The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians
by Dave Newman
As a thank you to Scott for finally reviewing the GREEK DEATH MATCH, I thought I’d start from the other end of the Super Friends TV series as he’s promised/threatened to pick up with the Wendy and Marvin shows (lame!). Here, we’ve got Darkseid and THE FEAR!, so let’s go!
DC on film and TV is now the domain of Warner Bros., but has quite an interesting history in animation on TV. Lou Scheimer’s Filmation finagled the Superman series in the sixties with a real staff of three artificially inflated by as many friends as they could call in favours from plus a tailors dummy sat in as their receptionist and Ted Knight playing a member of their staff. Hanna-Barbera launched the Super Friends show in the seventies and Ruby-Spears filled in some of the gaps up to 1992 and the seminal Batman: The Animated Series with their underrated Superman show in ‘88 as well as Plastic Man.
The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians is the final H-B and Super Friends iteration. By this time, things had started to change from baking the heroes in giant pies and the other LSD-induced ideas that some of the early shows had. This was the era of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, more complex comic books. Transformers writer Flint Dille on his current podcast quite accurately reflects on comic book writers like Marv Wolfman and Steve Gerber coming out to California to write for TV animation and positively influencing the product, which is evident in these shows with a better sense of continuity and character depth, telling origin stories. Plus, we have Cyborg joining the show, following Firestorm from the last series, to give a little extra youth and diversity.
So, let’s get to it!
The Seeds of DOOM (by Alan Burnett [lead story editor for BTAS])
Cyborg is mentoring an amputee on how to use his new artificial leg while Lex Luthor is up to no good in a giant robotic spider (are we sure Jon Peters didn’t write this?). After defeating Luthor, Cyborg plays DDP in ‘96, turning down the chance to join the Super Powers Team, much to Firestorm’s consternation. This leads to Professor Stein sharing the Victor Stone origin story with Ronnie Raymond via a magazine article.
Things to think about if you’ve got too much time on your hands – if Ronnie Raymond needs to become Firestorm while Stein is on the toilet, does he get joined by a disembodied entity with his trousers down?
Meanwhile, DeSaad is sending Parademons to Earth to plant his SEEDS OF DOOM, all part of a blackmail scheme of Darkseid – the Super Powers Team must disband or Earth will become a new version of Apokolips!
The will he/won’t he story of Cyborg joining up with Superman and company is pretty predictable, but what’s immediately evident is far greater quality of animation, with some cool effects and camera angles more faithfully emulating the more ambitious storyboards, plus the voice actors able to make more of the script. Frank Welker as Darkseid (with the Dr. Klaw voice) and Kalibak and Rene Auberjonois (Odo from Star Trek: DS9) as DeSaad in particular sink their teeth into the lines.
Trivia: Cyborg is played by Ernie “Winston Zeddemore” Holmes.
Cool moment: Aquaman in a silent cameo retrieves some of the seeds from underwater, followed by half a dozen octopuses carrying far more.
The Ghost Ship (by Antoni Zalewski)
This is an abbreviated episode, sharing a timeslot with the following one. Darkseid and Kalibak chase after Superman, Cyborg and Firestorm in space. This leads them to a massive space station for refuge, but they soon find they’re not welcome.
Trivia: Elements of this episode were reused in Zalewski’s Transformers episode Dark Awakening, which saw the initial return of a zombie Optimus Prime after his death in Transformers – The Movie.
This is a case of an episode that suffers for being so short. If it had more time a spookier atmosphere could’ve been built, but rushing it removes some of the menace.
The Bizarro Super Powers Team
By contrast, ten minutes is just about right for a quirky Bizarro episode. Bizarro returns to Earth to create the Bizarro Justice League. At the same time, Mxyzptlk shows up to cause trouble by “training” the Bizarro Wonder Woman (who has tennis balls for earrings), Firestorm and Cyborg.
This episode lasts as long as it needs to, no longer, to get the gag across. Someone in the character design department must’ve decided to have fun by seeing Firestorm’s ridiculous baggy outfit and giving Bizarro Firestorm sleeves that go down past his fingertips.
The Darkseid Deception (by Rich Fogel and Alan Burnett)
Wonder Woman’s boyfriend Steve Trevor is transported to Apokolips while flying a shuttle and taken prisoner by Darkseid. Worth noting is Darkseid’s efforts in the series to woo Wonder Woman, which comes off as creepy but inexplicable. Darkseid takes Trevor’s place in a reconfigured form and attacks the team with his powers of being a fucking dick.
Not a lot to say with this one, just wasn’t feeling it. More time could’ve been spent on the WW and “Trevor”/Darkseid relationship, but instead it’s a villainous plot of the week that bears some resemblance to G.I. Joe – The Movie (turning the people of Earth into inhuman creatures) but with a fraction of the flare.
The Fear (by Alan Burnett)
What we all came to see! Burnett presents the origin of Batman for the first time ever on screen, with Thomas and Martha Wayne, Crime Alley, Joe Chill, et al. The tone of this episode is very different from even the last one, almost like a pilot seven years early for Batman: The Animated Series. It’s not unfeasible that this could’ve been in the initial batch of episodes with On Leather Wings or even a replacement for Nothing To Fear.
Batman and Robin catch Scarecrow and his Strawmen in the middle of a robbery. Running Scarecrow off to Crime Alley, Batman is forced to face his demons over the death of his parents, not made easier by exposure to fear-inducing devices. Burnett plays well with the basic elements of the Batman lore, such as Bruce Wayne, Wayne Manor, Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon, and even unmasking Scarecrow and having Jonathan Crane antagonise Wayne and friends as himself.
