This is part of our new series Pitch Meeting, a monthly column in which we suggest an IP ripe for adaptation, then assign the cast and crew of our dreams.
The DC Comics movie universe is on a bit of a roll. Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and the critical failure of Justice League, shook off the stress of matching the sprawling Marvel Studios method. Shazam!, Joker, and Birds of Prey revealed how, as long as they focus on one property at a time, they could deliver a satisfying product true to its nature. Let’s keep that momentum going.
Dial H for Hero – The seriously goofy, but utterly wonderful, silver age comic book series rips its title straight from Alfred Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder, get it?), but any similarities to the morbid master of suspense end there. The basic premise revolves around a mystical, handheld rotary telephone (called the H-Dial) that appears to certain individuals when they need it the most. Beneath its dial are strange symbols, corresponding to letters in the English alphabet. When the user dials H-E-R-O, they are magically transformed into a random super-powered being: Hornet-Man! Human Starfish! Quake-Master! King Kandy! The possibilities are endless.
Ain’t that Ben 10? NO! Shut up!
Ben 10 is Dial H for Hero, dammit.
Some form of the comic book has been around since 1966, and in that time, many different writers and artists have put their spin on the concept. In the 80s, readers could submit their superhero ideas to the editorial, and the creators would incorporate them into their plots. In the early aughts, fantasy novelist China Miéville reworked what had always been a very kid-friendly IP into a grim and gritty actioner as part of the DC Comics’ line-wide New 52 reboot. Why so serious?
Last year, writer Sam Humphries and artist Joe Quinones revolutionized Dial H for Hero by not only embracing the lunacy of an ever-changing superhero but also the reality that comes packaged alongside the superpower. Huh? Wha? Let me explain.
In their first issue, when young Miguel Montez initially dials H, he is transformed into the nitro’ided titan Monster Truck! Not only is the world his highway, where he says 10-4 to Vengeance, when Monster Truck is present on the page, the comic equally mutates to match his character. Quinones’ art takes on the styles of the very best and worst Image Comics from the 90s. The reader has trips into a nostalgic black hole that feels as mocking as it does loving.
Later on, when Miguel dials H once more, he becomes a two-dimensional Captain Underpants-like cartoon. To make matters worse, his pals have also dialed in, but they’re taking the shape of heroes from Frank Miller’s Sin City and Moebius’ Arzach. As each character crosses into a panel, the panel warps to meet their style.
Imagine an animated feature, a la Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that satisfyingly slips into alternate styles every time Miguel spins that dial. This Dial H for Hero would allow its artists to comment and highlight the heights of the medium they love as they explore the coming-of-age wish-fulfillment of their protagonist. The experience is automatic reinvigoration for the young and old alike.
A house style is death to creativity. In America, in particular, we’re in desperate need for individualistic animation. We may never escape Walt Disney’s landscape, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse showed us that it’s possible. A few years later, and I’m still waiting for others to pick up the baton. Instead, we’ve gotten a lot more of the same.
We need another visionary to take the next swing.
Brad Bird seems almost too obvious a choice to direct a film such as this, but dang, this is my fantasy, so I may as well lean into it. The director nearly shot his load with The Incredibles 2, and he’s pretty darn busy realizing his next live-action epic 1906, but I think we can lure him back with the promise of a 2-D (well, a 2-D mix cuz you know one or two of those dialed-in heroes will take us into some Tron-like arenas) animated kid-oriented adventure.
The man slay’d with The Iron Giant, and while the film failed to earn serious bank at the box office, it’s risen to fan-favorite in the decades since. Bird’s heart has a warm glow, and it eradiates everything he touches. He falls madly for his characters and the worlds they inhabit. He mastered his familial anxieties with The Incredibles and showed great inventiveness when working with their power-sets. Now, let’s get him off the leash. With Dial H for Hero, whatever weird idea that surfaces in his mind can make its way to the screen.
For Miguel Montez, we need a voice like Nicolas Bechtel‘s. He’s the high energy kid who played Lewie Diaz in the Disney Channel show Stuck in the Middle. Bechtel teeters on the rambunctious, featuring a chaotic animated mannerism that contains the perfect amount of unease to give Miguel his tenacity. At the start, the audience should be concerned regarding their feelings to the hero. He’s a bit of a jerk, but he’s a jerk on the rise to staunch morality.
To voice The Operator, the wizard with control over the H-Dial, I hear none other than Walton Goggins. Like Miguel, he has a troubling electricity buzzing beneath his surface. He’s f’d up his life, and he’s looking for redemption in the actions of a child. Good luck with that.
Then, for the rest of the ridiculous personas that Miguel wields when he dials H, you cast a plethora of weirdo character actors and comedians. Patton Oswalt, you’re needed for Jobu the Zonkey King. Tony Hale, please step into Snapper Carr. Maria Bamford, you’re wanted for Lolo Kick You.
The life you have is not the life you want. At some point, the dirty little thought crawls into your head and takes root. Once there, it’s impossible to shake and can drive the sunniest of dispositions into the darkest pits of despair. From that thought, come a hundred more. I only need a little more money. If I had the right car, people would take notice. I gotta lay off the fast food because a set of rockhard abs would give me the confidence to own any room.
I go to the movies to shake off the fantasies. I know it sounds a little oxymoronic. We’re supposed to escape onto the screen. That’s the purpose Hollywood has been pushing since its foundation. I’ve come to see it more like a therapist’s couch. Up there, I kick back and let stories reshape my worries.
Since I was a little kid, wishing I was big, I went to Tom Hanks and Penny Marshall to work through the wish-fulfillment pain I was experiencing at school or home. Big was a window to a world I so desperately wanted but was afraid I would never reach, or at least, not reach until it was too late and middle school ate me alive.
Miguel Montez is a trapped little kid. Alone in the world with delusions of Superman. He wants nothing more than to be up there in the sky, swooping down only to save cats in trees. His frustration stems from the thought that such heroism is never possible for him. Then up pops the H-Dial. Through magical transmogrification, he taps into his dreams and discovers the ability to help and be a better you was always accessible.
We all crave that. Dial H for Hero offers that cathartic playground, but also an even greater sense of fun through stylistic roleplay. It’s not Ben 10, it’s ripe for adaption, and it can take DC movie universe into numerous new realms.