On the heels of Reagan-era F.C.C. deregulation, the mid-1980s saw wave-of-the-future synergy between comic books, action figures and toy vehicles, and Saturday morning fare like G.I. Joe and Transformers. So the time was right in 1984 (after three years of reruns) for Hanna-Barbera to dust off the Superfriends once again for new episodes—this time, in cahoots with Kenner. Kenner's "Super Powers" line of action figures were packaged with mini-comics, backed by DC's coordinated company line. Ed Hannigan, Jack Kirby, and George Perez were commissioned to work on trendy character redesigns suitable for action-figure sales, DC relaunched the characters with their new looks, and Hanna-Barbera made them move on Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show.
The corporate synergy at work isn't palpable in these sixteen "episodes" (really eight half-hours), which aired at 8 a.m. on ABC. They're straight-ahead Superfriends adventures, with no undue narrative attention paid to marketable vehicles or playset-ready settings. With episodes ranging nine to fifteen minutes in length, even a two-parter doesn't make time for much character depth; rather, these stories reflect the uncomplicated action imperative that was a given of such shows at the time. And though the animation certainly isn't now (and wasn't then) state of the art, it holds up a damn sight better than the static, repetitive Filmation 'toons.
We've come a long way in terms of animated superhero adventures, but the Superfriends have an old-fashioned charm and, to many, a nostalgic kick. The old-school music, sound effects, and stentorian voice acting fit a world just about to give way for good to Dark Knight-style conceptions. But here, we get a grinning, quipping Batman and Robin, a fist shaking Darkseid, and the invariable promise "Just wait until next time, Superfriends!" For all its quaint aspects and plot holes, The Legendary Super Powers Show is much more coherent than most previous Superfriends storylines. Depending on your taste, that's a good thing or a disheartening reason to pack away your hallucinogenics.
Superfriends was on the air in one form or another from 1973 to 1986, and the voice cast had a few constants: Danny Dark as Superman, Casey Kasem as Robin, and Olan Soule, who usually played Batman. The Legendary Super Powers Show found Soule taking a back seat to Adam West, who reprised his role as the Caped Crusader (West previously essayed Batman in the '60s live-action series and Filmation's The New Adventures of Batman, both alongside Burt Ward's Robin). Wonder Woman got an entirely new sound, with Mary McDonald Lewis replacing Shannon Farnon.
The Challenge of the Superfriends episodes of the late '70s showcased supervillains from the comics as formidable foils to the heroes, and it's a tack The Legendary Super Powers Show also takes, to a lesser extent. Jack Kirby creation Darkseid (Frank Welker)—a direct inspiration for Darth Vader—made his animated debut, his TV incarnation lusting for Wonder Woman. Rene Auberjonois—most recently William Shatner's costar on Boston Legal—plays Darkseid flunky DeSaad. Brainiac famously got a major revamp for the series, his colorful tights replaced by a metal exoskeleton housing his domed brain (voice of Stanley Ralph Ross, who scripted almost a third of the 1960s live-action Batman episodes!). And Lex Luthor (Stanley Jones) gets his power-suit upgrade.
The Legendary Super Powers Show also brought a relatively young superhero star to TV: Firestorm, introduced in comics pages in 1978. A nuclear accident forever linked high school student Ronald Raymond and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Martin Stein. When danger calls, the two fuse into a nuclear hero with a novel twist: energetic young Raymond ("That Wonder Woman's a real fox!") goes into action with Stein's voice of experience in his head. Mark Taylor voiced Firestorm/Raymond, and Olan Soule took on the new role of Professor Stein. The latter casting resulted in scenes kids may have vaguely disorienting: old Batman voice Soule in dialogue with "new" Batman voice West.
Though the shows have a sense of humor, it's not allowed to run rampant, and silly characters from earlier incarnations of Superfriends are either absent (Marvin and Wendy) or tastefully limited in screen time (Gleek). Aside from the holy trinity of Superfriends (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), this series prominently featured Firestorm. Numerous appearances by Black Vulcan (Buster Jones), Samurai (Jack Angel), El Dorado (Fernando Escandon), and Apache Chief (Michael Rye) demonstrate the series' ongoing commitment to reach out, though a bit clumsily, to minority audiences. Aquaman and Flash turn up only in the opening title sequence, but Green Lantern makes a fleeting appearance in the show. Fan favorites the Wonder Twins—Zan (Michael Bell) and Jayna—return a few times to exhort, "Wonder Twins, activate!"
