Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Wanted: The Super Friends" (September 9, 1978)

Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom use a “dream machine” to control the will and actions of the Super Friends.

Under the influence of the dream machine, Superman steals the gold from Fort Knox. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin commit a “strange crime" (!) at the U.S. Mint.  Also, Flash steals the Crown Jewels of the U.K, while Black Vulcan raids King Tut’s tomb, and Wonder Woman steals fine art from the Louvre.

Once the Super Friends realize what they’ve done, they turn themselves over to the authorities, but that action, too, is part of Luthor’s strategy to conquer the world.  Once they are in jail, their cell is launched on a collision course with the Sun.  Then, Lex uses a "mutation ray" to turn the world's human population into doppelgangers of Bizarro and Cheetah.

“Wanted: The Super Friends” is the first episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), the Super Friends variant that is my favorite for one reason: The Legion of Doom.

The other variants of the series feature didactic life-lessons, magic tricks, safety instructions, and morality tales for children, but -- dispensing with all that -- Challenge of the Super Friends pits the DC Justice League against a diabolical mirror image in the Legion of Doom.

Besides, the Legion acts from of the most awesome villainous headquarters ever: a giant, rocket-powered Darth Vader head. 

When I first saw that HQ, at eight years old, I knew I was hooked on this superhero series. I would have done anything, at that age, to have a play-set of the Legion of Doom base.

In broad strokes, Challenge of the Super Friends features the “thirteen of the most sinister villains of all time” battling against the Justice League, which, as in previous Super Friends series, operates out of the famous “Hall of Justice,” responding to “Trouble-alerts" from across the globe.

The thirteen bad guys, introduced in this episode are: Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy, Cheetah, Brainiac, Grod, Black Manta, the Riddler, Toy Man, Giganta, and Scarecrow.  It’s a great and colorful rogue’s gallery, and one that represents variety of villains from DC's Valhalla. The rights could not be acquired for Joker, or the Penguin, but strangely, that's okay. It's nice to see Scarecrow and The Riddler, get a little more action than usual.  My favorite villain, at least in terms of appearance: Black Manta.

In terms of the heroes, the series features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, The Flash, Green Lantern, Apache Chief, Aqua Man, Hawkman, and Samurai. Neither Wendy and Marvin, nor the Wonder Twins, are featured. And that may be another reason why I prefer this series to the other Super Friends iterations. It’s straight up superhero action, and down to business, without the goofy comic relief.

Of course, the central problem with the series is that if you are a fan of the “modern” or contemporary Justice League of America, you will find the DC superheroes here quite toothless and generic. Batman isn’t the Dark Knight in this iteration, and Aqua Man is not the long-haired, hook-handed, angry character of the modern age, either.  

All the heroes, in terms of character, are largely interchangeable. They are distinguished only by their specific powers, not by any personality differences. They all love justice, and they are all "good."  That's about as deep as the characterization gets.

The stories are also largely free of any attempt at scientific accuracy, and stick rigorously to a predictable formula. In every episode, the Legion of Doom comes up with some new device to threaten the world, and plans to use it. 

The villainous strategy succeeds, and the Super Friends are defeated. 

However, the Super Friends manage to turn the defeat into a victory, and capture the Legion of Doom. But before the story ends, Lex Luthor uses some trick to free himself and his comrades from custody, while the Super Friends note, almost dogmatically, that justice will always carry the day.

Virtually no episode varies from this rigorous structure. “Wanted: The Super Friends” is no exception, although it does feature a novel early section which spends a lot of time introducing the Legion’s individual members.

In terms of scientific flaws, this episode sees the Super Friends launched into space in a jail cell…toward the Sun. 

Can Batman and Robin breathe in space, and survive without pressure suits? Here, they clearly do. This is one of the aspects of the series that drives me crazy. The characters will sometimes name-check physical qualities like "gravity" or the need to breathe air, but then are depicted traveling in space in just their uniforms, and sometimes at warp speed equivalents.  I accept this with Superman or Green Lantern, or on an understanding day, perhaps even Wonder Woman. But Batman and Robin?

Also, bizarrely, in this episode a 1970’s satellite is equipped with “mutation rays” that transform everyone on Earth into duplicates of Bizarro and Cheetah.  It is just completely nonsensical and anti-science.

Also, the Super Friends are depicted as being so advanced here that it would seem impossible to beat them. At one point in this story, Batman tells Alfred to bring him “another nuclear power pack.”

How many does he have? And if he's such a powerful and good superhero, why isn't he tending to the energy needs of the globe?

Finally, this episode features a line that, with no exaggeration, recurs in every episode of Challenge of the Super Friends:That’s what you think!”

Indeed, there are two lines to expect in each episode of Challenge of the Super Friends.  First is “That’s what you think!” And secondly is Robin’s exclamation of “Holy…something.”  Here, he says, “Holy coincidences, Batman!”

One element of the episode that I enjoy, by contrast, is the moment in which the individual characters are seen in their individual environs: Superman at the Daily Planet (as Clark Kent), and Batman and Robin in the Batcave.

Next up: "Invasion of the Fearians."

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