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SuperFriends' Greatest "Challenge": Keep the Audience from Laughing

There are very few animated franchises that develop into true television dynasties. Scooby Doo is one, and its Hanna Barbera cousin SuperFriends is another. From 1973 to 1985 SuperFriends was broadcast virtually nonstop, occupying a prime Saturday morning slot for most of this run. Some competitors aside, up until the debut of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, SuperFriends was the premiere superhero cartoon. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin, Flash, Green Lantern—it was the Superhero All Star show. Like Scooby, SuperFriends went through several incarnations over the years, but of them all it is 1978′s Challenge of the SuperFriends that has had the most enduring popularity. Matching the world’s greatest heroes with the greatest villains in epic battles for control of the planet, the show was a surefire hit.

ImageOf course, long though the SuperFriends run was, it ended some time ago, and a series of ambitious superhero cartoons in the 1990s changed the face of the genre forever, taking it to heretofore unimaginable levels of sophistication and maturity. How you look at the just-released SuperFriends DVD collection will depend on whether you had first-hand experience of the show or just knew it from the occasional rerun. For those who grew up hunched over their Froot Loops in giddy anticipation of Saturday morning’s main event, Challenge of the Superfriends: The First Season offers a blast of immensely satisfying nostalgia from a simpler time. One might suppose it offers nothing to the Batman: The Animated Series generation. But it does: nonstop laughs. Young or not so young, I challenge anyone to keep a straight face through sixteen episodes of the SuperFriend’s insane antics.

All episodes feature the members of the Justice League of America (yes, in the opening credits that is how they refer to the heroes, and the term “Justice League” does pop up occasionally in dialogue) hard at work defeating the nefarious schemes of the Legion of Doom (LOD), which usually involve plans of world conquest and some ridiculous contraption built from old Erector sets. For the few not in the know, the heroes also include B-list types like Aquaman, Hawkman, Black Vulcan, Samurai, and Apache Chief. The Doom side stars Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Cheetah, Solomon Grundy, Toyman, Captain Cold, Grodd, Bizarro, Giganta, Black Manta, Scarecrow, the Riddler, and Sinestro. Wall-to-wall starpower. Of course, many of these guys end up being wallflowers, watching dejectedly from behind the punch bowl while the big boys bend the laws of physics beyond all recognition. Thankfully absent is the odious “comic relief” of Wendy, Marvin, the Wondertwins, and their pets, which seems to have been part of an effort to make Challenge a more serious version of the franchise. But it ends up being plenty silly all the same

I could go on and on detailing all the wacky idiocies of the various episodes in the set (don’t tempt me), but as space and reader patience is limited, I’ll just look at a few representative moments. The greatest entertainment in Challenge is unfailingly provided by the loony plans of Luthor and company, who seem to have routinely slept through Supervillains 101 back in their youth. The Legion has such a zeal for sticking it to the SuperFriends that they seem to give little thought to what consequences their master plan will have for themselves. In “Invasion of the Fearians” the Doom boys make an agreement with some Venusians to change the Earth’s climate so the aliens can colonize it; in exchange, the aliens will eliminate the SuperFriends. Why the Legion signs on for this folly is beyond me. (Of course in 1981′s Superman 2, Lex Luthor allied with General Zod in exchange for ownership of Australia.) The Fearians offer no proof of their capabilities, and in fact turn out to be equally incompetent. But even if both parties fulfilled their respective parts of the deal, what is the Legion left with? Ruling over a ghetto of humans in an uninhabitable climate. Yay.

ImageThe Justice League also has difficulty grasping basic cause and effect, sometimes with catastrophic offscreen results. “Trial of the Super Friends” has the LOD stealing a powerful substance called “liquid light.” When Superman tries to stop the flow of liquid light from reaching a nearby town he drops an enormous dam right on top of some buildings. Moments later, we see townspeople fleeing through the streets and being rapidly pursued by a torrent of liquid light. In the next shot the town’s streets are all flooded by the liquid light, surely vaporizing the townsfolk.

The Legion’s grip on finance also seems frightfully tenuous at best; maybe they’ve stuffed their mattresses with precious ores and gemstones, and that explains their perpetually cranky demeanor. “The World’s Deadliest Game” presents one of the most grandiose Doom plans, involving the Toyman’s construction of a small city on a planet in a black hole (!) trillions of light years from Earth. The eventual objective is to demand tribute from the world powers once the SuperFriends are banished to space. It doesn’t take an economics major to wonder: Since the Toyman’s scheme must have cost them untold trillions of dollars, isn’t it likely the LOD would take a loss on the deal? There’s got to be a mutual fund with a better return than black hole time-shares.

