I must admit, I’m a little surprised by that episode title. Saturday morning cartoons during this era—the late ’70s, to be precise—clearly saw five to ten year-olds as their core audience, as evidenced by the level of writing. Challenge of the Superfriends definitely followed suit, and usually was as careful as any other such show to avoid content that could offend even the most delicate of young viewers.
As such, you have to give the producers credit for allowing the words “the Living Dead” to even appear on the TV screen. For myself, I’ve been looking forward to this one, since presumably it will heavily feature perhaps my favorite DC character, the chalky superpowered zombie Solomon Grundy. After all, he is himself the living dead, and he came from
Sure enough, we open on the fetid waters of the swamp that hides the Hall of Doom. This is how the episodes nearly always begin, although here we get a not entirely well-animated bullfrog replacing the more familiar alligators…. Oops, spoke too soon, there’s one now. This particular ‘gator is actually animated, unlike those we usually see (the same ones, over and over), and it crests the water and swims forward a bit before once again submerging.
“Deep within the deadly, uncharted regions of the swamp,” our deep-voiced Narrator intones, “a frightening form skulks amongst the equally frightening creatures.” These latter include a water snake and a big, hairy spider. Notice also the use of the word ‘deadly’ in place of more the typical ‘sinister’. The double use of the adjective ‘frightening’ is also unusually aggressive. They’re really pulling out all the stops here, at least for this program.
The “frightening form” belongs to a stooped Old Hag, one who has ‘witch’ written all over her. She basically looks like the Crypt Keeper’s cousin. Just to show us who’s large and in charge, she pauses to snatch up the big spider and pop in it her gunny sack. As she laughs manically over her triumph—hey, when you live in a swamp, entertainment is where you find it—we cut away to see that she is being watched over the Hall of Doom telescreen.
“There’s that old witch again!” Cheetah spits in a, well, catty voice. Yeah, that old crone is really bringing down the neighborhood, unlike the giant albino zombie, huge slobbering gorilla, raggedy straw guy, effeminate harlequins and assorted space aliens she lives with. Not to mention that Cheetah herself looks like she just returned from a cosplay con after winning third prize in the Yiffy Costume category.
Being more of a local than the others, Grundy is particularly aggrieved by the hag’s presence. “Solomon Grundy not recognize her!” he avers in his perversely Cajun accent. “Not see her in swamp before.” Soâ€¦Grundy, who was a denizen of the swamp even before his Legion days, has never seen this old woman before, but Cheetah recognizes her? Of course, Grundy’s not exactly known for his mental acuity. It’s entirely possible that he’s seen the old hag several times, yet doesn’t recall her because a part of his brain fell out his ear.
In any case, Black Manta comes to a somewhat surprising deduction. “She must be a spy for the Justice League,” he opines, “searching for the Legion of Doom!” Yeah, like the JL has ever done anything even remotely proactive in this series. Dude, they aren’t sending out spies, they’re sitting around watching Trading Spaces marathons* on the Hall of Justice Viewscreen and waiting passively for the next Trouble Alert. How can you not have caught on to this by now?[*Actually, if Lex Luthor truly were a diabolical genius, he would trick the Superfriends into appearing opposite the Legion on a special charity edition of Trading Spaces. I see it going a little something like this:
Lex Luthor, innocently: “Well, Hilde, I’m sure you have some great plans. We’re up for anything, although the Superfriends had two requests. First, don’t tamper with the Hall of Justice super-computer / viewscreen, which on several occasions in the past has been all that has kept the entire planet from languishing under the iron boot of the Legion of Doom. Second, no kryptonite, as it would kill Superman, the greatest hero this world has ever known.”
Project Designer Hilde, taking in these instructions with a sour expression. “Yeah, well. My first idea is to tear out that hideously sterile viewscreen / computer deal and replace it with an art installation composed of twenty thousand ketchup packets that one of you will be stapling individually to the wall.”
Black Manta, grumbling: “Oh, great! Three guesses who gets stuck with that job.”
Hilde: “Second, the meeting table in the meeting of the room is definitely the Hall’s visual focal point. However, it’s distressingly bland and utilitarian. (Although I like the fact that the table clearly doesn’t have enough chairs for even half of the assembled Justice League to sit at.) We’ll liven things up by gluing thick shag carpeting panels to the table surface. I think a nice kryptonite weave would do the job nicely, as this room could use a nice touch of lively green.”
Scarecrow, whispering to Cheetah: “Sweet fancy Moses! Maybe we should invite Hilde to join the Legion. She’d certainly be more of an asset than, say, the Riddler.”
Riddler: “Hey! Answer me this: What’s made of rags and straw and has my sinister foot up its ass?”
Bizarro, shuddering: “Ugh, Hilde am totally ruining this room’s feng shui.”]
Luthor agrees that the old woman bears investigation. Frankly, he should know better, although perhaps he’s just bored. And again, he lives in an underwater domicile with a gigantic zombie and a huge gorilla, so going topside, even out in a fetid swamp, must be a bit of a relief. “The four of us will pay her a visit,” he commands, although there are more than four people present. “And give her a little taste of her own witchcraft!” Scarecrow adds.
We cut back to the Old Hag, who continues skulking around with her sack. Suddenly, however, Soloman Grundy rears up from the water before her, waving his arms and roaring at her. Seriously, is this what the fabled Legion of Doom, assembling villains from several galaxies, has come to? What next? Will Luthor next leave a flaming bag of dog doo outside her hovel door?
Just to frighten her even further, Scarecrow and Cheetah also make their presence known. Man, it’s amazing how many losers the Legion has, who basically just act all tough because they hang around with Grundy, Sinestro, Grodd and Bizarro. (Of course, that’s true of a good half of the Justice League, too, who would basically suck without Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern.) Grundy is a ten-foot tall animated dead guy who can take on Superman mano-a-mano. Still, good thing the straw man and the fetish suit chick are here to back him up, right?
