believe it or not, i’m walking on air

As I was watching X-Men this weekend, both times, I thought about a forgotten age of made-for-television superhero movies. Luckilly, this age occurred when I was a little television-addicted kid. I am referring to the late 70s, the era of disco, of polyester, of funk-influenced tv-themes. I need to reflect on this, I think…

Okay. In the 70s, we had Spiderman. When the made-for-television movie came out in 1977, it was plenty to capture my attention. After all, I already knew the guy from a trusted source: Electric Company. Admittedly, I was five, and I did not bother to wonder why Spidey’s eyes were these silver mesh things, not white. Nor did it bother me that Spiderman never seemed to actually be in New York City. Yes, I know he was supposed to be, but since when is Manhattan ever so brightly lit by sunshine? And how did Peter Parker, nerdy scientist, manage to blow-dry his hair into perfect formation, even when it had just been trapped under a blue and red Spidey mask? But it appealed to kids in a way that didn’t feel to patronizing, and it led me to the comic books. And Spiderman was just the beginning.

That year also introduced the us all to Bill Bixby’s long suffering, pickup truck driving Bruce Banner, and we all know that you just didn’t want to make him angry, ’cause you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. 1978 saw the second Spidey TV movie (the wittily titled “Spiderman Strikes Back”), and 1979 brought in Captain America. Once again we saw a complete Burbank rewrite of the Captain America story, no more of this World War II stuff from the comics. Instead, we got a Captain that rode a red, white and blue motorcycle, with the windscreen doubling as his shield (a throwable one that would come back like a boomerang). And he wore a motorcycle helmet. There were others. Dr. Strange (1978) was creepy, and had the potential to become a series. (Most of the hero movies were actually pilots, and amazingly about half were picked up.)

I suppose the era ended in 1981, though the final note was a good one. 1981 was the year that The Greatest American Hero debuted, and I cannot decide if it was the concept or the theme song that hooked me. Or maybe I just wanted to have hair like William Katt. The story was simple, derived from its superhero predecessors: “You want to see a superhero? Fine. You put on the suit.” Each week would find Katt dealing with some major dilemma while running around in a superhero suit with no owner’s manual. It was funny and derivative, the cosmic introduction of the suit being a direct rip from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but it worked. Perhaps it killed the genre by putting too human of a face on the idea of a superhero. Or maybe with the first years of Reaganomics, America just didn’t have the imagination to spare on fantastical feats of daring do, deciding instead to make a rampaging Vietnam vet their hero of choice.

Of course, none of these renditions of established themes were really ever true to their comic book origins, the costumes were rarely as detailed or as interesting as the pulp paper page. Sometimes they were nothing like the comics at all, as in the unfortunate 1989 attempt to re-inflate the Hulk movie franchise. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk featured the appearance of Daredevil. For thirty plus years, the Daredevil character has appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics in a bright red costume. However, when “Solid Gold” escapee Rex Smith pulled on his DD outfit, it was black. Maybe it was left over from his failed hero-on-a-cycle series, Street Hawk.

I would probably groan superiorally at each of these movies if I found them on backwater cable today, but when you are six years old, seeing your heroes right there on the television, I mean, that is beyond cool. Your parents watched television for the news, the weather, and that information allowed them to plot out their day. You watched the friday night movie about The Incredible Hulk for the same reason. Two hours worth of movie equaled countless hours of playtime, redoing parts from the film, inventing your own plots, introducing your own villains. The movies provided a seed that the comics could not, and I think I know why.

It was a kind of justification. Sure, you might have felt somewhat silly for putting on your Superman pajamas and red socks (admit it, I know you did it), but then you saw some guy, some ADULT do it on television. An adult! Someone who wasn’t supposed to play anymore, who was supposed to take things seriously, someone who was all grown up. But yet, there they were. Proud as can be, polyester spandex from head to toe, playing superhero. Suddenly, your Superman p.j.s are more than the sum of their ill-fitting flannel worth, and you are ready to play….

Now. Where did I put those red socks….?

UPDATE: After hearing some feedback, and doing a bit of research (God, how I adore IMDB!), and blowing the dust off my own recollections, I have to admit that Spiderman was not necessarilly the first television superhero to catch my young eye and imagination. Two years prior to The Amazing Spiderman’s debut, Lynda Carter appeared on ABC in glorious red, blue and gold, appropriate attire for an Amazon ambassador from the Bermuda Triangle sent to help the Air Force kick Nazi booty. And kick booty she did, enough even for Wonder Woman survive the move a year later to rival CBS. She was practically the poster girl for the Bicentennial (you know, the reason some of your quarters have “drummer boys” on the back), and the vibrant flash of her outfits (they became functional, including a wetsuit for SCUBA diving) kept many an eye peeled.

So does that mean that someone in 1976 could have spotted a four-year-old version of me spinning around and making that “SPRAKISHPOW!!!” sound that accompanied WW’s transformation? In response I admit nothing, and it would take a magic lasso to get me to say otherwise.

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