So once again we have survived.

M.A.N.T.I.S. (pilot movie)

He doesn't usually look this much like R. Kelly.
He doesn’t usually look this much like R. Kelly.

Remember M.A.N.T.I.S.? It was a 1994 Fox TV show that only lasted one season. It was about paralyzed-from-the-waist-down scientist Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly), who builds an exo-skeleton that allows him to not only walk again but to have super strength and also jump high. The first time he tries it out in public he happens to see a woman getting attacked, so he intervenes and kicks some ass, and that gives him the crimefighting bug.

Get it? I said bug, because he’s called MANTIS and I guess he sorta looks like one with the metal helmet with a giant bluetooth on each side like mandibles.

Seven months before the TV show though there was a pilot TV movie (fortunately included on the complete series DVD), which was pretty different and much more watchable. I can’t pretend it plays like a real movie – like the The Flash TV show of a few years earlier it is kinda sad to see a low budget TV crew in Vancouver try to compete with the incredible production design of Tim Burton’s BATMAN – but having recently watched those ROBOCOP TV shows I’m able to appreciate this for what it is: something that is way better than those ROBOCOP TV shows.
(And it’s hard not to think of ROBOCOP while watching the pilot, because it takes place in a place called Ocean City, so the police force are repeatedly referred to as the OCP.)

The screenplay is by Sam Hamm (BATMAN), from a story by Hamm and Sam Raimi, who also produces, cameos and brings along EVIL DEAD composer Joseph LoDuca for a theatrical-movie-worthy orchestral score.

In the pilot, M.A.N.T.I.S. has the muscle-suit with silver attachments like he has in the series, but he’s modest about it. He wears it under a suit, tie and trenchcoat, more of a classic Green Hornet look. Like in Hamm’s BATMAN screenplay, M.A.N.T.I.S. is already a practicing crimefighter at the beginning of the movie, and most people believe he’s an urban legend. He shows up to stop a bank robbery and his first appearance is effectively creepy:

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He’s a guy who appears out of nowhere, takes care of business and gets the fuck out, leaving behind legends instead of little cartoon dust clouds. His trademark is darts (shown in Raimi-style cutaway flying shots) and gas that temporarily freeze people like statues. He also has light-up eyes on his mask that can hypnotize people, and in one great scene he uses it to make a reporter suddenly go into a trance, say “This is M.A.N.T.I.S. speaking,” and deliver his message. That’s some badass shit! It makes more of an impression than sending an email.

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Like The Shadow or The Phantom he has a calling card – little gold praying mantises he leaves at the scene. So he takes the dramatics seriously. He wants to establish his brand.

The director of the pilot is Eric Laneuville, a.k.a. Richie from OMEGA MAN or Quincy from BLACK BELT JONES. So I didn’t even realize it while watching, but this is yet another young black actor who graduated into directing television shows. He’s still around, doing episodes of Blue Bloods, NCIS: Los Angeles, Grimm and The Mentalist.

While the series just seemed like color blind casting for the lead, the pilot is a sincere attempt to create a specifically African-American super hero story with a primarily black supporting cast. Hawkins is a black conservative who, pre-paralysis, disdains affirmative action in logic also used in another scene by racist coroner Philip Baker Hall to shut down onto-something underling and female lead Dr. Amy Ellis (Gina Torres from Firefly, the MATRIX sequels and Raimi-produced Cleopatra 2525). I suspect we’re supposed to believe that Hawkins is more liberal now, but whatever the case he is a respected rich guy who in his super hero identity helps maintain a gang truce and preaches to black youth to better themselves, saying “You’ve wasted your lives long enough, now you’re finally learning to live like human beings. Keep on learning – or I’ll be back.

