As part of a promotional campaign for a new superhero movie, Steve Nichols (John Ritter) dresses as the film’s hero, Captain Avenger. However, when Steve stops a robbery dressed as the superhero, he decides to become a crime fighter, which inspires the whole city.
This is the premise for the light comedy Hero at Large (1980).
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The Time Period
Hero at Large is a movie very much of its time and oftentimes looks a little dated by today’s standards.
It takes place at a time when Superman: the Movie (1978) was the big Superhero Movie in theaters. Captain Avenger seems modeled on heavily on Superman, from the poses to the crimes. However, they also make a joke about Superman without referencing the character by name. The movie also includes music similar to the main theme and the love theme in Superman.
However, Superman is not the only movie or industry that is referenced. The Man who plays the mayor in this movie, Leonard Harris, had most famously played a senator in Taxi Driver (1976). There are also many Taxi Driver allusions, including Steve driving a cab himself.
Probably the character in this that is most dated now is PR man Walter Reeves (Bert Convy). The name Reeves seems to be a play on Superman lead Christopher Reeve. However, the character seems to be based on Paramount Executive Robert Evans. He sports a similar look to Evans, including wearing a pair of sunglasses everywhere. The Captain Avenger movie he promotes also stars Ryan McGraw. One of Evans’ biggest hits was Love Story (1970) starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw (who would become his wife). Actor Bert Convy had gotten a boost in his movie career three years earlier for playing a self-help guru in the Football Comedy Semi-Tough (1977).
All of these choices add to an aesthetic that is more topical than timeless.
Unlike later movies with a similar premise, Hero at Large is a very light movie. After all, it is a movie that makes fun of the much lighter Christopher Reeve Superman movie, itself designed to be somewhat of a screwball comedy.
Later films with similar premises (such as Defendor (2009), Super (2010), and Kick-Ass (2010)) opt for a more violent style where the DIY superhero gets into much bloodier confrontations. Oftentimes, the hero will face off against a villain who is truly menacing and violent rather than cartoonish or comedic.
Hero at Large’s protagonist faces off against much less violent confrontations. He gets shot, but the bullet grazes him. The scariest scene in the movie involves the protagonist going into a burning building.
Writer A.J. Carothers had previously written movies for Walt Disney Pictures in the 1960’s. Director Martin Davidson’s previous film had been the PG-rated high school comedy Almost Summer (1978).
Like many films of the era, Hero at Large is a film more about an idea than a character. Consequently, it does not have a clear-cut villain as much it has a bunch of minor antagonists for the idealistic Steve to maneuver.
If there is a primary villain, it is PR Man Walter Reeves, who came up with the idea of having actors dress up as Captain Avenger. Reeves wants to use Captain Avenger to re-elect the mayor. When he chooses Steve to pull more of his own stunts, he reluctantly does it. He decides to quit after appearing at the mayor’s political campaign. Reeves decides to stage a fake robbery on an elevated train, which Steve saves people from. Steve reluctantly performs the act, but does not like it.
A secondary antagonist in the film is hard-bitten reporter Gloria Preston (Jane Hallaren). When she first interviews the optimistic Steve after the vigilante strikes, she dismisses Steve’s optimistic attitude. After repeating his optimistic words, she adds, “and Mickey Mouse for President.” When she later discovers Reeves’s plot to get the mayor reelected (and the fake crime), she exposes Steve as fraud.
Steve Nichols is the most innocent and enthusiastic character in an apathetic and cynical world. Originally from Cawker City, he has come to New York to make it in the stage world. His agent Eddie (Harry Bellaver) wants him to do commercials. He wants to do great theater instead.
The film introduces Steve having a very serious conversation with a woman about how he knocked her up. It turns out that he is rehearsing lines with an actress. This misdirect allows the audience to understand how seriously this film takes itself.
Over the course of the story, Steve will have his idealism tested by cynical New York city. At one point, a character tells him that she “traded in her rose-colored glasses.” The low point of the movie comes when Steve gets revealed as part of the Mayor’s PR stunt and loses his innocent spirit. He decides to give up on his dream and go back to Cawker city.
The Love Interest
Probably the weakest and most dated element in the movie is the movie is the love story between Steve and commercial producer Jolene Marsh (Anne Archer), who he calls J.
The biggest difficulty with the role is that J seems to change without much rhyme or reason. At the beginning of the film, J has been dating the director of her commercials. However, this relationship has soured and she wants to focus on her career. Steve inserts himself into her life, much to her annoyance. However, J goes from feeling complete annoyance with Steve to liking him pretty quickly. In the middle of the film, she tells Steve that he is the type of guy a woman thinks about having kids with, even though he is an unemployed actor who dresses like a superhero.
Some of the material also comes off as a little dated. A scene early on has Steve showing up at her work unannounced and putting his hands on her. He later apologizes for it, but the movie seems to posit that they are both wrong in this situation. Another scene has Steve doing a Chinese voice as part of a bit about her getting Chinese food. All of these choices now seem quite uncomfortable in general.
After giving up on his dream, Steve heads around the corner to see a fire has broken out and that there is a boy trapped in the building. After pausing a moment, Steve gets on top of the building and runs in to the fire.
Steve rescues the boy, but cannot get out of the building. Two onlookers watching the fire run in and save him. Steve might be a hero, but he also needs rescuing, proving that anybody can be a hero. In reference to being told that Steve Nichols saved the day again, reporter Gloria Preston says, “I guess it doesn’t matter who he is.” The movie ends with Steve reconnecting with J.
By having Steve face a disaster and not a person, the film creates an ending that is perhaps not as satisfying as it could be. It rebuilds trust in Steve, but it almost seems like a Deus ex Machina to end the film.
A fairly silly film, Hero at Large is about the attack on a spirit and an idea rather than a hero and villain story. The lead protagonist often has to be rescued from his exploits. The real villain is the cynicism of everyday society. While it often seems dated and odd, it does provide some entertainment.