It's called Hero at Large and it's about an aspiring rising star... well, a down on his luck actor who is idealistic, conscientious and affable with the physique to become a Super Hero! It's 1980, right... so just who could you get to play an "Aw, Shucks" overgrown boy scout kind of guy with the coolness to pull off heroism to boot? Why John Ritter, of course!
Huh. That's a good idea. Write that down!
Ritter's struggling thespian Steve Nichols is so down-on-his luck partially because he's such a nice dude. You know, the kind who would finish last, except he can't quite finish last because he'd give up the distinction just so the last place guy could get the consolation prize. Case in point, his agent sends him to a audition for a beer commercial, Steve coaches another guy in his acting class, brings him along and promptly loses the part to the guy... and he's happy about it!
Naturally when he's given the chance to play Comic Book Superhero Captain Avenger, an optimistic do-gooder with a winning smile and a heart of gold it's hard for the all-too-similar Nichols not to take the part a bit seriously. To clarify... Steve is still quite the loser. He's not playing Captain Avenger in the (fictional) movie... he's dressing up in the costume to help promote said movie that some other actor is starring in by signing autographs in front of movie theatres and shaking the hands of little kids.
Yeah, that's his lot in life! Still, our downtrodden stage and commercial actor never loses hope. He's got a feeling that his luck is changing faster than Lady GaGa changes clothes during a concert.
I mean... if she'd been born yet. Um... damn.
Case in Point again... as soon as he lays eyes on his new neighbor Jolene "J" Marsh (Anne Archer) he knows that sooner or later he's going to sweep her up in his arms and make sweet sweet love to her like... well, like a SUPER HERO, man! Yeah!
But Steve-O's luck really does change on the way home from one of his silly movie theatre appearances (at which we also see a young Kevin Bacon in a sarcastic early bit part). When Steve stops for a bottle of milk at the corner store he witnesses an armed robbery, promptly slides the Captain Avenger mask on, doffs the covering trench coat and beats the crap out of the knife wielding assailants!
Suddenly the Mom and Pop who happen to own said Mom and Pop Shop are all over the news, having recognized the character from their son's comic books and before long Captain Avenger, the subject of what is sure to be an incredible Turkey of a movie is a media darling. The city loves him, the movie is suddenly the biggest hit of the year and the marketing firm that is promoting the guy can't keep his action figures on the shelves.
Steve, on the other hand, still stands for what this Hero at Large should stand for... Justice and Loyalty and Courage! Those things still exist for Steve and to him that's more important even than advancing his acting career (or paying his rent).
While Hero at Large is, at core, a comedy romance with an minor in action underneath, the film does manage to get a few dramatic moments right. Like its latter day (and more serious) successor Kick-Ass, Hero at Large shows just how deadly an ordinary guy putting on a superhero costume and attempting to fight real armed criminals can be. Nichols soon has the scars to prove it! It's not long before everyone wants a piece of this new Captain Avenger, from the PR firm that owns the likeness (as represented by Bert Convy's Walter Reeves) to the very office of the Mayor (Leonard Harris), who believes that association with this heroic vigilante might just be the key to a hostile takeover of the reelection polls!
The real question is how long can truth, justice and the American Way compete against a starving artist's need to pay his rent and when the very persona of the Superhero is owned by a corporation how long might it be before Captain Avenger, and thus, Steve Nichols, becomes a puppet for politics and greed?
Admittedly, I may be biased having been a fan of Hero at Large since its cable TV debut (only a year or two after its theatrical bow), but I have to say the beautiful thing about this film is that it allows itself to become a drama and a critique of over-commercialism and exploitation while never failing to be a comedy. Oh, don't get me wrong, this is no rip-roaring roll-on-the floor laugh fest akin to a superhuman Animal House, but director Martin Davidson never lets himself take the whole thing too seriously as he interprets A.J. Carothers' original screenplay. Even as Captain Avenger (or, rather, Steve Nichols) attempts to show that heroism and greatness is much bigger than a fictional character and much bigger than a regular, nice guy like Steve who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In many ways, Hero at Large was ahead of its time. A.J. Carothers took the subject matter more seriously than most would, but never to the point of sanctimony. He seems to believe in the real heroism that comic book heroes espouse but also has a cynical view of the media at large that always wants a slice of the next big thing, whether it's about hero worship or tearing a good man down from his lofty perch. He tells a hell of a superhero story but still adds on a meta-fictional layer to distance himself from telling what was, in essence, a live-action cartoon tale (and at the time, that's just what superhero movies were, Superman: The Movie notwithstanding).
Ritter is just about the perfect choice for this earnest and honest guy, raised in Kansas who easily buys into all of the golden-hearted, All-American "Nice Boy" goodness that the four-color comic books made into the legendary. He's believable as the victim, as the hero, as the struggling actor and as the exploited nice-guy who wants so desperately to see a Superman in the mirror.
Let's be fair, here... this is a cash-in comedy romance with some action peppered in and a bit of a message to it. The flaws are inherent and there's no way this would become a Five Star picture, especially at the more comic-book-careful times that it was made. However, looking at what this film COULD have been as compared to what it actually was, you can see that the movie can be, and still is, lots and lots of fun.
Could this revisionist Superhero tale be just a bit more influential than immediately springs to mind? I think so, as elements of this unlikely film have popped up in later movies either by intent or serendipity. Is this the greatest Superhero film out there? No. Is Hero at Large worth Three and One Half Stars out of Five? I certainly think so! But then again, why not? I'm thinking it's good to believe in Captain Avenger! The Super Hero who thrilled a generation returns to rock the motion picture screen with new excitement! Sworn to uphold justice, protect the weak and punish wrongdoers, CAPTAIN AVENGER fights a never-ending battle against the forces of EVIL! This is his story his GREATEST Adventure! WHO SAYS NICE GUYS FINISH LAST?
See you True Believers in the Next Reel!
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