Unfazed by this assemblage, the Old Hag (that’s what they call her, and again, this is from a guy in a scarecrow costume) reveals that she’s “just making my way, like the other slithering beasts.” Scarecrow is still all in bad ass mode, though. “It won’t do any good to lie to us!” Luthor, also standing there all of a sudden, concurs. “We know the Superfriends sent you to spy on the Hall of Doom!”
Again, I don’t know what Luthor’s been smoking, but it must be good stuff. The Justice League actually captures the Legion about once a week or so, only to sit on their collective asses while the villains inevitably ‘escape.’ Frankly, I can’t see them rousing the energy to order in pizza, much less arrange to send a spy into the swamp.
“Fools!” the Old Hag cries. “You may think you’re the only evil ones in the swamp, but you’re not! Release me, and I’ll see that you have the greatest evil power of all time!” What, Rupert Murdoch?! Ha, ha! Topical humor.
“You don’t really expect us to believe a preposterous story like that?” Cheetah scoffs. Yes, it’s much more fantastic than the time the Legion drilled their way to the center of the planet to find a big rock that was the source of all things evil in the world.
“Suit yourselves,” the Hag shrugs. For some reason, I found that pretty hilarious. Say what you will about Challenge of the Superfriends, how often do you get to see a gigantic zombie, a bald guy in a purple suit, and a couple in cat and scarecrow costumes casually standing around a swamp and interrogating a witch right off of a Halloween placard?
So the Hag gets all, “I doubt you’re capable of handling it anyway,” and begins to walk off. In response, Scarecrow blurts “Wait, maybe she speaks the truth!” I’m not sure what’s motivating this sudden turnaround in his thinking, although the idea that they couldn’t handle something certainly does have a ring of credibility to it. “What have we to lose?” he continues. “No more than your lives!” the Hag cackles. Yeah, right. This is a universe where supervillain zombies and gorillas trying to take over the world can’t even throw a punch at a guy who can fly through the sun, and they’re supposed to believe their lives are in peril? Whatever.
Soon the assemblage is standing in a non-descript clearing, whereupon the four super-villains (the ones conversant with intergalactic space journeys and time travel and so forth) look around with agog looks on their faces. “I never even knew this part of the swamp existed!” Scarecrow declares, whatever that means. “Join hands!” the Hag commands. At this point I was pretty sure the Hag was Ashton Kutcher in disguise, preparing to punk the Legion guys. Wait until this footage of them standing around hand in hand makes the airwaves. Even the Superfriends have more self-respect than that.
In any case, the Hag pulls a viper from her sack and begins a magical incantation. At this, a big, glowing, floating monster head (bald, purple, red eyes, fangs, pointed earsâ€¦the whole shebang) appears before them, rather like a more malevolent Wizard of Oz. “What do you want, mortals?!” he slurs. Not that Grundy is a mortal, but whatever.
“They want power!” the Hag explains. “The power of evil!” Floating Monster Head asks what they can give in return for such power. “In return?” a seemingly confused Luthor asks. I guess he’s not up on the whole barter thing. In any case, Floating Monster Head says that for the amount of evil he’ll grant them, they must provide an equal amount of “the power of good.” Three guesses what that entails.
This is exactly the sort of convoluted plan that always gets the Legion in trouble. Let’s see, the only thing that keeps them from taking over the world is the Superfriends. So now they want more power, presumably to help them defeat the Superfriends. Getting this power, though, will entail defeating the Superfriendsâ€¦my brain hurts.
Hey, lunkheads, here’s an idea. Once you capture some of the Superfriends, kill them. Not in some weird, elaborate death trap, either. Just have Grundy and Bizarro smoosh their heads in or something. That would even work with Superman, if you dose him with kryptonite first. In any case, if you follow that prescription a couple of times, you won’t need any additional power, because, you know, the only guys that can stop you anyway will be all dead and stuff.
Needless to say, however, they decide that this all sounds like a good plan. Sadly, it’s Scarecrow who thinks of drawing the Superfriends in as their pawns, while Luthor just stands there with his finger up his nose. (On the other hand, every plan of theirs involves using the Superfriends as their pawns, so I guess it’s really not that much of a brainstorm.) This way, they’ll get the power and “get rid of [the Superfriends] in the same evil stroke!”
Hilariously, Floating Monster Head seems to be channeling me, as he snidely notes, “So far you have failed to get rid of these Superfriends!” Yeah, no kidding. However, he offers to take care of them himself if the miscreants just bring them in. Plus, I believe he’ll do their laundry and check Grodd for ticks. Anyway, once the Legion has provided him with the Superfriends, he’ll grant them the powerâ€¦the power they won’t really need if the Superfriends are taken care ofâ€¦. OK, enough of that. Luthor orders his compatriots back to the Hall of Doom so that they may lay their first “super-trap.”
The set-up established, we cut to the Hall of Justice. The Flash is looking at a monitor and briefly checking through the seven continents and declaring them all ‘clear,’ a task that takes several seconds to accomplish. “That’s it!” Green Lantern says, apparently elated that this exhaustive chore is finished. “Primary satellite scan indicates no emergencies on any continent!” That seems like sort of a broad statement, but whatever.
“It’s rare when the Superfriends get a moment of peace,” Superman notes. “We better enjoy while we can,” Wonder Woman agrees. Needless to say, no sooner is this out of her mouth than the alarm sounds. “Holy Trouble Alerts!” Robin cries. Here’s an idea. The next time you guys have a moment of peace, kick that kid’s ass, would you?
Running over to the viewscreen, they see Hawkman standing knee deep in water and being menaced, sort of, by a nearby alligator. Having established contact, he cries out “Superfriends, I’m trapped in the swamp! Coordinates 3, 13, R.” (Yeah, that sounds like a likely system.) It says something about how generally useless Hawkman is that nobody thinks to say, “Dude, I don’t know, why don’t you just fly away!”