Cool bit – Dick Grayson hides out in the kitchen to avoid having to dance with Commissioner Gordon’s niece, which is of course Barbara Gordon. Maybe Fredric Wertham was right about him!
Beyond the writing and production of this episode, Adam West does a great job with the darker material. Ultimately, Kevin Conroy was the undeniable best voice of Batman and nobody wanted to see a sixty-year-old Batman instead of Michael Keaton, but West was a legend for what he did on TV and got a chance to reprise his role in the incredibly fun Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman vs. Two-Face with William Shatner. I think he was a mayor or something too.
The Wild Cards (by John Loy and Alan Burnett)
A young gang of bank robbers is recruited by new villain Ace to form his Royal Flush Gang (Ace’s House of Cards base is one of the cooler sets you’ll see in a show of this era). For a group of unknowns, they’re imbued with some pretty neat powers, like Ten shooting spades from wrist blasters and Queen’s hallucination-causing diamonds. Ace is actually another famous card-based villain in disguise, and an attempt to tie him to this series’ main antagonist is unnecessary, but it’s a good lesson in how a small gang of villains with personalities and cool gimmicks is always better than mindless (and personality-less) hordes of nameless warriors.
The Brain Child (by Donald F. Glut)
Another mini episode paired with the following one. The theme of this episode is human thinking against robotic/computer thinking, as Cyborg is a mix of both and Firestorm combines the youthful rashness of Ronnie Raymond and the logic of Professor Stein. Throw into the mix Brainiac, who by this point is the cool skeleton robot instead of a green guy in a pink leotard with no trousers (the 2013 film Superman: Unbound presented a cool combination of both versions).
Brainiac kidnaps Cyborg and transfers his mind into a robot commando (the He-Man episode Happy Birthday Roboto had a take on this with the massively underrated Modulok trying to move Man-At-Arms’ intelligence into an extra head he planned to graft onto his new body). Superman and Firestorm go to rescue him. Not enough time for this one, Brainiac is an excellent villain with an awesome voice courtesy of the legendary Stanley Ralph Ross and deserved more time.
The Case of the Stolen Powers (by Mark Young)
Felix Faust (played by Peter Cullen, using his Venger voice from Dungeons & Dragons, and presented more impressively here than other places I’ve seen him) casts a spell to steal the powers of Superman, but cellmate the Penguin interferes and gets them for himself. The unlikely image of a flying, powerful Penguin outwitting Hawkman, Samurai and Aquaman is fun, but it looks like a lot of work was put into designing sets and equipment for Faust and the Demons Three (one of whom looks like Webstor from MOTU) and I would’ve loved to have seen more of them.
Escape from Space City (by Alan Burnett and Antoni Zalewski)
Strange title given that the setting for this episode is actually STAR City, a satellite above Earth. Kalibak and DeSaad replace the creator, Dr. Moku, with a duplicate and cause havoc on Earth from below. Nice to see Samurai and Aquaman getting some screen time late in the run. DeSaad wearing his toyetic Power Action Shock Squeeze armour always looks bizarre, but still better than the New 52 version. This is actually the last episode of this season and the entire series, but on the DVD boxset they switched it with the penultimate episode. Wise idea, given the episode we’ll look at next, and this episode (as is the case with many shows of this era) has zero last episode buzz about it.
The Death of Superman (by Alan Burnett and John Loy)
The title will grab you immediately, but no Doomsday here! Episode seven of eight is switched to the finale here, showing some good awareness of the audience (Entertainment Rights did the same when they released He-Man on DVD, moving The Problem With Power from episode 110 to the last slot). Superman is dead, his skin green from Kryptonite exposure, in a casket heading for the sun, and Firestorm blaming himself for his death. Darkseid suspects that all that glitters is not gold and kidnaps Firestorm to find out the details of Superman’s death.
I don’t know if there was a problem with the original master of this episode, but there’s a lot of onscreen dirt in some shots, where the layers of cels are more obvious than anywhere else. Cool cameo in the Fortress of Solitude of a Titano-like ape in his trophy room. The Flash also makes one last appearance alongside El Dorado.
This episode, while not matching the high standard of The Fear, is definitely a more fitting finale to the show with a Hail Mary and a greater sense of urgency than Escape from Space City.
Super Friend Redux: As a special feature on the DVD, Rich Fogel, Dan DiDio, Paul Levitz, Alan Burnett, Mark Waid and Michael Swanigan talk in 2007 about the comic influence on the animation and character designs as well as trying to get more of an Arnie look with their bodies than Steve Reeves, connecting the look of the show to the Super Powers toys, aging up the show (including through the title), how Cyborg was a more successful depiction of an ethnic character than Samurai or El Dorado or Apache Chief because his skin colour was a far lesser aspect of his character than his personality. The Galactic Guardians name also meant that they had to go to outer space and hence Darkseid became the main villain over Luthor or Joker.
The Fear also gets some discussion, with how pathetic fallacy and good direction could be used instead of seeing or even HEARING a pair of gunshots. The Death of Superman is commented on too and Dan DiDio brings up how only having 22 minutes makes it a challenge to do a story like that. Of course, now there aren’t any animated DC shows beyond Harley Quinn and the model is quarterly animated DTV specials that kicked off with Superman: Doomsday and they’ve been able to tackle pretty much any story or subject matter they’ve wanted to.
In conclusion: Great series of some episodes that range from really promising to just alright, with nothing that would insult your intelligence. Although there had been exclusively Batman and Superman shows from Filmation and would be more from Ruby-Spears and Warner Bros. to come, this could’ve been the launchpad for a whole new generation of Super Friends/Powers, alas not to be. If they did more, it would’ve been a great opportunity to get Doctor Fate, Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter some early screen time.
Comment below, if you liked this review I could delve further into the archive (or more recent).