There’s also the daffy science to keep you amused. “Time Trap” presents one of the more efficient LOD plans: they go into the past to steal the world’s treasures and strand the pursuing SuperFriends. Not bad, really. Unfortunately, they fail to account for Mr. All Freakin’ Powerful Superman’s ability to travel through time, and he rescues his comrades. You can’t really hold this one against the LOD, though. No matter how brilliant a scheme they might come up with, Superman will just spontaneously develop a new power to defeat it.

If you get tired of scientific and other plot goofs, you can always play a quick round of “Spot the Animation Mistakes.” As others have noted, the animators seem to have an awfully hard time remembering which characters are supposed to appear in which scene. When the Super Friends fly off to rescue Wonder Woman and company deep in space, Wonder Woman herself is plainly visible alongside them. Also, Black Vulcan’s costume seems to morph from one scene to another, so that he constantly fluctuates between summer and winter wear. A good thing, too: his summer wear doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

ImageThe series’ big weakness, though, can be laid squarely at the feet of the network censors, though: Given the harsh standards of the day, the “fight” scenes tend to be composed of anything but. We see a lot of posturing and grappling, but never see any blows actually landed. A particularly ridiculous example comes in “Revenge on Gorilla City.” Flash charges Toyman and savagely….. carries him twenty yards and puts him down, declaring the “fight” over. (This gives Toyman the rare opportunity to laugh at someone even more deluded than himself.) Later, Superman swoops in on Black Manta and…. tenderly carries him away in his arms. I almost expected them to exchange phone numbers. Methinks the SuperFriends were taking “kill them with kindness” a bit too literally.

The SuperFriends have long been an easy target of ridicule from comic book fanatics—indeed, from anyone with a second grade education. But, all mockery aside, Challenge does get some things right. It does a great job of keeping every episode fraught with tension from beginning to end. There are no filler scenes of bland melodrama that some of today’s action shows seem to find essential. The show is also admirably grim at times and very effective at generating a real sense of danger. As a kid I was made very uneasy by some of the severe predicaments the SuperFriends found themselves in. While modern audiences might criticize the heroes as hollow caricatures, by the same token they are excellent role models: purely good and seeking only to do good unto others. Quite inspirational really, especially since these days it seems to be the rule that all heroes have to be conflicted or flawed.

The video on DVD is quite clean for the most part, not exceptionally vivid but generally unscarred. The animation is very much a product of the 70s, but it’s not bad for the time, and the art design has some neat images once in a while. The menus are a bit of a mixed bag. They are generally attractive but are composed mostly of still shots of the characters rather than video and are largely monochromatic. This design scheme carries over to the packaging itself, which is suprisingly drab for such a colorful show. The character images chosen are largely nondescript and curiously red-tinted. One shows Superman smirking while Hawkman and Wonder Woman grimace and roll their eyes, apparently reacting to a particularly horrible punchline of steel. Another has Batman and Robin watching Toyman breakdance. Rather than putting a new drawing on the cover they should have used the classic Hall of Justice group photo from the credits (it can be found inside).

ImageThe special features are shamefully spare for such a landmark program. There are two episode commentaries (by comic book writers Mark Waid and Geoff Johns, who giggle appreciatively throughout the running time while not saying anything particularly insightful); character bios; and a brief featurette looking back on the SuperFriends phenomenon. These are fun enough, but they definitely leave one wanting much, much more. This set screams out for complete commentaries from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team. Another possibility would be pop-up bubbles (a la VH1) that give background on the characters and differences between the comic and TV portrayals. I was also hoping for something like customizable Legion of Doom answering machine messages: “You’re too late, Superfools, there’s no one to hear your call. Leave 80 quadzillion dollars, er, a message at the tone, or the Earth will be sucked into a black hole! You have only twenty seconds. HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!”

There really is no excuse for superhero fans not owning Challenge of the SuperFriends. Whether you’re grinning in recognition or guffawing in derision you’re guaranteed a good time. Either way, it’s a great look back at a simpler age when superheroes were just for kids. Very stupid kids apparently. But pick it up today. It’s your only chance!

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