“Quick, Robin!” Batman shouts. “To the Batbuggy!” (The ‘Batbuggy’?) Let’s see, Hawkman seemed about thirty seconds away from becoming ‘gator chow. So, instead of having the Flash or Superman zip over to the swamp in a nanosecond, they decide to let Batman and Robin drive there. I understand that Batman doesn’t get many opportunities to justify having built himself a ‘Batbuggy,’ but still. On the other hand, perhaps I’m not the only one thinking it wouldn’t be that much of a loss were Hawkman to be et up before he could be ‘rescued.’
Did I mention that the Hall of Justice garage door the Batbuggy exits from is itself bat-shaped? Good grief.
Anyway, we cut to the Caped Crusaders having arrived at the swamp, presumably many hours later. Having scanned presumably many yards of swampland, Robin immediately opines “There’s no sign of Hawkman anywhere!” Hmm. You may want to start looking in some alligator gullets.
“Try the infrared Bat Scanner,” Batman suggests. This, oddly enough, proves to entail looking through a bat-shaped cutout, with nothing particularly infrared going on. “Wait,” Robin says, “I think I’ve spotted him!” What leads him to this conclusion is his clearly seeing Hawkman, now in slightly deeper water than when last they saw him. Yes, that’s pretty much ‘spotting him,’ all right.
“Help, Batman and Robin,” Hawkman cries. I don’t know why I’m surprised he has so little self-respect, but I am. “We’ll have you out in a minute,” Batman answers, as if he were from AAA. Batman tosses him a rope-line. Sadly, ‘Hawkman’ proves to be Scarecrow in disguise, and Batman himself ends up being pulled into the water. (Uhm, even catching him off guard, it’s highly suspect that Scarecrow would beat Batman in a tugging contest.) “It’s you and your Boy Wonder who are trapped now,” the villain gloats. Between this and the Batbuggy, well, this really isn’t Batman’s best day.
Robin, meanwhile, proves as useful as usual. Which it to say, not much. He prepares to toss his own bat-rope to Batman, without pausing to wonder whether Scarecrow has maybe brought some back-up. Sure enough, Cheetah jumps the Boy Wonder from behind and manages to tie him up with his own line. At this point you can only hope that Robin is a closet bondage fetishist, and that he let Cheetah tie him up on purpose. Otherwise, he and Batman are now officially contesting for Aquaman’s title of Most Incredibly Useless Superfriend.
I thought being captured by the likes of Scarecrow and Cheetah was bad enough. However, the Dunderheaded Duo are then threatened with being run down by their own Batbuggy, which the miscreants appropriate and nearly drive over them with. “Holy reckless driving!” Robin blurts. (Seriously, I hate that guy.) In a bit moronic even for this show, the Dimwitted Duo then give chase to their vehicle-driving foes by tossing their bat-lines up into some trees and swinging along after them, like Spider-Man. If traveling through the swamp is that easy, why even bother with the Batbuggy?
Then, as if I wasn’t confused enough, they land and suddenly Batman declares, “We’ve got them now! The remote-control Batbuggy anchors will do the trick!” So saying, he produces from seemingly nowhere a large-ish remote control unit, which sports all of two buttons. The other, presumably, activates the Batskateboard’s Whipped Cream Dispensing Cannon, or some such. Anyway, pushing the right hand button indeed causes a pair of anchors to fire from the Batbuggy, which quickly take hold and jerk the vehicle to a sudden halt.
Just as they think they’ve won, however, the Dynamic Due is grabbed by animated swamp vines. (Er, why didn’t the villains just do that in the first place? What was the point of stealing the Batbuggy and luring the two to chase them and all that?) Anyway, the vines pull Batman and Robin under the water. With no apparent transition, they are then in a cave all of the sudden—why not just drown them when they had the chance?—and being lowered into two standing glass containers and gassed into unconsciousness as the Glowing Monster Head laughs evilly. Seriously, there’s no way the writers weren’t totally high when they were writing these shows.
This is all being watched by the Legion on their giant viewscreen. Their reaction, of course, is to chortle in victory, just like they do every week during that middle period of the show when their plans seem to be working.
By the way, this is a nice example of the show’s logic-free scripting, although it was hardly atypical of its time. How did the Legion know Batman and Robin would respond to the emergency call? Imagine being Scarecrow, standing around in dingy water for several hours in disguise, only to find that Superman has come instead. I mean, seriously, what would he have done then?
Anyhoo. Back to the Hall of Justice, where the remaining Superfriends are bewildered when Hawkman comes casually strolling in. “I’ve been helping the Air Force with parachute tests,” he explains. Damn, dudes, get one of those little message boards so you can leave notes about stuff like that. And good grief, you guys are constantly being captured by imposters or robot doubles or doppelgangers of your teammates. How about a simple codeword system or something?
“It must have been a trap!” Green Lantern exclaims. Gee, ya think? Again, the Legion manages to capture members of the Justice League just about every week. Wouldn’t they be a little bit more on their toes, by now? Seriously, you’d think it would be kind of humiliating to keep falling for these dimwitted traps. You’d think Superman, at least, would be all, “That’s it! I’m going to the swamp and kicking some Legion of Doom ass! It’s about time those guys learned that not everyone in the Justice League is a complete and utter loser.”
Instead, Green Lantern and Hawkman set out to find and rescue Batman and Robin. This again points out the essential uselessness of Hawkman. His ‘power’ is that of flight, which most of the other Justice Leaguers have already, including Green Lantern. In fact, when you count in Wonder Woman and Batman’s respective planes, nearly all of them do. And on this show, even the characters who can’t fly, like the Flash, sometimes do because apparently the writers can’t remember who does and doesn’t.
Moreover, they’re heading into a swamp. A swamp has a lot of dense foliage and stuff, which isn’t exactly going to make it easy for a guy with huge wings on his back to utilize them. (Of course, they’ll just cheat that in the animation, the same way they cheated Batman and Robin being able to swing through the swamp on their Bat-ropes.) Oddly, this is actually a time when it might make sense to send Aquaman. The swamp is filled with water, so for once he might actually prove useful.
