Who wouldn’t want to meet a superhero in real life? Many of us grew up pouring over countless Marvel or DC comic books, hoping to if not be bitten by a radioactive spider at least to someday meet one of those larger-than-life-heroes for ourselves. Martin Davidson’s film, Hero at Large, wonderfully taps into the hopeful childhood spark that often fades away over time. So, how was all this made possible? Well, the trick was in casting John Ritter, one of the most likable men to ever grace this planet.
With the character of Steve Nichols (John Ritter), we get the standard struggling New York City actor that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but in the case of Nichols, his bitterness of being stuck literally spear-carrying during Shakespeare in the Park is trumped by his bubbling enthusiasm for his chosen profession. Lack of jobs in the acting realm causes him to be late on his rent, but it doesn’t stop him from hitting on the beautiful new neighbour across the hall, Jolene Walsh (Anne Archer), or giving it his all when posing as comic-book hero “Captain Avenger” for a movie he’s hired to help promote. It’s this job of dressing up as Captain Avenger that gets our movie in motion with his stopping off at a local mom and pop variety store to get some milk and foiling a robbery while still in costume.
This is a moment of pure wish fulfillment, being at the right place at the right time and becoming a hero, but when the people of New York jump on the Captain Avenger bandwagon, Nichols doesn’t realize it’s better to quit while he’s ahead. While driving a cab, he listens to the police scanner which leads him into a high-speed car chase with a couple of nasty drug dealers. Unfortunately, said drug dealers were armed with actual guns opposed to the knife-wielding punks in the variety store, and Steve gets shot for his troubles.
Things get worse when Steve staggers home only to discover that the landlady has padlocked his door due to his failure to pay the rent, but there’s an immediate turn for the better when that aforementioned beautiful woman from across the hall takes pity on this dumb lug and takes him in like one would a stray cat. It’s here where the film turns up the romantic-comedy angle a notch, with hapless Steve living on Jolene’s coach, and their relationship is allowed to blossom. One of the nicest elements in this movie is Anne Archer’s strong depiction of a working woman who doesn’t want to be defined by the man she dates; that as sweet and lovable as Steve Nichols is, she has her own goals and becoming a wife and mother isn’t currently one of them, “I’ve got dreams of my own, there is no place for you in my life.” Steve’s needs don’t fit in with the life she seeks, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Of course, they will eventually get back together before the credits roll, this being a Hollywood movie and all, but I was quite pleased with the way Archer’s character was written. Her arguments about finding her own way in the world without the distraction of Ritter’s character was completely reasonable and even though she does take him back, in the end, it still doesn’t lessen her character one iota. As silly and good-hearted of a movie this was, with a regular guy in spandex becoming a real-life hero, the core message of not giving up on your dreams was handled superbly well, whether that be as a wannabe actor or a beacon of hope for the world.
• One of the teen hecklers in this film is a young Kevin Bacon.
• The Mayor of New York is portrayed by the same actor who played the senator in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
• Steve rams the drug dealer’s car with his taxi to get them to crash, but exactly how did he plan on explaining the damages to the cab company?
The movie does have a subplot where a group of unscrupulous politicians hire Steve as a symbol for their campaign, with Bert Convy as a slick-talking PR agent and Kevin McCarthy as the Mayor’s top aide, but this element comes across more like a third act crisis of faith than a real threat — there are no Doctor Dooms or Thanos’s to fight in this movie — and there is no doubt that John Ritter’s heroic Steve Nichols will ultimately redeem himself both in the eyes of the public and the woman he loves.
Hero at Large is a sweet and endearing film that rests heavily on John Ritter’s charismatic shoulders, and it’s a movie I can recommend to anyone who has become a little tired and jaded by all the big superhero blockbusters being made today.
Hero at Large (1980)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Hero at Large (1980) – Review
The biggest criticism one could level against Hero at Large is that it has more of a “Made For Television” feel to it than one would hope for – not helped by the lead actor mostly being known for playing Jack Tripper on Three’s Company – but overall the film stands on its core message of “Be true to yourself” and what’s wrong with that?