Superfriends vs. Justice League

When a child first sees a cool new superhero, the first question is usually “What does he do?”

This is a fitting query regarding characters of action, but it is no way to structure a TV show. And yet, it is seemingly how the producers approached the structure of Superfriends. In contrast, the producers of Justice League took the “What does he do?” question for granted and instead asked the far more important question “Who is he?” The characters in Justice League are individuals with points of view, motivations and personalities, the characters in Superfriends are merely agglomerations of abilities.

The cape is not the man, and this, I opine, is the basis of why Justice League will be treasured for generations to come while Superfriends will always be regarded as a camp classic fit only for the simple.

In Superfriends, Batman has a computer and a cave full of gadgets, Wonder Woman has a magic rope and an invisible plane, Green Lantern has a magic ring, Flash is fast, Superman has his multitudinous powers, Aquaman talks to fish. Those are all fine attributes, but they do not, in and of themselves, constitute character. If all that mattered was the number of powers, Martian Manhunter would be a more popular superhero than Superman. What the producers of Superfriends chose to do is give all their heroes the exact same personality, whether they are the Last Son of Krypton, the Dark Knight, the Amazon Princess or The Guy Who Talks to Fish. The heroes of Superfriends are uniformly game, brave, chipper, chatty, easily startled and, paradoxically, unflappable. No sooner do they exclaim “Great Krypton/Hera/Gotham/Neptune!” than they pull some improbable solution out of the air and calmly implement it (as Seanbaby mentions, this solution often involves “spinning around” the bad guy/explosion/missile/lava/monster/lava-monster until the spinning affects it somehow).  This conceptual blunder, not the dumb plots or the cheap animation, is why Superfriends is so reviled.  Television can soar on dumb plots and cheap animation, it cannot survive without characters.  This is why episodes of Superfriends feel so shallow, repetitive and lame; there are seven main characters and they all think and act exactly the same way.  Think about it: Hanna-Barbera actually gave the members of the Justice League less personality than they gave to the members of the Mystery Gang.

Because their protagonists have no personalities (or, if you like, they all have roughly the same personalities as Batman and Robin do on the Adam West Batman show, the source of Superfriends‘ most likely inspiration) there is no dramatic tension in the scripts.  That means that the writers must come up with ever-more-improbable, ever-more-lame, ever-more-fantastic, ever-more-bizarre plots of exhausting, spiraling action to put their heroes and their various abilities through their paces.  These plots can be wonderful diversions, but they do not constitute drama.

The producers of Justice League, coming from the success of their Batman and Superman animated series’, understood from the beginning that it actually doesn’t matter what a superhero’s abilities are; what matters is who the superhero is

Take Green Lantern.  The beauty of Green Lantern is not that his ring can make anything happen, it’s that his ring can make anything happen within the bounds of his imagination and that that magic is limited to the force of his will-power.  Green Lantern is not about a magic ring, it is about Imagination and Will.  If the wearer is a dullard, he makes a very poor Green Lantern indeed, and his ring is useless if one can wear down his will.  (The creator of Green Lantern borrowed the magic-ring idea from Arabian Nights; the first Green Lantern’s name was originally to be Alan Ladd, off of Aladdin.)  Green Lantern’s appeal lies not in his ring, the ring is a tool, like a badge or a gun; Green Lantern’s appeal lies in the personality of the man/woman/space-creature wearing the ring.  Like a western or police drama, it’s doesn’t matter that one carries a badge, what matters is who carries the badge.  One can be a great policeman, a corrupt policeman, a shy policeman, an incompetent policeman, a sly policeman, a duplicitous policeman.  The same principle applies to doctors, lawyers, detectives and space explorers, to name only the most prevalent of TV professions.  And yet, in the minds of the producers of Superfriends, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Jim Rockford and Barnaby Jones are all the exact same person.