More useful than Hawkman, certainly (at least in this particular situation). It’s notable that when the Superfriends saw what they thought to be their winged comrade calling for help because he was stuck knee-deep in mud and being threatened by an alligator, that no one bothered asking, “How the hell did that happen?!” Instead, they just sent somebody out to fetch him, with the tired air of somebody’s who’s had to do the exact same thing over and over again. Having Hawkman on your team must be like having one of those friend who is apt to call you from jail at four in the morning, expecting you to come bail him out.
So the two heroes fly out to the swamp (again, why didn’t Flash or Green Lantern or Superman go in the first place?). They land, and sure enough, the trees are animated to be far enough apart that Hawkman has no trouble with his wings. Green Lantern immediately points out that they are, coincidentally enough, actually standing on the Batbuggy’s tire tracks. Isn’t this swamp supposed to be huge? Certainly it’s big enough that they Superfriends have never found the entire submerged Hall of Doom there. Well, anyway.
They jog around a bit (it’s an oddity of the show that characters who can fly often are shown trotting around on foot) and then find the overturned Batbuggy. “Batman and Robin must be here!” Green Lantern deduces. Boy, and they call Batman the World’s Greatest Detective. I guess the Caped Crusader still deserves that designation, however. For somehow neither Lantern or Hawkman notice Sinestro, who is standing all of about five feet away from them, until he announces himself and materializes a big energy sword.
There’s a protocol for these things. Sinestro is Green Lantern’s archenemy, so naturally GL takes the lead. (This is provident, anyway, since Sinestro would hand Hawkman his avian ass in about two seconds flat.) “If it’s a power ring fight you’re looking for, Sinestro,” the Green Gladiator declares, “it’ll be a pleasure!” A very slow and awkward battle—even for this show—commences, with GL materializing a giant green mace to counter Sinestro’s cutlass. Maybe the weapons move so slowly because they didn’t want the kiddie audience to actually think somebody might get hurt.
I notice that Sinestro’s sword isn’t yellow, by the way, which it should be. (It does have a yellow energy nimbus around it, but the actual sword would be yellow, just as GL’s mace is green.) On the other hand, Green Lantern’s energy fields can’t stop anything yellow, so I’m not entirely sure how they could be dueling this way in any case. The sword should slice through the mace, rather then being blocked by it.
In any case, GL traps Sinestro’s sword against the ground with his mace. (That doesn’t make sense, because the sword is a mental projection, so Sinestro should be able to rematerialize it elsewhere and be back in play…anyway.) Green Lantern, somehow triumphant, demands to know where Batman and Robin are. It should be noted that Hawkman is also watching Sinestro, meaning that as with Robin before them, neither is apparently concerned that one of Sinestro’s numerous teammates will ambush them from behind.
And sure enough, Solomon Grundy (drawn even bigger than usual; damn, didn’t the animators use model sheets on this show?) appears behind them and clasps his huge white paws on their respective shoulders. He lifts them in the air and chortles, but is largely stymied by the fact that the rules of the program won’t allow him to inflict actual physical damage on them, or even throw a punch.
Rather than use his power ring, which ranks about one of the most powerful weapons in the DC Comic’s universe, the two are saved when Hawkman (gee, good thing he came along) notices a rather convenient tree branch directly over their heads. He calls for GL to grab it, and the two pull themselves free. That’s right, from the grasp of Solomon Grundy, who can stand toe-to-toe with Superman. Uh, yeah. You might as well try to pull yourself out from under a car by tugging on a yo-yo string.
But it works. Then, and don’t ask me how, the two heroes are somehow in position to lower themselves back down and kick Grundy in the back. Again, Grundy can stand around and trade blows with Superman (albeit not in this show, which again doesn’t allow fisticuffs), but when two normal guys half his size kick him in the back, he somehow ends up flying through the air and landing in some brackish water, from which he sinks from sight. (??)
The two heroes then turn and again confront Sinestro, who for whatever reason doesn’t bother trying to attack them again. They demand to know where their missing comrades are, whereupon Sinenstro retorts, “You’ll find out soon enough, super-fools!” Here tree limbs come to apparent life and force the two down under the water. “Iâ€¦ can’tâ€¦ pullâ€¦ free!” Green Lantern grits. Yeah, too bad you don’t have a power ring orâ€¦. Oh, wait. Anyway, they are soon trapped in glass boxes alongside Batman and Robin.
Again, I have to question what’s happening here. Floating Monster Head is actually doing the capturing, meaning that the only task the Legionnaires have to do is lure the heroes into place. So why even bother trying to fight them? Why go to the trouble of having Grundy on hand? All Sinestro had to do, really, is stand there, since that alone would have drawn Green Lantern and Hawkman into position.
Back at the Hall of Justice, the remaining Superfriends are trying to communicate with their errant teammates. This raises one of those ongoing logic questions. Why, when a few team members go off on some away mission (during which they invariably get themselves captured), don’t the others back at the Hall watch over them on their magical viewscreen? Then they would know if their friends were in trouble, or at the least wouldn’t have to figure out what happened to them.
Of course, if they did that, they’d do the same thing in every show, and then none of the Legion’s schemes would work. Well, in actuality, it would mean that the Legion would have to come up with better plans to compensate for this. Which, following this line of thought further, means that the writers would have to work harder and come up with more intelligent scripts. So I guess that answers my question.
Actually, I’m being a bit too snide here. Even on the vastly more intelligent Justice League cartoon series running on the Cartoon Channel over last several years, we see some of these same problems. The essential issue is that when you have characters as powerful as the Flash and Superman, how do you not resolve the story in a few seconds? (Same thing with Thor in the Avengers over at Marvel.) In one episode, the Flash will run fast enough that he can streak across an entire ocean without sinking. In another, he engages in a several minute-long chase sequence with a truck that couldn’t possibly be going faster than a hundred miles an hour.
