Friday, June 28, 2019

Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge


Directed by Ron Satlof.

1979. Not Rated, 90 minutes.
Cast:
Nicholas Hammond
Rosalind Chao
Robert F. Simon
Benson Fong
Richard Erdman
Ellen Bry
Chip Fields
John Milford
Ted Danson

Since things tend to come in threes, it makes sense that the Spider-Man TV series of the late 1970s spawned a trilogy of movies. Like the second of these, Spider-Man Strikes Back, Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge is really two episodes edited together to form a single film and given a theatrical release in select parts of the world. Before starting this trek down Spidey land I had no idea the webhead ever saw the inside of a movie theater before Sam Raimi came along. Yet, here we are. Following Shaft’s lead, our hero’s third movie has him leaving the cozy confines of New York City and taking his talents abroad.

One of J. Jonah Jameson’s old college buddies, Min Lo Chan (Fong), is the Chinese Minister of Industrial Development. He shows up in the Big Apple because someone back home is trying to kill him. He needs Jameson’s help finding some marines who tried to bribe him for secrets way back during World War II to help him get out of this situation. Jameson puts Peter Parker (Hammond) on the matter because, as we found out in the previous movie, Peter is the smartest person in the known universe. Sure enough, our hero traces things back to some evil people doing business in Hong Kong, and suddenly your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is working internationally.


Let’s start with that last fact. We can talk about special fx, as we have and will do throughout these movies, but this little piece of story-telling, the always-running subplot of Peter trying to keep his secret identity secret is what feels most dated. Things happens that should make it too painfully obvious to ignore the fact that Peter and Spider-Man are one in the same. Peter always has some gadgets or other info that he claims Spider-Man gave to him, or he’s defending Spider-Man in a way that his speaking in third-person could easily be mistaken for first-person. Most egregiously, Peter will leave a room only to reemerge seconds later in full costume. The idea of never seeing Peter and Spidey in the same room is stretched to its absolute limits, in this installment, even more so than the previous two. It reminds me of a scene in 2010’s Super. When confronted with a “villain” who skipped a bunch of people in line at the movie theater, the hero storms off to his car across the street, gets in and changes into his costume in full view of everyone. When he goes back to confront the guy he was arguing with, he vehemently denies being the same person as the one who got into the car. What happens here is not quite on that level of absurdity, but it’s not all that far off.

The next thing that stands out is something fanboys love to harp on in superhero flicks (and TV shows), the costume. From the first movie through this one, the powers that be keep adding little bits and pieces until it’s even too ridiculous for a movie about a man with the abilities of a spider. In keeping with the previous movie, Spidey only has one web-shooter, a clunky metallic bracelet on his right wrist. His boots don’t match the rest of the suit. However, the biggest eyesore is that the wall crawler is now wearing a utility belt. I guess it fits since this version of Peter Parker is far more Bruce Wayne than anyone else, but it still looks out of place. It’s another clear sign that this version of Spider-Man took lots of inspiration from the 60s Batman series. I’ve already mentioned that Spidey has gadgets. He’s also given to long explanations to his intellectual inferiors, which is basically everyone.


From a narrative standpoint, The Dragon’s Challenge has its share of issues. The dialogue is still hammy and clunky. At one point, for instance, one of the baddies is talking to another about taking on our hero and exhorts his colleague to gather up his “best kung fu men.” There are the aforementioned exchanges between Peter and anyone who dares to muse that he’s Spider-Man. There’s also a clumsy love story involving Peter and Min Lo Chan’s daughter Emily (Chao). The problem is the one woman star Nicholas Hammond has the most chemistry with, and the one he has the best conversations with, is the one woman the era of the show dictated he probably could not be with, Chip Fields as Rita Conway. She is a black woman on a predominantly white show in the 70s. There was no way her and Peter would get together. Only The Jeffersons dared show an interracial relationship at the time, and the very fact of their union was repeatedly used as a punchline, and occasionally as social commentary. This movie wants no part of that, so in this film he kinda-sorta pursues a “less offensive,” though still interracial relationship. I mean pursue in the lightest way possible. That’s because there’s a bigger problem than the race of the woman Peter is interested in. He comes across as asexual. His intentions are purely G-rated. That's to be expected of the main character of a superhero show from that era. Things featuring superheroes were considered strictly kiddie-fare.

The thing I was most looking for when watching this movie was improvement over its predecessors. It’s evident that the makers of this show/these movies are making it up as they go. There were clearly steps forward from the first to the second. This time around, it’s obvious the show has settled into a groove. It’s a study in stagnation. It knows what it can and cannot do and acts accordingly. This goes for the story and the action. Nothing memorable happens. Part of it is because Hammond clearly never mastered the physical side of the role. I’m not sure how much help he got because the fight choreography nor the simplistic and poorly shot stunts are doing him any favors. There are no wow moments. Everything is just rather ho-hum. And that sums up the entire experience of Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge. If you’ve already seen the previous two movies, it lacks the total ineptness that would have turned this into an ironically enjoyable experience. On the other hand, nothing on the screen excites us. It just swings by unceremoniously, does its blahness, and swings away.



16 comments:

  1. An attempt of Spider-Man going Kung Fu. Is this also available on YouTube?

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  2. This movie just seems so....random for Spider-man.

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  3. WOW! I believe everything you say about the movie by the images alone. Yet I still really want to see it. It sounds like it doesn't embrace the ineptness enough. That's a shame.

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    1. Yeah, the entire series took itself far too seriously for what they had to work with.

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