HERO AT LARGE (1980)

Fortuitously enough I read about this movie in an interview with James Gunn, who name-dropped it as an influence on SUPER, the best movie I saw in 2010. I never heard of it, and since Gunn called it a "classic" I hit imdb, noticed Kevin McCarthy's name among the cast, and immediately added the film to this series. Turns out this is the granddaddy of the "normal guy superhero existing in the real world" movie that has became so popular over the last decade with Mystery Men, Unbreakable, Special, Defendor, Kickass etc., even pre-dating the tv show "The Greatest American Hero." The parts of the movie that work make it worthwhile and are clearly what inspired Gunn, whereas the rest of it is largely forgettable flat comedy. The latter mediocrity ultimately overwhelms the good stuff, but the good stuff's still worth talking about.

John Ritter - returning to New York one year after shooting They All Laughed, he even gives a shout out to Ben Gazzara at one point - plays Steve Nichols, a struggling actor who deals with hardships like his landlady locking him out of his apartment and bully Kevin Bacon (there's your SUPER connection right there) taunting him in public. He's such a nice guy, he even gives his fellow actors the heads up on upcoming auditions and loses parts to them because of it: he's a lone idealist in the center of the hustle and bustle and get-ahead of New York City. When he strikes out with a chick, he doesn't skip a beat and invites an old homeless guy to coffee instead - later we see this old bum character again in a crowd, looking proud of Steve (sort of like the recurring homeless old guy in UHF, except less funny.) The latest indignity he weathers like a champ is putting on red rights, a golden cape and incredibly dumb looking 80's shades to join a group of actors dressed as Captain Avenger, a Superman-type comic book hero, as part of a promotional gimmick for an upcoming movie. Even though he fully commits to the boy scout-y wholesomeness of the part, he welcomes only ridicule from Bacon and his toadies and apathy from fellow Captain Avengers, who openly mock his enthusiastic desire to really nail the character. Even Steve's agent is put off by his client's good-naturedness, confining to a colleague: "He really wants kids to like him. That's kind of strange, huh?"

The film opens with a van carrying a giant effigy of the superhero on the roof, passing your typical NY oddballs as if to ask "Is the idea of a superhero really that strange in a city full of all these other weirdos?" It's like Jesus hanging from the helicopter at the beginning of La dolce vita, symbolizing flash and style taking the place of tradition and morals in modern day Rome - here the fact that nobody pays attention to the giant Captain Avenger "flying" between avenues shows that no one in the city has time for childish idealism. But they still love a good gimmick, so when Steve thwarts a bodega hold-up still dressed in his costume, the media goes nuts over the idea that a "real" Captain Avenger is out there fighting crime. Steve reels over the anonymous publicity and, after a fresh series of failed auditions, begins to crave the same feeling. He participates in a high-speed chase, but when he steps out of his station wagon in full costume setting an imposing stance, the crooks shoot him in the shoulder, thus deflating the hubris of the common man. Steve embellishes the superhero role, but can't hack it in the real world, as he confesses to a neighbor:

"A kid shot me in the ass with a pellet gun. He wanted to see if I was tough."

"What'd you do?"

"I screamed! I'm NOT tough. Not in the ass."

Still the public can't get enough of this genuine champion, which is where Kevin McCarthy enters the mix. As a sleazy PR man, he formulates a scheme to track down Steve, put him in the Captain Avenger costume and throw him up on stage with the city's unpopular mayor to make the politician look good so he gets re-elected. This plan has plenty of obvious flaws, the most glaring one being: why does it need to be Steve? Why not just hire another actor to dress up as Captain Avenger? It's not like anyone's going to know the difference. Everybody knows the guy in the tights doesn't really have superpowers, so it's not like they need him to swing in during the rally like Peter Parker's public appearance in Spiderman 3. If all they want him to do is shake hands with the guy and make some kind of endorsement speech, I'm sure there are a number of other struggling actors without superpowers out there who would have been willing to do exactly that. I guess McCarthy just wanted a small amount of authenticity: they know he's not a real superhero, they know he doesn't really support this guy's mayoral bid, but IT ABSOLUTELY HAS TO BE THE SAME GUY! I don't question McCarthy's logic and neither should you.

There are at least half a dozen sketchy individuals conspiring to connect Ritter's hero to this campaign, but McCarthy is the only memorable one. He's also the only actor in the movie who finds the right tone. Ritter is very good, but he must have been given some mixed motivations from director Martin Davidson (who made The Lords of Flatbush and Eddie and the Cruisers, which Paul Cooney keeps telling me is good but I haven't seen yet.) His genuinely affecting performance during the serious scenes is constantly off-set by some Three's Company-style mugging. That kind of hamming it up is fine during the more generic slapstick, like one scene where Ritter, wearing a pink bathrobe, ignites a befuddling romantic misunderstanding. But when he's shot in the shoulder he does a cartoon-y drunken swaying and rolls his eyes exaggeratedly: the only thing missing are the birds flying circles around his head. Anne Archer, playing the unattainable girl next door Steve wins over by assuring her "I will never treat you like a thing," has no rhythm with Ritter and is just not right for the part - they should have re-teamed Ritter with his They All Laughed partner Colleen Camp, or some actress with a sense of timing who was at least slightly appealing. Bert Convy goes overboard as the schlubby agent, but McCarthy plays Calvin Donnelly as a realistic scumbag, just out there to do what they pay him for and not mix personal feelings with business. He sees an opportunity and he grabs it up - that's his job. McCarthy only has three or four scenes, but he makes the most out of them. Even when he's just hanging out in the background, you can see his pride in orchestrating this ridiculous stunt for the mayor. But since he's not in full-on villain mode, it's not a classic appearance.

