Superfriends vs. Challenge of the Superfriends

Pick hit: Superfriends (but not with Wendy, Marvin and WonderDog).  Must to Avoid: Challenge of the Superfriends.

Having never seen either of these shows before, I was under the impression that they were actually different seasons of the same show.  This is not so.  Superfriends, which is a masterpiece, dates from 1973 (or maybe not — see comments).  Challenge of the Superfriends, which sucks, is from 1978. 

Both shows are good illustrations of why Justice League is better — mainly in the character department.  On Superfriends all the superheroes not only talk the same way, they all have the same personality — genial, wisecracking, earnest and stolid.  If nothing else, Justice League discovered that by giving superheroes different personalities you could create conflict, which would result in narrative interest.  In short, shows like Superfriends are where children get the notion that Green Lantern and Aquaman are lame.  Justice League, for better or worse, has, by giving them personalities, somehow made them cool again.

Allow me to discuss some of the key differences between the two shows.

Superfriends (1973?  1979? see comments)
The Superfriends are:
Batman and Robin
Wonder Woman
The Wonder Twins (and the Space Monkey, Gleek)
They hang out at the Hall of Justice, which is on Earth, rather than in the Watchtower, which is in the unreachable confines of space.  There is an abstract sculpture outside the Hall of Justice so we know it’s official.

(I wonder what city the Hall of Justice is located in.  What is the Superfriends’ deal with the city officials?  What city would allow them to put a huge building, complete with “public space,” in the middle of town?  Why not just paint a gigantic target on the city?)
Occasionally, someone in Superfriends refers to the Justice League (as in, “the Justice League computer indicates that the electrical disturbances are being caused by the Brain Creatures on Mars”), but the Superfriends do not seem to be the Justice League.  Maybe the Justice League has broken up, maybe they’re on hiatus.
Oftentimes, all the superheroes are gone, leaving the Hall of Justice in the hands of the Wonder Twins and their Space Monkey.  There is no staff, no security, just two teenaged aliens and a space-monkey.
The Wonder Twins, it should be noted, do not have “super powers.”  They have unique powers, but they do not possess super strength or high intelligence.  To say the least.  And Gleek tends to drag them down, causing mischief and fouling the computer.  Personally, I don’t see why they don’t board the Space Monkey in a Monkey Kennel when they travel on a dangerous mission.
The Superfriends mostly fight creatures from outer space and other extraordinary cataclysms.
The Superfriends are generally well-challenged by the disasters hurled at them.  Superman and Wonder Woman are the only ones with super powers, and they are often turned to evil by whatever they’re fighting that week, leaving the comparatively mortal Batman, Robin and Aquaman to figure out a solution.
Aquaman is particularly useless in this regard.  He’s a good-looking chap, but his ability to communicate with sea creatures is a little beside the point when in space, or on the surface of an alien planet.
I’m not sure why the Superfriends don’t suggest, in a nice way, that Aquaman sit out the challenges that await them in deep space.  He’s always good company, but when one sees him in a space helmet, shifting his weight uncomfortably as it occurs to him that he’s utterly dead weight on a desert planet overrun by robot cowboy outlaws, his discomfort and embarrassment is palpable.
The show, which only lasted 16 episodes, explodes with goofy wit, imagination and charm, and is full of perilous, exciting, peculiar and fanciful situations.  In one episode, the Superfriends must battle at least a dozen different creatures, from giant eels to sentient tar-men, at the Earth’s core.  In another episode, Dracula comes to life after a 100-year slumber and, using an irridescent pink powder, turns an airplane full of tourists into vampires.  Before long, Superman himself is turned into a vampire and leads armies of zombie vampires through the Transylvanian Alps to Vienna, where Batman must cure him with a gas retrieved from a cave in the Andes.  In my favorite episode, Aquaman is turned into a giant land-dwelling mutant shark and Superman and Wonder Woman are shunk down Fantastic Voyage-style to cure him while he rampages through the city.