This is actually compounded in Superman’s case, who aside from all his other powers, is himself as fast (or pretty close to it) as the Flash when he wants to be. Superman could eradicate crime in Metropolis, if he wished, by spending a nanosecond each couple of minutes whizzing through the entire city and seeing what was going on. However, that sort of short circuits the possibly of dramatic story telling. So instead, we regularly get fight scenes, for example, where Superman gets beaten up onâ€¦until he doesn’t. And you just have to wink at that and move on.
Of course, the writers of Challenge of the Superfriends, held to the far lower standards of a Saturday morning cartoon show back in a day when it was common wisdom that kids were morons, took entirely too much advantage of this. On the plus side, one should give them points for their extravagantly goofy plots, especially during this season of Superfriends when the Legion of Doom were their adversaries. On the other, they really should have tried a little harder to make some semblance of sense, out of self-respect if not respect for their audience.
Anyway, the Superfriends receive Green Lantern’s “emergency signal” (an idea that, like much else, is employed here but not in other episodes), which reveals his general location in the swamp. Apparently tired of dicking around, Superman decides to go handle things himself. “If I don’t report back by midnight,” he says, “I want you all to converge on the swamp in full force.” I’m not sure what the remaining six of them could handle that he couldn’t, but certainly the ‘send in two guys at a time’ thing doesn’t seem to be working.
By the way, here we get one of those extremely lazy continuity errors so beloved of Challenge of the Superfriends fans like myself. The best ones, again, are when they do something like show the Flash flying, ignoring the fact that he doesn’t have that power. However, other mistakes are nearly as good.
For example, as a money and time-saving device, it was a general animation practice of the time to constantly recycle pre-existing group shots. Think how often that same shot of the Mystery Gang on Scooby Doo was seen, at best laid over a different background, with everyone always in the same relative positions and assuming the same stances.
On this show, however, they were juggling a much larger cast, and usually in various smaller combinations. Thus, pretty regularly the wrong characters are in the shot, and they just hope that the viewer doesn’t notice. Here, for instance, Superman is seen addressing Wonder Woman, the Flash, Samurai, Black Vulcan, Apache Chief (yep, the entire affirmative action crew is here) andâ€¦Green Lantern. Oopsie!
Back at the swamp, Bizarro and Lex Luthor are waiting for more Superfriends to come put their heads in the noose. They know exactly where to wait, moreover, because they know the Justice Leaguers will follow Green Lantern’s emergency signal. (Boy, that kind of makes the Superfriends look like complete chumps, doesn’t it?) This emanates from a ‘beeper’ that Lex is carrying, which is as large as an old-fashioned walkie-talkie. As with Batman’s Batbuggy remote control earlier, you can only wonder where the characters carry these clunky devices, since they never seem evident on their persons.
Sure enough, seconds later Superman flies in. “My super hearing is picking up Green Lantern’s beeper alert!” he saysâ€¦to whom, exactly? Great! Superman’s talking to himself. Lord help us if he goes crazy. He could kill everybody on the planet. And again, his other super-senses don’t seem to be working especially well, as we then see that Bizarro is standing about three feet away from him and heftingâ€¦a biggish rock. Yeah, that would do the job. A rock. Against Superman.
Sure enough, when Bizarro tosses the rock, Superman neutralizes it by punching it into pieces. (Actually, he could have just let it hit him. The same thing would have happened.) “That’s one out, Bizarro!” Superman cries. “And here come the other two!”
I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Two what?
Apparently stymied by Superman’s utterly unpredictable invulnerability to rocks, Luthor and Bizarro begin to make their escape by casually strolling away. However, this ingenious gambit is foiled when Superman steps into their paths. Curses! “It’s the end of the line, Luthor!” Superman asserts, despite the fact that he’s facing two of his deadliest foes. And again, why are Bizarro and Superman walking around? They can fly!
“That’s right, Superman,” Luthor sneers. “The end of your line!” And here the obligatory vines rise up to snag Superman. “I’m getting weaker!” he cries. “There must be Kryptonite under the swamp!” Huh? What, and you didn’t notice it before? (And wouldn’t have Luthor, who lives in the swamp, have mined this at some point? You’d think collecting Kryptonite deposits would be a bit of a hobby for him.)
Man, that’s just laaaazy writing. Even worse, it’s lazy writing when it doesn’t need to be. Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite, but he’s also vulnerable to magic. It would make more sense, to say the least, if Floating Monster Head’s black magic was draining his strength. Of course, that would limit Superman’s utility for the rest of this episode, but a good writer would see this as an opportunity to let the rest of the League members shine a bit.
In any case, Superman ends up trapped and gassed in his own glass case, and we move on. Watching the clock change second by second, Wonder Woman rather anally waits until it is exactly midnight before raising the alarm. “Superman hasn’t reported in yet,” she observes. “Right!” the Flash responds. “We’ll cover the south end of the swamp.” Apparently ‘we’ includes him, Aquaman and Apache Chief. Again, couldn’t the Flash ‘cover’ the entire swamp, or at least its surface area, in about a tenth of a second? Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for him to stand await waiting for his statue-like teammates to get their butts in gear.
Here’s what should really happen. Picture an average day in the Hall of Justice. Suddenly, a Trouble Alert alarm is heard. The viewscreen lights up to show an armed gang in, let’s say,
On the other hand, taking Aquaman with you is probably like when you were ten and hung out with your friends and your mom made you let your little brother come with. Apparently the Flash pulled the wrong slip out of the Aquaman hat, and thus gets to have Aquaman ‘help’ him on this away mission. Ah, well, as I noted, at least there’s water in the swamp, although I’m not sure his sea-life telepathy works on anything that would live in a marsh.