For those who could see this fresh it’s cleverly structured so that you might figure the wrong guy as M.A.N.T.I.S. His alter ego is not revealed until about halfway through, after making a big deal about Antoine Pike (America’s sidekick Steve James), who was once the founder of the 10Ks gang, now is a Jim Brown-type community do-gooder. Sounds like the type of background a TV show would give a black super hero, and Dr. Ellis thinks it’s him when she first witnesses M.A.N.T.I.S. in action, then sees Antoine doing gymnastics and martial arts.

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still_mantis8James would’ve made a good M.A.N.T.I.S., but he died of pancreatic cancer shortly before this aired, so maybe it’s for the best that it’s a trick and he’s actually conspiring with fascist white police chief Stark (Francis X. McCarthy, ACTION JACKSON) for shared control of the city.

M.A.N.T.I.S. has a little Afrocentrism (the costume is hidden inside an African statue, his assistants are Africans in native garb) and a little bit of black man swagger (his high tech jet thing, The Crysalid, transforms into a Cadillac).

His enemies aren’t openly racist, but I’ll be damned if Chief Stark isn’t using coded language when he talks about the city being “held hostage by a terrorist minority.”

There are alot of little things in the movie that remind me of DARKMAN. Darkman only has 99 minutes to wear his liquid skin before it melts, M.A.N.T.I.S. can only wear his suit for a certain amount of time before it starts to hurt him. Darkman has a big stunt where he’s hanging from the cable on the bottom of a helicopter, M.A.N.T.I.S. one-ups him by purposely hanging off the bottom of his flying Cadillac to battle rollerblading purse-snatchers during “The Gridlock Riot.” Both end with the bad guy bringing the love interest to the top of a building, but this one is about a hundred stories shorter than the one in DARKMAN.

One great thing about skipping the origin: it’s thrilling to see M.A.N.T.I.S. suddenly dive his ship into the water and into his underwater base. It’s much better to have a casual reveal of “The Seapod” then see him build it.

Like so many super hero or general vigilante stories there’s an attempt to deal with the ethics of somebody doing this sort of thing. Stark’s paramilitary police tactics are rightfully compared to martial law and fascism, but a rich guy doing the same thing is not. I guess maybe the idea is that in a world where the cops do shit like that there needs to be somebody to balance out the equation, to reveal and fight their corrupt activities.

still_mantis4Also it should be noted that M.A.N.T.I.S. only works non-lethal. When police helicopters attack his ship he explains to Dr. Ellis that he can’t fight back because “I don’t have any offensive weapons. It’s a philosophical thing.” Interestingly, Hamm’s Batman had guns on his vehicles, even though that character is traditionally portrayed as refusing to use guns. Maybe Hamm regretted that and wanted to make up for it.

Cheesy as it is I really enjoyed this pilot movie. It’s got a good balance of sincerity and absurdity, it’s honestly a pretty cool super hero concept portrayed effectively by Lumbly, it’s big-hearted in its attempt to create a black super hero, it’s cool to see James in such a central role, it’s cleverly structured, LoDuca’s great score gives it a more operatic feel than seems possible, and most of all the action scenes are full of fun gimmicks and a zippy sort of energy that makes me wonder if Raimi did uncredited second unit work. It seems like a good start to what could be a really fun show. Look at this fuckin guy:

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He’s even strutting. That’s a cool motherfucker right there. And nobody would ever guess it was Miles Hawkins, because Miles Hawkins can’t even walk. It’s a much better cover than Clark Kent’s glasses.

Unfortunately the show is not as good as the movie. For the series version they retooled the whole thing. Ocean City becomes Port Columbia, he loses the African assistants and decorations, Gina Torres does not return, he works mostly with white people. Most of that wouldn’t matter if they could maintain and build on the same sort of feel, but the show is completely lifeless. The stories of the week are generic tv shit and they spend most of each episode with quiet talking scenes and very little actual M.A.N.T.I.S.

They don’t seem like they’re trying to be BATMAN or DARKMAN anymore, or even Knight Rider. You won’t see M.A.N.T.I.S. hanging off his ship, you will see him going to the community center to talk to the lady at the desk and get a tour and hear about all the problems they have and stuff.

