"It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman" (1975)

I hate Superman. The big showoff. I like monogrammed shirts as well as the next guy, but that big red 'S'? Superman? Heh. Anyone without a last name has gotta be a little weird.
--Max Mencken

The 1960s Batman TV series, it seems, is having a resurgence in popularity as of late. Not only did DC Comics launch a new Batman series last year that's based on the show as well as a new line of action figures and toys, but it looks as though after all these years it will finally be coming out on DVD sometime later this year.

For fans of the show, the comic, or just lovers of "adventure, escapism, unadulterated entertainment, the ridiculous and the bizarre", that is very good news indeed. Adam West's Batman will always hold a special place in American pop culture, not only for its continuing influence on present Batman incarnations, but also as being the gold standard in superhero camp. From its eccentric supervillains to its Batclimb cameos to its Bat-gadgets to its Bat-fights and everything else in between, it's a silly, lighthearted superhero romp that's still fun to watch almost fifty years on.

And though many since then have tried to mimic its charm, most have not even come close. Not even the Man of Steel himself.

This TV special is based off the Broadway flop It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman, penned by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams It first debuted at the Alvin Theater on March 29, 1966 and closed  three and a half months later despite positive reviews and three Tony Award nominations, but since then it has been revived in theaters across the country, including an updated version performed in Dallas in 2010.

As for the TV special, it aired on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment on February 1, 1975 as an attempt to make back the money it lost on Broadway, but not without some changes to the original script - the show was edited to run in the time allotted, some of the villains were changed from Chinese acrobats to Mafia men, and the musical numbers were updated to sound more 70s-like. Par for the course for most of the TV specials I've reviewed, it has only aired once and has not been rerun since.

I haven't seen the musical myself, but if it's anything remotely like this, then I'm not so sure I want to now.

We begin by meeting our principal cast and learning where they stand on this whole Superman issue:

Kenneth Mars a.k.a. King Triton plays Max Mencken, Daily Planet columnist and smug egomaniac who is decidedly anti-Superman, likely because comparing himself to the Man of Steel makes his penis shrivel.

Lesley Ann Warren a.k.a. Miss Scarlett a.k.a. Cinderella plays Lois Lane, who is (obviously) pro-Superman to the point where she gets all giddy just talking about him.

She is also perpetually high.

Loretta Swit a.k.a. "Hot Lips" as the luscious Sydney Carlton, another reporter who is Max's girl Friday and madly in love with him. She's sort of a Superman-centrist.

David Wayne a.k.a. The Mad Hatter as Dr. Abner Sedgwick, professor at the Metropolis Institute of Technology, mad scientist and part of a fringe group of anti-Superman radicals who sees the Man of Steel as a roadblock on his path to world domination.

I'm guessing Lex Luthor was busy.

And finally David Wilson, who will probably never work in Hollywood again, as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet (and a COLOSSAL mega-dork) who is quite pro-Superman, since...well...he IS Superman.

Oh, yeah, and the unmistakable voice of Gary Owens narrates.

The plot of this special is divided up into chapters, so we'll analyze it in the same manner:

Chapter 1:

Not much to this part, really. It covers Superman's origin--infant survivor of the destruction of his home planet Krypton, flown on a rocket to Earth, lands in the heart of the clearly labeled "Good Old U.S.A.", found inside a rocketship in the middle of the Kansas wastelands by the couple from the American Gothic painting, develops superpowers, and finally grows into manhood and becomes the legendary SUPERMAN!!




Then we get a song about how the people of Metropolis say they need him because he saves their babies from a fire, saves their relatives from muggers, gives the orphans Christmas turkey and flies the policeman's asthmatic son to Albuquerque for no other reason than that the song needed a word that rhymes with "turkey."

Looks like Gerber baby foods learned their lesson after that one marketing fiasco.

Chapter 2:

Clark Kent settles in at his job as reporter at the Planet and is ignored by everyone around him, including Lois who sits in the desk across from him. And it seems that all the paper ever prints is news about Superman--if it's not Lois writing headlines about him (and singing about how he never tells her he loves her and just saves her all the time in something rejected from Grease) it's Max writing some Fox News-style smear column about him (this time it's about how he disrupts commercial airline flight paths).

Meanwhile, at the Deserted Warehouse deserted warehouse, a convention of Italian mobster stereotypes (three of whom are the nefarious Batman villain False Face, notorious movie biker Eric Von Zipper and...Al from Happy Days) discuss "rubbing out" Superman. Then they sing about how America is such a great place to be a mobster in and how it would be a better one if Superman were dead.

