Ryan Gosling Played a Superhero and No One Even Remembers It


The Big Picture

  • Ryan Gosling’s only foray into the superhero genre was in the 1999 television movie The Unbelievables.
  • Tim Curry and Steve Carell steal the show as the supervillains in the short film.
  • The Unbelievables never took off, but Gosling’s career took off shortly after in movies like The Believer and The Notebook.

Fans of Ryan Gosling waiting for his arrival on the superhero scene need to look no further to the early days of his career, specifically 1999’s nearly-lost television movie (and quasi-pilot) The Unbelievables. The 23-minute short follows the titular Unbelievables, some sort of retired blue collar crime-fighting squad of superheroes. Imagine if the Avengers or the Justice League quit their day jobs, moved to the suburbs, had kids, and gathered together a few times each month to play some poker, and you’ve got the general idea.

Gosling (who would have been about 18 at the time) plays Josh, the teenage son of Action Armstrong (Corbin Bernsen), who was a pivotal member of the superhero team. He’s got some powers of his own that he essentially squanders on trivial things like attempting to slam dunk a basketball via the superpower of flight.

The short film-slash-unaired-pilot was written and directed by Ed Solomon of Bill & Ted and Men in Black fame. (He also penned Steven Soderbergh’s excellent No Sudden Move and contributed to 1993’s Super Mario Bros. if that’s more your style). Though Ryan Gosling often tops the charts of the biggest and most beloved Hollywood names who’ve yet to star in a superhero movie, The Unbelievables is essentially his only foray into the genre.

‘The Unbelievables’ Spoofs the Superhero Genre

Image via Disney

A few years before The Incredibles became one of Pixar’s finest works, The Unbelievables took a similar, albeit less successful approach to the superhero genre. The short never really explores the reason why the entire team of superheroes (and villains) would retire in the way that, say Watchmen, explores with poignancy, and instead it just treats it as a matter of fact. Where The Incredibles essentially reconstructs the genre from the ground up, The Unbelievables sets out to poke fun at it.

There are plenty of the standard jokes about spandex and ill-fitting uniforms, brought into play when an admittedly aged Action Armstrong goes through boxes of his old stuff in the attic in preparation of donating memorabilia to an auction. He can’t bear to get rid of any of it…even the skimpy, lifeless spandex tights that he assures his son he can still fit into. There are also the jokes about Josh being too clumsy to harness his powers properly, as seen in the aforementioned basketball dunk that ends with him all twisted and upside down into the net.

The 20-ish minutes primarily revolve around the concept of these middle-aged ex-heroes retaining their powers and using them solely for the menial, everyday tasks that make up a “normal” life. Some of the jokes are decent — Action Armstrong laments on missing a major superhero party because Andy Warhol wanted to make a five-hour movie out of his ass — and others fall flat, such as a poorly dated gag about Armstrong being relieved that his ex-wife was roofied decades ago instead of having cheated on him.

That’s generally how things go in The Unbelievables. Had it become a series, there’d have been plenty of potential for it to find its footing and shed the awkward skin that pilots — sitcom pilots in particular — tend to have while searching for its voice. The concept of a superhero sitcom may have felt novel at the time, and The Unbelievables had the chance to pave new ground in the relatively uncharted territory. Since then, though, the specific subgenre has had no small share of its successes. The 21st century has given us a pretty sizable list of memorable superhero comedies, and fate didn’t allow The Unbelievables to earn a place among such lists.

The Supervillains Steal the Show in ‘The Unbelievables’

Steve Carell in Over the Top
Image via ABC

It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that Tim Curry and Steve Carell, who appear as the retired supervillain Vaudevillain and the trusty henchman Hershel respectively, steal the show. Curry, as he tends to, disappears into the role with great theatricality. He rolls his bulging eyes like a cartoon villain and speaks with the sort of booming enunciation that you’d come to expect from him…it’s all a little bit Dr. Frankenfurter, which is always a good thing.

Carell, who was relatively early in his comedy career at this time, coming off of a stint on 1997’s sitcom Over the Top and voicing one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo on the recurring SNL sketch, is in top form here. He quips with the sort of generic, cartoonish bad guy articulation (with an over-the-top New York-adjacent accent) that’s too damn endearing. The two have great comedic chemistry, playing off each other’s delivery with plenty of generosity.


Ryan Gosling Lost a Role to Mark Wahlberg Because He Was Too “Fat”

Apparently, Gosling’s weight gain for the film was more than Kenough.

It’s only for a few minutes that Vaudevillain and Hershel appear on-screen, but the imprint that they leave is far greater than any other aspect of the short (sorry, Gosling). One may even argue that the supervillains are the only part of the pilot that age well. Their plotline is simple: Vaudevillain, having retired from traditional villainy, runs a bookstore. It’s here that, surprise, surprise, the Big S (only alluded to, never seen) is going to have a book-signing for his new tell-tale memoir. While skimming through the book, Hershel breaks the news to his boss: neither of them have made a notable appearance anywhere in the published work. Vaudevillain is only alluded to, next to the word “feckless.” Vaudevillain insists it was a typo for fearless. For important, “impotent.” It’s a joke that actually lands largely because of the two actors’ comedic talent. Curry, already a veteran of all shades of acting by this point, is magnetic. Carell, presumably pulling from his fantastic stint in the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, shows the sort of knack for character immersion that made him (arguably) the most vital player in The Office.

Later, the duo tries feverishly to search the web for a vat of hot oil to drop the Big S into when he appears for his signing. Problem is, it’s too expensive. “Try www.supervillain.discountsupplies.com,” suggests Vaudevillain. No dice. It wouldn’t arrive on time.

Fortunately, Ryan Gosling Found a Breakthrough Without ‘The Unbelievables’

That The Unbelievables never took off might just be a happy accident. About two years later, unsaddled by a lack of obligations to anything like, for instance, a several-season sitcom, Gosling made a breakthrough into movies with The Believer. In one of his greatest and most captivating roles, Gosling demands attention in essentially every scene he’s placed in. Too often are so-called comic actors shoehorned and typecast into strictly comedic roles — his breakthrough role as an ultraviolet neo-nazi is anything but comedic — and finding a steady gig on a sitcom as a goofy-ass son of a superhero might have condemned him to the purgatory of mediocre television comedy. Fortunately, Gosling was able to set out of the gate right away, showcasing his dramatic chops for all to see, and the cinematic world is all the better for it. Only three years after his gripping turn in The Believer, Gosling captured hearts everywhere with his leading role in The Notebook. The rest, of course, is history.

If nothing else, The Unbelievables serves as a time capsule recalling a bygone era in which a superhero sitcom might actually seem like a novel idea. It shows a top-of-his-game Tim Curry and gives us a very funny Steve Carell. It also proved early on that Ryan Gosling is a natural in comedic roles, hinting at the fact that the man is often at his best when he’s funny.

The Unbelievables is a largely inoffensive, often competent pilot that, had it gotten picked up, could have led to a series that was at least admired by a cult following. There’s plenty of talent here, an untapped potential hidden somewhere in it all that could have gotten tapped had it the time. It could’ve belonged somewhere on the shelves of collectors, in a series of dusty DVD sets that sits among all the other obscure cult favorite sitcoms, if only it had a little more time in the oven.

The Unbelievables is not available for streaming, but you can stream The Believer on Peacock in the U.S.

Watch on Peacock


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