Mirror, Mirror: Superfriends, Wonder Woman, and Superman

Super heroes are big business right now, but here’s a little secret: they’ve always been huge with my generation. Besides Batman, which I previously discussed on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, comic book adventures were always a part of the culture. And this week, it’s time to discuss the other ways the heroes of DC Comics were a part of my childhood.

First, there’s the one of the longest-running and most remembered cartoons of the era: Superfriends.

As we’ll eventually discuss, the late ’60s saw a huge boom for super heroes in Saturday morning cartoons after Filmation established itself with The New Adventures of Superman. However, by the end of the ’60s, saturation combined with strict new content restrictions on violence on television swept away all of the super hero shows, resulting in Filmation surrendering the rights to the DC Comics characters. Things were so bad that Hanna-Barbera acquired the rights for a song, and instead of re-introducing the characters directly, Batman and Robin returned to TV in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, using Filmation’s cast (Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Larry Storch as The Joker, and Ted Knight as The Penguin) in the process before proceeding with Super Friends for the 1973-74 TV season (by which time all of Filmation’s rights had lapsed).

The initial version of Super Friends, which featured no super villains at all and introducing the horrendously awful sidekicks Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog, was a complete dud. While it continued to retain Soule, Kasem, and Ted Knight (who was on the verge of having to abandon his robust animation career because of the huge success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and had more than a few animators poached from Filmation, the bloated, hour-long stories and weak action landed with a thud. The season wasn’t an entire loss, as there were many elements that actually worked. Hoyt Curtin’s score, often one of Hanna-Barbera’s greatest assets, soars here (especially with the iconic theme song, of which I’ve posted a remixed version above). The character designs and animation, while nowhere near as detailed as the comics, are still pretty excellent for the era (and especially from Hanna-Barbera, who was starting to move a lot of its animation to Australia at the time), with the Hall of Justice (which was based on Union Hall in Cincinnati, home of H-B’s then-corporate parent, Taft Broadcasting) being the best and most fondly-remembered. But the greatest asset is the cast and voice direction. Super Friends (along with The Addams Family) was one of the first two cartoons voice directed by Wally Burr, who literally dragged the art kicking and screaming into the modern era, with large casts, superb performances, and legendarily long recording sessions. With Batman, Robin, and the narrator all legacy cast members from the Filmation cartoons, Burr’s biggest impact was in casting Danny Dark as Superman, Shannon Farnon as Wonder Woman, and Norman Alden as Aquaman, and frankly, they all elevated the material to an outstanding degree. But after a second season comprised entirely of reruns, it seemed as if Super Friends was doomed to be forgotten.

However, a two years later, with super heroes all over prime time and Saturday morning television in live action form, ABC ordered reruns of the series in a half-hour format, and the show was a huge success. This led to a total reboot of the series, with Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog jettisoned in favor of the Wonder Twins, Zan (played by Michael Bell) and Jayna (Louise Williams), whose pet was the Space Monkey Gleek. The All-New Super Friends Hour, while saddled with morals, health tips and other half-hearted filler, was a major step forward, with actual villains (including established comic book foes Gentleman Ghost and Black Manta), but it would be the next season of the franchise that because the most popular.

Challenge of the Superfriends, besides being the first incarnation of the franchise to combine “Super Friends” into one word (something that is completely ignored in modern licensing), pitted an expanded Superfriends roster against the Legion of Doom, a collection of the most prominent of the DC Universe villains (the big exception being all of Batman’s foes except The Riddler, who were off limits to Hanna-Barbera because of Filmation’s competing The New Adventures of Batman, which aired on CBS and was denied use of The Riddler except for an incorrectly colored cameo in the opening credits). Backing this were half-hour adventures in the mold of The All-New Super Friends Hour, which would would be the general template for future seasons (albeit with increased appearances from Legion of Doom members). All was not perfect, however: Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, a token minority character along the lines of the existing Samurai and Apache Chief characters, specifically to avoid paying royalties to Tony Isabella over the character of Black Lightning.