Wow. We've only had three songs so far and already I hate this.

Are they reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or pulling out their guns all at once? The answer isn't worth knowing.

Dr. Sedgwick visits the Daily Planet to quite casually inform them that a death ray he has created at the university has gone crazy and Metropolis is, in fact, doomed. With his superhearing, Clark Kent learns of this, transforms into Superman and heads out to destroy the device, with Sedgwick anticipating he will fail and die in the attempt."Will Superman make it in time?" asks Gary Owens.

Chapter 3:
(Dude! Spoilers!)

Superman...uhh...makes it. The death ray is destroyed and the city is saved. Who makes a friggin death ray, and WHY?

Sedgwick rues this setback, and monologues to the audience why he wants to get rid of Superman: to rule the world. And why does he want to rule the world? Because he want to obliterate Sweden. And WHY does he want to obliterate Sweden? Because he has been snubbed for the Nobel Prize for ten straight years and is a bit of a sore loser, vowing revenge on the entire Nobel Prize committee. In fact, he even sings about it.

Just before his song ends, Gary cuts in and asks "What is the one terrible thing that Dr. Sedgwick will have before he dies?" (What do you think he's been singing about?)

Chapter 4:
(Is this for real?)

Sedgwick finishes his song, which Max overhears, and the two of them decide to team up and destroy him. Then Max takes advantage of the Daily Planet's criminally lenient sexual harassment policy and tries to musically hit on Lois after blowing off another date with Sydney, but Lois rightly brushes him aside to continue brooding over Superman.

"Wanna see how much faster than a speeding bullet I can be?"

Chapter 5:

The mobsters continue discussing rubbing out Superman, making unfunny jokes, mimicking bad Three Stooges visual gags, and finally decide to visit Sedgwick for advice on how to rub out Superman, while he and his new friend Max scheme to make Superman destroy himself.

Meanwhile, Sydney musically hits on Clark, with the musical's most popular song "You've Got Possibilities", which is the least worst song in the whole special and perhaps the only thing that has survived this special.

"Will Clark Kent find happiness with a new love?" asks Gary Owens.

Chapter 6:
(If you're not gonna take this seriously, why should I bother?)

Clark is happy.

Sedgwick decides to give Superman a chance to disgrace himself at a thank-you-for-trashing-our-death-ray ceremony by staging a calamity. Then they both sing a song about being partners with romantic overtones. I'll say no more about it.

Then the mobsters bust in and ask Sedgwick to rub out Superman. How convenient. Henchmen.

The Three Stooge-fathers.

Chapter 7:

The above chapter title has been a running gag throughout this musical so far. It's what Lois keeps asking Clark whenever he speaks to her.

Anyway, it turns out Clark and Sydney weren't compatible after all, but at least Sydney's little song gave Clark the self-confidence to talk to Lois. Though Lois is slightly disappointed that it's Clark falling for her and not Superman.

In song.

Apparently they had to CUT SOME SONGS OUT to make this special run in the time allotted.

"Wanna see how much faster than a speeding bullet I can be?"

Anyway, while Clark Kent is ironically sent out to cover Superman's big ceremony, Sedgwick, Max and the thugs plot to plant a huge cartoon-sized bomb at city hall to go off during it.

"Will Superman fall into this dastardly trap?"

Chapter 8:

Superman's big ceremony arrives, and Sedgwick is there to heap false praise on him to a crowd of energetic students. It turns out he's having a laundry named after him. That's gratitude for ya. You'd think he'd get a statue or a plaque or something, but a LAUNDROMAT? Wow.

While he's there, a news bulletin somehow interrupts something that's not on television to report that Metropolis City Hall has blown up. Max is on hand in the newsroom to angrily blame Superman and generally heap abuse on him for not being there to stop it. Needless to say, the crowd instantly get word of this and turn on their hero pretty quickly.

"Think of me the next time you want to clean skid marks off your tighty whities!"

Chapter 9:

As Max gloats about the Man of Steel's downfall as if his manhood grew an inch or three--

Okay...Max...can you bend steel bars? Do you have X-ray vision? Super hearing? Can you even FLY? What makes you think you could possibly compete with Superman? I mean, what's YOUR superpower? Smarminess? Obnoxiousness? Having an ego the size of Krypton?

