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"Superfriends": The Justice Chums

by on July 22, 2010

We’re less than a week away from the street date for Batman: Under the Red Hood. By grim chance or fiendish design, Warner Home Video has preceded that hotly anticipated release with another volume of Superfriends, the infamously lame Hanna-Barbera action-series from the 1970s. Probably Warners only means to hook a slightly related product onto Red Hood‘s coattails; I doubt they’re trying to make Red Hood look better by putting it next to something so much worse. And surely they don’t expect anyone to say anything complimentary about this decrepit old artifact from the dark ages of action entertainment.

And yet, contrarian that I am, I’m actually going to stand up and say nice things about this DVD set. I am deeply ashamed to confess it, but it’s true: I thoroughly and unironically enjoyed watching Superfriends Season One (Vol. 2).

Just so you don’t misunderstand and try cutting me some slack, let me be clear. I’m not talking about Challenge of the Superfriends, the slightly later series that at least brought in Lex Luthor and Brainiac and the rest of the Legion of Doom. Some people will actually defend that series. No, I’m talking about the much-reviled series from 1973; you know, the one with Wendy and Marvin and Wonder Dog. For cartoon fans—and especially action-cartoon fans—saying nice things about that Superfriends is like saying nice things about plague rats.

And by any objective measure it is very hard to say anything nice about it. Even by the standards of 1970s television animation—a time when characters weren’t even allowed to clench a fist—Superfriends is soporific. Most of the two-part stories (which feel four times longer than they actually are) are structured like little mysteries. The heroes notice some strange goings on. They do a little light investigating. Eventually they trip over a mad scientist who is up to some very mild shenanigans. They politely ask the mad scientist to stop, and the mad scientist (who isn’t so much mad as just a little misguided) gets very embarrassed, stammers his apologies, and pinkie-swears he won’t do it again.

Typical of the series, for instance, is “The Ultra Beam.” The “villains” in that one are two scientists who fly around the world using a laser to extract the “quarks” from underground gold deposits. Their two-fold motive: removing the quarks ruins the gold, and the quarks they’ve removed can be used to create useful metals. So they think they are providing a dual boon to mankind, by destroying a resource that is “the root of evil” and providing actually useful resources in return. They sortof-kindof capture Wendy and Marvin at one point, and the four of them have a rather cheerful argument while flying around the world. Meanwhile, Superman and the other Superfriends have to deal with some unintended side effects, as the scientists’ laser ray is also weakening and destroying other nearby structures. It ends with the scientists getting a rather stern talking-to, but no one seems to hold a grudge when it’s over.

Most of the other bad guys are a little blacker, but not by much. In “The Planet-Splitter” a mad physicist is stealing diamonds to power the device that he’ll use to bust open a planet so he can bring its resources back to Earth. In “Gulliver’s Gigantic Goof,” a Peter Lorre lookalike shrinks the entire planet’s human population as a way of making its natural resources go farther. Yes, this series was produced at the height of the early ’70s “resource scare,” and the plot device rapidly wears thin. The show’s fixation on ecology is also apparent in “The Balloon People,” where the heroes befriend and protect an alien family fleeing from their own planet’s environmental disasters.

There’s only episode in this set with an honest-to-goodness bad guy. In “The Menace of the White Dwarf” a mad scientist named Raven uses a fragment from a white dwarf star to play havoc on the countryside, all with the eventual aim of capturing and imprisoning Superman. It’s probably the best episode of the bunch, partly because its mad, physics-bending tricks are always surprising, and partly because it’s just so darned nutty. Spoilers aren’t really an issue in a show like this, but I’ll save up a few by only noting that hillbillies, magical mushrooms, and an island in the sky all play an important part in the story.

The lack of really strong antagonists means the show never works up any oomph; on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to catch an action show where the bad guys have good reasons for not thinking of themselves as “bad.” The writers are also pretty good at coming up with some pretty goofy oddballs for the Superfriends to battle. In “The Balloon People” it’s a sidekick whose mangled malaprops drive his employer batty. In “The Fantastic FRERPs” it’s the debonair King Plasto and his court jester, who like to scatter giant plastic replicas around the countryside. In “The Mysterious Moles” it’s a kindly old spelunker and his battle-ax wife who—and please don’t slam your face against the desk when you read this—are stealing air conditioning units and taking them down to the bottom of a giant cavern populated with walking trees and rocks so they can cool the cavern enough that they can retrieve some diamonds.

This set is otherwise notable (I suppose) for featuring Green Arrow in one episode (“Gulliver’s Gigantic Goof”) and showcasing Superman’s origin story in flashback in another (“The Planet-Splitter”).

I said above that I enjoyed watching these episodes. Why did I have fun? I don’t really know. I wasn’t a big fan of the show when I was a kid, so my judgment wasn’t being colored by nostalgia. The stories themselves are invariably slow, predictable, and miserably stupid. At the same time, they are just so lame and so corny that’s hard not to relax along with them and enjoy their innocence. In “The Balloon People,” for instance, Robin has to guard his new friends, and does so by … stretching out in the back yard on a lawn chair. And he’s defeated when the bad guys distract him with a blow-up doll painted to look like one of his charges. Maybe it’s just me, but after several decades of cartoons whose heroes are almost inhumanly competent I was utterly disarmed by Robin’s boneheaded normalcy. And that’s a big part of the show’s charm. The Superfriends just feel very normal and don’t even seem to take themselves very seriously.

I was also bemused by the amount of crap that the show throws at Wendy and Marvin. These two (especially Marvin) are often the target of fan scorn, deservedly so. It’s a nice surprise, then, to find that the Superfriends themselves seemed to barely tolerate their junior members. I counted at least four occasions, for instance, when Batman or Superman politely told Marvin to shut up before he said another stupid thing. And a really clever fanfic writer might find comic gold by developing Robin’s studious indifference toward his contemporaries. In this show Robin is called the “Teen Wonder,” which means he can’t be more than a year or two older than the junior detectives. And yet he seems to go out of his way to avoid talking or dealing with them. It can’t have been the writers’ intention, but I got the impression he was always on the verge of turning on Marvin with a snarl and telling him to go get a haircut and a job as a supermarket stock boy.

No, I’m not really recommending this DVD, either for rental or purchase. It’s a very bare-bones set, for one thing, coming only with trailers and a trivia game. The oddest aspect involves the episode previews, which use stock footage having nothing to do with the upcoming story, and which are attached to only a handful of episodes. More bizarrely still, the previews do not refer to the episodes that follow on the disc; in one instance, the episode preview refers to an episode that you will have already watched if you watched these in order. I don’t know the explanation for this oddity, since the set apparently packages them in production/broadcast order.

But after watching it, I do think people should treat Superfriends a little more kindly. It’s kind of like William Shatner, in a way. A long time ago it was very cool; and then we all realized it was actually very lame; and then we all started enjoying it again, but “ironically.” And yet, like Shatner, it is so peculiar, so authentic, and so very true to itself, that after awhile you have to start giving it a grudging admiration all over again.

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