Way back in 1999 long before Marvel and DC made it impossible to go to the cinema without seeing a superhero movie being advertised before every film you go and see, even if it’s a Romanian three hour epic about a miserable horse in a tiny arthouse cinema, The Unbelievables sent up superhero life in a beautifully funny way. Preceding Pixar’s The Incredibles by five years it covers many of the same concepts as a retired bunch of superheroes have to put up with no longer saving the world and living a mostly normal life.
Written and directed by Ed Solomon of Bill and Ted fame it’s set in the town of Grandville and starts with a seemingly normal guy and a girl playing basketball, until it’s suddenly revealed they’re superpowered humans as the girl stretches her arm several meters so that she can pop the ball through the net and the guy has the ability to fly. Then the credits fill us in on the plot where it turns out the Unbelievables were a superhero team who retired in 1983, and we leap forward to 1999 where Corbin Bernsen’s Action Armstrong is going through his superhero gear in a garage with his son Josh (a very young and goofy Ryan Gosling) with the plan to give it away to a charity auction, but after becoming nostalgic about the old days he decides against it. All three segments set up the story and tone in a really efficient manner, letting us know the kind of show we’re in for, and also that it’s going to be a fun ride.
A few scenes of domestic daftness follow where we learn that Armstrong and the female superhero Qpid used to be married but are now separated, and that Qpid has a new and fairly inept boyfriend, before we’re introduced to Tim Curry’s Vaudevillain. He’s an ex-supervillain who is now running a bookshop, and he’s appalled when he learns that he has to stage a reading of a torrid tell all book by his arch nemesis. Said character is never given a name but as he’s referred to as The Big S, Curry mockingly calls him “The Man Of Squeal” and his book is called Behind The Steel it’s pretty clear he’s based on Superman. Vaudevillain comes complete with a sidekick named Hershel who’s played by a pre-fame Steve Carell, and he’s endearingly naff and likeable despite being technically evil.
The show then returns to Bernsen and the rest of the former Unbelievables playing a game of poker, with the line up including an invisible man and Poet, a hero who only ever speaks in rhyme. But after Josh turns up with a copy of The Big S’s book they discover that Action Armstrong missed a party back in the day because Andy Warhol “wanted to make some five hour movie of my ass or something” and it’s revealed that Qpid was unfaithful. Armstrong rushes off in a strop and Qpid follows and consoles him, but admits she can’t remember the event. It’s not a particularly funny moment but it does give some depth to the characters and stops it being a purely daft show, and also hints at a “Will they / Won’t they” get (back) together storyline that I presume would have been continued in future episodes.
A scene where Curry and Carell are trying to buy something evil online comes next, with Carell claiming “Best I can do is two snapping turtles and a really pointy starfish” though in the end their diabolical scheme only consists of giving The Big S faint indigestion. The whole scene is incredibly absurd but that’s no bad thing at all, and it contains the biggest laughs of the episode. The story then leaps forward to the day of the book signing with all of the Unbelievables present as they wish to meet The Big S again, but he doesn’t turn up and sends the book’s ghostwriter in his place instead, much to the disappointment of all involved. It’s then revealed that Qpid never actually cheated on Armstrong, she was slipped a roofie and passed out and Poet explains that it was he who was involved in the “night of bliss” with The Big S. Considering everything which has happened over the past couple of years when it comes to #MeToo the roofie joke is unpleasant and of concern, but given the outcome at least it’s not as bleak as it could have been which is something I guess, though if made today I hope the subject matter would have been handled in a very different manner. Then the show ends with a group of fans surrounding The Unbelievables, and it’s vaguely hinted that they may reform.
A lot of the humour is derived from the former heroes using their powers in domestic settings and the nostalgia they have for the old days, but there’s also digs at corporate America, some over the top if ineffectual villainy and affectionate mockery of the superhero life. All of the cast are clearly having a ball, and it’s a ball made up of delightful silliness. Bernsen has the hardest role as he has to play it mostly straight and provide the emotional side of things but he’s great at doing so, and the rest of the cast are charmingly lovable with it being a huge amount of fun seeing the young Ryan Gosling messing about in fare like this. Tim Curry’s especially fantastic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as he always is, and you can see how much fun he’s having camping it up with style, while Steve Carrell’s also deliciously over the top and he’s superb too, both are easily the highlight of a pretty damn amazing cast.
The greatest compliment I can give it is that if they omitted the roofie joke it could be shown on tv today and bar the slightly outdated special effects and age of the actors no one would have any reason to think it wasn’t made this year. It’d be fantastic if someone was to remake it with all of the surviving cast, and then twenty further episodes too, it’s an enormously fun pilot with a great concept that could, and should, have run and run.