The Biggest Superhero Films That Didn't Happen, Part 2
Comic Books, Film
This one isn’t, in the strictest sense, about comics, but it led me to a realization about comics and collecting, so I think it’s a story worth telling.
It happened like this. Julie and I occasionally volunteer for an organization called Family Promise. It’s essentially a homeless-shelter program without a building, designed for families who would be hurt more than helped by enrolling in one of the standard shelter programs. You may not be aware of this, but most shelter organizations insist on segregating men and women even if they happen to be married to one another. There are good and sound reasons for this, for the most part. (Women, single mothers especially, often end up homeless because they are trying to get out and away from some horrible guy.)
But there are exceptions, normal families that have just had shitty luck and end up losing their homes and having to live out of their car or something. That’s where the Family Promise program comes in. Instead of housing these families in one central shelter building, though, it’s a little different; it’s a network of churches that take turns hosting families for a week at a time and people volunteer to serve meals and so on.
My wife and I had a shift last weekend as the overnight hosts and Julie told me that we would be doing a movie night for the families.
This was no problem. We have hundreds of movies in this house. “Only,” Julie added, “Carla and Phenix are going to be there too, so whatever you pick has to be appropriate for a four-year-old boy.”
Carla and her son Phenix are friends of ours, and we babysit Phenix every so often. I have found the Dork Side to be strong in him. Here they are at Comixtravaganza from a few weeks ago.
“So I guess Road House is out,” I said with a mock sigh. (Mostly I wanted to see Julie’s expression at the suggestion of showing Road House in church. She made a suitably horrified face.)
“Nothing R-rated! It’s the rules! Don’t we have something Phenix will like?”
I gave my bride a pitying look. “Who d’you think you’re talking to? I got this wired. Ask Phenix when you see him tomorrow if he wants to see a submarine that flies and fights monsters.”
Julie lit up. “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? Oh, hey, he would like that, I bet.”
“Of course he will. All boys six and under think the Flying Sub is the coolest ride ever. It’s genetically encoded in our DNA. The fact that they fight monsters is just a bonus.”
That day I was at home writing while Julie was out and about, and the plan was for me to show up at the church with the DVDs and meet her there in time for dinner. Since I was running a little late; the girls had dinner largely dealt with by the time I got there, and one of the women we were hosting was holding court about her time in Israel (she and her daughter were refugees, it’s how they ended up in the program.)
What that meant in practical terms was that young Phenix and I were the only males in the room, and the only ones interested in the TV. I busied myself with hooking up the DVD player to the television the church rector had wheeled in earlier.
“They’re all busy talking,” Phenix said in a grumpy voice. “I want to see the monsters!”
“I have to fix the electronics,” I told him. “This is what we men do. You look at what I brought and decide what we watch first.”
Julie had told everyone it was a B-movie festival with monsters, and the teenage daughter of the Israeli woman wandered over to see what we had. I had brought, in addition to one of our Voyage sets, the complete Birdman and the Galaxy Trio and the Planet of the Apes television series.
“I thought this show was called Harvey Birdman,” she said.
“No, no. This is the original. These are the cartoons that were so violent and over the top that a woman named Peggy Charren actually succeeded at getting them banned.”
“Banned cartoons?” Carla perked up at that and came over to join us, cautiously interested. She was clearly torn between curiosity and wanting to be a good parent. “How bad are they?”
“Watch and see,” I said, smiling. “I used to adore them when I was Phenix’s age, so I guess it depends on how damaged you think I turned out.”
“I want Birdman!” Phenix was emphatic. He waved the case at me.
“Birdman it is.” I put the disk in. (It was this episode, for those who want to watch at home.)
The credits rolled. Julie, overhearing the familiar theme music and battle cry of BIRRRRD-MANNNNNN!, said, “You brought Birdman? Oh my God.”
“Pfft. You can scoff all you want, but I’m telling you, kids think this is the shit. Even my students love Birdman. Just watch.” I pointed at Phenix. He was rapt.
So was Carla. “Oh my God, this is amazing!” she said, laughing. “Why would anyone ban these? This is awesome. If I could fly around like that I’d totally be shouting my name all the time too. This is from Hanna-Barbera? I only remember them doing, like, happy animal cartoons.”
“Well, mostly, they did. But for one year, in 1967, they did stuff like this, and it was such total mayhem that it got parent groups in a dither all over the country.” I explained about Peggy Charren, as Birdman and X the Eliminator blasted away at each other.
Carla shook her head. “That’s ridiculous.– wait, the bird has a radio? He has to save Birdman?”
I grinned. “Truthfully? Avenger’s kind of the brains of the outfit. Anyway, Birdman’s all about the rebound. He gets clobbered, Avenger bails him out, they pull out the win.”
(While we were talking, Julie was coaching Phenix in the battle cry: they were both chorusing, “Birrrrrd-MANNN!”)
Carla burst out laughing, then suddenly said, “Oh my God, did he just fart all over that guy? That’s his power?? And…they’re in space now?”