But I did go through alot of the episodes and here are a few highlights.

Barry Pepper shows up in one:

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In a rare episode with a bunch of fighting, M.A.N.T.I.S. intervenes in a cage fight against the guy who played Jesse Ventura in the shitty TV movie:

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And there were these men in black guys who look like the Winter Brothers crossed with Roy Orbison:

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Also Brion James and Andrew Robinson play reoccuring villains and Blu Mankuma, the chief from the ROBOCOP TV show and second cartoon, plays the chief in 4 episodes.

Episode 13, “The Eyes Beyond,” is the point when they realized the show was failing and tried to change course. (unjumping the shark?) In this one M.A.N.T.I.S. is flying his ship and accidentally goes into a time portal that takes him to a post-apocalyptic future where the city is controlled by “The Eye,” a talking A.I. supercomputer who sees the world from basketball-sized light up eyeballs that are all around the city and even carried by human servants. Unfortunately he does not go back in time to when he wore clothes and mostly black friends.

At least they knew the show was ending, so they were able to have the last episode wrap up the M.A.N.T.I.S. story the only way it could: he’s out in the woods with a redneck hunter guy and he and his girlfriend decide they have to blow themselves up in a truck to kill an invisible t-rex so after he’s dead his white friend finishes his audio log, seals up The Seapod and leaves for “the Orient.” End of series.

I cannot in good conscience tell you to watch the show, but maybe check out the pilot movie sometime, it’s pretty cool. I enjoyed it, anyway.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, March 16th, 2014 at 10:35 pm and is filed under Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “M.A.N.T.I.S. (pilot movie)”

  1. weird, I was under the impression that this was an 80’s cartoon, not a live action 90’s TV series

  2. I guess I was confusing it with M.A.S.K.

  3. this was a big event when it first aired. the whole family gathered round to watch this shit and we had it taped to rewatch for years (I bet its still at my mom’s house). I don’t remember anything about it except the green eyes, which looked way cooler back then than they do now, but what can you do? I also remember the show being less good, as Vern has indicated above. Anyway, I was very pleased to find this on the site this morning.

  4. Should have got John Semper as story editor for the series:
    http://marvelanimated.wikia.com/wiki/John_Semper,_Jr.

  5. I also remember watching the TV movie and being let down by the series that followed. I liked the suit and tie. I liked the supporting characters set up in the pilot and was sad to see it whitewashed.

  6. I remember this being a big deal premiere. FOX always blew it in the genre department, with the exception of The X-Files, which was largely under the radar when it first aired and probably the only reason it got a shot at a second season.

    Superhero shows seem like a hard thing to effectively pull off. It’ll be interesting to see if Netflix can churn out anything better when they do their Marvel thing.

    Has anyone here watched the S.H.I.E.L.D. television show?

  7. “I remember this being a big deal premiere. FOX always blew it in the genre department, with the exception of The X-Files, which was largely under the radar when it first aired and probably the only reason it got a shot at a second season.”

    I’m still not BRISCOE COUNTY JR. getting cancelled.

  8. Yeah, I miss Brisco County Jr too. The X-Files took off but all the genre shows that led into it on Friday nights kept dying off. In addition to M.A.N.T.I.S., does anyone else remember Strange Luck and VR.5? Anyway, I’ll join the chorus here in expressing my disappointment with the retooling when it went to series. And yet I tuned in every week, though I must have blocked out any memory of the invisible T-Rex finale.

  9. Again with the Vancouver bashing. I don’t get it. I understand that many times, lower budget productions use it as their shooting location. But then why not poke fun at he low budget instead of the city? Am I missing something?

  10. I didn’t think Vern was bashing his neighbors to the north, i thought he was stating an obvious observation that superhero TV shows can seem threadbare when compared to the opulent sets and special effects of a similarly-themed major motion picture.