In Justice League, what was important to the producers about Wonder Woman is not that she’s super-strong or has a magic rope, but that she’s a princess who has led a coddled, innocent, priviledged life apart from man’s world.  The strength and the rope are tools that happen to be sitting around, useful in fighting alien menaces, but the point is that her naive personality and optimistic attitude give rise to drama as she clashes not with bad guys but with Batman’s scowling cynicism or Hawkgirl’s brazen forthrightness (favorite Hawkgirl line: “Less talking, more hitting!”).  The producers of Justice League didn’t get around to mentioning that WW’s lasso is a lie-detector until the third season, and even then it was total surprise to WW.  What makes Flash work in Justice League is not that he’s fast but that he’s a careless goofball.  What makes Batman work is not that he’s a brilliant detective but that he’s bitter, remote and scornful.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, what makes Martian Manhunter a different character from Superman is not his powers but his soul.  The characters in Justice League aren’t a bunch of superheroes, they are a bunch of people who happen to have super-powers.  This seems like an obvious distinction to make, and has been in the comics since their inception, but it never occurred to the producers of Superfriends.

When any seven people are thrown into a high-stakes, high-pressure situation, drama inevitably occurs.  While the plot contrivances of Justice League are more carefully, logically and elegantly presented than those of Superfriends, they are not more interesting or believable.  A talking gorilla, an evil computer or an alien overlord are of the same narrative value whether they are designed by Alex Toth or Bruce Timm.  What keeps Justice League alive is the drama that arises from the clash of personalities responding to the crisis.
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18 Responses to “Superfriends vs. Justice League”
  1. memento_mori says:

    I’m working on a game right now and in it, Superman and Martian Manhunter are the same character type. The difference is how they act. Supes strives to set an example, to be a paragon to inspire humans. MM wants to understand human beings and fit in.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    This is great insight — I’d never thought of things like this before. I’d actually not been impressed with Justice League overall — partly because of the relatively weak opening, but mostly likely because the bar had been set so high with Batman: The Animated Series.

    Superfriends I ate up as a kid, and going back on it after exposure to the Timm-inspired DC animated universe just made it seem like the worst dreck ever. Not to knock Toth — I still want a DVD set of Toth-designed Thundarr the Barbarian. I wonder actually actually how much campiness was intended for the original Superfriends; I’d grown out of the 60s Batman, thinking it silly, only to realize how funny it was later.

    • Todd says:

      There is an interview with Bruce Timm where he talks about how seriously he took the Adam West Batman as a child, only to realize much later that it was intended to be a comedy. When I read that I understood exactly how he felt — I took Batman extremely seriously, to the point where I would worry how they were ever going to get out of whatever deadly trap they had been put in.

      To make matters even more bizarre, in the interview Timm points to an episode that ends with Batman and Robin hanging by a rope over a giant man-eating clam (no hidden meanings there) and that he was stricken with worry as to how they would survive. That moment happens to also be the single most memorable moment of the show for me as well. Timm and I had the exact same reaction to the exact same show, probably on the exact same night it was aired.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Same Bat Time

        That was also the most memorable moment in the show for me, although probably in a rerun in my case.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Same Bat Time

          It’s also worth saying that witnessing that moment had decidedly different effects on me and Bruce Timm. I went blithely on my way, forgetting about Batman until the Tim Burton movie came out, he apparently, um, didn’t.

          • greyaenigma says:

            Re: Same Bat Time

            Giant clams are notoriously fickle in that way.

            I myself obsessed over the words that used in the closing, but apparently I’d misunderstood what “unedifyingly” meant for a long, long time.

  3. moroccomole says:

    It could be argued, even, that Wendy and Marvin had more personality than the Super Friends (but Zan and Jayna didn’t).

  4. gdh says:

    With sufficiently good characterization, it doesn’t matter if the plot is complete nonsense. I can’t really think of an example where the reverse is true.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “The characters in Justice League aren’t a bunch of superheroes, they are a bunch of people who happen to have super-powers. This seems like an obvious distinction to make, and has been in the comics since their inception, but it never occurred to the producers of Superfriends.”

    Handling powers – how seemingly upfront and clear, yet so much rides on that, as many an early Greek play has noted.

    I actually liked the way this notion was reflected in a kind of funhouse-mirror/Ben Stiller way in the 1999 movie “Mystery Men”. The premise being what if they all didn’t have any actual, or formidable super power, but just dumb belief and committment to being what super heroes are supposed to “be”.

