Stan Lee’s Lightspeed (DVD)

“What happens when an inexperienced superhero buys his suit from a stoner store clerk? Why is his former scientist friend turned snake-skinned psycho plotting the horrific Operation Firesky?”
—Actual text from the back of the Lightspeed DVD box.

Just what was famous comic book creator Stan Lee’s role in bringing Lightspeed to life in this Sci-Fi Channel made-for-TV movie? God only knows. His only credit here is as one of four executive producers. Even if his involvement was only slight, should that prevent his fans from checking this one out? On the plus side, Lightspeed offers tons of retro superhero action. On the negative side, it’s cheesy as hell.

Years ago, a scientist named Edward (Daniel Goddard, Beastmaster) continued work on a way to heal the skin of burn victims in the same way that snakes shed their skin. Despite a lack of funding and worries from his friend Daniel (Jason Connery, The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, son of Sean), Edward’s experiment goes horribly, horribly wrong, transforming him into a reptile-like creature. Cut the present, where Daniel is now a member of “Ghost Squad,” an elite government task force. When he is injured in the line of duty, some new titanium legs and a healthy dose of radiation give him the power to move at incredible speed. Just in time, too, because Edward has resurfaced, now using the name “Python,” with a plan to destroy the entire city for revenge over what’s become of him. Donning a mask and costume, so his squad leader (Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man) doesn’t know it’s him, Daniel becomes “Lightspeed.” His destiny is to battle his enemy, save the city, and rescue the woman he loves—all in an orgy of costumed crime fighting mayhem.

In film, TV, books, and, yes, comics, the mythology of the superhero has been deconstructed and reconstructed a couple dozen times by now. Over the years, we’ve been treated to examinations of what goes through a person’s mind in order to put on a mask and fight crime. We’ve had looks at what it might be like for someone to actually perform superhuman feats using (mostly) believable technology. We’ve seen dark, gritty antiheroes for whom crime fighting is a twisted obsession, and we’ve seen staunch do-gooders try to make sense out of an imperfect world where there are no easy answers.

Lightspeed avoids all of the above criteria. Instead, it’s two guys in outrageous costumes hitting each other.

You know what? That might not be such a bad thing in this case. There are nods everywhere to “old school” superhero adventures, the kind Stan Lee gained his fame from. Python gets his powers from a lab accident, while Lightspeed gets his thanks to radiation. I couldn’t begin to list how many 1960s heroes got their powers from these two means. There’s also a very familiar dynamic at play, in which the villain blames the hero for his villainy, and the hero has the villain to blame for the creation of his powers. This “who created who” dilemma, which I’m guessing will be familiar to Bat-fans, creates an emotional and thematic link between the two characters, placing further strain on their already broken friendship.

But enough about throwbacks and themes. You want to know about the action, don’t you? I’m afraid it’s kind of hit or miss. Lightspeed’s throwdowns with Python are fairly well executed, although you might wonder—if Lightspeed can move so fast, why can’t he duck Python’s punches? Scenes of Lightspeed running, with all kinds of bluescreen work at hand, are a little less exciting, and kind silly-looking, to be honest. Another thing to note about the movie is how astonishingly violent it is. Whenever Python’s goons take on the Ghost Squad, there are gunshot wounds galore. This isn’t one of those movies where a guy just falls over when he gets shot. Instead, it’s one of those movies where a guy’s entire chest blows open in a gory, gooey mess when he gets shot. If released theatrically, Lightspeed would probably get an “R” rating for all this blood-splattery carnage.

The looks of the characters are also hit or miss. Lightspeed’s costume doesn’t quite work for me. His head is covered by three parts: goggles, a face mask, and a full covering that’s part of his suit. There are these little gaps between the goggles and the mask where I could see part of his face through it, and that bugged me throughout the whole movie. Python, meanwhile, looks great. His snakelike makeup job is outstanding, and when he has on his black hooded cape, he looks truly menacing.

You’ll notice I haven’t spent a lot of time here writing about the plot or the character work. There’s not much of either, really. You get just enough of a glimpse of who these characters are and what the situation is to get you moving to the next goofy set piece or special effects scene. It’s “short attention span” filmmaking, but in this case it works in the movie’s favor. The last thing you want from your low-budget superhero movie is for it to creep along at a dull pace.

The picture quality here isn’t quite reference material, but it does the job nicely. The sound is quite good, especially when the gunshots go off, or when the excellent score by Peter Meisner kicks in. The only extras are some trailers for other Anchor Bay DVDs. This is unfortunate, as it would have been great to hear from Stan the Man and the other creators about the making the movie and the ideas behind it.

I’m guessing this was a pilot for a never-produced weekly TV series. If not, it certainly serves as one, and I can almost see a series working based on what’s here. You’d need to give the budget something of a boost, and give our hero a wider rogue’s gallery, but beyond that, it could’ve happened. Also, where are the Lightspeed tie-in comics? And a Lightspeed video game would really rock! Okay, I’ll stop now.

Lightspeed is unrepentantly cheesy, but it’s not so unbearable that you can’t make it part of your next “drunken bad movie night” with you and your fellow comic book geeks. In other words, make this one a speedy rental.

The Verdict

Guilty, but we’re willing to offer time off for good behavior.

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