How Batman and Superman Stopped Being ‘Super Friends’


PHOTO CREDIT: ABC Photo Archives

We don’t know for sure what the title of the upcoming Batman-, Superman- and Ben Affleck-populated “Man of Steel” sequel will be. But we’re pretty sure what it won’t be. It won’t be “Super Friends.”

“Super Friends,” for those having a senior-geek moment, was the name of the Saturday morning cartoon series which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Sunday. The show drew on the then-biggest names in the DC Comics universe, and, also, yes, introducing “bumbling idiots” Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog, and later the equally reviled Zan, Jayna, and Gleek. It was lesson-dispensing, teamwork-praising, and, for a time, the only superhero game in town for impressionable Generation X-era viewers.

But for the generation that would go on to create today’s darker, grittier mammoth super-hero productions, “Super Friends” was both the initial spark and the cautionary tale from which they fled.

“My first exposure to Batman, Superman and the ‘Justice League’ characters was thanks to ‘Super Friends,'” Brian Stephenson of the fan-con producer ReedPOP said via email.

Through the years, the show has been cited as an inspiration by modern-day animators, it’s Frank Miller’s 1986 comic mini-series, “The Dark Knight Returns,” that’s been noted by “Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder as a touchstone for his planned 2015 film — a film that writer David Goyer has let on could be named “Batman vs. Superman” or “Superman vs. Batman.”

Or, to put another way, “Not Super Friends.”

To Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of two children’s books on the creators of Superman and Batman, “Boys of Steel” and “Bill the Boy Wonder,” respectively, Superman’s and Batman’s transition from friends to frenemies of sorts began in the 1980s, as work by the likes of Miller and Alan Moore (“Watchmen”) turned as many heads as pages. (Especially, that is, among DC readers. Marvel Comics’s heroes have always been more ornery — their squabbling spirit well-captured in Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers.”)

“People, kids included, began to expect characters as complex as real people, and comics writers began to realize that just because these two guys do good and wear capes does not mean that, ‘realistically,’ they’d be friends,” Nobleman said in an email. “Their end goals are the same but their methods are so different that there is bound to be some friction.”

And so in Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a grizzled Batman gets the drop a weakened Superman: “I want you to remember my hand at your throat,” Batman tells his former “World’s Finest” costar, “World’s Finest” being another blast from the comic past — and another unlikely title for the “Man of Steel” sequel.

At Snyder’s behest, the menacing “Dark Knight Returns” passage was read by actor Harry Lennix (Gen. Swanwick in “Man of Steel”) at July’s Comic-Con. While the director maintains the new movie, set to star Affleck as the Caped Crusader and featuring the return of Henry Cavill as Superman, will not be explicitly based on the Miller comic, Miller reportedly has been called in on a consult.

“Super Friends,” meanwhile, which came back from a season-one cancellation to go on a 13-year run, will keep its own counsel as it hits the big 4-0 on Sunday at precisely 9 a.m. That was the time slot at least when the show premiered on ABC on Sept. 8, 1973, following an all-new episode of “Yogi’s Gang.”

“When ‘Super Friends’ debuted, animation regulations were strict to protect young minds. Realistic conflict was prohibited, which is noble but limiting to superhero storytelling,” Nobleman said. “It wasn’t just Superman and Batman — all the personalities on the show were interchangeable.”

Still, lessons were learned, teamwork was praised and the only game in town had a spirit that lives on, even if won’t exactly live on in “Batman vs. Superman” (or “Superman vs. Batman”).

Said Stephenson: “There is always room for stories of them as friends and stories of them as enemies.”

Watch a clip of “Super Friends”:


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