Back in 1978 Saturday morning cartoons included what I thought was the coolest thing ever: Challenge of the SuperFriends, where several of D.C.'s biggest heroes battled the Legion of Doom every week. All sixteen of these episodes are collected on the DVD set Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season. Knowing that the present is often the enemy of nostalgia, I wondered if this childhood treasure would fare as well to my adult eyes.
For those who don't remember the show (or are too young to have seen it), the SuperFriends were Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman, plus the new, ethnically diverse characters Black Vulcan, Apache Chief ("Inek-Chuk!"), and Samurai. They usually waited in the Hall of Justice until the Trouble Alert told them of a crisis -- usually involving the Legion of Doom.
The Legion of Doom consisted of the SuperFriends' arch-enemies. They were led by Lex Luthor and included Brainiac, Bizarro, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, the Cheetah, the Toyman, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Captain Cold, Giganta, Black Manta, and Gorilla Grodd. Their headquarters, the Fortress of Doom, looked a lot like Darth Vader's helmet and could fly and shoot lasers (and occasionally travel through time and between dimensions). Most episodes opened with the Fortress of Doom rising from the swamp, then one Legion member would explain their multi-part plan to destroy the SuperFriends and conquer the universe. The SuperFriends would get trapped, escape, and capture the Legion of Doom -- until the next episode.
Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season is neither as good as I remembered nor as bad as I feared. If you're looking for mistakes, there's no shortage. Comic book fans will find plenty of goofs, like the Batplane traveling through time, the Flash flying, the Riddler summoning a giant rabbit, or Green Lantern's ring affecting yellow objects. Animation fans will note costumes suddenly changing color, Hawkman's wings disappearing, or other simple errors. And you don't need a science degree to know that humans can't survive in space in a basic jail cell, or the Earth and moon can't just be moved around without massive disruptions as a result, or a communication device can't be buried in prehistoric times and not only work until the present, but also go off at the exact time it needs to!
The "fights" are also odd: Apparently the network didn't want characters hitting each other for fears children would copy them, so most battles have characters picking each other up, giving each other bear hugs, or trapping them in a chandelier or other item. There's plenty of inconsistency in how character powers were used on the show. And the Legion of Doom adopted a one-use-only approach to their devices, as potentially useful items (like a death crystal, or a growth ray) were never used after their first episode.
Even with all its flaws, Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season has its good qualities also. Some episodes has interesting opening (like aliens visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth, or Batman's funeral), and some of the plans were clever. We also get to see the origin of some of the heroes and villains. And let's nor forget that this was effectively the first time we got to see the Justice League outside of the comics.
DVD extras include comic book writers Geoff Johns and Mark Waid providing commentary on two episodes (they seem to laugh at it as much as enjoy it), the special Saturday, Sleeping Bags and Super-Friends: A Retrospective, and character bios for every character in the SuperFriends and Legion of Doom.
If you're curious about what probably seemed like an amazing cartoon from childhood, or you're a massive fan of superheroes and animation, Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season is worth checking out. There are plenty of flaws with it, and the plotting and animation are far behind current superhero cartoons, but it can still be enjoyable as well.
Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch