by Andy Daglas & Noel Kirkpatrick
Noel: First, Andy, I want to thank you for agreeing to cover Super Friends with me. I had the thought in mind to cover Super Friends together after seeing our shared reactions to Alyssa Rosenberg’s great idea of a Doctor Strange/Luke Cage buddy cop movie (I still think this is the best team-up concept ever), as well as our shared love of the DCAU.
One of the ideas I had when I volunteered to address Super Friends, even this small sample we decided to do (and I am glad we decided on a small sample, by the way), was to try and meet the show on its own terms instead of just making fun of it (though we certainly can do that too).
With all that in mind, what did you think about “The Power Pirate?” For me, I’m pretty sure it ruined whatever suspense J.J. Abrams and Eric Kripke had in store for NBC’s forthcoming Revolution (which, I promise, is more of a dig at Revolution and its creators than it is at Super Friends).
Andy: I was positive that this episode, which first aired in September 1973, was written to echo the energy crisis of that year. But the OPEC oil embargo didn’t begin until October. Who knew Super Friends was downright Jules Vernian in its capacity to predict the future?
I come into this project knowing Super Friends only by reputation (i.e., parody). I’m fully braced for all the silliness that comes with being 1) From the 1970s, 2) A kids show, and 3) Seriously from the 19-damn-70s. Silliness has a place in the realm of comic book storytelling though, as defined most famously during the Silver Age, which had concluded shortly before Super Friends debuted. I’m cautiously optimistic that those influences prevail and that the good camp outweighs the bad.
With that said, let’s get right into…
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Power Pirate”
Original airdate: Sept. 8, 1973
Andy: Super Friends begins as you’d expect any show about the planet’s most powerful beings would begin: With an old man skiing. He’s set upon and promptly Renfielded by our Big Bad for the episode. Who will protect the elderly sporting enthusiasts of Earth from this mysterious alien threat??
Why, the Super Friends of course! Noel, I know this observation has been made to death, but it really is incongruous to think that, of all the Justice Leaguers to choose from, Aquaman would be the one to round out the core four with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And I’m not even an Aquaman hater!
Noel: I’m rather indifferent to Aquaman, really. But I suspect his inclusion in Super Friends has a lot to do with The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure series that aired a few years earlier on CBS (though not animated by HB), so it was likely an industrial reason more than anything.
Our introduction to the group – which also includes Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog – pretty much sets the tone for the show, I think. It’s not so much about patrolling for threats as it is hanging out in the Hall of Justice, having wrestling contests while Wendy makes cake.
Andy: There’s an entire sub-genre devoted to just that sort of thing.
Noel: That is…disturbing. Thank goodness the TroublAlert (patent pending) sounded before things reached that point.
I am amused that Superman has to stop a train in the first episode when it’s what we see him doing during the opening credits. And I thought saving Lois Lane when she fell off buildings was Superman’s specialty.
Andy: Superman’s booming, game-show-announcer voice is off-putting. But the whole train-saving sequence is a pretty nifty bit of action, actually. He’s more powerful than a locomotive of course, and but he relies on quick thinking as much as super strength. That aspect of Supes is often overshadowed.
Noel: Yeah, it’s rough voice-acting, but much of it is. Danny Dark, who does Superman, and would continue to do so into the 1980s, really oversells the Big Superhero Voice (unlike, say, Olan Soule who voices Batman, and who I rather like in this version of Bats).
And you make a good point about Supes’ quick thinking. If you go back and read the old Action Comics, it’s way more common for him to use his powers cleverly than to just beat up the bad guys (who were mostly gangsters and deranged scientists then). The entire episode is more centered on out-thinking than out-fighting the Power Pirate, and figuring out the reason for the power outage is more important than bending train rails (though that clearly is helpful as well).
Andy: Then word arrives that a cruise liner is in similar danger as the train. So the team spends about half an hour planning how to get there and then arguing with a dog. That leads to our first Aquaman action scene and it…isn’t as successful as Superman’s.
Again, I’m not reflexively anti-Aquaman. There have been very effective portrayals of the character, including in the 2000s Justice League (both the animated series and the comic book runs of Grant Morrison and Mark Waid). But when the King of Atlantis isn’t in the water more than five seconds before he’s thwarted by a giant anemone, maybe you aren’t giving us the best sense of why this guy made the roster?
Noel: I thought this was really odd, too. And his telepathy doesn’t work on the anemone? I mean “Release me” is a much simpler message than “Dear Octopi, I have been caught by this surprisingly strong anemone that my apparent super-strength is unable to handle. Please come rescue me.”
I guess this generally fits with the show’s desire to demonstrate as little violence as possible, and perhaps freeing himself from the ravenous anemone is just too much for Standards & Practices?
Andy: Or maybe telepathy only works on creatures with a central nervous system? Anyway, Aquaman saves the day with semaphore, then swims off. There’s still a huge storm raging and the boat is trapped in the middle of the ocean without power, but hey, the crew’s mostly got it from here.
While all this is going on, Batman and Robin detour to a downtown construction site to save a couple of falling workers, and then make it out to the coast, all in I guess about ten minutes.
Noel: Yes, the show seems about as concerned for geography and showing the passage of time as Game of Thrones was in season one.
The first meeting with Sir Cedric Cedric is one of those great moments where it gives the young target audience a chance to be smarter than the heroes and shout at the screen, “No! No! It’s not a coincidence that Superman had to deal with trains without power. The Power Pirate isn’t just interested in stealing British electricity!”
And I think Marvin’s British accent would pass muster in the Hall of Justice’s production of Oliver!.
Andy: Well, it’s no worse than Kevin Costner’s.