“It’s the Galaxy Trio,” I explained. “That’s Vapor Man.” (Specifically, it was this episode, Revolt of the Robots.)
Carla watched for a moment and then shook her head. “Oh, okay, the blue guy’s Vapor Man. I get it. Still, that’s kind of nasty, spraying himself all over everybody like that.– I really like this jazz music they’ve got going on the soundtrack.”
“Where’s Birdman?” Phenix demanded to know.
“Birdman will be back in a minute,” I assured him.
And he was, just in time to take on Morto the Marauder.
During all this, our Israeli refugee mother and daughter had wandered over. “This was on television?” the mother asked.
“Many years ago. When I was six, this was hard core,” I told her.
“Phenix sure loves it.”
“He’s a boy.” The Israeli mother raised an eyebrow. I explained, “It’s a guy thing. No matter what, if a fight or an explosion comes on the television, a guy will stop and watch. Doesn’t matter what he’s doing. He’ll even stop in mid-sentence to watch the fight.”
“It’s true,” Julie said, laughing, and nodded at me.
“What? I can’t help my DNA.” I tried to look wounded but couldn’t keep a straight face. “Anyway, Birdman, Space Ghost, the Herculoids… they were shows that were nothing but fights and explosions. It was foolproof. And it still works. Look at Phenix.”
The refugee mom shook her head and smiled. “Well, I think I’ll leave you men to your rayguns and monsters.” She waved goodngiht and went upstairs, and her daughter followed, leaving just us, Carla, and Phenix.
The episode ended with Morto the Marauder safely back in prison. Phenix ran around the room with his arms spread, yelling, “Birrrrd-MANNN!”
“See what you started?” I said to my wife.
“These are so awesome,” Carla said, looking at the DVD cases. “I love this old stuff. Phenix really likes these old B-movies. I showed him Sinbad, with the skeletons…”
“We have that,” Julie told her.
“And Jason and the Argonauts…”
“We have that too.” (Julie would deny it but I suspect she was a little smug.)
“We can totally hook you up,” I assured Carla. “Harryhausen, Hammer horror, Dr. Phibes, The Wild Wild West, Bruce Lee, The Warriors…. whatever your B-movie pleasure might be. We have a houseful of it.”
“Anyway,” Carla said, “we watched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea one night but I thought it was just a movie, I never knew it was a show. I thought you guys were just bringing the movie tonight.”
“The movie’s fun,” I allowed. “But it’s missing a key element. For the true Voyage experience, you really gotta have the Flying Sub.”
“The Flying Sub??” Carla was incredulous. “Seriously? A submarine that, like, flies through the air?”
“Seriously. And it wasn’t even the weirdest thing on the show.”
“There’s monsters.” Julie said. “When I was little they used to really scare me. I hope it won’t be too much for Phenix.”
“They used to scare me too,” I admitted. “Sometimes I’d have to hide behind my dad’s footstool and peek out from behind when it got too intense on the Seaview. But that’s part of the fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s scary as long as the good guys win. In fact it’s better if it is a little scary. Then it’s more fun when the heroes triumph. That’s the whole point.”
“I want to see monsters and the sub that flies!” Phenix announced.
“There you go,” I said, vindicated.
“What’s this show about?” Phenix asked me.
Pure adrenaline, I thought. “Well, there’s Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane and their crew on a submarine called Seaview, and they are scientists. And every week they’d discover some new freaky scientific menace that they’d have to beat so the world wouldn’t be destroyed.”
“Destroyed by monsters?” Phenix liked this idea already.
“Sometimes monsters, other times it was aliens or mad scientists with scary new weapons.”
“Sometimes it was all three,” Julie put in, laughing.
Phenix was totally down for that.
I had brought the third season, since that was the point at which Voyage episodes ceased to be encumbered with complex plots or character nuance or, really, subtlety of any kind. (Reminiscing with our old friend Kurt Mitchell at New Year’s over which Voyage episodes had scared us the most, Kurt had instantly said, “The Manfish,” from the second season. But even that one, I decided, was maybe a little too plot-heavy for Phenix.)
No, in trying to remember the episodes that were so badass scary that little me had to seek refuge behind a hassock when they originally aired, it was definitely the third season that was the hard stuff.
I cued up an episode that I remembered as actually making me yelp in terror when I’d seen it in its first run… “Werewolf.”
The tragic tale of crewman Hollis and his descent into radioactive werewolfism (no full moon necessary — just the Seaview‘s atomic reactor) kept Phenix interested, but about halfway through he turned to me and said, “He isn’t scary. He looks like Chewbacca.”
“Chewbacca could be scary if he had fangs like that,” Julie offered hopefully, but Phenix just shook his head. The culture gap had robbed my werewolf of its terror. I felt irrationally annoyed at George Lucas.
Still, Voyage overall seemed to be a success. When it was over, Phenix said, “Another one?”
“Sure. Which one?”
“With a monster!”
