08/13/2013 01:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Forgotten Superhero Movie: 'Hero At Large'

hero at large

The concept of a normal person donning a mask and cape, and then attempting to fight crime as a vigilante, is inherently interesting -- mostly because in this age of superhero movies, it seems almost reasonable to assume that someone will try it at some point in the future. And not those clowns who dress up in costumes and do nothing but give interviews to the media about how they are "real-life superheros" -- more that, someday, someone who is really strong and is really good at fighting will probably attempt to "clean up" their city. (Of course, this person would most likely have some sort of mental illness, because if he or she were really that good at fighting, he or she could make a much better living as an MMA fighter.)

That said, I feel that this concept would make an interesting movie. Now, there are movies that have attempted to explore this conceit, at least on the surface -- the most notable being the Kick-Ass movies. But the problem with the Kick-Ass movies (at least from this standpoint) is that they don't even make an attempt to ground themselves in any sort of reality. James Gunn's Super suffered from the same type of problems -- not to mention that our "hero" beat a man with a wrench for cutting in line at the movie theater. I understand that's the point -- that the man behind The Crimson Bolt costume is deranged -- but that still doesn't give us a glimpse of what would really happen.

The Kick-Ass movies and Super are too caught up in their own violence to actually explore any sort of reality. Perhaps reality is too boring. To this day, the most realistic portrayal of what would happen if a normal person attempted to become a superhero is in a 1980 movie starring John Ritter called Hero at Large.

Hero at Large isn't a particularly great movie (though, Ritter is unquestionably charming), but it really is its era's Super or Kick-Ass. Like Super and Kick-Ass both being released two years after the Marvel movie explosion that started with 2008's Iron Man, Hero at Large was released two years after the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. Where Iron Man introduced us to a brash, wise-cracking hero, Superman reveled in its earnestness. Super upped the ante on brash; Hero at Large upped the ante on the earnestness.

Ritter's Steve Nichols isn't a comic book fan trying to live out his fantasies. Nichols is a cab driver by day and an out of work New York City actor who takes a job that requires him (and dozens of others) to dress as a superhero named Captain Avenger and stand outside movie theaters and sign autographs for people who are there to see the Captain Avenger movie. (And to be taunted by a very young Kevin Bacon, who is also the villain in Super.)

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On Nichols' way home, still wearing the costume, he foils a robbery at a Greenwich Village grocery store. The next morning, his exploits become a huge media story.

Nichols believes that New York City needs a hero -- some sort of hope -- so he doesn't reveal his true identity. What happens next is interesting only for its realism: Nichols only goes out on one true crime-fighting spree. Using a police radio, he tracks down a car of criminals (we have no idea what these people did) and he runs them off the road. When Nichols approaches the criminals' car in full Captain Avenger costume, the criminals shoot him.

And that's pretty much it for Steve Nichols' superhero career. After being shot (a grazing wound on his right arm), he decides that's enough -- which is probably what would happen in real life.

Later, the publicist from the Captain Avenger movie (played by Burt Convy, of course) gets involved and bribes Nichols into performing one more heroic act to help promote the movie (which I'd like to think wouldn't happen in real life, but would probably happen in real life), though this one is staged and the ruse is revealed fairly quickly (there's also a subplot about the mayor using Captain Avengers's popularity for political gain). This all results in the city turning on Nichols and returning to its ugly self.

(It was at this point that I should have stopped watching Hero at Large because that would have been a poignant ending. Unfortunately, only minutes after the city renounces Captain Avenger, Nichols comes across a burning building and rescues a child and is once again viewed as a hero. Which at the same time turned an OK movie into a not-so-great movie.)

Hero at Large is the forgotten "real superhero" movie. The most unrealistic thing about Hero at Large in 2013 is that Steve Nichols is just a guy who wants to help. He doesn't have any deep-seated quest for revenge, he's just a nice guy who later realizes that he's in over his head. I do wonder if a movie like this could get made today without the bloodlust or cynicism of what we've seen. I doubt it. And, again, Hero at Large isn't particularly great -- boy, is it slow at times -- but it provides a fascinating template.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.