The Good, the Bad and the Comely
The soundtrack swells as guitar riffs give way to a hazy bar of fluted notes, borrowing their theme from the infamous duelling tune of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The villain, dressed in black, takes off his sunglasses and appraises the dusty challengers approaching his porch. Eyes are narrowed, barbs are exchanged, and then it’s time to test reflexes in a battle of speed and skill. This desert shoot-out, however, isn’t fought by cowboys with guns- it’s a contest of bravado between two children and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the product-placement driven motion picture The Wizard (1989).
The dual continues inside. The villain- Lucas- sets his cronies to work configuring the NES, while he readies his weapon. A silver monographed box is opened, revealing a futuristic gauntlet.
“What’s that?” one of the protagonists demands.
The answer is preempted by the television in the background: “Fire from the gods,” offers a game-show contestant.
Pausing to configure the device, Lucas enters a code into the glove’s keypad. The melodic tone of his input matches those of the aliens from Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977). He flexes his armoured hand and looks over his shoulder. The camera, located above and behind the actor, as if situating Lucas as a third-person avatar, captures his gaze levied at his contestants (and also, implicitly, his cinematic audience).
“The Power Glove,” he answers.
– – –
This scene, perhaps the most iconic part of The Wizard, offered the first glimpse of the Power Glove to a wide consumer audience. As the references above illustrate, this introduction is strikingly intertextual, portraying novelty through an amalgamation of cultural content. Designed by Image Design & Marketing, the aesthetics of device itself contain references to other sources, including manta-ray fins and futuristic armour from the firm’s concurrent work on Robocop II (1990). From greek myth to science fiction, the film and the product brought together disparate forms and narratives that placed its hypothetical user in a highly mediated frame. Encompassing so many things at once so as to be novel, the Power Glove was simultaneously an object of instant comprehension and mysterious origins. Given the promotional interests of the film, it’s likely that these references were built-to-order, customizing its presentation into a carefully constructed amalgam of masculinity and power.
It is nonetheless curious that the marketers behind the film would choose to feature the glove in the context of The Wizard‘s antagonist. Rather than acting as a key plot point towards a heroic victory for the protagonists, the Power Glove’s screen time is short and used primarily as a means to establish Lucas’ character as a formidable rival. As the scene continues, Lucas is shown as the perfect image of confidence and control. Through a montage of authoritative gestures and close screenshots of the game Rad Racer (1987), Lucas guide his virtual car to victory. The soundtrack, now rife with a characteristically American power guitar riff, accentuates the dynamism of the 8-bit medium and the power of its player by totally replacing the game’s original chip-tune audio and amplifying the roar of simulated engines. The race presumably won, Lucas turns to face the camera, adjusts (dusts?) his collar with his gloved hand, and announces, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.”
The sales pitch in the scene is clear: the glove evokes power, control and martial ability. Its ‘badness’- which, given the warrior narratives of American youth culture, is decidedly ‘good’- evokes the hard-fought independence and hierarchical violence of an adolescent rival or fantasy villain. In fact, a contemporary psychoanalytic study of children’s toys and media at the time likened Lucas to the stylish black-gloved gunslinger of Shane (1953). By selecting an older, antagonistic vehicle to represent its product, the Power Glove marketers inevitably stirred feelings of envy and sibling rivalry in their audience. This sense of unfairness and aspirational overcoming is also cut with an edge of eroticism. The gloved, differently haptic hand presents a mixture of power and touch common enough to sexual fantasy. Whether leather or latex, the gloved hand can travel to new places and probe with immunity. Indeed, this possibility rouses concern in the protagonists, who objects to Lucas’ exchange with his friend by saying, “keep your Power Gloves off her, pal.” Made for kids, yet decidedly adult, the aesthetics of the Power Glove suggest a desire to possess and usurp the limits of age.
After Lucas’ feat of video game bravado, the peripheral controller is never again seen in the rest of the film. Mirage-like, the glove appears, wavers with seductive promise and then disappears from view. Its collage of references and cameo-like feature in the movie underscored its real-world scarcity and hype. In practice, this veneration of the glove as a form of objectified cultural capital proved to be its primary- and fleeting- use. As many later commentators delight in noting, the Power Glove was bad in more ways than Lucas intended. While failing to live up to its technical hype, the glove nevertheless proved to be a coveted status symbol. As a review of product’s visual and intertextual referents suggest, these aesthetic components were fundamentally the most important aspect of its currency with its young audience. It was bad in ways children wished they could be.
The Wizard, directed by Todd Holland, Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 1989.
Dana L. Gardner, “Inside Story on the Power Glove,” Design News, 45, no. 23 (December 4 1989): 67.
Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan, “Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom: Renegotiating the Social Contract?” in The Gendered Society Reader, ed. Michael S. Kimmel et al. ( Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2011), 203.
Marsha Kinder, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) ,100.
Kinder makes a similar suggestion in her analysis of the oedipal undercurrents of video games. While I do not find the specifics of her argument to be convincing, I concur with her general assessment of the frustrated desires of youths (particularly young boys) to paradoxically rebel against and possess patriarchal authority. See Kinder, Playing with Power, 104.
Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, ed. A.H. Hasley et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47.