Things continued with minimal changes (the biggest being the addition of another original hero, El Dorado, who was by far and away the most successful of the ethnic heroes-though Samurai was also a pretty good character in his own right) until the 1983-84 season, when Hanna-Barbera took the series into syndication (it became one of the few syndicated cartoons aired on weekdays on Channel 5 in Vermont). ABC, despite funding 8 new episodes, cancelled the show outright (rendering those episodes unseen in America for years). This is where I come in, as those reruns on Channel 5 were my first exposure to Superfriends. ABC, however, brought the show back again for 1984-85, as Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. Suddenly, Superfriends was under a huge transition, as Adam West returned as Batman, and Firestorm was added to the cast (Olan Soule stayed on board, however, as Professor Martin Stein, half of Firestorm’s alter ego). Moreover, the show was now tied into Kenner’s excellent Super Powers toyline, and there was a new main villain: Darkseid, from Jack Kirby’s Third Earth stories. Along with Darkseid (voiced to great effect by Frank Welker) were Kalibak (again, voiced by Welker) and Desaad (voiced by Hanna-Barbera regular René Auberjonois, who was experiencing his second wave of live-action fame as Clayton Endicott III on Benson). Braniac, who had been retired following the tragic death of Ted Cassidy (along with Black Manta), was completely redesigned in line with the comics and voiced to great effect by Stanley Ralph Ross, and B.J. Ward (in the lone exception to what seems to be an unwritten rule that she be paired with Michael Bell’s characters romantically) assumed the role of Jayna because Louise Williams was no longer living in the LA area. Sadly, however, Wonder Woman was also controversially recast, with Constance Cawlfield assuming the role. Put simply, she was awful. (And, as insinuated by Shannon Farnon, she got the job because she was dating voice director Gordon Hunt. This claim is dubious, however, since Hunt, the father of actress Helen Hunt, eventually married B.J. Ward, one of the best and most prominent voice actresses of the ’80s.)

The next season brought even more changes, as the animation style was totally revised to match the artwork of artist José Luis García-López and Cyborg, from the popular comic The New Teen Titans, was brought aboard. Stories were much more serious, too, and The Joker finally appeared. Furthermore, “The Fear”, written as the pilot for a Batman solo series, told the origin of the Caped Crusader outside of the comics for the first time, and “The Death of Superman” featured just that. Best of all, Wonder Woman was again recast, with B.J. Ward assuming the role. (While not Shannon Farnon, she still excelled in the role.) But the changes were all for naught, as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was demolished in the ratings against the last half hour of The Smurfs and the first half hour of the heavily hyped Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling (which even more thoroughly trashed that season’s edition of Scooby-DooThe 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, in its second half hour), leading to ABC pulling the plug on Superfriends for the last time.

As I mentioned in the post on Batman, Channel 3 made that show a staple of early Saturday and Sunday mornings. But before Channel 22 filled weekday afternoons with cartoons, there was another super hero show on Channel 3, at 4PM on weekdays: Wonder Woman. Originally airing from 1975-1979, the show was actually the second attempt to bring Wonder Woman to live-action television (the first, starring Cathy Lee Crosby, bore so little resemblance to the character that the pilot to the series was titled The New, Original Wonder Woman). By the ’70s, Wonder Woman had emerged as a feminist icon despite some of the kinkier aspects of the character as conceived by William Moulton Marston. Regardless of those aspects (and the polyamorous relationship that Marston was involved in until the day he died), Wonder Woman was by far and away the best-and strongest-female super hero at the time, so it’s not terribly shocking she has always enjoyed a stronger popularity than the sales of her comic books have implied.

Wonder Woman the TV series succeeded because it openly leveraged the character’s status within the feminist movement, while (until CBS forced changes in the second season) staying faithful and proud of its roots in comic books. The first season in particular is incredibly accurate to the early Wonder Woman comic books (albeit with the bondage themes excised), right down to the period setting. Later seasons are close to the era’s comics, though the lack of super villains (common with the super hero TV shows of the ’70s) are a bit more glaring without the Nazis around to bash. But even with this attention and care (given to the series by Stanley Ralph Ross-yes, the same one who wrote for Batman and acted on Superfriends-and Douglas S. Cramer-who we’ll be talking about a lot in the future), Wonder Woman was great because of Lynda Carter.

Carter, who in addition to being an actress is a singer and the 1972 Miss World USA, not only looked the part, but has practically embodied Wonder Woman, both in character and out of character. Wonder Woman could have become simply a sex symbol (and boy did the networks and studio try to sell it that way), but with Lynda Carter as the star, she became a role model for everyone. The ambitious and timely lyrics like “Make a hawk a dove/Stop a war with love/Make a liar tell the truth” and “Change their minds/Save the world” work because there’s no question that Carter believes in the ideal of Wonder Woman (she campaigns vigorously for women’s rights, LGBT equality, breast cancer research, Pro Choice rights, and other causes), and it shines through in the episodes. More importantly, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was quite possibly the finest of the many great female heroes of my youth because she took the potentially suffocating roles of feminist icon, super heroine, sex symbol, and role model and epitomized the best of all of those qualities.

As influential as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was, though, in the ’80s, one super hero set the gold standard: Superman.

