Superman II 2.12: The Nice Guy

The thing is, everybody thought that Superman would fail: it would look silly, the flying wouldn’t work, it would collapse under the weight of its own budget. Most importantly, everyone thought it would be too square for the seventies: a man in a cape fighting unironically for truth, justice and the American way, in an America that had lost its taste for unsullied superheroics.

So when Superman turned out to be an enormous hit, it knocked us back a step, forcing us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: are we as cool as we think we are? Do we believe that truth, justice and the American way is a workable ethic in this fallen world, and that an individual with power and talent would ever choose to commit himself to the general good?

Those are difficult questions to answer, and in our time of need, we turned to the nicest TV star that we could think of, who wasn’t currently on public broadcasting.

In February 1980, a little over a year after Superman’s debut, MGM released Hero at Large, an unbelievably earnest romantic comedy that examines the idea of how we’re supposed to live in a world where people make successful superhero movies.

The film was a vehicle for John Ritter, who’d recently broken big as the star of Three’s Company, a late-70s slapstick sex farce sitcom. The show was basically a series of mildly smutty double-takes punctuated with pratfalls, and Ritter got away with the shameless skirt-chasing and unceasing gay jokes by developing a persona that was aggressively non-threatening. Yes, he waggled his eyebrows at any woman he wasn’t explicitly related to, but then he’d trip over a couch, and apologize, and not hurt anyone’s feelings.

In the movie, Ritter plays Steve Nichols, a struggling actor in New York who can’t get an audition or pay his rent because he’s not very good at being an actor. He’s currently got a short-term gig dressing up in a costume to promote the new superhero blockbuster Captain Avenger, which is not very good at being a movie.

In this reality, a publicity agent in New York has hired 62 out-of-work actors to stand outside 62 movie theaters pretending to be the lead character, and sign fake autographs for anybody who wants one. This unlikely gig lasts for several days, and does not appear to be connected to a larger nationwide marketing strategy; the publicity agent in charge of it is also simultaneously working on the mayor’s re-election campaign. The people who made Hero at Large appear to have a deep misunderstanding about how movie promotion works, which is why you’ve never heard of Hero at Large.

Anyway, Steve is currently being paid to stand outside the theater, talking to kids and signing autographs, but the kids aren’t into it: they laugh at him, and call him a faggot. (They really do. A child says that to him.) After that, he gets on the Captain Avenger bus, with all the other fake Captain Avengers.

On his way home, Steve stops at a corner store to buy some milk, and guess what, a couple of neighborhood toughs with smart mouths and sharp knives try to steal money from the old folks who run the store. Steve’s still got his costume on, and he’s had some training in stage combat, plus to be honest he’s not amazingly bright, so he jumps out at the thieves and trades a few punches with them. He chases the crooks away, and the old people are suitably grateful for his timely and unexpected assistance.

In the morning, when Steve turns on the TV, the store owners are talking in fluent comedy Jewish to a news reporter, telling New York that Captain Avenger saved them from armed robbers last night.

The story goes over big with the public, and soon there are crowds at all the movie theaters, and everyone wants to shake Captain Avenger’s hand.

So here’s the thing that doesn’t make sense #1: The only problem in Steve’s life is that he can’t get any acting roles. Letting people know that he was the “Captain Avenger” who actually fought crime last night would get him positive attention and auditions. And here’s a news reporter covering the phenomenon, who specifically asks him, “Where were you last night at ten o’clock?” — and he pretends he’s not the guy.

I have no idea why he does this. There is no reason for him to not tell the truth at this point. The old couple would back up his story, he didn’t do anything wrong, and there’s no secret that he’s trying to protect.

Now, a moment’s thought would have allowed the scriptwriter to come up with a rationale, for example: Steve told a white lie to protect a friend from some bad outcome, and if he admitted he was fighting crime at that store last night, then the person would know that the friend wasn’t with Steve, and the friend would get fired/divorced/inconvenienced in some way. So Steve is tempted to tell people that he was the hero, but he chooses not to, because he’s a nice guy and he doesn’t want to let his friend down. That would be a sensible plot point.

Instead of that, Steve keeps his crime-fighting a secret because he’s such a blitheringly nice guy that it doesn’t seem to occur to him that he could profit from his good deed. It’s utterly baffling, a clear case of scriptwriter malpractice.

But the meet-cute! That’s the important thing. There’s a pretty young woman who lives across the hall that he’s been intermittently flirting with, and despite turning him down several times, she appears to be warming to his charms. All it would take to bring them together is for him to do something stupid, which is his area of expertise.

