'Batman' movies revive interest in the superhero

June 19, 1992|By Doug Nye | Doug Nye,Knight-Ridder

Three years ago "Batman" was the box-office hit of the summer.

LTC Then, in an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. decided to put it on video just five months after its theatrical release. Normally it takes a year to 18 months for a big moneymaker to slip into the home video market.

Not surprisingly, the "Batman" video, priced at $24.95, became one of the hottest sellers in history.

Today, "Batman Returns" will swoop into movie theaters around the country, and it, too, is expected to rack up millions of dollars in ticket sales. Warner has remained quiet about its video plans for the sequel.

But don't be surprised if come November, "Batman Returns" hits the video stores with a big splash.

One thing for certain, the release of "Batman" in 1989 revived interest in the superhero genre. The old "Batman" television show was pulled out of mothballs and aired on stations around the country and on cable's Family Channel. The show is back again to take advantage of the expected rebirth of Batmania.

A spinoff of the "Batman" movie was the television series "The Flash," based on another DC comic book character. The TV series died after a season, but Warner has released the 97-minute pilot on video. It's priced at $90, so Warner is mainly interested in the rental trade at the moment.

That first episode of "The Flash," which told of the origin of "the fastest man alive," is well-done with top-notch production values and special effects.

You can figure video shops will be pushing the 1989 "Batman" film as well as those four "Superman" movies starring Christopher Reeve. The first, released in 1978, remains one of the top three superhero movies ever, The other two being "Batman" and "The Adventures of Captain Marvel."

The latter is a 1941 12-chapter serial from Republic Pictures based on a flying superhero created by Fawcett Publications. Tom Tyler plays the title role. The shots of Captain Marvel in flight remain among the most impressive such sequences on film.

It's a rousing, exciting old-time cliffhanger. Many critics call it the best of the 200-plus sound serials that were released from 1929 to 1956. It's available in a two-cassette pack for $29.95 at Suncoast Video. The print is excellent.

Other superhero serials available include:

* "Spy Smasher" (1942) Another from Republic based on an old Fawcett character. Kane Richmond stars as the hero that wages war against the Nazis. $29.95.

* "Batman" (1943) Lewis Wilson is the Dark Knight who battles evil Dr. Daka whose aim is to help Japan bring "America to her knees." Released by Columbia Pictures, it's not on a par with the Republic efforts, but it is good hokey fun. Two cassettes at $9.99 apiece.

* "Batman and Robin" (1949) Robert Lowery plays the caped crusader. Here he battles a mysterious cloaked figure, The Wizard, bent on taking over Gotham City. This one is even more hokey than the first one and provided the inspiration for the campy TV show. Two cassettes at $9.99 apiece.

* The Rocketman/Commando Cody serials. "King of the Rocketmen" (1949), "Radar Men from the Moon" (1952) and "Zombies of the Stratosphere" (1952). These aren't based on any comic book hero, but they have all the elements of a comic book. This enjoyable nonsense was the inspiration for "The Rocketeer." Each serial is priced at $29.95.

Marvel Comics might be the biggest seller on the newsstands and in comic book stores, but their superhero characters have had a tougher time making the transition to movies and television than those of DC Comics.

Hoping to finally score on the big screen, Marvel commissioned an outfit called Menahem Golan to produce a film based on one of its most enduring superheroes, "Captain America." Filming took place in Yugoslavia in 1989. The plan was to release it in time to cash in on the 50th anniversary of the Captain's first appearance in comic books.

In the spring of 1990, posters advertising the coming of "Captain America" were seen in theaters around the country. But they soon disappeared. Columbia Pictures, which had bought the film for release, didn't like what it saw and ordered some scenes to be re-shot. The movie was then set for a 1991 release.

But "Captain America" never showed up, and it never will on the theater screen. However, Columbia TriStar Home Video is releasing the completed film on video this summer. No price has been mentioned yet. Reports say the movie is not as bad as you might imagine, but it's also no "Batman" or "Superman."

Matt Salinger plays Steve Rogers, who becomes Captain America as the result of scientific tests. The villain is The Red Skull, who has plagued the Captain throughout his comic book career. The film already is dated since the Soviets are the ones backing The Red Skull's efforts.

Also in the cast are Darren McGavin, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty. If nothing else, "Captain America" should attract the curious.

There are some other videos featuring Marvel superheroes, priced at $20 and below. Two made-for-TV movies "Captain America" and "Captain America Returns" star Reb Brown in the title role. Both are pretty wretched and aren't even worth a rental fee.

Nicholas Hammond stars in a couple of TV-movies based on "The Amazing Spider-Man." Not great stuff, but they are entertaining.

To see Marvel's superheroes at their best, you'd have to check out the several animated videos featuring the likes of Thor, Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four.

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