Because time is wasting, the Superfriends no sooner arrive in the swamp than they are all entangled and stashed in their individual glass cases. Some of this is buyable. Wonder Woman and (certainly)
After that, things get more problematic. Samurai, who can turn his lower body into a tornado, which seems pretty vine-proof. And it’s hard to believe that vines could move quickly enough to ensnare the Flash. Finally, there’s Black Vulcan, who can turn into lightning. I guess he forgot, though. In the end, it’s again the case that the writers of the show never really stop to think about what various strengths and weaknesses one character’s superpowers would entail. Anyway, we end with the entire team captured and slumbering away in their upright “glass coffins.”
Given that there are nearly ten minutes of running time left, I’m going to assume that Floating Monster Head will betray the Legion of Doom (although that sort of obvious plot device would actually be fairly sophisticated for this series), and that the Legion will have to free the Justice League lest the villains themselves fall victim to Floating Monster Head’s power.
In the meantime, the Legion naturally takes time to stand around and gloat. Things are looking pretty good, I must admit. Not only does the absence of the Superfriends ensure their ability to finally Take Over the World, but Floating Monster Head has as well promised them even more power. (To do what with, I’m not sure.) In any case, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy (again clearly taller and bigger here than he usually is), Scarecrow (??) and Luthor set forth to claim their reward. Humorously, they walk from the Hall of Doom with an extremely canted-forward posture, as if they were all imitating Groucho Marx.
They soon come across the Old Hag, who is picking toadstools. “You there, old witch,” Scarecrow calls out, “it’s time to conjure up your evil friend again.” In this shot Grundy looks just slightly bigger than everyone else, meaning that at various points in this episode he is both radically bigger and radically smaller than he should be. Also, now Cheetah is suddenly with the group. Whatever.
The Old Hag indeed summons the Head, who shoots little cartoon waves at the Legionnaires. “There,” he says. “You now possess the evil power of Eternity.” I’m not sure what that means. They now smell like an overpriced Calvin Klein cologne?
The Legion also seems unsure as to what they’ve been given, and begin to smell a rat. Not so, however. The Legion might make deals with alien invaders and demons every other week, but nobody so low as to break a promise. Before their eyes, an army of zombies—normal-sized ones—rises from the swamp. “You now possess the power to command the dead!” Floating Monster Head explains. I’m not sure how this effects Grundy, who is himself a zombie. Also, we now get a shot in which he is again barely taller than Luthor. I mean, seriously, what the hell? And well, Cheetah has again disappeared. It must make your job easier when no one feels the slightest obligation to continuity.
Floating Monster Head disappears, with the Legionnaires seemingly quite pleased with his gift. “No power could be better!” Scarecrow opines. Yes, commanding an endless army of rotting, smelly, crumbling corpses sounds pretty sweet. And hats off again to the writers, who somehow sneaked all this past the censors. Punching a twelve-foot tall talking gorilla? No way! An army of corpses rising from a swamp and doing the evil bidding of a gang of supervillains? No problem.
“We’ll test our army of the Living Dead,” Luthor notes, “by taking over the plutonium plant at the edge of the swamp!” Well, that’s right where I’d put it! Again, I’m not really sure why they’d need zombies to do this, since at least half their members could take over the place by themselves. Still, you know how it is with zombies. First they’ll use them to take over the world, but pretty soon they’ll have them taking out the garbage and waxing Black Manta’s boat. (“You call that a shine?” you can just hear him reverberate.)
“Later,” the Narrator establishes, “at the top-security federal plutonium plantâ€¦” Ah, it’s not one of those municipal plutonium plants, then. Suddenly, a very small handful of zombies emerges from the swamp around the facility. These are quite evidentally identical, because it’s easier and cheaper to draw one zombie and reproduce the image than to draw and animate a bunch of separate ones. “Sound the alarm!” a guard calls out. However, three zombies (even when copying them, you have to ‘animate’ them, at least a little, so don’t expect to see much of the ‘army’ in action) appear. The first one tears down the steel, barred gate—uhm, OK—and I guess after that it’s all over but the brain-eating. Certainly the guards’ stun rays don’t have much effect, which (perhaps accidentally), does make sense.
The zombies then casually stroll through the protective “electric field.” I don’t know who designed this place, but they didn’t do a very good job. Sure, I can hear you asking, “C’mon, who could have foreseen an attack by zombies?” In this universe? They really should have. And again, it shows you how rigorous the ban on violence was on this show. You can’t even harm a zombie, for crying out loud.
Having absorbed the energy from the electric field, conveniently enough, allows the first zombie to instantly vaporize the foot-thick steel security wall around the reactor. “It’s incredible!” Luthor observes while yet more zombies emerge from the swamp’s murky waters. “These zombies can penetrate the toughest defenses!” Well, so could you guys, now that the Superfriends are taken care of. That would require you to get off your sinister asses, though. “With our increased strength,” Lex continues, “there’s no reason why the Legion of Doom should be second to anyone!” Again, that was true anyway, what with the Justice Leagueâ€¦oh, never mind.
Here we get an actual plot-twist, an event so unexpected that I almost swooned. It turns out that the Legion’s inevitable downfall is not going to be brought about through the typically half-assed efforts of the Superfriends, but as a direct consequence of their own hubris. With literally nothing standing between them and their goal of universal conquest, with the realization of all their sinister dreams finally at hand, they decide to take their eyes off the prize.
“Why didn’t I think of it before?” the Scarecrow, well, crows. “We’ll return to the swamp and capture the evil being!” Yeah, that’s a good idea. And here I’m just talking about the ‘Take suggestions from Scarecrow thing.’ However, all of his teammates instantly buy into the idea, to the point of another of the show’s trademark continuity gaffs. When Luthor reacts to this idea a split second later, he’s back inside the Hall of Doom, despite the fact that they were all seen to outside up to now.
Luthor points to a big hamster ball, noting, “This radiation-proof energy container should hold him.” Uhm, if you say so. Radiation. Magic. Same stuff. Anyway, Grundy, Luthor and Scarecrow ambush the Old Hag and order her to summon Giant Monster Head. She at first refuses, but their zombies convince her otherwise. “You’ll be sorry!” she promises, and given that there are only about six minutes of show left, I assume she’ll prove correct.