Still inexplicably pumped over last night’s anonymous escapade, Steve goes out and drives around with a police scanner and his Captain Avenger costume, looking for good deeds to do. He hears that the police are chasing some minor drug kingpins, so he joins the chase, and he ends up catching the crooks. One of the bad guys shoots at Steve, grazing his arm, and he’s so freaked out that he just gets into his car and drives away while the police make the collar.

Getting home, he finds that his landlady has locked him out of his apartment because he can’t pay the rent, so the pretty girl across the hall brings him into her apartment to recuperate.

So now he’s sitting there in her apartment with half a superhero costume on, and she patches him up and lets him sleep on the couch for a couple nights, giving them the chance to harmlessly banter their way into an affair.

Thankfully, the two of them are legitimately cute together. John Ritter and Anne Archer are appealing comic actors who know how to spark off each other, and there’s about twenty minutes of pleasant romantic comedy material that deserves a better story than the one they’re mildly involved in.

The problem with the plot is that the movie could basically be over right now. Steve and Jolene like each other, they have no important attachments to other people, Steve doesn’t want to be a superhero anymore, and the only thing that’s wrong with his life is that he still can’t get acting gigs, which he’s not trying that hard to do anyway.

But there’s one more confusing plot point that we might as well wrestle with.

As I mentioned before, there’s a publicity agent named Walter Reeves, who’s working on both the Captain Avenger promotion and the mayor’s re-election campaign. Everybody in New York is tickled that there’s a real “Captain Avenger” on the streets fighting crime, and if Reeves can find the anonymous hero and have him endorse the mayor, then they’ll win the election.

Reeves decides that the hero must be one of his 62 costumed Captain Avengers, and he somehow narrows it down to Steve. Reeves gets Steve to admit that he’s the real hero, and offers to pay him to do a staged rescue on a subway car, and then appear with the mayor at a campaign event.

So here’s the thing that doesn’t make sense #2: there is no reason why Reeves has to involve Steve in this plan. He has 61 other fake Captain Avengers, all of them out-of-work actors. Nobody knows that Steve is the real hero, so Reeves could pay any of them to pretend to be the costumed crime-fighter, and no one would know the difference.

But for some mystical unexplained romantic comedy reason, it has to be specifically Steve who gets seduced into turning a profit on his anonymous acts of heroism, because he’s the lead character, and they need something to do for the last half-hour of the movie.

So here’s the stilted and embarrassing nice-guy speech that Steve gives at the press conference:

I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate the honor you’re paying me — the mayor, and all of you. But I didn’t come here for that. I came here because I have something to say, and I have a chance to say it to a lot of people all at once. 

What I want to say is… that I don’t really matter very much. (The crowd objects.) No, no, no — you see, I don’t really matter very much — who I am, or where I come from, or if I’ll ever show up again. It’s what Captain Avenger stands for, that’s what’s important. And he stands for justice. And loyalty. And courage! Those things still exist!

And there are heroes everywhere if you look for them, and not just guys in flashy costumes and comic book names but… people, next door, down the block… people putting themselves on the line for other people. 

Oh, it’s tragic. This is exactly what we’re too cool for. It’s the kind of moment that Kermit the Frog could pull off, and literally nobody else. John Ritter is trying to strum that banjo and play as much of “The Rainbow Connection” as he can remember, but it’s not enough.

Naturally, the situation falls apart. Steve gets exposed as a fake, and he’s disgraced, and New York goes back to being cynical again.

But just when all seems lost, an apartment building catches fire, and Steve has another chance to be a hero. There’s a kid trapped in the fire — “My baby!” the kid’s mother shouts, “Save my baby!” — and Steve, still wearing the costume, recklessly rushes in to save the child. So he really is a hero, and therefore justice and loyalty still exist.

I still don’t think he’s going to get any acting jobs out of this, but I appear to be way more concerned about that than anyone in the movie is.

Now, the tragic thing about Hero at Large is that they’re trying to suggest that superhero movies are cheap and corny, and don’t reflect the reality of people’s lived experience. Early on, we see a commercial for the Captain Avenger movie, and it’s basically a parody of 1940s chapter serials. You know, all “Mind if I drop in?” and “Thank God you got here just in time!” That kind of thing.

But the actual Superman movie is better than Hero at Large in every conceivable way: better acting, better characters, better dialogue, a more coherent plot. The Superman/Lois balcony scene is better at romantic comedy than this romantic comedy is. They can’t even represent actors and movie studios properly, and you’d think that would be right in their wheelhouse.

The movie is also trying to reclaim the concept of “heroism”, with Steve asserting in that terrible speech that people next door can be just as heroic as costumed crime-fighters. But there aren’t any examples of real-world heroism in the movie; the big finale is about an amateur running into a burning building to save a child. It doesn’t reframe the concept of heroism to apply to real life; it’s still the same concept, but now John Ritter can do it.