    And to mention that first Batman Adam West Series, the problem was it was the 60s, and belief was missing in superheroes. So it was a shell, a beautifully themed shell, but shell nonetheless. Not unlike the Monkees were a shell of a rock band – wonderfully detailed and with proficient enough mannerisms, but a shell.

    I was one of the child audiences for the Adam West Batman show’s original run, and I do recall even then most of my friends and I being impressed by the cool new LOOK, not the contrived plots and certainly not the hammy actors. Like with Jack Kirby era FF comics, it was the objects, decor and so on all running together in one feeling which was what made it stand out. We all knew it wasn’t serious, it was about looking at it: the Batmobile, Batcave, etc..the camera spins, angles, inserted titles, the way the masks fit on the face, the skintight costumes, themed henchmen, the women-characters, the “Bat-” everything and so on. The commercials were already great teasers, certainly for the scale of the TV back then.

    The counterweight to the irony of that Batman, were the early short cartoons of Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the ones complete with theme songs. I recall THOSE were taken much more seriously, as worthy of the comic books they came from, because in their limited animation, and as they stayed somehow so close to the look of the character, they were like literally animating the comic books of the actual moment, animating like as in page-turning.

    I watched on in the following decades the TV adaptions, and while perhaps in some cases actual plots have been added, or at least the look and atmosphere “noired” after Tim Burton, there was no standardized “look” anymore. Even Adam West’s Batman followed as best as possible how a human actor could look like the Batman in the comics at the time. But there is no I.d. except a costume now, and even that isn’t secure to trust, nor very fixed. As the characters were authored like a franchise you could license and do what you want with, the all-important sense of continuity is stretched too thin to keep up with, let alone then deal with introducing whether or not these characters get hung up on moral, ethical or just quasi-spiritual issues within their tasks at hand.

    I was thinking how to close this post, but then I put my text in your spellchecker (ignoring it anyway) and pondered over the suggestions it gave for the word “Spiderman”. This everyday-sounding, altar ego – “Pittman” – pops up between Spider man and Spartan:

    Spiderman: Spider man, Spider-man, Sideman, Superman, Sidemen, Spaceman, Supermen, Pittman, Spartan


    • Todd says:

      Handling powers – how seemingly upfront and clear, yet so much rides on that, as many an early Greek play has noted.

      As Mamet points out in one of his essays, the actor playing the king always worries about whether he appears to be kingly enough. But “king” isn’t an actable attribute, it’s a title; it has nothing to do with how the part is played. While the crown carries a certain weight and significance (much like a superhero’s distinctive suit), a crown is not a king. You can’t play “a king,” you can only play a person who happens to be king, whether that person is a vain old man, a brash young upstart or a devious hunchback (to pick only three Shakespearean examples).

      • Anonymous says:

        “You can’t play “a king,” you can only play a person who happens to be king, whether that person is a vain old man, a brash young upstart or a devious hunchback”

        Which seems like a perfect correspondence to your earlier “Green Lantern” post. Perhaps all those different GLs are playing a person who happens to be “Green Lantern”, an audition that has no end, not unlike the “natural” succession of royal families (barring revolutions of course).

        This link between directors, actors playing Kings, and comic/cartoons – what comes to my mind is that predominance of one past movie/cartoon cliche, used for that moment lunacy takes over from reality, as in “craziness”, which is the individual who thinks he is Napolean. He’s usually found running around in some lunatic asylum of yore (the running gag in such chestnuts as “Arsenic and Old Lace” and many an old cartoon…)

        It’s never a King, as if only reserved for drama, but poor old Napolean for over-the-top farce. So much for what happens to actors playing Emperor-Gods.


  6. edo_fanatic says:

    Two thumbs up for Urbaniak…and a borat-esque high five for Alcott. One of my friends was reading something called Marvel Zombies today….now that’s bizarre.

  7. robolizard says:

    Allo Mr. Alcott~

    I’m currently studying inking, and I can’t seem to do anything that solid. I was wondering, how do you ink your stuff?

    With Many thanks,

    • Todd says:

      If you’re talking about my Feeder Birds drawings, I don’t ink it at all these days, I do it all in Photoshop with my dinky little Wacom pad.