantled easily by an investigative reporter (Remember when we used to have those, before they just started reading out the White House press briefings?).  Things go bad, leading to a tense climax where Steve and the city have to decide what constitutes a real world hero.

It's a good film.  I enjoyed it much, much more in my 40's than I did at 14 - It's a surprisingly mature film for its subject matter and I personally thought it was far better than current flicks like Kick Ass in how it handled the whole "real life superhero" concept.  One element that made me sadly nostalgic was the basic premise - Modern films treat the idea of people putting on superhero costumes as being dangerously insane.  The Kick Ass kid is an idiot who reads too many comicbooks and thinks he'll be cool by becoming a superhero.  The characters in Watchmen dress up by turns because they are amoral thugs, psychopaths, or sexual fetishists.  The closest modern film to Hero at Large is Defendor, which operates on the concept that only a mentally-retarded person would try this.  Hero at Large, by contrast, gives us one of the few cases where a normal guy decides to put on a costume and be a hero out of the goodness of his nature.  John Ritter plays this so well it's completely believable - Steve Nichols is naive, sure, but his fumbling attempts to be a real world superhero stem from a desire to help and inspire others, not out of mental imbalance or just plain crazy.  It's a bit sad to think that this theme would never fly today...  It would almost certainly be seen as "too wholesome" in this age of grim and gritty comicbook movies.  This is ironic because when it was released, it was too serious - People wanted Jack Tripper falling down the steps, not a thoughtful examination of the pitfalls of a costumed hero.

It's a corny film when all is said and dine, but that's not a bad thing.  You'll end up rooting for Steve in a way that I never did for Dave Lizewski, and unlike KA, Steve actually manages to make the world a tiny bit better without leaving a trail of wholesale bloody slaughter in his wake.  Worth seeing!

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