Challenge of the Superfriends
In Challenge of the Superfriends, the Superfriends are:
Batman and Robin
Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
and a couple of others, Black Vulcan I think and some Indian guy.
In Challenge of the Superfriends, the Superfriends fight only the Legion of Doom.  This is plenty of work, but it gets old fast.
The Legion of Doom consists of:

Lex Luthor
The Joker
The Riddler
Solomon Grundy
Black Manta
Gorilla Grodd
Captain Cold
and about fifteen other also-rans, some of which are redundant and puzzling.  Why, for instance, Lex Luthor thought he needed a zombie strongman on his team is a mystery.  The hyper-intelligent gorilla I understand, but some of the others defy comprehension.
The Legion of Doom, according to the opening titles, has a very vague, broad mission statement: the conquest of the universe.  “Conquest of the Universe” apparently includes everything from conquering alien worlds to overtaking secret gorilla cities in Africa.
Why, for instance, does the Clock King need to build a giant clock made out of ice?  How will this further the goal of “Conquest of the Universe?”  The logic is known only to the Legion of Doom.  Lex Luthor is a criminal genius, so there must be a reason that lies beyond my comprehension, but still.
Because there are literally dozens of characters to keep track of, there is always a ton of exposition in each 22-minute episode.  You can actually see the animated characters sigh and get impatient with the things they need to do in order to include everyone.
Let’s face it, there is no earthly catastrophe that cannot be solved by the combined superpowers of the Superfriends.  But because they all must be included in the solution, Wonder Woman will become stupid and incompetent at crucial moments, or Batman and Robin will suddenly be stumped for a solution so that Black Vulcan (whoever he is) can have his moment in the sun.  It’s the democratic ideal at its absolute worst.
For some reason, this democratic ideal extends to the Legion of Doom as well as the Superfriends.  You would think that if the Superfriends are a democracy then the Legion of Doom would be a totalitarian dictatorship, but no.  A typical Legion meeting will begin with Lex Luthor (who is the undisputed leader) saying “okay, Riddler, what is your agenda for this week?”  And maybe the Riddler has a plan, maybe not.  Maybe his plan involves conquest of the universe, maybe it just involves a jewel theft or the construction of a robot dinosaur.  Lex, for some reason, in spite of the fact that he’s a criminal mastermind, gives all ideas equal weight no matter how expensive or improbable they sound.  He might hear a plan from Solomon Grundy that involves little more than Solomon Grundy wishing to destroy something, but all the resources of the Legion will be placed behind his plan.  Because, after all, it’s his turn.  It doesn’t matter if the Joker has a foolproof plan to crash the Pentagon’s computer system, he had his turn last week and now we’re going to pay attention to the zombie strongman.
At the end of every episode, the Superfriends will have the Legion of Doom cornered and caged.  And at the end of every episode, Lex Luthor will pull a device out of his pocket that will, as if by magic, allow the Legion of Doom to escape again.
Strangely, the Superfriends, in spite of their combined might, are always caught short by this ruse, and must always stand frustrated and impotent as the Legion of Doom gets away again.
The squandering of resources on both sides is staggering.  Lex Luthor, who seems to have the mental capacity to achieve anything in the world, consistently puts his energy and resources into plans that sound like utter wastes of time.  Conversely, the Superfriends have to spend huge amounts of resources cleaning up after these absurd, wasteful spectacles every week.
In this way, Challenge of the Superfriends is the perfect metaphor for the Cold War.
Challenge of the Superfriends, like Superfriends, lasted 16 episodes.  Unlike Superfriends, it is dreadful. 

UPDATE: It appears that the show I identify as 1973’s Superfriends is actually 1979’s The World’s Greatest Superfriends, although it is not identified as such on the DVD box.  I strive for the utmost in accuracy in my reportage, unlike some OTHER bloggers I could name, and deeply regret the error.  I humbly apologize for any distress this error may have caused anyone.


15 Responses to “Superfriends vs. Challenge of the Superfriends”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Elek Chok!!

    In reviewing some of these a few years ago, I was actually surprised by how eye-pluckingly horried they were. And that, I believe, was Superfriends. I had the recollection that Challenge was the better of the two. But… only sixteen episodes each? I could have sworn there were more. Too tired to look it up.

    I think my personal favorite was where Wonder Woman was turned into a giant raving monster by a meteorite. (When will mankind ever learn, etc.)

    As annoying as the Legion of Doom, or the Wonder Twins, or Aquaman may sometimes seem, they all pale before the godforsaken awfulness that was Marvin and Wendy and their stupid god-damned dog.

