Believe it or Not; A high school teacher was a cool superhero
Superhero movies soar like never before. In fact; the last film I reviewed professionally was „Venom“ and it‘s another kind of superhero flick in the „Deadpool“ vein. It kinda‘ takes itself seriously yet it let‘s loose a good dose of humor and has an anti-hero with more than a few shades of grey.
Ever since Christopher Nolan hit it big with „Batman Begins“ (2005) the superhero movie changed quite a bit. It became more realistic and had lead characters that were full of moral conflict and bad guys that were truly repellent without any redeeming qualites or a sense of comic relief about them. They have become much more serious and audiences are now flooded with, in a sense, real life people who put on costumes that make them practically invincible (Iron Man, Batman) or are simply nearly invincible from the get-go (Superman, Wonder Woman).
I‘ve always wondered if being a superhero wouldn‘t be a major pain in the ass. And that‘s the question at heart in a TV series from the 80‘s called „The Greatest American Hero“, a pretty cool relic that‘s all but forgotten.
William Katt („House“, 1986) stars as Ralph Hinkley, a high school teacher who has the unenviable task of tutoring problem students. He is chosen by an alien race to become a living superhero when he is handed a special suit. Along with FBI agent Bill Maxwell (the frustratingly one-note but somehow enjoyble Robert Culp) and fiancée/lawyer Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) Ralph is forced to engage in all sorts of battles with law breakers while wearing the suit which gives him the powers to fly, become invisible, resist bullets and yield superhuman strength.
All of this is done in comedic fashion. When you think about superheros; well, they‘re kinda‘ silly. And that‘s the tone of „GAH“ from the beginning. Along with the suit Ralph is handed an instructions manual which he promptly loses and therefore he doesn‘t know how to fully utilize the suit. Throughout the series he never gets a handle on how to land after flying full speed and only gradually learns the tricks of the suit (i.e. how to become invisible, bullet resistancy etc. ). He has the hardest time of balancing his personal and professional life with the responsibilities of having to save the day when danger arises. When people catch a glimpse of Ralph on the street in costume they think this is a crazy individual. When arriving after full speed flight he continually crashes with a bang. One of the special powers of the suit enables Ralph to visualize where a person can be located by handling an item of clothing or such by said person and this is on many occasions used in comedic ways (like when Ralph has to wear female clothing over the suit only to have someone walk in on him).
Ralph‘s responsibility as a superhero routinely puts a strain on his relationship with Pam, prevents him from acquiring tenure position at his his school and never results in him receiving any form of gratitude as he has to remain anonymous. In a funny recurring bit throughout it‘s always Bill who gets credit for multible arrests and such and his performance record gets such a boost that all his superiors scratch their heads in amazement. In short; being a superhero is mostly a pain in the behind for Ralph and he‘d much rather be rid of it.
„The Greatest American Hero“ ran from 1981 -1983 and 43 episodes were produced (of which 40 aired initially and in 1986 the three principles returned for an intended spin-off titled „The Greatest American Heroine“ but didn‘t move past the pilot episode). From the get go the series had an uphill battle with changing time slots, a law suit by DC creators as they saw this is an illegal infringement on Superman, name changes for Ralph (as Hinkley was the name of President Reagan‘s assailant so Ralph‘s name was changed to Hanley for three episodes) and numerous other matters. The creators of „GAH“ couldn‘t quite settle on the tone which ranged from semi-serious comedy to borderline slapstick and Ralph‘s foes grew a tad too cartoonish for their own good. Lastly the wildest inconsistency had Ralph being divorced and caring part time for his son but this part of his life was dropped and his son was gradually phased out. In the end it was cancelled with no proper conclusion but the failed spin-off did conclude Ralph‘s time as a reluctant superhero in the proper comedic way.
Although far from perfect; „GAH“ took a funny, original idea and pondered how being a superhero would be incredibly burdensome and trying. Ralph feels ridicilous in the suit (and looks it too) and those who see him think the same. At one point an attempt is made to put him in a nutty asylum and jokes like these drive home the point that a man in a tight costume and a cape is inherently pretty strange and silly. But like most good stories the hero here has a strong moral compass that guides him in his quest to right the wrongs…although sometimes he‘d just want someone else to have the burden of actually doing it.