Animation and genre fanatics may notice familiar names amongst the writing staff of The Legendary Super Powers Show. Story editor Alan Burnett famously went on to be an important player in Bruce Timm's animated Batman and Superman revamps, Batman Beyond, and the current The Batman; likewise, Rich Fogel went on to write for the animated Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, and, of course, Justice League, the next-generation Superfriends. A few years after The Legendary Super Powers Show, John Semper & Cynthia Friedlob became the head writers of Fraggle Rock. Marc Scott Zicree has writing credits on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Incredible Hulk, and Beauty and the Beast, among many others (he's also the author of the invaluable reference guide The Twilight Zone Companion).
"The Bride Of Darkseid (Part 1)" (September 8, 1984) Written by Jeff Segal & Alan Burnett. Black Vulcan, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman & Robin are startled by a new hero on the scene: Firestorm. Even more startling: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips, has designs on Wonder Woman!
"The Bride Of Darkseid (Part 2)" (September 8, 1984) Written by Jeff Segal & Alan Burnett. The Superfriends pursue Darkseid through his star gate, but rescuing Wonder Woman from the supervillain, his son Kalibak, and henchman DeSaad won't be easy.
"The Wrath Of Braniac" (October 6, 1984) Written by Glenn Leopold. Brainiac returns, with a notable change in his appearance. Teaming up with Darkseid and his men, Brainiac send an android double of Wonder Woman after Superman and Batman & Robin, and a double of Superman after Wonder Woman and Firestorm.
"Reflections In Crime" (October 20, 1984) Written by John Bradford. Superman and Samurai take on the Mirror Master. Batman & Robin and Firestorm get into the act when Superman gets sucked into a "mirror" dimension.
"No Honor Among Thieves" (September 22, 1984) Written by John Semper & Cynthia Friedlob. Lex Luthor recruits Darkseid in a plan to rob El Dorado, Wonder Woman, Superman, and Firestorm of their powers.
"Mr. Mxyzptlk And The Magic Lamp" (September 22, 1984) Written by John Bradford & John Bonaccorsi. Apache Chief, Batman & Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman and Firestorm must figure out how small-time crook Benny the Bungler has magically become an expert criminal. Could it be...Mr. Mxyzptlk?
"The Case Of The Shrinking Super Friends" (September 15, 1984) Written by John Bates. Superman, Black Vulcan, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Green Lantern depart on a faraway mission, leaving the "junior members" (Firestorm, Robin, Zan & Jayna, and Gleek) to deal with an unexpected threat from Lex Luthor: shrinkage!
"The Mask Of Mystery" (September 15, 1984) Written by Glenn Leopold. With Robber Baron and his henchman Sleeves robbing banks, Batman & Robin, Firestorm, Superman, and Wonder Woman have enough trouble on their hands, but matters only get more complicated when good-intentioned but klutzy Captain Mystery shows up to "help."
"Darkseid's Golden Trap (Part 1)" (October 13, 1984) Written by Alan Burnett & Jeff Segal. Leaving Superman behind, Black Vulcan, Firestorm, and Wonder Woman attend the 532nd Annual Intergalactic Underworld Auction to outbid Darkseid on a very important item: gold krytonite!
"Darkseid's Golden Trap (Part 2)" (October 20, 1984) Written by Alan Burnett & Jeff Segal. With Black Vulcan, Firestorm, and Wonder Woman out of commission, Superman, Batman, and El Dorado embark on a high-stakes mission to interrupt Kalibak's gyro-jousting on the Moon of Games. Can they recover the gold kryptonite without exposing Superman to its instantly deadly effect?
"Island Of The Dinosoids" (October 27, 1984) Written by Marc Scott Zicree. When Batman and Professor Stein crash-land on the mysterious island of Dr. Corwin, Wonder Woman, Apache Chief, Ronald Raymond, and Robin come to their rescue. What they find is an aberration of nature: dinosaurs and...dinosoids!
"Uncle Mxyzptlk" (September 29, 1984) Written by Kimmer Ringwald. Superman, Samurai, and Firestorm agree it's "quiet...too quiet" around the globe, until Zan, Jayna, and Gleek unwittingly expose Superman to red Kryptonite. When Superman becomes Superbrat, it's just the excuse Mr. Mxyzptlk needs to create his special brand of chaos.