    Finally, for a great take on the Superfriends, if you haven’t seen it, check out Seanbaby’s Superfriends page.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Elek Chok!!

      Further reading at Wikipedia tells me that the Superfriends episodes currently available on DVD are from 1979 and came after Challenge. I apologize for the error. There were six or seven iterations of the material, all under different titles, over a period of 12 years or so. The Wendy and Marvin episodes are all in the first season and are, to my knowledge, not available on DVD

      • greyaenigma says:

        Re: Elek Chok!!

        The Wendy and Marvin episodes are all in the first season and are, to my knowledge, not available on DVD

        Praise the lord!

        That did have the classic “is the soup fresh?” line, though.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Elek Chok!!

      Seanbaby’s Superfriends page is a treat. His take on Green Lantern’s sidekick Kairo had me laughing until tears rolled down my cheeks.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    Also, your first image is getting hot-link protected.

  3. robolizard says:

    Bruce Timm’s final season of the Justice League was actually a whole arc where the JLU was fighting Timm’s version of the Legion of Doom [sans Batman villains due to a marketing decision connected to Batman Begins]. Although it ended as it realistically would its always odd to see characters whose entire lives are based around narcissism and some kind sociopathic streak have to be part of an organization because a writer more or less forced thier hand. Poison Ivy I always liked in a team setting, but only in Alex Ross’ current comic ‘Justice’ [which is essentially a high concept epic Superfriends] uses her in the setting perfectly.

    As for the zombie strongman, having him on the team seems obvious, when fighting characters whose main assets are strength, a fighter on the team with more predictable aggression [Bizzaro politics are always so shady…] who can actually never die seems like pretty good thing to have. Listening to him feels odd though of course… Captain Cold is really a man with one weapon. He seems odd…

    Black Vulcan is on the Justice League now actually in the comics with a diffirent name [Black Lightning, named because I think Hanna Barbera owns the name ‘Black Vulcan’]. With a deep backstory and an excellent psychology. A fun post modern twist. Super Chief actually died in the comics recently in 52. Those throw backs are fun…

  4. ghostgecko says:

    Ah, god, good memories. I actually liked the wonder twins, but I plead being 5 years old at the time (and it led to a very amusing yet thought provoking spoof on JLU, so they’re not all bad!).

    Have you ever read “Saturday Morning Fever” by Tim & Kevin Burke? It’s an excellent overview of Saturday morning cartoons in the 70’s and 80’s, and they talk about the rise of prosocial, politically correct cartoons as a response to charges by consumer action groups that the cartoons were little more than half hour toy commercials and taught kids to be violent. Characters like Black Vulcan and the Indian guy were added most likely because someone complained all the Super Friends were OMG white – tokenism.

    As for Wendy and Marvin and their stupid dog, apparently one of the studio execs had a thing for adding dogs to EVERYTHING, under the theory that kids liked dogs. And the idea of kids needing a child viewpoint character has even tarnished excellent series like Batman:TAS (remember that crappy one where the kid keeps an injured Batman hidden in his basement?).

    It is interesting, as you point out, about deomocracy at its worst. JLU is organized much more as a meritocracy. The whole storyline with the Question gets into that, but I can’t recall if you’ve seen it so I won’t spoiler it.

    • Todd says:

      I just found out that one of the reasons for the odd inertia of the Superfriends shows was that the censors said you couldn’t show anyone punch anyone else on a childrens’ show. So instead, Solomon Grundy will run up to Superman, pick him up and then run around with Superman over his head.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Funny thing about imitateable actions, because I’m damn sure I actually did pick up my sisters and run around with them while pretending to be Superman or the Hulk, although they weren’t so much over my head as under my arm with their heads banging into furniture.
        That sort of crap messed with more adult shows, too. In this one episode of Kolchak the Night Stalker, a guy turns into a werewolf and instead of mauling people, he just throws them against walls where they die bloodlessly.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    Oh, and…

    I almost forgot — have you seen the episode of Justice League (Unlimited?) that had parodies/tributes to the extraneous league heroes from Challenge? That is something you should see.

  6. urbaniak says:

    I strive for the utmost in accuracy in my reportage, unlike some OTHER bloggers I could name, and deeply regret the error.

    I heard that.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Didn’t “The Wonder Twins plus the Space Monkey” basically re-use the same drawings from Space Ghost series? Or should have.