Finally, it’s Wonder Woman’s turn to demonstrate her superhero bona fides, building a dam to plug up a flooding basin. We’re not quite halfway through the episode, and there’s still been very little in the way of a coherent narrative. It’s primarily a series of set-pieces, loosely connected by the machinations of the Power Pirate, designed to spotlight each of the Super Friends in turn. All things considered, this is an economical introduction.
At least until the focus shifts towards the Super Interns, and the show’s loopier Scooby-Doo influences take over.
Noel: It is a smart approach. You tune in for the superheroes, and their special abilities (I really hope nothing bad happens in Nebraska, because then Aquaman will not be much help at all), but then the second half allows our audience surrogates to take over the narrative a bit, and do some, as you call it, “loopier”, more kid-friendly aspects.
And not all the set pieces are created equal. Superman and Aquaman get the best ones, while Batman & Robin get something mundane, and Wonder Woman’s is…just kind of odd (though I like to think that “earthen dam” is a very subtle nod to her origins as a baby made of clay). Her abilities never seem fleshed out. She’s super strong and has a mind-controlled invisible jet that has a steering wheel. Right.
Andy: Wonder Woman is in many ways a more problematic character than Aquaman. Her powers—the ones that translate to limited animation anyway—are basically the same as Superman’s, minus a few things. What makes Diana stand out is her personality, but I suspect this show doesn’t have the writing chops to handle that sort of depth. As people, the heroes are all pretty interchangeable so far.
Noel: After they’ve saved the dam and the surrounding areas, I do like that we get this brief narrative breather to internally recap the episode. It’s a nice summation of everything so far to help remind the audience of the events in the first half hour (since we’re entering the second at this point), but is also demonstrates some basic concerns for narrative pacing and engagement.
Sure, we could wish that their rationale for picking the targets was better explained (and why Batman thought of a rocket launch or an oil tracking plant before, you know, an actual power plant), but all in all, that’s not too important.
Andy: Meanwhile, the not-so-mod squad goes snooping around a power plant in pursuit of Sir Cedric Cedric, and honestly, the only thing this part is missing is a chase scene set to a groovy tune by a third-rate Herman’s Hermits knockoff.
Noel: The montage sequence, as everyone goes about trying to save various lost power causes is a nice way to do quick action sequences, and feels like a nice way to use ideas that the writers developed, but maybe thought wasn’t dynamic enough for the show’s bigger set pieces? And while I see that Wonder Woman likely had monitor duty (I love that monitor duty was a thing before it was thing—and isn’t that what interns are for?!), I am a bit miffed that she didn’t figure into the montage.
I noticed in the previous segments at the power plant and right before the montage was how Wendy refused to say much of anything about what she’s observing, and I’m kind of frustrated by that. The show itself clearly stakes a progressive-lite politick with its emphasis on energy conservation (though it stops shy of indicating the sources of electricity, like oil), but they don’t give Wendy her due until a bit later.
I get that this is likely more of a narrative tactic, delaying the resolution, than it is an conscious decision to have Wendy just be unforthcoming about her sleuthing skills, given that Marvin doesn’t seem super-serious about his prospects (he’s the intern that’s goofing off but then takes all of the credit for Wendy’s work).
Andy: It’s sort of a Get Smart-ian riff 15 years before Inspector Gadget would perfect the form. Except without the latent sexual tension between Max and 99. Wait, are Marvin and Wendy related? I’m fuzzy on that.
Noel: Superman flying everyone to Central Hospital at Ski Valley = Creepy.
Andy: My favorite part is how billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne carries Wendy in his lap, while the sidekick gets saddled with Marvin and Wonder Dog.
Noel: And sir Cedric Cedric is a terrible witness. I’d lead off with the alien thing, not with my inability to ski well.
What do you make of the showdown at the “nuclear” power plant (that looks like an arrangement of rejected sci-fi building designs as opposed to, you know, an actual nuclear power plant)? It’s resolved rather quickly, thanks to Wendy’s real detective work, but what about the nuclear energy site as the final power plant area? Certainly nuclear energy was in the news a lot at this time, both the pro and the anti, and Three Mile Island won’t occur for another six years.
Is the show staking a claim about it? Or is the eventual resolution of Traum’s energy crisis, with Superman polishing the planet’s moon to glass, putting its faith in space-based solar energy?
Andy: How dare you question the authenticity of the power plant Noel? It runs on technology, obviously! SCIENCE technology.
Honestly, I don’t think the plant being nuclear serves any other function than aesthetic—it comes off more modern than belching smokestacks. And it’s tough to say the show makes a stance in favor of solar power either, considering that Superman’s fix is outlandish and sort of glossed over. It’s just an expedient way to wrap up the fate of a planet we don’t actually care about.
All the moralizing comes from Batman’s speech about power conservation, which comes during a vintage preachy epilogue. It fits in a long tradition of messages tacked on to the end of cartoon shows that’ll extend through G.I. Joe in the 1980s and Captain Planet in the 1990s (to name just a couple).
Noel: I’d agree that there’s probably no politics at play here, and I do wonder why Superman doesn’t polish the Earth’s moon to a glossy shine to solve its energy problems, but I suppose that would amount to saying that the problem on Earth is as severe as the problem is on Traum, and I don’t know that Batman’s quick power-saving PSA wants to go that far. But it’s still an interesting thought about what message kids might’ve taken away from the episode, if any at all.
As a friendly reminder, Super Friends is a bi-weekly feature, so we’ll be back on June 26. We’re not going through the show episode by episode, having decided instead to jump around around a bit. So when we return, it’ll be with season 1, episode 4: “The Weathermaker.”
But you should check in with us next Tuesday to read the first post in Noel’s Oniisama e… coverage. It’s anime! There’s school girls! Cherry blossoms! Pill popping! It’s awesome!