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?
2.13: The Great Escape
— Danny Horn