Anyway, as Sydney sings another song of unrequited love, the mafia clones sneak in, kidnap him and steal him back to MIT, where Sedgwick reveals that he has a computer that can deduce the true identity of Superman. After some comic misunderstanding where Sedgwick is convinced that it's Max, eventually they all come to realize that it is, in fact, Clark Kent.

Chapter 10:

Cut to Clark Kent's apartment where Superman is...depressed. He sings a sad little song about how depressed he is while somewhere in Germany, Friedrich Nietzsche proceeds to turn over in his grave.

"And none of the other kids would play with me, and...once I accidentally used my X-ray vision on my fifth-grade teacher..."

Sedgwick pays him a surprise visit, sits Superman down and plays psychiatrist with him, i.e. emotionally kicks him when he's down by saying his X-ray vision makes him a pervert, claiming all the good he does covers up guilt for leaving Krypton to explode by being a baby in a rocketship at the time, and finishing up by saying that all his superpowers make him a unloved freak. Supes by this time is too depressed to even wonder how he figured out where his alter ego lives when he and Max invite Lois over to drive the final nail in the coffin by saying she's in love with Clark Kent before getting kidnapped by the mafia clowns.

The next scene has Superman in red cape and blue tights clutching an anchor and proceeding to jump off a bridge.

Some Übermensch YOU turned out to be.

"Is this finally the end of Superman?"

Chapter 11:
(Uhh...a guy is attempting suicide here, this is no time for spoilerific chapter title jokes, however weak)

Superman's suicide attempt fails ("super-lungs"...ha ha) and he just pulls himself out of the river when he is greeted a pair of students from the laundry ceremony who teach him that there's nothing wrong with being a freak, and some of history's greatest figures were freaks, like Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus and...Abraham Lincoln.

Yes, they're actually calling Abraham Lincoln a freak. For his Emancipation Proclamation. Because in their words, "freeing the brothers was the freakiest thing of the 1800s". They actually say that.

Also, I guess it's worth mentioning that these kids are named Jerry and Joe, an obvious nod to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of the Superman comic.

"Why are we taking hostages again?"
"I dunno, boss--we started with the dame and then I guess we got carried away..."

Segdwick and Max celebrate Superman's self-destruction by strapping Lois to a chair with a bomb for no reason. Well, actually, the bomb is there to destroy any incriminating evidence against Sedgwick for driving Superman to suicide; as to why they dragged Lois in and tied her to it, your guess is a good as mine.

Then Sedgwick double-crosses Max and ties HIM to a chair which somehow detonates the bomb under Lois' chair from so much as a sneeze.

Then Sedgwick gets double-crossed himself when the mafia guys tie HIM to a chair as well.
Anyway, to finally put an end to this farce, Superman busts into Sedgwick's lab, engages the mafia guys in a lame, one-sided onomatopoeia-laden Batfight while singing a song about regaining his self-confidence, rescues Lois and leaves the remaining two malcontents to their apparent deaths when Max hiccups and blows the lab sky-high. Don't worry--in the next scene it turns out the explosion just turned them into good guys and even made them forget Superman's true identity and everything goes back to normal.

"I'm a good guy now. This is my good guy face. I love being a good guy."

Wow. This...is...stupid. Really, really stupid. Not even on the same level as Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, where it's stupid but watchable. Or the Flash Gordon movie, where it's stupid but at least has Brian Blessed and Queen and everyone's at least enjoying themselves.

I think one of the reasons that Batman '66 works well is that it's a show with energy. It's a lighthearted superhero romp that keeps its foot firmly on the gas pedal right up until the final Bat-punch. Every time the Joker comes on screen or the Penguin whips out a gas-spraying umbrella or the Riddler starts giggling maniacally, it adds to the whimsy.

This Superman special doesn't have the same energy. In fact, it doesn't have any energy at all. I wasn't really expecting anything from Alan Moore, but from its Roy Lichtenstein knockoff sets to its bottom-of-the-barrel production values to its lackluster writing, it isn't really all that exciting or compelling or even entertaining. Plus, none of the jokes are funny, most of the characters are annoying, including Superman and ESPECIALLY Max, and as for the songs...well, okay, that "possibilities" song was all right, but the rest of them are pretty forgettable.

In summary, if you think Adam West's Batman is too silly, too ridiculous and too corny for your taste, watch this special and see everything that Batman COULD have been...and thankfully wasn't.

Where's General Zod when you need him?

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