Recently, while browsing the video offerings at the DC Universe streaming service, I was delighted/horrified to discover that this infamous special was available. Read this first, then check it out if you’re able, and brave enough.
Originally published June 8, 2005.
As the superhero movies come and go faster and faster these days, your humble professor gets the same question over and over, with each successively worse movie:
“Aren’t you worried about INSERT MOVIE HERE ruining the superhero movie?”
Last year, it was “Aren’t you worried about CATWOMAN?” Then a few months back, it was “Aren’t you worried about CONSTANTINE?” Nowadays, it’s “Aren’t you worried about FANTASTIC FOUR?” And my answer is always the same: “Nope.” Why is that, you ask?
Simple. No superhero movie, no matter how bad, how awful, how soul-numbingly un-good in every sense of the word, can hurt me. I’ve seen LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES. Truly, nothing else comes close.
What is LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES? Well, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’m still not sure. Airing on NBC in January 1979, LEGENDS was apparently one of Hanna-Barbera’s few ventures into live-action. If I had to guess, it seems to me like the success of the SUPERFRIENDS Saturday-morning animated series prompted the production of this abomination, a live-action comedy/action kids’ show that thankfully only managed to eke out two episodes, most likely because when the people bankrolling this trainwreck saw the finished project, they not only slashed funding, they probably slashed their wrists as well. And who could blame them, really? But I sense that you, gentle reader, might think I’m exaggerating about just how awful this thing was. So let me take you, through the miracle of videotape, through more than a few atrocious moments from LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES.
The episodes both begin with a roll call, introducing the titular legendary superheroes. Who’s in the lineup? Leading off is the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, surprisingly introduced here as such, as opposed to the usual “SHAZAM!” labeling the character gets from DC due to Marvel Comics’ ownership of the name.
Garrett Craig plays the Big Red Cheese here, and the costume looks, well, not that bad, honestly.
Next up is Green Lantern, or as he’s specifically introduced here “The Green Lantern,” played by Howard Murphy. GL’s costume doesn’t look quite as sharp as Captain Marvel’s and the mask is pretty laughable, covering more than half his face.
As bad as GL’s mask is, he’s got nothing to worry about next to Hawkman, whose helmet seems to be made of construction paper, while his wings resemble a nice quilted bedspread on the laundry line.
Not only that, when he dramatically rises up out of the dry ice for his introduction, he lets loose with a mighty squawk that, well, is pretty hard not to giggle at. I’ll say this for Hawkman actor Bill Nuckols, though: the guy was pretty ripped back in ’79. I mean, look at the guns on that guy.
Surprisingly, next to appear is the Huntress, in what was until just recently her only television appearance ever. The costume looks pretty good here, and actress Barbara Joyce seems to have the necessary, attributes, shall we say, to fill the role.
Why Huntress, though? Especially back in the days when she was only appearing on Earth-2? Well, the obvious choice here, Wonder Woman, was then appearing in her own series on CBS, and DC didn’t have that many female characters who weren’t merely analogues of male characters, like Supergirl or Batgirl. Of that bunch, the Huntress was undoubtedly one of the coolest (along with one other, who’ll be appearing shortly).
This is also the same reason, by the way, that Superman is nowhere to be seen, as his big-budget movie debut was only a few months old, and there were most likely legal obstacles preventing the character’s appearance. You ask me, Superman and Wonder Woman should be thanking their agents…
Our next legend, according to announcer Gary Owens (of course — who else would you hire back in ’79?), is “the joy of the oppressed, the wonder of the multitudes,” the Flash. Yeah, I wouldn’t have guessed from that introduction, either.
Rod Haase doesn’t have much to do here as Flash except stand around in one of the goofier costumes, as the show’s effects budget is so low, they just stop the camera and have Haase vanish from the frame, just after making an exaggerated “running” pose, to simulate super-speed.
Black Canary makes her first television appearance next, even sporting the mask she wore way back in her first appearances back in the late ’40s.
The uni-named actress Danuta plays the Canary, and much like the Huntress, isn’t expected to do much more than stand around and look pretty.
Somersaulting toward the screen next is the image of Robin, the Boy Wonder. However, when the acrobatics stop, it’s most clearly not the same person in the costume who was doing the somersaults — instead, it’s middle-aged Burt Ward, who really has no business being in green shortie shorts and flesh-colored tights at his age.
Finally, the star of the show is introduced: Batman, played by real-life legend Adam West, who looks much better back in his Bat-gear than co-star Ward.
Unfortunately, apparently nobody from the show’s wardrobe department had ever seen an episode of the classic BATMAN TV show, as no one bothers to tuck Adam’s cowl into his cape, resulting in a distracting flapping as the mask hangs loosely from West’s chin, making Batman look like he’s got a bit of a turkey-neck going on — hardly a sight to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
The first episode, “The Challenge,” aired January 18, 1979, and opens in the cavernous lair of the superheroes’ arch-enemies, referred to logically (if a bit on-the-nose) as “the Supervillains.”