“Hmm.” I looked at the DVD episode descriptions. “Okay, here’s one. ‘Monster From the Inferno.’ The Seaview is boarded by a giant alien brain.”
“Yeah!” said Phenix, at the same time Carla said, “There you go.”
“Alien brain it is.” I cued it up and hit PLAY.
This episode was a definite hit with everyone. (Carla fell into complete hysterics when Admiral Nelson, trying to persuade Captain Crane it was okay to bring the alien brain on board, said, “Lee — if it is a life form, we can control it with drugs!”)
Turned out it was the alien brain that would be doing the controlling, telepathically possessing one hapless Seaview crew member after another, finally getting its hooks into Captain Crane himself. Admiral Nelson’s too strong-willed even for this pulsating monster, though, and manages to irradiate it into exploding.
Phenix liked the menace of the alien brain better than the werewolf, especially when it intoned, “I will make this submarine my body and its crew will be my slaves.” However, he was bitterly disappointed when the brain didn’t actually morph the Seaview into a giant monster body with hands and feet.
Carla got up to go upstairs, but on her way out she leaned down and whispered to me, “This is great for him, thank you so much.”
It was dark so she couldn’t see me blush. The truth of the matter was that I was having just as much fun as Phenix. “We’ll do it again,” I assured her.
It was a pity Carla went to bed when she did. Unfortunately, she missed the best one of the evening…. because Phenix’s last choice was “The Plant Man.”
“The Plant Man” has it all.
A giant mutated plant monster threatens an undersea lab. They holler for help from the Seaview…
…which leads to a pitched underwater battle. Unfortunately, when the Flying Sub blasts the giant seaweed monster with its laser…
…It doesn’t die but instead collapses into a pile of leaves that — with added radiation — blossom into lots more man-sized plant monsters that get on board Seaview and wreak havoc. Ouch. Bad call there.
It’s all because of an evil senator who is telepathically compelling his twin scientist brother to create an army of plant men so he can use them as indestructible soldiers to rule the world.
(I know. It’s demented. But if you see it, it sort of works, mostly because it’s the great William Smithers in a dual role. Smithers specialized in playing either weak, easily corrupted men or ice-cold sociopathic bastards, and in this he got to do both at once!)
This episode had Phenix in its grip from the first moment. Giant monster — check. Flying Sub action — check. More monsters — check. Action, suspense, jeopardy — in spades.
Understand, I’m not saying this is a good episode– or that Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea is a good show, for that matter. To modern adult audiences it’s ludicrous. Even the Voyage fan site dismisses this episode with a sneering, “Surprisingly good undersea effects of the giant plant, the undersea lab and flying sub, all wasted on an idiotic story. There is no explanation as to why Ben is so evil and no justification for his thinking an army of giant underwater plant men would do him any good…. The episode can’t be taken seriously — the plant men run around like Tasmanian Devils and was someone putting us on with that wild west shootout at the end, as our heroes stand side by side, blasting away at the plant men?”
All those criticisms are valid. Hell, he’s letting them off easy.
But if you’re a four-year-old boy?
Then this episode is just a big box of AWESOME. About halfway through — when Captain Crane and Chief Sharkey are going to try and get by one of the menacing plant monsters by hurling a bucket of sulphuric acid over it while they sprint for the airlock to board the Flying Sub — Phenix was so excited he turned to me and whispered, “This is so cool!”
I’m forty-seven years old, a jaded old fan who knows exactly where the zipper is on the monster suit. Even so, it took everything I had not to reply, Fuck YEAH!
After all, we were in a church.
What struck me about all of this the next day after we got home, when I was putting the movies back on their shelf, was this thought: I have spent years collecting all this stuff and sometimes I get so obsessive about acquiring it, I forget what it’s for.
I have amassed a tremendous number of comics and books and movies and cool stuff here over the years.
Part of it is simply the pleasure of the hunt, wandering around thrift shops and used bookstores and so on tracking down obscure, out-of-print items. That’s fun in and of itself.
And I read the comics and watch the movies when I get them and I enjoy them. But I don’t reread the books that often or watch the movies that often again afterwards… there aren’t that many books here that I can’t recall pretty readily to mind just by looking at the cover. For things I can’t remember word-for-word there’s always Netflix, or the library. There’s not really a need to turn our home into a combination library/pop culture museum….
….unless I have someone to share it with who enjoys it as much as I do. Then it becomes a wonderland.
Feeling jaded about your collection? Getting fed up with superhero comics? Find a bright imaginative kid and show him or her something that lit you up at that age, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the magic happen all over again. I’m telling you, there’s nothing like it.
While I was writing this, by the way, Carla phoned, Julie’s going to go hang out with her and Phenix tomorrow. Apparently Phenix wanted to talk to Julie because I overheard this…
“Sure, put him on. –How you doin’ bud?…. You want me to bring a movie? Which one?…. A superhero movie? You mean Birdman?” I heard Julie start laughing. “Oh God, what have we done…?”
And in my head, I’m saying, Fuck yeah!
See you next week.
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