  11. Vancouver is a great city. I’ve been there, had a good time and was impressed when somebody showed me which balcony it was that Jackie Chan jumped across in RUMBLE IN THE BRONX. But also it’s a staple of cheap, identical looking TV shows and DTV movies. They look the same and they are unconvincing when they tell us they’re New York, Seattle or Detroit. With the exception of The X-Files, most of the industry working out of Vancouver in the ’90s was not making very cinematic or creative use of the city. It’s not an attack on the city itself to note the scientific fact that there are thousands of terrible movies and TV shows that are immediately identifiable as having been filmed there to save money.

  12. Thanks guys for clarifying. I was honestly starting to feel there was something else to the comments.
    Also I might be wrong but I feel like the same “scientific fact” applies to modern day productions, doesn’t it? At least when it comes to TV shows.

    Now M.A.N.T.I.S., I can honestly say that I had never heard of it before. Great review, as usual.

  13. http://whoosh.org/issue52/itapert1.html
    “We did a two hour pilot for M.A.N.T.I.S. (Eric Laneuville, 1994), a black superhero show. After the pilot, me, Sam Raimi, and Sam Hamm [writer for the original Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)] all got pushed off the project because we were basically used to digging in our heels and not working well with people from the feature world. They said, ‘Here’s your money, go away’, and they recast the show. Bobby Hosea and Gina Torres were both people who were going to be regulars in that and they got pushed off the show. But I always respected them as actors and found a way to work with them again.”

  14. “They said, ‘Here’s your money, go away’”

    Ugh. How many times have cool properties been bludgeoned to death because of the accountant mentality in Hollywood? Art by committee is a nightmare. No wonder Raimi took so long to get mainstream work.

    Al T – Briscoe County Jr will live forever in the halls of my personal nostalgia museum. VR.5 I vaguely remember enjoying, but Strange Luck is something I’ve completely forgotten.

    And since we’re waxing nostalgic for long lost shows, how about the TV show WEREWOLF? If memory serves correct, I think that was one of the very first FOX shows that was completely fucked by the network and cancelled.

  15. Nick- I remember Werewolf, I think that was one of the original shows at Fox network’s launch. It was okay but I didn’t think the half-hour format served it well, the stories needed more time to breathe.

    Sam Raimi couldn’t catch a break on television until the 1-2 punch of HERCULES and XENA. I’m kinda happy to know now he wasn’t involved when MANTIS went to series, but SPY GAME was amusing with a lot of potential and AMERICAN GOTHIC were pretty good.

  16. Werewolf, oddly enough, was a follow-up project from the A-team producers. The half-hour format wasn’t kind to it, but the make-up effects were fantastic and weirdly violent for a show as old as it is. Hopefully, one of these days someone will pick up the concept and hit it out of the park.

    American Gothic was really good and really atmospheric, but FOX just bungled the hell out of that by airing episodes out of order and moving it all over their weekly schedule. That it lasted as long as it did was a miracle.

    I have often wondered if FOX execs sat down and watched THE PRODUCERS and thought it was the best idea ever in the history of entertainment. Sabotage projects AND make money?

  17. Werewolf was a good show and stands up well with the other late 80s early 90s monster tv along with Tales from the Crypt, and Dark Side, Monsters, etc.

    Anyways, the most damning recast from the M.A.N.T.I.S was when they added the bicycle delivery guy who was like Puck from the Real World because America was in love with that asshole for some reason. If that doesn’t explain how wrongheaded the thinking was when it came to that show I don’t know what will.

  18. I just realized: my mother, sister and I apparently watched *only* Fox Friday night programming when I was a kid. I saw all this shit. Brisco, Strange Luck, Freaky Links, VR5, The X Files, Lone Gunmen, Powder, MANTIS.

    This was my shit, when I was like 7.

  19. Tawdry – my mom loved Fox too, I remember watching X Files and Brisco

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