The group sits in a semi-circle while the roll is called by none other than the late, great Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. Poor Gorshin — he must have needed the cash is all I can figure, and he didn’t even get to wear the cool business-suit-and-derby ensemble he preferred, instead stuck back in the question-mark-covered tights. You gotta say this for Gorshin, though — the producers got their money’s worth.
In every scene, Frank is chewing up the scenery, emoting, gesticulating and laughing his damn fool head off. Here’s Gorshin as the Riddler complimenting his own genius: “If Shakespeare had had my mind, there’s no telling how far he could have gone…”
It’s not easy to sell a line like that, but Gorshin does it (as does Adam West, in maybe the show’s only amusing callback). Even in this piece of crap, Gorshin is eminently watchable. Not that you can hear some of his jokes over the obnoxiously blaring laugh track slapped on this thing.
While Gorshin’s Riddler is clearly the star here, the leader of the villains is Mordru the sorcerer, an obscure but recurring villain from DC’s far-future LEGION OF SUPERHEROES comic book.
Exactly how Mordru made the list for a network television appearance I’ll never know, but the costume is as accurate as it gets, and Gabriel Dell overacts the part with gusto.
Each of the villains answers the roll call by abusing or attacking the Riddler in some way, in one of the show’s many running gags that don’t really run anywhere. Solomon Grundy is first up, with actually a pretty good makeup and costume job on actor Mickey Morton. Morton plays Grundy to the hilt, and along with Gorshin is one of the few bright spots here.
Also present is Sinestro, played by comedian, impressionist and 1970s funny-voice guy Charlie Callas, who surprisingly makes a pretty good Sinestro, despite not having the red skin or giant head.
Even more surprising is the appearance of comedian Jeff Altman as the Weather Wizard, in another dead-on perfect costume that looks just plain horrific in real life.
Altman is probably best known for his frequent LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN appearances in the ’80s (where he often cracked up Dave with his many references to “buttsteak” and his hilarious impression of his father: “I’ll flip you like a cheese omelet, buddy. I’ll beat you like a rented mule.”) and his starring role in what’s widely considered the worst TV series ever, PINK LADY AND JEFF. Here, Altman pretty much does his Johnny Carson impression in lieu of an actual performance (although that actually seems appropriate in the next episode, which we’ll get back to…)
Wonder Woman villainess Giganta is also in attendance, as played by Aleshia Brevard. Again, in keeping with the show’s decidedly low budget, she doesn’t grow to colossal size here, just bends a prop “steel” bar around Frank Gorshin’s neck for a cheap “superstrength” effect.
Finally, none other than Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana rounds out the group, played with a curiously German accent by the recently departed Howard Morris. Sivana has masterminded the group’s evil plan, a doomsday machine that will destroy all life on Earth.
What exactly is to be gained from this is never made clear, nor is the rationale behind sending the superheroes clues to their evil plan, for that matter. Regardless, the heroes soon get word though one of the Riddler’s riddles (in the middle of their ceremony honoring the elderly superhero “Retired Man,” about whom the less said the better), and are off to blindly search for the villain’s hideout.
The scene of the superheroes heroically leaving their headquarters (which, by the way, is clearly the same set as the supervillains’ hideout, only slightly redressed) has to be seen to be believed, with Captain Marvel merely jumping off-camera to simulate flight, Flash vanishing in a truly awful super-speed cutaway, and best of all, Green Lantern using his ring to disappear by shooting himself in the face with it.
The bulk of the show is taken up with the villains heading out in various disguises to mess with the heroes’ heads, apparently just for the fun of it. We see Solomon Grundy disguised as a gas station attendant, ripping engine parts out of the Batmobile…
…while Sinestro poses as a gypsy to read Green Lantern’s fortune…
…Riddler pretends to be a psychiatrist in order to analyze Captain Marvel (who gives up his secret identity after being on the couch for about 15 seconds, by the way — so much for the wisdom of Solomon)…
…and the Weather Wizard poses as a used-car salesman and sells Batman and Robin a motorcycle and sidecar, in which, as you might imagine, hi-larity will ensue.
Meanwhile, back at the gas station, Solomon Grundy has overpowered Hawkman and Black Canary and chained them to the auto lift. Of course. That’s what I would do.
Captain Marvel shows up and outwits Grundy (you wouldn’t think it would be that tough, but the other two couldn’t pull it off…), and here’s the sheer stupid moment that sums up, more than anything else, how teeth-clenchingly bad this show was. Hawkman, Captain Marvel and the Canary are still trying to figure out where the villains are, and Captain Marvel points out that Grundy mentioned a lake.