I recognized Leonard Harris, the actor playing Mayor John Woodson, from the first poster seen in the movie - he was aspiring presidental hopeful Senator Charles Palantine in Taxi Driver! (This and Driver are Harris' only credits, was he a real-life politician or something, like Fred Thompson?) I don't think it's too forced a comparison to say that there are parts of Hero at Large that feel a little like Taxi Driver. Both Steve and Travis Bickle are residents of a sin-soaked late 70's New York. Both have problems getting a girl to understand them. Steve even indulges in an intense set of sit-ups reminiscent of Travis' creepy self-improvement push-ups. Steve stopping the crook in the bodega is like a G-rated version of Travis gunning down the would-be robber of Victor Argo's grocery store, and both characters take the same kind of justified pleasure in it (the scene also made me think of Freddie Frenger in the convenience store with the jar of tomato sauce in Miami Blues.) Only rather than a seething, ticking timebomb of a Vietnam vet mislabeled a hero by the media after his "noble" act of retribution, Steve is an almost psychotically cheerful guy whose idea of washing the trash off the street is to put on a cape and face the challenge like a boy scout doing a good deed. However, it's hinted that his own optimism and good attitude are a front to a deep personal sadness and dissatisfaction at life in an uncaring city; a forlorn personal fight against turning into, as McCarthy described in Body Snatchers, that thing that happens to "all of us, a little bit. We harden our hearts and grow callous." Steve's deep-seated despair isn't that different from Travis' urban intolerance, although his resolve is comparatively healthier. Steve seems like the kind of dude who would have really taken Wizard's philosophy "You do a thing and that's what you are" to heart.

When the media praises Bickle's evisceration of the pimps on East 13th Street, it weirdly (and somewhat comically) validates his existence and "cures" him of his need to strike out against what he perceives to be the city's pervasive injustice. The attention Steve gets as Captain Avenger appeals to him, both as an actor who's struggled to find an audience and a person who wants things to work out the way they should for a change, in the world and in his personal life. Steve wants to feel important and finds a way to strike out, not against the debasement of humanity but rather the apathy and cynicism of his fellow New Yorkers, by adapting Captain Avenger's inspirational persona. James Gunn took this motivation a little darker in SUPER*, sending Rainn Wilson's Frank D'Arbo on a demented, religious rampage against life's general unfairness by treating people who cut in line at the movies to the business end of a wrench (Gunn includes a homage to Hero at Large by having Frank get shot in the arm during one of his wayward attempts at heroism as The Crimson Bolt.) Although Frank also becomes something of a media sensation, Gunn avoids the political subplot that doesn't really pay off in Hero. Although McCarthy and his cronies are functional emblems of the callous inhumanity that Steve is against and is conned into under false pretenses (we see that same old homeless guy from earlier crying sadly when the crowd turns on Steve-as-Captain-Avenger), their presence complicates the film's agenda. That the nave Steve could be easily confused and manipulated into turning his positive message into a cheap endorsement isn't all that interesting a direction to have taken it, although it does lead him to the profound conclusion "I don't really matter very much." He's referring to the futility of an individual influencing the population towards the good, but what the realization means to him personally hints at a deeper insight into the character than the film ever fully commits to: the frustrating impotence of not really being "super."

Too often, H@L slacks off and goes from being a funny human story to a conceptual Lowell Ganz/Babaloo Mandel-type 80's romp. But, like SUPER, you have to give it credit for understanding why a "real" person would want to become a superhero. Not because he thinks it's cool like in Mystery Men or fetishizes comic books a'la Kickass, but because the world has no use for him and it's good to feel important, to feel justified. Writing about it, I'm starting to convince myself I liked the movie more than I did - there's more to it than just "a big, dumb, silly, good-hearted albatross of a comedy" with "a plot too silly to do any harm" as Roger Ebert labeled it back in 1980. But it doesn't go far enough with Steve's story, ultimately coping out with a quick slice of redemption for its hero, while relying too much on the broad humor (my wife, who loves John Ritter, was curiously not charmed by his antics in this one.) At the end of the day it's a noble try, derided perhaps by too many MGM suits guiding Martin Davidson in the wrong direction (just check out the atrocious poster), all the while offering empty encouragement just like McCarthy's PR man, who doesn't really mean it when he tells Ritter, "Give 'em what they want, Steve. Give 'em a legend."

* Harry Knowles' comment along the lines that SUPER "isn't quite the Taxi Driver of superhero movies" annoyed the hell out of me. Were we all waiting for a Taxi Driver of superhero movies?

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