Promoted with the tagline, “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”, Superman: The Movie reached for and achieved heights that most films-super hero-related or not-desperately wish they could reach. Director Richard Donner preached verisimilitude as the key to the feature’s success, and given the extremely difficult development process, he was right. Originally starting pre-production in 1974, Superman: The Movie wasn’t released until December of 1978. Part of this is attributable to the difficulties Alexander and Ilya Salkind had in assembling a crew and then a cast, but the actual production dragged on from 1976 until the middle of 1978, in part because the sequel was shot concurrently (in part because of the busy schedules of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, the top-billed stars for the feature). There were also extreme technical challenges surrounding the flight of Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals who feature primarily in the second film, and tensions between Donner and the Salkinds and especially producer Pierre Spengler, so much that director Richard Lester was brought in as a go-between/backup director. In the end, filming was temporarily abandoned on the sequel with 75% of it shot in order to concentrate on the first film. (In addition, the ending was revised to remove the intended cliffhanger where the aforementioned Phantom Zone criminals are freed at the closing of the film.)

In the end, Superman: The Movie was a massive success critically and financially. The special effects were revolutionary, the story inspiring, and John Williams’ score was yet another massive triumph for the composer. The cast was equally superb: Marlon Brando brings enormous gravitas to Jor-El, Gene Hackman is definitive as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure nail their parts as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford is inspiring as Pa Kent, and Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine are superb comic foils to Hackman as Otis and Miss Teschmacher. But it is Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman who make the film work. Kidder’s Lane is tenacious, witty, smart, and marvelously human, while Reeve is the first performer to effectively emphasize the “man” over the “Super”. The effects make you believe that a man can fly; Reeve makes you believe that the man is real.

However, the series almost immediately fell apart. When filming on Superman II resumed, Richard Donner was no longer the director. Richard Lester was, and in order to take away Donner’s directing credit, the film was heavily rewritten and reshot at a quick pace and cheaply (as the cost overruns on the first feature had caused the Salkinds to renegotiate their negative pickup deal with Warner Bros. multiple times, costing them parts of the lucrative international and TV rights to both movies). Worse, since Marlon Brando sued for his portion of the gross profits (and won), his scenes were excised. Gene Hackman, who had filmed the overwhelming bulk of his part for the sequel, refused to participate further, and was replaced with not only a stand-in, but had many lines re-dubbed by an uncredited Stanley Ralph Ross (using the voice he would later give to Brainiac on Superfriends). Tom Mankiewicz and Stuart Baird refused to take part in solidarity, and John Williams, busy with commitments to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, didn’t score the film and Ken Thorne was hired instead at his recommendation (and while Thorne did an admirable job, his orchestra was far smaller than the London Symphony Orchestra used in the original, and it suffers in comparison).

Superman II was a critical and financial success despite the controversy, but watching in retrospect, it feels wrong. The comedic bits (especially during the fight in Metropolis, which already suffers because it was filmed on a soundstage and not in New York City) are far too slapsticky, and the reshoots are fairly obvious (Margot Kidder, who was particularly upset about the firing of Donner, is noticeably gaunt in the reshot footage). However, at the time (and even with the extended TV cut, which restored a great deal of Donner’s footage) no one was particularly wiser (and the sentiment against the theatrical version would not reach any real consensus until it was easy to share video on the internet), but with Superman III, which was conceived entirely without Donner and features a ton of slapstick comedy (to say nothing of having Richard Pryor as the second-billed star and Pamela Stephenson in the busty blonde bimbo role that she played incessantly during the ’80s) and just loses its way, while shoving aside Margot Kidder as revenge for having spoken out against the Salkinds. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which was spearheaded by Christopher Reeve outside of the influence of the Salkinds, was even more embarrassing, since it was produced by Canon, who siphoned the budget to keep their house of cards standing for a while longer while also cutting a substantial (and important) part of the picture before release.

Amazingly, there was still a ton of goodwill for Superman and Christopher Reeve after the series petered out. And while Reeve would never again put on the red and blue tights (in part because of a horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed), there was one more Superman series during the ’80s.

Superman, produced by Ruby-Spears for CBS in order to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the character, is a bit odd. Bill Woodson narrates the intro in a holdover from Superfriends, the narration being the same as the one from The Adventures of Superman (which was itself adapted from the narration to the classic radio show). Lex Luthor has a girlfriend, Jessica Morganberry, who is clearly patterned after Miss Teschmacher, as well, and the opening theme is a re-orchestrated version of the Superman March from the movies. But despite this, Superman is clearly based on the newly-revised mythos for the character that sprang from DC’s company-wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Character designs were done by famed Superman artist Gil Kane, and the story editor was Marv Wolfman, who was one of the architects of the revised Superman mythos (ironically, CBS executives were not aware of this when they hired him). Also, each episode features a “Superman Family Album” segment which, in a lightly serialized fashion, shows us Clark Kent’s childhood from his crash on Earth until his departure from Smallville. Despite being successful, CBS passed on backing more seasons simply because the show cost too much to produce. This doomed the show to a sad level of obscurity until it was finally released on DVD, but even then, the show represents a great missed opportunity in the Superman franchise.

Next time, it’s the 50th Anniversary of one of the biggest expansions in the history of sports.

Speak your mind!