So for now, I’d have to say that the score is still Superhero movies: 1, Real world: 0, and Superman II is the next one up to bat. All we need to do is to keep making high-quality superhero movies with a coherent plot and believable characters, and we’re all set. And how hard could that be?

Tomorrow:
2.13: The Great Escape

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Superman II 2.12: The Nice Guy

  1. Wow, that brings back memories of seeing it on the CBS Late Night Movie as a kid!
    Steve should have realized something was wrong when they replaced the flags and banners in the middle of his speech with those of the mayor.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I never heard at all of this movie. I’ll just get some popcorn and watch for this conversation.

    Pardon me while I trip over this coffee table here and wind up sprawled on the recliner, falling out of my warm-up jacket. Ah, now that’s a soothing way to wink at the ladies while the gay blogger does his thing. We all need a gay blogger in our lives, right girls? Not that my commenting on his blog means anything about my own love life, you understand.(Man, Ritter sure piled it on thick back then.)

    I do have a question, maybe for a future installment. You showed how Superman started with just beating up ordinary human hoodlum bad guys. By the time of the Lester movie, the comics were full of super-powered villians. All busy defying not just our gravity but also linear time, dimensional boundaries etc. When did super-villians come in? Did Doc Savage, The Shadow etc have super-powered enemies? Or did all that start with Superman?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I can’t speak to the others, but the Doc Savage stories never had any super powers. There were things that seemed supernatural, but they always had logical, science-like explanations; for instance, a rifle seemed to fire invisible bullets, but they were made of ice. The science could be a little out there, but it was still rooted in science as they understood it in the 30s.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Just a point of trivia – among the youngsters heckling Ritter’s Captain Avenger in front of a movie theater, there is a young teen Kevin Bacon, starting at about the 10:03 mark on this YouTube version. Who knew?

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “So when Superman turned out to be an enormous hit, it knocked us back a step, forcing us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: are we as cool as we think we are? Do we believe that truth, justice and the American way is a workable ethic in this fallen world, and that an individual with power and talent would ever choose to commit himself to the general good?”

    I think this is an excellent question and one that is still relevant today. It seems as if Superman rode high during this period of the first two films, but by the mid-80s he was once again relegated to either an outdated goody-two-shoes or, ala Miller, a fascist stooge. With Miller’s take on Batman and then the 1989 movie, the gritty Dark Knight took hold of public consciousness and, at least in terms of DC heroes, never let go. I don’t think Superman has ever eclipsed Batman in sales since then, or in public popularity. And I think that notion of him as “a nice guy” is why recent Superman films have struggled in their attempts to work around that.

    I hope Danny revisits this question through the course of this project as he hits various films, not just of DC characters but from Marvel too. Is there a place for a “nice” hero? Captain America and Spider-Man might fit here. Wonder Woman maybe? Anyone else?

    Liked by 5 people

  4. The first time I ever heard of this movie was mere weeks ago, when I saw Siskel & Ebert’s review of it on YouTube. They included a clip of Bert Convy in his villainous role, which made it easy to imagine what Dan Curtis had in mind for Dark Shadows when he wanted to cast Convy as Barnabas Collins. I doubt many DS fans will regret that Curtis didn’t get his way!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Watching Siskel and Ebert argue over a movie made me feel nostalgic. Since Tim pointed me to it on YouTube, I watched it. Ritter and Archer were good together but I think I mostly have to agree with Roger.
    I can’t say I remember ever seeing Convy act before. Just game shows. Though he and Frid are physically similar, he makes a pretty bland villain.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bert used to show up on Love Boat and Fantasy Island every now and again. All the neighborhood kids watched both shows while our parents got drunk and played pinochle at the weekly host’s kitchen table. Don’t recall that he was much of a leading man type.

      Like

  6. Hollywood, for all its eons of production of romantic comedies, slapstick comedies, and you name it comedies, has no sense of humor. That’s why it can never portray itself accurately in any context. The closest I’ve ever seen is the film The Player, a pitch-black satire about a sociopathic movie exec who gets away with every single thing.

    England seems better at this–they’re great at sending up the profession and actors there love playing hammy versions of themselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve seen worse. It was like an average made-for-tv movie. From the comments on YouTube, many people had fond memories of seeing it as a kid. I think it depends on how big a fan of John Ritter you are. I was really watching it because I was curious about Convy’s performance.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Jack Ritter was a great comedian. I always like to point out his dad was Tex Ritter the country singer and that Jack Tripper (his character on Three’s Company) is the one that taught me how to break an egg with one hand. It impressed me so much seeing him do it that I watched carefully and practiced until I could do it, too.

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