I grew up in the 1970s – a magical time when sharks kept people off the beach, farm boys toppled galactic empires and superheroes were on television every Saturday morning. With the advent of DVDs, downloads and DVRs, the golden age of Saturday-morning cartoons is all but a footnote in television history. Before you could conjure up virtually any program you could think of, the only way to get your superhero fix was to get up early on Saturday morning (a gargantuan feat since it was the first day of the weekend and, if your parents were churchgoers like mine were, the only real shot you had at sleeping in) switch on the tube and marvel at the brightly colored adventures of television’s version of The Justice League. Sure, there were Spider-Man and Space Ghost shows, but this was the real deal, with Superman and Batman leading the troops into battle against whatever menace threatened the world that particular week.
Debuting in 1973, The Superfriends were an immediate smash with kids. Loaded with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin the Boy Wonder and Aquaman, along with the perplexing addition of Wendy, Marvin, and their pet WonderDog, the show had our heroes holed up in the Hall of Justice waiting for the TroubAlert to alert them to danger. Occasionally, The Flash, Plastic Man and even Green Arrow would lend a hand to save the day. As kids we were never sure what Marvin and Wendy were doing at the Hall of Justice – they had no super powers to speak of and didn’t do much to further the plot. Perhaps someone at Hanna-Barbera thought that us kids needed to see ourselves on the screen or maybe it was just easier plot-wise to have a regular person on hand to explain things to. Either way, Wendy and Marvin aren’t fondly remembered by fans of the show. Still, ratings were strong and a second season was greenlit.
Then a shadow fell over the Hall of Justice. Two, in fact.
The second go-round for our Superfriends saw them ditching Marvin, Wendy and WonderDog for the now infamous Wonder Twins. Zan and Jayna, along with their pet monkey Gleek were yet another way of the production company trying to shoehorn kids into the Justice League. Unlike the previous kids that tagged along, Zan and Jayna had special powers, Zan being able to take any form of water, including complex machinery made of ice, and Jayna having the ability to transform into any animal, even mythical beast. Hanna-Barbera obviously had a real thing for the Wonder Twins since not only did they fight alongside Batman and Superman, but they were also featured in their own mini adventures.
Years later the television program “Attack of the Show” would make a faux movie trailer and even superstar comic artist Alex Ross would attempt to legitimize the Wonder Twins with a stunning watercolor portrait.
No matter the push or the politics, I personally never liked the Wonder Twins, instead preferring to see the actual Justice League action. Who needs made-up sidekicks when you have the greatest heroes in the world just to the right? The sole pop-culture legacy the Wonder Twins left behind is that it’s impossible to see a friend wearing a ring and not bump jewelry exclaiming, “Wonder Twin Powers Activate!”
The Superfriends lived on in reruns from 1973-1978 with only 31 episodes to air! This lack of content probably accounts for most of my generation memorizing episodes since there weren’t that many to watch.
Sadly, there were no actual toy lines to support the show. By 1978 Mego was just about out of the superhero business with their World’s Greatest Line coming to an end. The Superman The Motion Picture and Wonder Woman live-action television show toy lines were frustratingly hard to find at retail. Toy collectors like me were happy we kept our Mego Batman and Superman to act out the Superfriends adventures.
The year 1978 saw the Superfriends return to television with all new adventures that, for me, would become the gold standard for Saturday morning adventures. Previous incarnations had our heroes battling well meaning scientists and lesser known criminals. The new series, dubbed Challenge of the Superfriends introduced The Legion of Doom – the anti-Hall of Justice where comic’s greatest baddies hung out and plotted their next move towards global domination.
Featuring Lex Luthor (finally!), Black Manta, The Riddler, Cheetah and more, The Legion of Doom was the show we fans had dreamed of in our sugar-cereal-fueled dreams. The Legion of Doom headquarters, which looked suspiciously like Darth Vader’s helmet, would rise from the swamp and the villain of the week would announce his plans. It was the shot in the arm the series needed to cement itself as required viewing. Though, again, there would be no toys to support the show, today’s kids can actually purchase a very cool Legion of Doom playset courtesy of Fisher Price of all people.
Wow, how things have changed! The highlight of the 16-episode season was the best-of-the-best episode number 15 entitled “Secret Origins of the Superfriends.” In this surprisingly dense adventure for an animated show under 30 minutes, Lex Luthor discovers the origins of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Using this information and a time machine, he sends villains back in time to interrupt and change history, making the villains the heroes! Cheetah wins the tournament to become Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor displaces Hal Jordan to become the recipient of the Green Lantern ring and they alter the course of Kal-El’s spaceship so that he never arrives on earth to become Superman. It’s up to Batman to save the day! You can tell the writers weren’t sure they wanted to show Bruce Wayne’s parents getting gunned down on a Saturday morning kid’s show. Either way, the future was put back into place and our heroes returned. It was a fantastic episode that holds up even today.
The next version of Superfriends that appeared the next year was almost identical save for the appearance of a brand-new superhero named El Dorado. A Hispanic hero added to diversify the Justice League ranks, El Dorado’s powers were all over the place. At times he could teleport, create holograms of himself and even had super strength and telepathic tendencies. El Dorado, for all of his powers and prowess, never actually appeared in a DC Comic. This version of Superfriends lasted for a few years. Long enough for me to almost grow out of watching cartoons altogether! But, wait, there’s something massive on the horizon…something that will change Superfriends and superhero marketing for years to come. Look, up in the sky…it’s a bird…it’s a plane…no, it’s…
Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show.
Finally! Superfriends is on television and there’s a tie-in toy line!
Kenner’s Super Powers Collection debuted along with the revamped Superfriends format in 1984. Featuring iconic sculpts and hidden action features, The Super Powers Line was an instant success. Every major hero was represented, along with signature vehicles like The Batmobile and The Hall of Justice Playset. Sure, Superman had something called a Justice Jogger, but they can’t all be classics.
The Super Powers toy line was so iconic and so spot on that a complete set today is a collector’s holy grail and the packaging and sculpts remain in production, with high-end statues and oversized figures by Gentle Giant paying homage to the best superhero toy line since Mego’s World’s Greatest Heroes.
Heck, the Lex Luthor in Kryptonite Armor from the Super Powers line remains the go-to Lex for comics and movies alike, with even Jesse Eisenberg rumored to be donning a suit of similar armor in the upcoming Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie.
Sadly, all good things have to come to an end, and even the mighty power of the Superfriends couldn’t stop the evil known as cancellation. The final season of the show, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, had a title that lasted almost longer than the last 13 episodes that brought the brand to a close in 1986. But what a run! Over a decade of Justice League goodness right there for the taking on Saturday morning. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman brought me up from a small child to a small teenager. While they battled Darkseid, I battled puberty. As they clashed with Kalibak, I navigated the murky waters of teenage dating. While they were assured of victory, mine was not always a fairy-tale ending. But, hey, it was the 1980s and all you had to do be a superhero yourself was slap on a pair of parachute pants, throw on a Members Only Jacket and M\moonwalk into the living room for the further adventures of your favorite heroes….oh, and The Wonder Twins, too.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.
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