A bystander in a nearby phone booth who’s been watching the fight and making supposedly funny comments (NIGHT COURT’s Marsha Warfield, as it happens) helpfully adds that she heard Grundy earlier mention an island. And here’s the deductive genius Hawkman putting all the pieces together, in a bit of swear-to-god real dialogue from the program:
HAWKMAN: “There’s only one lake around here with an island: Hidden Island Lake!”
Dude. Dude. “Hidden Island Lake.”
I don’t even think it was intended as a joke, because the usually subtle-as-a-brick laugh track doesn’t make a peep for that line. I really felt myself get stupider, just listening to Hawkman say “Hidden Island Lake.”
Anyway, the heroes all converge on (sigh) Hidden Island Lake, where I see something I was fairly confident that I would never see on television: Mordru the sorcerer riding around on a jet-ski.
Yes, there’s a big jet-ski chase sequence between Batman and Mordru, followed by an even dumber fight scene in the villains’ lair, with fight choreography so bad, it makes the original BATMAN TV series look like it was put together by the Yuen Wo-Ping fight team. Burt Ward’s big contribution here is to get down on his hands and knees so another hero in better shape can push a villain over him, and so we can get this nauseating close-up.
Finally, Batman and company slam Sivana’s head into his own doomsday machine and, mercifully, “The Challenge” is over. Unfortunately things would only get worse with the second and final installment of LEGENDS OF THE SUPERHEROES, “The Roast,” which aired the following week, January 25, 1979. Here, viewers were subjected to even more non-side-splitting unfunny comedy, as the heroes were roasted and toasted by their friends and foes. Naturally, a host was needed, and somehow, famed TONIGHT SHOW sidekick Ed McMahon was cajoled, bribed or threatened into taking part in this faint imitation of entertainment.
Ed really brings the funny here; take this bon mot from his opening monologue, for example: “With all of these capes, it looks like Truman Capote’s closet in here!” Yikes.
It should be noted, by the way, that the writing credit for both episodes belongs to the “bad dream team” of Mike Marmer and Peter Gallay (if that is in fact their real names — Lord knows I’d take my name off this thing), who went on to write for that benchmark of TV comedy, BARBARA MANDRELL AND THE MANDRELL SISTERS.
Anyway, the villains all show up to “roast” the heroes, including the return of Jeff Altman’s Weather Wizard, who really kicks his Johnny Carson impression into high gear now. Other appearances include Hawkman’s mother Esther Hawkman, who’s even announced by Ed as being from Thanagar (dear god, I wish I was making this up)…
…another visit from Retired Man, and the introduction of …wait for it … Ghetto Man.
Billed as “the first Black superhero,” Ghetto Man proceeds to do three minutes of the worst stereotypical stand-up I’ve ever heard. It’s not remotely offensive, it’s just lame:
“It’s about time there were some colored superheroes — we don’t think Green Lantern qualifies as colored.”
“In the ghetto, we don’t say “SHAZAM!” to get our powers, we say “KAREEM!”
And so on. It’s just a train wreck, this thing, and it keeps getting worse, whether it’s Dr. Sivana lining up the superheroes for a physical (after appearing onstage in the form of a giant beaker … I still don’t get that) or a horrible Rona Barrett impression (a popular 1970s TV gossip host, for you young’uns out there) with the bitingly clever name of “Rhoda Rooter,” who interviews Giganta and the Atom about their new love affair.
At this point, I’m ready to gouge my eyes out (and I can’t believe I had to sit through this again in order to write this — the things I do for you people), and this is before the wacky sketch in which Batman threatens to beat Robin for totaling the Batmobile, or the appearance of Captain Marvel villainess Aunt Minerva (played by LAUGH-IN’s Ruth Buzzi) lining up the male superheroes in search of a new husband. And by the way, the sight of her being carried onstage by a couple of 1970s bodybuilder types is plenty unsettling…
Just as you thought things had sunk to their absolute lowest, the show closes with a big song and dance number by Mordru, who favors the crowd with his personal rendition of “That’s Entertainment!”, with all-new, evil lyrics (“I think diseases are nice/A condition that’s chronic/A plague that is bubonic”), that is, until Batman brings out the comedy classic, the pie in the face.
How does it all end? How else, with Ed McMahon yelling “KAREEM!” and flying off the stage. Yeah. I’m sorry, too.
This whole thing is like a fever dream, but without all the fun of the chills, nightsweats and dehydration. Luckily for you, the odds of you ever being subjected to this yourself are pretty slim, unless you know someone who likes you (or dislikes you) enough to make you a copy of this little-known piece of cinematic offal. If you should happen to see it, trust me: avert your eyes. But if you do happen to see it, you’ll know what I meant above — after this, I can skate through CATWOMAN or BLADE III in my sleep…