Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) & The Incredible Hulk (1977) & Dr. Strange (1978) & Captain America (1979) & Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (1979)

          Years before Marvel Comics became a Hollywood powerhouse, the venerable publisher licensed its characters for a string of low-budget TV productions, beginning with hokey “limited animation” cartoons in the ’60s and continuing with several live-action TV movies in the 70s. First came The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Nicholas Hammond (the oldest Von Trapp boy from the classic 1965 movie The Sound of Music) as Peter Parker, a graduate student with twin interests in photography and science. As in the comics, he gains arachnid abilities after getting bitten by a radioactive spider. Various pointless changes from the source material are less glaring than the excruciating background music and the bargain-basement FX that accompany numbingly dull action scenes. The main gimmick involves superimposing shots of Spidey crawling onto images of buildings, even though neither the lighting nor the movements match. Scenes of Hammond and/or his stuntman on real sets are no better, because the action choreography is lifeless and the bright colors of the costume look awful in realistic settings.
          In terms of acting, Hammond is so dorky and polite that he seems like a department-store clothing mannequin come to life. Character actors including Thayer David and David White give stock performances, while appealing leading lady Lisa Eilbacher barely gets any screen time. The actual story involves Spidey battling a criminal who uses mind-control on unsuspecting victims, so there's a faint whiff of satire related to 70s cults, though the filmmakers lack the will or the wit to maximize that element. This tepid take on Spidey also has a certain camp factor, but unlike, say, the ’60s Batman series with Adam West, The Amazing Spider-Man contains only humor of the unintentional variety. A mercifully short-lived series followed the broadcast of this pilot movie, but it's hard to find anyone who feels genuine nostalgia for Hammonds enervated wall-crawling.
          Far more impressive was The Incredible Hulk, for which writer-producer Kenneth Johnson turned the story of scientist Bruce Banner (renamed “David” Banner for the series) into the saga of a tormented fugitive. In the initial telefilm, Banner (Bill Bixby) obsessively researches why adrenaline gives some people extraordinary strength in times of crisis, because his wife died when he couldn’t extract her from a burning car after an accident. Lighting onto a possibility, Banner recklessly exposes himself to an overdose of gamma radiation, causing him to transform into a big green dude (bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno) whenever he gets stressed. Johnson plays the material straight, and Bixby’s sincerity grounds the goofy premise, so when the storyline turns tragic, it’s possible to buy into the melancholy emotions of the piece, especially with Joe Hammel’s plaintive piano theme “The Lonely Man” reverberating on the soundtrack. 
          Also elevating The Incredible Hulk is the work of costar Susan Sullivan, who plays Banners colleague and love interest; she and Bixby generate viable chemistry that suggests as much mutual respect as it does latent passion. Notwithstanding the kicky first transformation scene, which involves lightning and rain plus a great use of camera angles and sound effects to jack up the suspense, the classic moment in The Incredible Hulk involves Banner warning a relentless tabloid reporter (Jack Colvin) to keep his distance: “Don’t make me angry, Mr. McGee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Five seasons of anguished hulking ensued, as did three reunion movies, so the Bixby/Ferrigno franchise reigned as the only truly successful live-action Marvel adaptation until the late 90s.
          A year after Hulk and Spidey hit the airwaves, Marvel’s resident mystic appeared in Dr. Strange, a bizarre telefilm notable for eerie synthesizer scoring by Paul Chihara. The plot of Dr. Strange is so thin that the best sequences are the extended dialogue-free montages set to Chiharas otherworldly grooves. (Some of the huge, fluid cues that Chihara provides anticipate the creepy blaster beam effect that Jerry Goldsmith used so powerfully in 1979s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) While no match for the mind-bending images that artists including Frank Brunner, Steve Ditko, and Gene Colan created for vintage Dr. Strange comics, at least the aimless montages in the Dr. Strange telefilm come across like trippy music videos. Far out, man!
          Forgettable leading man Peter Hooten plays Stephen Strange, a medical doctor recruited to participate in an interdimensional war against ancient sorceress Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter, rocking spectacular cleavage). A murky storyline, choppy editing, and unfinished-looking FX give the movie a fever-dream vibe. Thats why Dr. Strange is recommended exclusively for those who savor cinematic weirdness. Not only does this failed pilot have the disjointed feel of a midnight movie, but it also features an unintentionally hilarious line. At one point, an aging mystic (John Mills) dispatches his manservant to collect the title character by issuing the command: “Find Stephen Strange! In this context, you will find Stephen to be quite strange indeed.
          Marvel’s last (and least) attempt at launching a ’70s live-action series was Captain America, an excitement-free modernization of the World War II-era superhero. Musclebound actor Reb Brown blankly plays Steve Rogers, who through convoluted circumstances becomes a superman fighting crime while he cruises around in a tricked-out van that contains his equally tricked-out motorcycle. Toward the climax of the movie, Brown finally dons an awful-looking costume, his motorcycle helmet ridiculously adorned with painted-on facsimiles of the decorative wings from Cap’s comic-book cowl. (That atrocious ensemble gets replaced in the final scenes by a second version that’s closer in design to the comic-book original.) Rather than a series, Captain America was followed by one additional TV movie, Captain America II: Death Too Soon. Despite that title, death couldn’t come soon enough for this misbegotten take on the beloved character. Suffice to say that the highlights of Captain America II are Christopher Lee's florid bad-guy acting and the debut of Cap’s latest silly gadget, a hang-glider.

The Amazing Spider-Man: LAME
The Incredible Hulk: GROOVY
Dr. Strange: FREAKY
Captain America: SQUARE
Captain America II: Death Too Soon: SQUARE


Lobo V said...

Dr. Strange was indeed...well strange but Peter Hooten is a very nice guy. He lives not to far from me so I deceided to write and ask for his autograph since he portrade my fav comic book character. He not only sent his autograph but he sent it on the end credit drawing they used in the movie! I also got to talk to him at some length on the phone! So by your rating system I would give him a GROOVY!

Unknown said...

I actually really liked the amazing Spiderman. Yes it's camp and hilarious in places but that's what really makes it so much fun. It's a shame Stan Lee now owns the rights to this show and has refused to ever release it on DVD. Stu Philips (who also wrote the music for Knight Rider) said he was being particularly difficult and not allowing a soundtrack release either.

Kevin Mac said...

I have a soft spot for Spidey TV, though it's been long enough I would probably cringe to watch it now. A little more wisecracking would have been appreciated. Also, a bit more humor in general might have elevated it. More camp. Can you imagine if they had Spidey, in the Batman TV style, run into various 70's Celebs popping out of windows as he crawled up the buildings? Malcolm McDowell poking out in bowler hat and single false eyelash "hideehi there Droogie! Climby-why-ming the ol' office building then, are we?"

geralmar said...

I read that "Bruce Banner" became "David Banner" for the Bixby television series because network suits thought that "Bruce" sounded too "gay". I believe the earlier cartoon series wasn't bothered by the original name, happily using it in the theme song.