Sunday, Jul 24, 2016
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio


New life for '70s superheroes

You've got to hand it to the Legion of Doom: For a loose coalition of insane evil geniuses dressed in diving helmets, wooly parkas, and cheetah prints, its members knew what they wanted and they went for it.

Only now, three decades after I spent practically every Saturday morning with them, only now that Warner Home Video has released the swell new DVD, Challenge of the Super Friends: Attack of the Legion of Doom ($19.98), do I see why Cheetah, Captain Cold, Black Manta, and Co. had to stop the Super Friends. The Legion of Doom had the good sense to hide out in a giant Darth Vader helmet hidden beneath a swamp. The Super Friends lived in a glass house in the middle of a city. The Super Friends were weenies.

I'm sure every 1978 rug rat thought that secretly, too, but the four vintage episodes of this '70s Gen-X chestnut are a kind of undeniable proof that bad guys get the best material. Ask yourself who's cooler: Black Manta, in freaky goggle gear, his pedal to the metal in a demonic speedboat, or Aquaman, in an orange leotard, piloting a Jet Ski? Captain Cold freezing San Francisco, Washington, and New York with a ray gun or The Flash announcing that he will now run really fast in circles and “generate enough steam to defrost the city”?

The only complaint I have about animator Bruce Timm's Justice League series, his Cartoon Network update of Super Friends, is that I wish it had come sooner. Justice League: Justice on Trial (WHV, $19.98), a new four-episode DVD sampler of that fantastic show, takes most of the same team - Superman, Batman, Green Lantern - and gives it the personality of the classic Justice League of America comic book. What's new is it engages the way a great comic book does, with bad guys who are sinister but forgettable compared to the jealousies, sexual tension, and splits within the Justice League itself. Superman is a Boy Scout. Batman is a loner; you rarely see him hanging around the Justice League headquarters, which is now a satellite orbiting the Earth. And Aquaman is out of the picture - though he does make a guest appearance, looking more Grizzly Adams than Mrs. Paul's.

What I don't like about these discs is they're fairly skimpy: Even X-Men Evolution: Mutants Rising (WHV, $19.98), a far more cynical animated take that gives the Marvel crime-fighting collective a dash of My So-Called Mutant Life, is only four episodes long, or less than 90 minutes. X-Men: Legend of Wolverine (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $19.99) is stiffer with its animation - similar to the animated Spider-Man discs - but it includes five episodes and some interesting commentary. If only I could get behind the X-Men more, in general; the series always felt way too geeky to me, way too obsessive compulsive.

Speaking of obsessive compulsive: If nothing else, these DVDs have sent me scrounging through the basement for rare issues of Ghost Rider (still in their plastic bags - yesss). And now I cannot be satiated on a mere four episodes per disc, per year, not while Friends aficionados walk around free to enjoy their multidisc sets.

Hulk smash Chandler!

Take Timm's Batman - The Animated Series: Tales of the Dark Knight (WHV, $19.98), a welcome second DVD installment of the great 1990s show, but a paltry DVD. With a look that Timm once described as “deco noir” - all dim Gotham canyons, roving searchlights, and darting shadows - it's the first superhero series to capture what fans like about superheroes. Basically, they like prickly heat, the dark angst of a brooding misfit with a healthy bank account, and lots of free time for acting self-righteous. Timm's Batman and Justice League are former geeks who got cool. The Super Friends are your cousins from North Dakota, straight off the Up-With-People bus, still wearing their varsity letter jackets, and ready to save a world that's long since cut back on the electric bill.

In the pantheon of Doomed Hollywood Ideas, Ely Landau's big plan was more well-meaning than most. The producer of Sidney Lumet's 1962 film A Long Day's Journey Into Night, and clearly a man who had very certain ideas of what constituted proper culture, he was fixated on sex and violence in American film, and decided he wasn't going to take it anymore. So he founded the American Film Theater. Talk about bad timing. The idea was top talent would be wooed to high-quality feature productions of acclaimed plays, and hungry movie audiences would pay for them on a subscription basis. Why wouldn't investors support a four-hour Iceman Cometh when the box office was sold in advance?

Here's why: Landau developed the AFT in 1973, at the height of Hollywood's second Golden Age. Filmmakers and actors were plenty challenged. What's astonishing is that Landau managed to pull off 14 AFT productions anyway. Unavailable on video since 1978, Kino is reissuing the whole shebang this year, available as separate films ($29.95 each) or collected in three box sets ($119.95). The first five just arrived: Jean Genet's The Maids, Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, the Harold Pinter-directed film of Butley, John Osborne's Luther, and, best of all, filmmaker John Frankenheimer's intimate rendition of The Iceman Cometh.

As rarities, they're fascinating, featuring lost performances by Judi Dench (Luther), Alan Bates and Jessica Tandy (Butley), and the long-forgotten second pairing of The Producers' Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in Rhinoceros. The discs feature ample extras, too: interviews, reproductions of programs, and a different essay on each DVD by Village Voice critic Michael Feingold. But to the extent you can find films this stiff on a dozen cable and public-television stations today, this AFT batch is a victim of its own foresight. The films seem muted, not subtle so much as suffocatingly tasteful. The exception is Frankenheimer's intense Iceman, starring Lee Marvin, Fredric March, and a young Jeff Bridges; it's an ideal marriage of the poetry of Eugene O'Neill and sprawl of a movie epic.

NEW ON VIDEO: Bloody Sunday (A harrowing blow-by-blow account of the 1972 afternoon when British soldiers killed 13 peace marchers, told in roving documentary style; very underrated stuff); Darkness Falls (Nice title, but this is boilerplate horror junk about, no kidding, the bloody revenge of the Tooth Fairy).

NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: The Believer (Which actually did play Toledo, if you count the Showtime airing of this disturbing and provocative Sundance Film Festival favorite about a young neo-Nazi); Real Women Have Curves (This blue-collar tale of a young Latina who decides college is her ticket out of a factory life has an easy charm that doesn't leave a sour sitcom aftertaste).

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