Before director Sam Raimi became the reigning king of superhero movies with his three Spider-Man pictures, he cut his comic book baby teeth on 1990's Darkman and a lesser known television series that ran on Fox from 1994 to 1995 entitled M.A.N.T.I.S.. While Raimi didn't actually direct the short lived series, he did executive produce the series (along with fellow Evil Dead alumni Robert Tapert) and write a few episodes and his quirky mark is all over the place in this show.
The series introduces us to a doctor named Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumby) who, bound to a wheel chair, tries to help local crime fighters with his inventions. You see, a few years ago Hawkins was a happily married man with a wife and kids, but an intruder broke into the family home and killed them all off, except for Miles, who was shot and left paralyzed. Soon, the brilliant doctor finishes work on an exoskeleton which he names M.A.N.T.I.S. (short for the more formal sounding Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter System) that allows the suit to interact directly with the synapses in his brain. This allows him to walk around, and more - Hawkins' suit also gives him superhuman strength and speed. With this discovery, he takes it upon himself to fight crime and right the many wrongs he sees in the world around him.
Hawkins spends most of his time going after those he knows are guilty but who the police can't touch. This brings him to the attention of the local fuzz, who want him off the streets not only because they disagree with his vigilante justice, but because he's making them like amateurs and of course, the press are having a field day with him. Soon enough, however, Hawkins teams up with a few like minded individuals, namely friend and confident John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), Hawkins winds up in an ongoing battle with evil industrialist Solomon Box (Andrew Robinson) while trying to do the right thing for the community and avoid capture at the hands of the cops. Throw in a romantic sub-plot and you're more or less up to speed/
M.A.N.T.I.S. - The Complete Series spreads its twenty-three episodes out over four dual layer DVDs as follows:
Disc One: Pilot / First Steps / Tango Blue / Days Of Rage / Cease Fire
Disc Two: Soldier Of Misfortune / Gloves Off / The Black Dragon / To Prey In Darkness / Fire In The Heart / Thou Shalt Not Kill
Disc Three: Revelation / Through The Dark Circle / The Eyes Beyond / Faces In The Mask / The Sea Wasp / Progenitor
Disc Four: Switches / The Delusionist / Fast Forward / Spider In The Tower / Ancestral Evil / Ghost Of The Ice
The first television series to feature a black superhero, M.A.N.T.I.S. is a fun series that was obviously cut short. You definitely get the vibe during the later episodes that the writers were grasping at straws and trying to come up with wild ideas to draw in viewers and keep the series alive. As such, it quickly deviates from a more traditional superhero/vigilante show into a goofier sci-fi series complete with all the clichés and trappings. This results in some wildly uneven storylines in the later half of the series that seem at odds with the quasi-realistic first half of the series where Hawkins is squaring off against much more human opponents than the ones he faces later on.
That complaint aside, it's hard not to have a good time with M.A.N.T.I.S.. Carl Lumby makes for a very likeable leading man and he's great in the part, bringing considerable screen presence to the role that ensures we never forget that there's a real man underneath that sweet exoskeleton. Speaking of that exoskeleton, it really is a pretty bad ass costume and while the non-CGI effects might seem primitive or even corny to today's kids who've grown accustomed to things like that, to those of us who remember the series when it first aired it's like a much anticipated breath of fresh air. Carl Lumby really is inside that suit, it's not a computerized version of him but a real flesh and blood dude, and that helps the series a lot.
Generally the series moves along at a good pace and while the character development may never really grow the way you might want it to or expect it to, the series manages to usually find a good balance between action/adventure and mystery and drama. Lumby carries the show well and the supporting cast all turn in reasonably enjoyable performances. The sci-fi and superhero elements of the series ensure that its cult following will likely enjoy the episodes just as much now as when they were originally shown.
The last two episodes in this collection were never shown on the series' original run, but they did eventually see the light of day when the series was re-run on the Sci-Fi Channel in the late nineties. It's nice to see them here, along with the better known Fox episodes and, of course, the feature length pilot episode that sets the stage for the rest of the series.
The show was shot and composed for TV as we all know, so it shouldn't surprise anyone to see it presented here in its original fullframe aspect ratio. As far as the transfers go, generally the quality is pretty good even if the material is interlaced. Colors don't pop the way they would on a newer show but they look pretty decent. Black levels stay strong and consistent and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or with edge enhancement to complain about. Detail levels aren't the greatest but the series is now over fifteen years old - when you take that into account, there's not much worth complaining about here. M.A.N.T.I.S. looks fine.
All twenty-three episodes are presented as they were originally broadcast, which is in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. There's the odd snap crackle and pop on the soundtrack but overall it is pretty clean sounding. Levels are well balanced and there's a bit of lower front-end action in a few scenes that I hadn't expected but was pleasantly surprised by. Not much to complain about here, really. It's a good, basic stereo soundtrack with clear dialogue and well balanced levels and a few noticeable instances of channel separation to keep you on your toes. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are included, nor are there any closed captions provided.
Disappointingly, there are no extra features at all here. You get menus and episode selection, but big deal. How cool would it have been to get a Sam Raimi commentary or see a featurette with Carl Lumby, Roger Rees and the rest of the crew reminiscing about the show? Granted, this is a limited niche/cult release, but jeez, you'd think Image could have found something to include here.
It's a real shame that there aren't any extra features on this set, as it's otherwise a pretty decent effort on Image's part. Even if this release is barebones, it's nice to finally have the complete series of M.A.N.T.I.S. on DVD - it remains a fun mix of comic book style super-heroics and more traditional sci-fi fun with some enjoyable characters and creative ideas - don't take it too seriously and have fun with it. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.