Floating Monster Head indeed makes the scene. Then, in a rather badly animated sequence, Grundy manages to pop him inside the Radiation and Giant Hamster Containment Orb. Finding himself captured, Floating Monster Head is all, ‘Oh, no you did-int’, and Luthor’s all like ‘Snap!’
“Later,” the Narrator establishes, “at the Hall of Doomâ€¦” You know, just in case the accompanying shot of the Hall of Doom, the one we see each and every week, didn’t cue us in. Inside, and it’s a pretty damn weird image, the Legionnaires are crowded around their captive (who floats in the air even whilst inside the Orb) while positively grinning their butts off. They all look like they’re going for first prize in a Joker look-alike contest.
However, Floating Monster Head was simply playing possum, and now frees himself with no apparent effort. In a just world, we’d get to watch while he shoots out energy beams that would horribly slay all the Legionnaires, just like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost
With five minutes left, though, they can’t afford to cut right to the chase yet. So to drag things out, the Head warns that they’ve made a big mistake, issues an evil laugh and disappears. At this point I really wanted one of the so far uninvolved Legionnaires, Grodd or Giganta maybe, to go, “Hey, what the *@#~& is going on here? What the hell was that floating head, and why’re all of you freaking out. Cripes, can’t I catch a simple nap without you morons totally boning us?”
“What can we do?” Scarecrow instead moans. “There’s no telling what evil that sinister head will unleash on us!” Yeah, you probably should have thought that out earlier. (And I’m definitely including the ‘Act on a suggestion from Scarecrow’ thing in that.) “Nonsense!” Luthor barks. “There’s never been a threat the Legion of Doom couldn’t handle!” That’s a bold claim, given the success ratio of the group’s previous plans.
Indeed, no sooner is this statement made then a bunch of zombies register on the viewscreen. “It’s the zombies!” Scarecrow vapors. “That evil being has turned them after us!” (Can’t get one past that guy.) Luthor remains unconcerned, although not wetting one’s pants as quickly as Scarecrow isn’t really much of an achievement. “My phason disintegrator will take care of them,” he sneers. Sadly, though, Monster Head’s magic apparently trumps his science, and the zombies continue forward, unscathed.
“Your disintegrator hasn’t even scratched them!” Black Manta complains, perhaps because he doesn’t really get that many opportunities to give lip to anybody else in the Legion. Meanwhile, the zombies make quick work of the Hall’s outer hull. Luthor activates some interior doors, in a shot blatantly stolen from the climax of Forbidden Planet, but even eighteen inches of Krell steelâ€¦er, these super doors, fail to stop the undead intruders.
Instead (and this is pretty rich stuff), the villains don’t even try to put up a fight, but instead just immediately beat feet. I mean, OK, maybe I don’t expect the Riddler or Toyman to stand there and duke it out. Still, you’d think Bizarro or Grundy or Sinestro would give it a shot. In any case, what with the show’s trademark limited animation, the fleeing Legionnaires looks like nothing so much as the Mystery Gang when they were being chased around by that week’s Scooby Doo menace. All the scene lacks is a really bad, generic pop song.
While the scalawags manage to escape through a big tube that leads to the nearby shoreline (please ignore the teleportation technology they employ every other week, which could have beamed them thousands of miles away), the Legion gains little respite. “They’re gaining on us!” Scarecrow moans. “We’re finished!” Good grief, this guy takes on the likes of Superman and the Green Lantern every week? Apparently he’s misunderstood why he’s called the Master of Fear. Anyway, I’d have given a dollar to see him get bitch-slapped by Cheetah right about here.
The marginally less pants-soiled Luthor, however, has a plan. They’ll lead the zombies to the area where the Justice League is slumbering away in their glass coffins, free them, and let their foes and the zombies have at one another. “Quick, those zombies are right behind us!” Luthor squeals upon locating the somnolent Superfriends. “Open up the cases and let’s get out of here!” Good grief, what a bunch of punks.
Sure enough, after the Legion run away to safety while the awakening Superfriends find themselves menaced by the zombies. ‘Holy night stalkers!” Robin exclaims. Here I was really hoping for a shot of the zombies pulling out and eating the still-screaming Boy Wonder’s intestines. “Holy I’m Dying a Horrible, Horrible Death!” he might cry. Sadly, though, this was not to be.
Instead, Green Lantern tries to trap the zombies in a green energy pyramid. However, although the zombies seem stymied by his power ring field, they manage to phase themselves through the ground and reemerge outside his trap. You might think that Green Lantern would now just enclose them in an energy ball or something from which they couldn’t escape. I guess he didn’t think of it, though.
Instead, the Old Hag appears from within a nearby cave and calls out to them. In response, much like the Legion before them, the awesome Justice League turns tail and books it to over to her. And yes, that includes Superman and Green Lantern. I’m still not getting the thing about being able to fly but running instead.
Once they arrive, the Old Hag reveals the solution to their dilemma. “There’s only one way to stop the living dead,” she explains. “Lure them back into the depths of the swamp, and tie them to dead trees with dead vines!” Having said her piece, she disappears. The Superfriends follow her instructions, however, whereupon the bound zombies, as the Narrator explains it, “dissolve back into the mire from which they came.” Kind of anti-climactic, really, since the whole zombie menace is taken care of in about thirty seconds.
Meanwhile, the Legion is attempting to make their escape. The last we saw of it, the Hall of Doom’s outer hull had been torn to bits by the zombies. Now it’s completely repaired, somehow. (Almost as if the writers had forgotten what happened all of three minutes earlier.)
