Categories: Life & Arts
The Green Hornet never dressed for comic books.
No cape, no boots, no tights. He didn’t wear an emblem, carry a shield or need a utility belt.
Maybe it was all about sophistication. The fictional crime fighter from radio, movie serials and television often wore a long trench coat over a shirt and tie, fedora and green mask that covered his eyes and nose. He had a dangerous chauffeur — the black-clad martial arts expert Kato — and a dangerous automobile — the fully loaded Black Beauty.
The characters are back in the public eye on Friday, when “The Green Hornet” movie opens in theaters nationwide. Seth Rogen, best known for comic turns in films like “Pineapple Express” and “Superbad,” plays the title role. Taiwanese singer and actor Jay Chou is Kato.
The characters have been around since 1936, when “The Green Hornet” began its 16-year run on radio. Movie serials followed during the 1940s, and actors Van Williams and Bruce Lee brought the team to television in 1966 for a single season.
Jack Keenan of Albany, a longtime aficionado and historian of old radio programs, listened as classical music’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” led off each Hornet audio adventure.
“In my house, my father had Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for ‘The Lone Ranger.’ For me, it was Tuesdays and Thursdays with ‘The Green Hornet,’ ” Keenan said.
The western and urban characters were related. Keenan said that in radio episodes, back stories established the Green Hornet as a great nephew of the Lone Ranger. “Fran Striker, who created the Lone Ranger in 1933, was asked by the owner of WXYZ in Detroit if he could come up with a masked champion of justice in an urban setting,” Keenan said.
There were similarities. Both heroes wore masks and hats, had fast transportation and counted on their sidekicks in tight spots. Both characters’ theme songs came from the classics — “Bumblebee” was used in radio, serial and television introductions for the Hornet. The Ranger’s signature music for radio and TV was the “William Tell Overture.”
“I loved the Green Hornet because he was an outlaw, he accepted that the police were always after him,” Keenan said. “He took on the role of a criminal to infiltrate gangs. They were all jealous of him because he never got caught.”
Mike Emery, who teaches public relations at the University of Houston, said the crime-fighting characters are probably not well-known to the general public of 2011.
“Since the cancellation of the ’60s TV show, the Green Hornet ‘brand’ has been relatively quiet,” said Emery, who also writes about movies and television shows. “Green Hornet has been in and out of comics since 1989, but when was the last time you saw action figures, video games or other products bearing the character’s likeness? Green Hornet can’t really compare to super brands like Iron Man or Batman that have maintained a consistent presence in the marketplace and are now more popular than ever.”
Emery wonders if the movie will appeal to contemporary audiences. Characters who lived on radio and in the Sunday newspaper comics sections have not had wide appeal.
“In a sense,” he said, “I have to think back to the 1990s. Following the success of the first ‘Batman’ film in 1989, a few other comic movies were developed including 1994’s ‘The Shadow’ and 1996’s ‘The Phantom.’ Those two movies flopped.”
Part of the reason, Emery said, was most moviegoers had only a vague idea of who the characters were.
“As brands, classic characters like the Shadow and Phantom could not generate buzz; both had been out of mainstream media for too long,” he said. “Many audiences probably thought they were brand-new original characters developed for movies. Chances are, many moviegoers might think the same of Green Hornet.”
Rogen may attract viewers. He’s not an action star, Emery said. But neither was Michael Keaton when he was cast as Batman — much to the dismay of longtime fans. And Keaton got good reviews for his serious, occasionally wild-eyed portrayal.
Julian Chambliss, who teaches American Graphic Media at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., believes the Green Hornet’s return to popular media is part of a trend. He believes characters from the past are being re-imagined for the new millennium.
“These characters are forebearers to the modern superhero,” said Chambliss, whose course analyzes American history as told through comic books.
While Rogen may not play the character as straight as radio, serial and television actors once did, Chambliss said the “third star” of the stories has not changed. “The Black Beauty appeals to American car culture,” he said. “If you look at the new movie, the Black Beauty is right there.”
Chambliss believes the movie will also take a new direction with Kato. He said in the 1960s television show, it was obvious Bruce Lee was the real power in the team. But the lead characters were portrayed with nearly equal fighting skills.
“In the movie, Kato is clearly better than Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet,” Chambliss said. So the new film could be part buddy movie, part adventure-action flick.
Chambliss also believes that two everyday guys, hanging out and playing hero, might appeal to the movie-going public.
“Super heroes are more symbolic and inspirational,” he said. “These pulp heroes are still people. This is the appeal of Batman. If you were super rich and wanted to dedicate yourself to fighting crime, you could be Batman, you could be the Green Hornet. You’re never going to be Superman.”