The new Green Hornet movie is a goofy superhero send-up. But the franchise has a serious past. Dig into some Hornet history and learn how its heroes went from radio and comics to TV, and finally to Seth Rogen.
The Green Hornet has been an enduring character, but a vague one. Most people can remember the name, but few can manage to remember specifics about the actual character. The current movie, with Seth Rogen as the star and one of the writers, looks a little like an Apatow superhero film. It's shot through with humor and centered around a hilariously incompetent superhero and his long-suffering partner. Earlier Green Hornets were much more serious. Although sidekick Kato has always been long-suffering.
The Radio Show
The Green Hornet first appeared in the 1930s in a children's radio program. Britt Reid wasn't a drunken playboy then. He was a respectable, thoughtful newspaper publisher, who was all about public service. At night he used the cover of The Green Hornet, a criminal mastermind, to seek out other criminals and shut them down.
This was well before children's entertainment was meant to entertain kids while simultaneously winking at their parents. The program was dead serious. In "Gas Station Protection Racket" Britt Reid delivers lectures on the reason why protection rackets hurt everyone, no matter who they target. Although the thirties slang and sound effects make for some unintentional comedy now, this was serious Sam Spade with a Mask stuff.
You can listen to several episodes on MP3 here.
The TV series of the 1960s also played it straight, especially compared to the campy theatrics of the Batman and Robin series of that time. The plots were clunky, but Britt and Kato wore dark costumes without eyebrows painted on.
Van Williams doesn't speak with the same Shatner-pauses and sing-song cadence that Adam West indulges in, and the colors for the series are far more dark and dramatic than the pastels of the Bat series. When there's a crossover, the Green Hornet and Kato stand out as dark blotches in the pastel Gotham sets.
But of course the real reason why this series is remembered is Bruce Lee. It was unusual for the time that action actors could actually do . . . anything. In the clip below, although Lee is only briefly unencumbered by stiff organized fight choreography, he shows how good he is as fighting.
In this series, the comedy is again unintentional, and it comes out when Van Williams throws a stiff stage punch after the fluid fighting Lee demonstrates. TV Rage has a pretty complete page about the show here.
Green Hornet comics tended to be stop-and-start affairs. The comics went through about five different publishers between 1940 and the present. The first comic ran for only six issues. The longest-standing comics were in the 80s and early 90s, and inexplicably replaced the original characters, Kato with his own son - also named Kato - and Britt with a nephew - also named Britt. This series kept the serious tone of the past incarnation of The Green Hornet.
The latest Green Hornet comic is written by Kevin Smith, and gets the Kevin Smith treatment. The characters became more verbose, and the comic deliberately tipped towards comedy.
It's strange that this character, played straight for so long, is now the subject of a movie that's being sold as more of a comedy than a superhero film. Perhaps that's just the natural reaction to a character which didn't have the constant updates that Batman and Superman had, and so seems stuck in the 1930s. We can't approximate what he was back then, an earnest newspaperman trying to rid the world of two-bit hoodlums, and so the only way we can update it is to mock it.