"The Case Of The Dreadful Dolls" (October 13, 1984) Written by Richard H. Fogel, Jr. The Dollmaker brainwashes Batman to thieve, causing Robin, El Dorado, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Firestorm to investigate.
"The Royal Ruse" (October 6, 1984) Written by Richard H. Fogel, Jr. Alien Princess Tara enlists Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, and Firestorm to stop the tyrannical Darkseid from recklessly testing a new weapon on her Tyronian brethren.
"The Village Of Lost Souls" (September 29, 1984) Written by Douglas Booth. On a nature expedition, Apache Chief, Zan, Jayna, and Gleek discover a remote town under the spell of an unseen force. Wonder Woman joins the investigation, which uncovers a supervillain lying in wait.
"The Curator" (October 22, 1984) Written by Glenn Leopold. Superman, Samurai, and Firestorm ponder the mystery of disappearing buildings, including the Hall of Justice (with Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Black Vulcan, El Dorado, and Apache Chief inside)! The path leads to the Galactic Museum, its remarkable exhibits, and its treacherous curator.
Warner Home Video continues to fulfill its commitment to releasing its superhero back catalog with Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show—The Complete Series on DVD. The image quality is good, consistent with previous releases of this era: imperfect but probably as vibrant and clear as ever (the stray "jaggie" or bit of dirt and occasional picture jitter aren't likely to distract most viewers, especially as they get into watching the shows). The mono soundtrack is strong and clear, and subtitles are provided.
The episode aren't presented in their original broadcast order (perhaps it's the original production order). They appear as follows: "The Bride Of Darkseid (Part 1)" (14:26), "The Bride Of Darkseid (Part 2)" (8:46), "The Wrath Of Braniac" (11:23), "Reflections In Crime" (10:41), "No Honor Among Thieves" (11:31), "Mr. Mxyzptlk And The Magic Lamp" (10:42), "The Case Of The Shrinking Super Friends" (11:32), "The Mask Of Mystery" (10:42), "Darkseid's Golden Trap (Part 1)" (11:30), "Darkseid's Golden Trap (Part 2)" (10:46), "Island Of The Dinosoids" (11:32), "Uncle Mxyzptlk" (10:44), "The Case Of The Dreadful Dolls" (11:32), "The Royal Ruse" (10:45), "The Village Of Lost Souls" (11:32), "The Curator" (10:39).
Disc One houses episodes 1-10 and three commentary tracks: writer Glenn Leopold and DC historian Mark Waid on "The Wrath of Brainiac" and "The Mask of Mystery," and writer John Semper and Waid on "No Honor Among Thieves." Disc Two launches with a new one-minute trailer for Superman: Doomsday, the first in a new line of direct-to-video features derived from DC prestige titles. In addition to episodes 11-16, Disc Two includes two commentary tracks, with writer Rich Fogel and Waid talking through "The Case of the Dreadful Dolls" and "The Royal Ruse," and two enjoyable featurettes.
The surprisingly extensive "Evolution: New Heroes, Viler Villains, and Ethnic Additions" (17:43) covers this series' incremental innovations, in particular "how Super Friends prefigured the era of diversity in animation." Talking-head contributors include Michael Swanigan (author of Hanna Barbera's World of Super Adventure); Firestorm creator Gerry Conway; DC exec editor Dan DiDio; DC writer/historian Mark Waid; Legendary Super Powers Show writers Glenn Leopold, Rich Fogel, Alan Burnett, John Semper and Marc Scott Zicree; DC writer Denny O'Neill; and DC president/publisher Paul Levitz. While keeping a positive, historical perspective, they also offer straight talk about how the network watered down the comic-book plots and pursued a "ham-fisted" approach to diversity. The short doc also incorporates welcome if quick looks at original storyboard art and design drawings.
The very entertaining "The Super Powers Collection: The Effect of the Toy Industry on the Super Friends" (7:37) has a somewhat misleading title, as the writers to a one explain that, in story terms, the cart never came before the horse. Action figure historian Jason Geyer, Georg Brewer of DC Direct, Levitz, Semper, Conway, Waid, Fogel chip in about the still-cool product line, climaxing in Waid's geek-out story of searching for an elusive "Wave 3" Cyborg action figure. Lastly, the disc offers four trailers: Classic Cartoons from the Vault, Challenge of the Superfriends, Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938 Volume 1, and The Batman: Season 1/Teen Titans: Season 3.
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