One of the beneficiaries of the use of computer-generated imagery in motion pictures has to be the superhero film. True, there have been successful superhero film franchises before the microprocessor ate Hollywood, but now that the stuntman in front of the camera has been replaced by billions of pixels behind the screen, making a film whose main character invariably wears a skin-tight bodysuit that in its original print form initiated a million adolescent – and usually male – fantasies has been a near certain guarantee of a handsome return on investment.
The latest incarnation of this genre is a spat between Superman and Batman, two good guys who clearly have issues to settle. It’s all very serious and moody. But, surely, given the costumes that these characters romp around in, isn’t it all rather camp?
And that is what is currently missing from these films. And it is all the fault of the British. Or rather one British writer, namely Alan Moore, whose deconstruction of the genre in his ground-breaking part-work Watchmen in 1986 forced the entire comics industry to mature. Batman returned to his Gothic roots with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Tim Burton was thus a shoo-in to direct a troubled Michael Keaton in a launch of what became a franchise of films. Christopher Nolan’s revival trilogy starring Christian Bale was even darker as he played a costumed American Psycho. Nearly all the fun of dressing-up and fancy lines had gone by then. But Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for standing out against the serious and moody trend.
With Batman, it had not always been that way. It is now half a century since Adam West graced our screens as the Caped Crusader with his sidekick, Robin. The 1966 Batman TV series enjoyed broad appeal with its bright colours and weekly ‘special guest villain’. The villains were distinctive and the well-cast actors that hammed up their roles accordingly. The show was a hit.
While openly not a comedy, the camp acting by the villains, contrasting the deadpan and stern behaviour of Dynamic Duo and their po-faced ally Commissioner Gordon, was humorous for the grown-ups while being enthralling for the kiddies.
Only cynical teenagers were not in on the joke. I remember getting it for the first time as an adolescent in the feature film that was made from the show. Batman had cornered the villains and roared ‘Surrender, you-criminals!’ in such an admonitory tone, expressing simultaneous outrage and disappointment at their poor life choices, as if this would be sufficient for them to see the error of their ways and follow his order. Priceless.
There was always a strong moral message, for all their acting-up, the villains were doing bad things and always ended up being defeated. There was no compromise.
We don’t get much of that in children’s programming these days. Most of the shows for youngsters involve some form of grey areas or virtue-signalling and there are few clear-cut tales of right and wrong. One disappointing example is the show Tommy Zoom on the BBC – where else – which portrays commerce and industry as evil. The threatened demise of Port Talbot steelworks may be seen as a victory by the many children indoctrinated when very young into corrected thinking by the BBC for years.
Amidst the mush of oh-so-nice programming with few messages apart from ensuring everywhere is a safe space for everyone, a firm called Fireback Entertainment revived the concept of clear morals with a deliberate homage to the 1966 Batman TV series. Called Captain Mack, the show featured the eponymous hero defeating bad behaviour carried out by Grabby Crabby (theft), Tracy Trickster (lying), and Marty Meddler (using without permission).
These naughty individuals lived in Sunshine City, which was peopled by a host of colourful characters with over-the-top behaviour. It was broadcast by CITV and ran for fifty episodes. It seems to have been the only children’s show these days that conveyed a strong moral message to the under-fives. But it was also well-written and entertaining for us grown-ups as well with some snippets of shady dialogue that may owe something to I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue. I found the campiness and over-acting engaging and recognised the homage. But there is a firm moral tone that is made absolutely clear to the audience that needs it most.
Captain Mack has not been rebroadcast, so its morality tales are now hidden away. But all is not lost. The producers have uploaded a number of the shows to YouTube. You can judge for yourself their value and how you and your children can be entertained.