However, they are short on juice. “There’s little time, Sinestro,” Luthor says, speaking to Sinestro and Cheetah on the Hall viewscreen. (Uh, were are Sinestro and Cheetah supposed to be, anyway? Shouldn’t they be right there in the hall with the others?) “We’ve got to refuel the Hall of Doom’s main tanks with the plutonium.” They mean the plutonium at the now abandoned plant, of course. Flying over the facility, they lower a hose to siphon off the nuclear fuel.* Luckily there’s an open hatch in the plant’s roof that allows direct access to the highly radioactive material. (!!)[*As proofreader and nitpicker extraordinaire Carl Fink points out, “Plutonium is a metal. It’s quite solid at room temperature. That’s like using a hose to siphon off aluminum.”]
Batman and Robin, patrolling the area in the Batplane, see this theft occurring and call for assistance. Quickly, the villain’s escape is thwarted when Superman keeps the Hall from leaving by flying above it and pushing it to downward before tossing it into the waters of the swamp. No sooner has this occurred than the Legion finds themselves boarded by the Justice League.
Of course, no episode can end with any really change to the show’s basic set-up. Usually the Legion members just employ some barely credible, if that, escape mechanism, and the Superfriends more or less just let them go. Perhaps they are worried that if the Legion is actually incarcerated (however that would work anyway), they would be back to fighting the sort of highly lame and generic mad scientist schlubs earlier seasons of the program featured. Hell, they might even be forced to bring back the Wonder Twins, or even (ugh) Melvin, Wendy and Wonder Dog.
However, the writers here decide to employ something even less dramatically satisfying to explain the villains’ escape; Ye Olde Deus Ex Machina. So out of nowhere the Old Hag teleports amidst them. “Not long ago, I saved your skins,” she tells the Justice League, “and performed a service for the side of good. Now I must be fair and balance the score for evil.” So saying, she uses her apparently infinite magical powers to spell the Legion and the Hall of Doom to freedom, while dropping the Superfriends back in the swamp.
Then, in a highly Huh?-inducing ‘twist’ ending, the laughing Old Hag is revealed to be none other than a manifestation of Floating Monster Head. I’m not sure what the point of such a thing is meant to be, but it’s played up like some really big, cool reveal. “There seems to be no way to predict what those with evil minds will do,” the Flash laments. Certainly not when they are written by people who have consumed the presumed mountains of dope and cocaine the writers of this show had. Anyway, Superman gives the standard “But we’ll always be here to foil their sinister plans” closing line, and cue the curtain.
On the one hand, this episode does break off, to some extent, from the program’s usually highly schematic nature. Sadly, it then doesn’t take the opportunity to do much of interest. Again, the reason this was the best of the various Superfriends runs was the colorful selection of villains, high-profile rogues actually borrowed from the comic books and a full match for the Justice League.
This was back when DC heroes were still, by and large, pretty much interchangeable, personality-wise. They were so upright and white bread that there was little to differentiate as people Green Lantern from, say, the Flash. Their powers were about all that distinguished them, and the writers of this show seldom really used even those differences in any interesting way.
As such, and as the writers admitted, they tended to focus on the villains, who at least could sneer and boast and whip up inane schemes for world conquest and such-like. We spend a lot more time with the villains than the heroes, because when you get right down to it, unless they are doing something superhero-related, the Superfriends are a bunch of incredibly boring stiffs. I mean, look, they call themselves the Superfriends. Good grief!
Moreover, and as I’m often noted in these reviews, in this skein the Justice League is almost entirely reactive. Occasionally we see them performing some mundane task, like doing basic maintenance on somebody’s satellite. For the most part, however, they just stand around waiting for the Legion to do something, and only then going into action. And even then, said ‘action’ mostly consists of getting themselves captured or displaced in time or stuck in a black hole or whatever until five minutes before the story ends, when fortunes are suddenly reversed and the villains foiled. Then the villains escape and it’s back to the status quo.
As I noted, it is kind of neat that the Legion would gain all they ever wanted, including getting the Justice League permanently out of the way, only to lose everything because they have to keep upping the ante. Personally, I’d have let them actually take over the world, with complete ease now that the Superfriends are out of the way, and then get so bored that only then do they decide to attempt to capture Floating Monster Head. However, that would probably have been too ‘big’ an idea for a cartoon show of this period.
In any case, while at least shading the villains a little more than usual, and indicating that the Legion will always trip themselves up because they are like gamblers who even if they win a huge pot can’t keep from rolling the dice one more time, this episode leaves the Superfriends with even less to do than usual. They are tricked, captured and so on as they are every week, only here they don’t even free themselves and foil the Legion’s plans.
When you get down to it, Floating Monster Head does that. The Superfriends are given a (very) little face-saving action right at the end, there, but really they don’t affect things much one way or the other. Indeed, you could cut them out entirely and the show would be exactly the same. The Legion could go to Floating Monster Head, gain enough evil power to conquer the world, challenge Floating Monster Head and lose said powers, and never involve the Justice League at all. The outcome would have been exactly the same. Indeed, in this case the Superfriends only seem to be here because, you know, it’s their show.
And what’s the deal with Floating Monster Head. If he’s not evil, why did he give the Legion all that power in the first place? (Including zombies that, as we saw, were clearly capable of routing the Superfriends all on their own.) And if he is evil, why did he save the Superfriends? He occasionally speaks of balancing good with evil, so maybe his job is actually to preserve that balance, but is so, why get involved in the first place?
Of course, I’m making too much of this ‘enigma.’ I highly doubt the writers gave any of this a second thought. Instead, Floating Monster Head is just another lazy power-granter and or power-source, of the sort that offers the Legion the power they need to accomplish their goals. In this, he is like the alien overlords in The Invasion of the Fearions, or the ‘source of evil’ rock in Monolith of Evil.
Anyway, with only six episodes (Boo!) of Challenge of the Superfriends left, we’ll see if the writers continued to at least try to experiment, or if they just returned to the safe plot template that the majority of episodes so far have employed.
Thanks as always to Mr. Carl Fink for his able proofreading of this article.
It’s a tad late (surprise), but this review was brought to you via the generosity of Jabootu’s official sponsor for March 2007, Mr. Thomas Krug.