Studios weren’t too eager to spend $200 million to turn a comic book into a movie back in the ‘70s. Superhero action was strictly kiddie entertainment. Super Friends and Shazam! were Saturday morning fare. Even though Wonder Woman and The Hulk aired in prime time they weren’t glamor productions like CHiPs. DC Comics had no problem lending their greatest talent to Hanna-Barbera for two live action specials. No way today’s Warner executive would sign off on Batman and Robin taking part in a low budget TV show featuring the star of Pink Lady and Jeff. They wouldn’t want to taint their serious Batman with the campy humor found in Legends of the Superheroes.
There were three major TV eagerly awaited events during the 1978-79 season: The Star Wars Holiday Special, Rescue From Gilligan’s Island and Legends of the Superheroes. What made two episodes of Legends such a buzzed about event on the playground was the reunion of Adam West and Burt Ward with their Batman and Robin wardrobe. It had been over a decade since they hung up their capes. Making the special even more golden was Frank Gorshin back in his Riddler leotards. My fondest memory of this two-part event is that my parents found horrible reasons to keep us out of the house until the last few minutes of each night. This was in the time before DVRs or even VCRs. For over 30 years, I have held my parents in contempt for thinking that a visit to a mall was more important to my life than witnessing the return of Adam West. They didn’t constantly rerun these specials like episodes of Jersey Shore. There was no way to merely borrow a VHS tape from a pal. I feared never knowing how they started. Thankfully a tasteful soul made it part of the Warner Archive Collection line.
“The Challenge” is an action episode that crosses Batman with a variety show’s comedy segment. A group of super villains have joined forces to take on the super heroes. Dr. Sivana (Howard Morris) has devised a Doomsday machine. But they’re not happy exploding the world in private. The heroes must be lured to their evil lair within 60 minutes to witness their end. But how? The Riddler’s leaves clues around the area. Batman and Robin take the lead in the investigation. There’s a bit of comedy involving Solomon Grundy posing as a gas station attendant. The heroes can’t identify him as long as he keeps his cap on. Marsha Warfield (Night Court) has a cameo as a witness to the weirdness. Batman and Robin end up losing the Batmobile and have to buy a used motorcycle with sidecar. This leads to a stunt that looks more expensive than the rest of the production. There’s an epic jet ski chase that was cutting edge for its time. These two scenes are more risky than anything done on a Batman episode.
My memory of these specials had Hawkman only squawking. Luckily this wasn’t the case. He does speak lines when he isn’t making hawk noises. The limited budget makes his wings completely for decorative purposes. The most nostalgic moment comes when they show the price of a gallon of gas. Was it really less than 70 cents a gallon?
Outside of Adam West and Burt Ward, the other superheroes aren’t that memorable. Instead of hiring Shazam! star Jackson Bostwick to play Captain Marvel, Garrett Craig dons the lightning bolt. The rest of the cast is completely unknown beneath their hoods and masks. They appear to be a collection of folks who were normally extras in gym scenes. The villains got Howard Morris plays Captain Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana. He’s best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. Comic Charlie Callas goes yellow as Sinestro. As promised Jeff Altman (Pink Lady and Jeff) controls the atmosphere as the Weather Wizard. Ruth Buzzi’s Aunt Minerva wants to marry one of the heroes. Strange to think that it’s unknowns trumping known supporting players in the end of “The Challenge.”
“The Roast” revives Dean Martin’s old TV roast series. This time it’s the villains giving the business to the heroes. To make it feel authentic, Ed McMahon (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) hosts the hour. Nearly all the action takes place on the same set. The roast appears to have been a cost saving move after the larger scale first episode. The jokes are more for comic book nerds. There is a crack about Arnold Schwarzenegger that’s funnier now than in ’79.
The strange part about the roast is the lack of Frank Gorshin. He’d be a natural for such a situation. Altman fills in for the Vegas impersonation legend. They bring in a few fake superheroes for the tribute. Ghetto Man (Brad Sanders) looks like he wandered off a Dave Chappelle Show sketch. He ought to be an embarrassing moment. But the racial humor is cutting when he complains about a lack of minority superheroes. He declares the Green Lantern doesn’t count as colored. They even include a musical number when Mordour sings a parody of “That’s Entertainment” about his kind of evil plans.
Getting a chance to see Legends of the Superheroes after three decades has been a treat. My parents were so wrong in not getting me home in time to watch them on TV back in 1979. Adam West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin might be a little older and bulging the wrong ways in their tights, but they’re still a thrill when battling wits.The cheesy early video effects add to the campy fun. These were good goofy specials. These two specials are more engaging than the Star Wars Holiday Special. It should be noted that between the production and broadcast of Legends, Superman: The Movie would become a major blockbuster. This would mark the beginning of the end of major superheroes being allowed in low budget comedies.
The video is 1.33:1. The video transfers are quite good for the time. Things do look sharp for the most part without much bleeding. The detail in the capes and masks shine. The picture quality is fabulous for a a manufacture on demand DVD-R. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The sound mix is bold and brash with the brawling.
Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (8:29) is an unexpected bonus. Who hung onto these cut video segments? They look as good as the finished specials. Dr. Sivana does quick examinations of the heroes. Solomon Grundy breaks character. Green Lantern waits for an airplane to pass. The raw video of “That’s Entertainment” with the click track. Ed McMahon’s early take of the finale isn’t that much different.
Legends of the Superheroes brings back Adam West and Burt Ward as their rightful roles of Batman and Robin. This two episode special will appeal to all those who have been waiting for their Batman to get released on Blu-ray (no need to wait for a DVD anymore). “The Challenge” and “The Roast” taken together are caped cheese of the highest quality. Shame Ghetto Man didn’t get his own spin-off.
Warner Archive Collection presents Legends of the Superheroes. Starring: Adam West, Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin, Ruth Buzzi and Jeff Altman. Running Time: 95 minutes. Released on DVD: October 19, 2010.
Tags: Adam West, Batman, Captain Marvel, Robin