Day One hundred and twenty-seven "Ode to a Superhero" from Poodle Hat
With “Ode To A Superhero”, Al returned to a formula that performed spectacularly well for “A Saga Begins”, pairing a classic American story song whose melodies have been drilled into the public consciousness through millions upon millions of spins on oldies radio with a similarly iconic piece of iconic American cinematic storytelling.
With “A Saga Begins”, the ubiquitous oldies staple was Don McLean’s “American Pie”, that quintessential piece of kitsch Americana about lost innocence and the Day the Music Died and the iconic film was The Phantom Menace, which brought the George Lucas space opera roaring back to life with its best and, more importantly, best loved entry, a delightful science-fiction romp blessed with a scene-stealing turn from a certain foggy talking frog man from outer space who won all our hearts with his lighthearted shenanigans.
In “Ode to a Superhero” the music foundation is provided by Billy Joel’s tacky little symphony of boozy remorse and barstool psychodrama, “Piano Man” and the film is 2002’s Spider-Man. Despite the enduring popularity of “Piano Man” and the success of Sam Raimi’s film, the song failed to repeat the earlier single’s success.
That might be because while Spider-Man was huge, it wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous or massive a cultural phenomenon as The Phantom Menace. It was the third top-grossing film of 2002, alright, but it didn’t have the ubiquity of the two top grossing films, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, both of which, from a purely commercial perspective, might have made for better song fodder for Al.
Like “A Saga Begins”, “Ode to a Superhero” is like one of those audio movie storybooks for children you used to be able to buy for your record player, only instead of merely recounting the plot and action of a movie Al is giving everything his patented satirical spin. So the result is more like a Mad Magazine version of an audio storybook, the kind that augments the requisite exposition and story beats with zingers and comic commentary.
On the subject of Norman Osborne Sr, AKA the Green Goblin, Al sings, “Now Norman's a billionaire scientist/Who never had time for his son/But then something went screwy and before you knew he/Was trying to kill everyone, And he's ridin' around on that glider thing/And he's throwin' that weird pumpkin bomb/Yes, he's wearin' that dumb Power Rangers mask/But he's scarier without it on!”
As those lines convey, the humor in “Ode to a Superhero”, easily Al’s most piano-driven song since “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?” and his most harmonica-heavy until “Bob”, the humor in here is decidedly on the genial side. Al is having fun with archetypal superhero mythology, and all of the cliches and conventions that come along with it, although, as with Mad magazine parodies and Al’s previous movie songs, there are some satirical stabs at commercialism and the movie industry’s need to drag everything out as long as possible for the sake of filthy commerce.
So after recounting how the movie’s Peter Parker rejects love interest Mary Jane, Al comforts the fictional comic book and film character, ,“Mary Jane, don't you cry, you can give it a try/Again when the sequel comes ‘round.”
Listening to those lines, I can’t help but think of the classic part in “Yoda” where the song’s Luke/Mark Hamill figure croons, “The long-term contract that I had to sign/Says I'll be making these movies till the end of time.”
This speaks to the song’s biggest drawback: it feels a little too familiar. With Al, that familiarity can often be soothing and reassuring. But it can also be a little limiting. Al has always had a sharp satirical eye for the commercial compromises and shameless greed of show-business, how it’s filthy commerce rather than art or entertainment that dictates so much of what we see and hear.
But back in 2003 even Al probably couldn’t have predicted that the superhero movie cycle would become so insatiable and so self-cannibalizing and all-consuming that a mere fifteen years after Al joked good-naturedly about the latest big tentpole superhero movie we’ve not only seen the inevitable hit sequel to Spider-Man but also a second sequel and a high-profile, big-money, billion-dollar reboot franchise with Andrew Garfield taking over from Tobey McGuire as Peter Parker and Spider-Man and still another reboot, this time starring Tom Holland as the sassy web-slinger. I haven’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, but from everything I hear, they really get it right this time. At least, until next time. All that in just sixteen years. Imagine how much more often they’d tinker with the franchise if the movies weren’t mostly big hits.
Al is as savvy as they come but sometimes the show business world moves in ways too crazy even for comedy and too greedy even for the cynicism about the business powering many of Al’s movie songs.
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