Ask Chris #244: The Hal Needham Expanded Universe
Q: Which 80s action film should be licensed as an ongoing comic next? --- @kingimpulse
A: When you get right down to it, '80s action movie nostalgia in comics probably hit critical mass back in 2006, when IDW published that Scarface sequel, based on the premise that Tony Montana did not actually die from snorting his body weight in cocaine, taking a shotgun blast directly to the back, and falling twenty feet into a shallow pool filled with irony. That thing was next-level bonkers, but at the same time, the fact that I'm not actually making that up means that there's really no limit on what you can do when you're trying to bring this stuff back for comics.
When I thought about the revivals I'd like to see, the first thing that popped into my mind was, of course, Gymkata, the 1985 thriller starring Olympic gold medalist Kurt Thomas as a man who literally uses a pommel horse to kick America's enemies into unconsciousness.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that that's not what we need right now. What we need, what we've always needed, is the Hal Needham Expanded Universe.
I mean, look, if all options are on the table, I still want a Gymkata ongoing series, and I want it to run for at least a hundred issues. If there's one thing I know deep in my soul, it's that there are a virtually infinite number of problems, up to and including international politics, that can only be solved through a combination of gymnastics and karate. And I know this because that is the actual premise of every comic book about Batman published in the last 75 years.
Of course, the rights might be a little tricky to sort out. Gymkata was, after all, based on a 1957 novel called The Terrible Game by Dan Tyler Moore, and while I haven't read it, I do have my doubts that the scene where Jonathan Cabot beats up an entire village of medieval "crazies" by kicking them in the face while spinning around on a pommel horse was part of the book, and not something specifically created for the movie once they realized they'd cast a dude who literally invented new pommel horse moves. If I'm wrong and it actually is in the book, then that is the best casting in the history of film, and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise.
As much as I'd love to see a comic book that combines the skill of gymnastics with the kill of karate, though, it's really just that one thing. If I'm in charge of figuring out which movies are being licensed for comics, then I'm not going to stop at one, and that brings us back to Hal Needham.
For those of you who aren't familiar with him, Needham was a stuntman turned director who's probably best known for collaborating with Burt Reynolds to give the world Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, two of the finest films in the history of the medium that did not involve a combination of gymnastics and karate. Also, he once got tired of making movies and decided instead to devote himself to breaking the land speed record in a rocket car powered by a sidewinder missile and painted with the Budweiser logo, something else that I can promise you is actually 100% true.
His directing career only spanned a single decade, beginning in 1977 with Bandit and ending in 1987 with Body Slam, in which "Rowdy" Roddy Piper played professional wrestler "Quick" Rick Roberts, but for a certain type of person who has a whole lot of fond memories of VHS box art, it was a solid ten years.
The idea, of course, would be to unite all of his films in a single world. This is comics, after all, and comic books love nothing more than building things out into a shared universe so that there can be a big crossover where Everything Changes Forever.
With Needham, it's actually not that much of a stretch to make it happen. It's not that his features were intended to be seen as one cohesive whole or anything, but, well, the man had his signatures, and when everyone across the board seems to be focused to an almost unhealthy degree on getting from one place to another as fast as possible, it's easy pretty easy to make some connections.
Considering that it's his best known work, it might be tempting to use Smokey and the Bandit as the foundation of the HNEU, but I actually think it's best to start with MegaForce. I mean, that thing's basically a comic already, and the fact that we somehow didn't get an adaptation in 1982 remains mystifying to this day.
If you haven't seen it, it's basically GI Joe, but way, way dumber. Barry Bostwick stars as Commander Ace Hunter, who leads an international anti-terrorist strike team that defends freedom with high-tech weapons and equipment that, according to Bostwick, were so close to what real-life covert ops groups were using that "the Pentagon tried to stop the movie." For the record, those vehicles mainly consisted of dune buggies with laser guns and a rocket-powered flying motorcycle. If that is where my tax dollars are going, I wholeheartedly approve.
Not to spoil the ending of a movie that's been out for 33 years, but the bad guy, Duke Guerrera, gets away at the end --- although he sticks around long enough for Commander Hunter to say the line that, by all rights, should've inspired way more tattoos than it actually did:
Point being, with that already in place, it's easy to manufacture a threat that could bring the entire cast of the Needhamverse together for a larger story.
I'd probably keep the Bandit off the board for a while at the start --- he and Snowman would be missing, revealed at the climax of the story to have been recruited and brainwashed by Guerrera to transport stolen MegaForce technology, codenamed CANNONBALL, across the country as fast as they could in order to launch a destructive campaign of national extortion. MegaForce would want to intervene, of course, but with their charter explicitly forbidding them from direct military action within the United States, he'd have to find freelancers to do the job for him.
And he'd start with Bandit's estranged twin brother, Sonny Hooper:
Rounding out the team set to intercept Bandit's run would be the muscle, Rick Roberts, and young daredevil Cru Jones from Rad, the 1986 movie about BMX stunt racing in which the concept of romance was conveyed by two teens doing BMX tricks at the prom:
I am not even close to kidding when I say that Needham was a genius.
The twist, naturally, would be the piece of classified information that Hunter never told his freelancers: that CANNONBALL was not actually a "weapon" at all, but a person, Victor Prinzim, who channeled his stress into a super-powered engine of destruction that only answered to "Captain Chaos."
Put all that together, and you have a story that goes beyond just adapting a movie to another medium and instead forms the foundation of an entire new universe, with characters and relationships that could be explored indefinitely, adding to each of them and creating a rich tapestry of storytelling that I'm sure literally everyone reading comic books would love.
Well... I mean...
I'd read it. Probably.