Movie Review: Hero At Large (1980)
They should remake this movie. We could use its message again.
An out-of work actor named Steve Nichols (John Ritter) takes a gig appearing as Captain Avenger at local cinemas to help promote the apparently dying superhero movie of the same name. He’s a generous personality, a gee-whiz Midwestern guy who helps fellow actors get jobs, and he likes the superhero gig. He’s kind of thrilled by it. One night after an appearance, wearing an overcoat over his red suit, he’s at a mom-and-pop grocery store in his Lower East Side neighborhood when it’s robbed. It takes a moment, but eventually he springs into action. He stands arms akimbo, annunciating like the character, and scatters the hoodlums—one of whom flees outright, the other after a 15-second fist fight—then turns to mom and pop, amazed at what he’s done, what he’s gotten away with, what acting he did.
The rest of the movie follows from this one act of daring and kindness. He appears four more times as Captain Avenger:
- His life and career failing elsewhere, he attempts to remake the magic of the first incident but winds up with a bullet in the arm and a determination to hang up the cape and tights.
- When Walter Reeves (Bert Convy), the PR firm representing Captain Avenger—as well as the Mayor in a tough reelection campaign—figures out who he is, they cajole him into an orchestrated elevated-train-robbery to make people feel good about the city again. It works, but Steve feels like crap afterwards. He knows it’s phony, he feels like a phony, and he’s determined to hang up the cape and tights.
- Still, as agreed, he shows up at a rally for the Mayor, accepting a key to the city, then, apparently on his own, gives a “It’s not me, it’s you” speech to the cheering crowd. He talks about how there are heroes everywhere; he says we just have to pull together and care more about each other. It’s at this point, though, that an enterprising reporter, Gloria Preston (Jane Hallaren), exposes incident #2 as a fraud, which means Steve’s a fraud. The mob turns on him quickly. Fights break out. People don’t care again.
- Ashamed, about to leave the city for good, he comes across a tenement-building fire (of course), with a kid trapped inside (of course), and the Fire Chief determined not to let any of his men risk their necks (of course). So he springs into action again as Captain Avenger. After he saving the boy, though, he needs saving. Which is what happens. Two burly local guys, one black and one white, along with the Fire Chief, run into the burning building to get him, thus proving the message in his speech. We are all heroes.
After that, he gets the girl, J. Marsh (Anne Archer), along with a happy ending, and the two walk along the streets of New York as the camera pans up and back. Fade out
We could use this message again.
Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
No, not the “We’re all heroes” message. Ick.
I’m talking about the movie’s tangential discussion on hero worship: our overwhelming, insatiable, juvenile need for heroes. You could really do something with that in this day and age. You could attempt to upend the genre with that.
“Hero At Large” was made at a time when the genre didn’t even exist. It opened on February 8, 1980, when only one superhero movie, as we now understand them, had been made: “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve. Before that, you had a few TV superheroes (Hulk, Shazam, 1950s Superman), a mess of Saturday morning cartoons, and the movie serials of the 1940s.
More, popular cinema was just beginning to switch from an era of gritty antiheroes, disappearing frontiers and depressing endings to the over-the-top heroics and ultimate triumphs of … take your pick. Luke Skywalker. Rocky Balboa. Indiana Jones. Maverick. John McClane. Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. Iron Man. The motherfucking Avengers. In its own way, despite its gritty New York locations and everyman message, “Hero” is trying to push us toward that future. It wants us to want heroes. It wants us to feel good again.
At one point, as New York City is going Captain Avenger crazy, a local TV host (William Bogert) talks up the phenomenon, then lets his two female panelists, journalist Gloria Preston and Dr. Joyce Brothers (playing herself), debate the matter:
Brothers: Who’s to say it’s unhealthy to admire a heroic figure?
Preston: Oh, I will. The next we’ll be doing is, uh, looking for genies in bottles or having our fairy godmothers take us to the ball.
The host then asks if the public response to Captain Avenger doesn’t indicate that people would like to have a hero. Brothers: “Of course they would.” Preston: “What happens when they find out it’s a joke?”
Preston’s assumption is incorrect at this moment. Steve hasn’t faked anything. He’s a legitimate nice guy and one-time hero. No, the better response is: “Of course people want a hero. Then what?” I.e., What happens when you buy into it as much as we buy into it? When you see it every weekend at the movie theaters? When you see it every night on TV? Do you begin to think we’re the heroes, that our powers are limitless, that happy endings are de rigueur? Do you transfer the tropes of the genre off the screen and into, say, the political realm? Do you see our country as the hero, stalking and routing villains, and then wonder where the happy ending went? Why it got so complicated? Do you have trouble dealing with complexity and relativity of the world? Do you have trouble seeing the world as it is? Do you assume absolutes? Do you yearn for a simpler time?
“We need our hopes, just as we need our fantasies,” Dr. Brothers says on the talk show, then turns toward the camera and speaks directly to Steve. “We need you, Captain Avenger, dream and reality. Keep it up!”
He does. We have.
Come and knock on her door
The rest of the movie is lukewarm romance: Steve inveigling his way into J.’s apartment and her life. It’s got a “Three’s Company” vibe—he’s often shirtless, or in a towel, and there’s sexual innuendo. J. isn’t interested in him until she is. Then she isn’t again. Then she is. It’s love.
Archer is both annoying and sexy, while Ritter is too emphatic, too pungent, in both his niceness and his pushiness. He seems to gulp things in. The acting from both actors feels like acting.
Steve is basically Clark Kent—Midwestern nice guy that nobody in the city believes can be that nice—while the back-and-forth with J. borrows heavily from “Superman”:
J.: Why do you do it?
Steve: Because of what happened. All of those people who called in and wrote letters. How often do you get to do something that’s really special?
J.: You really mean that, don’t you? You’re for real.
Later, when it all falls apart and he’s ready to leave city, still wearing his red suit and striped underwear, she gives him a pep talk:
J.: If you run away, the bad guys win.
Steve: They win anyway. They’ve got the numbers. … Nobody listens.
J. (quietly): I did.
So did Hollywood.
Captain Avenger to the rescue!