Sunday, March 03, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Defenders of the Earth -- Newspaper Heroes Unite!

In the mid-'80s, the animation wing of Marvel Productions had found a great deal of success by adapting comic book heroes Spider-Man (read my previous Nostalgia Theater here) and the Hulk, as well as toy heroes Transformers and G.I. Joe. When it came time to find new properties to give the cartoon treatment to, the studio cast its gaze far, far backward to the days when it was the Sunday funnies in the newspaper that generated the most iconic characters in pop culture. Thus, partnering with King Features Syndicate, Marvel unleashed Defenders of the Earth.

Premiering in fall of '86 in syndication, Defenders was actually a pretty brilliant idea -- at least on the conceptual level. Team up iconic adventure strip heroes Flash Gordon (created by Alex Raymond) and Lee Falk's The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician (plus Mandrake's aide-de-camp Lothar) as a Justice League of sorts. I'm surprised no one thought of it sooner! Set in 2015 (the world of tomorrow!), the heroes, joined by their second generation offspring (i.e. Flash Gordon's son, Phantom's daughter, etc.), faced off daily with Gordon's alien nemesis Ming the Merciless. Here's the intro:

Random neat/nerdy factoid: the lyrics to that awesomely awful (or is that awfully awesome? Nope, right the first time.) theme song were written by none other than Marvel Comics maestro Stan Lee, who was able to take some time off from serving as Marvel's Hollywood-based eyes-and-ears in the 1980s  to tell us all that Lothar's "strength is a legend" and "his skills conquer all." Also of note, the show was developed by former Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway, with character designs by legendary comic artists Ross Andru and John Romita.

Now, while the concept of Defenders was certainly clever, and despite a considerable pedigree behind-the-scenes, the wheels came off when it came to execution. The quality of animation careened wildly between sloppy and really sloppy, and the stories were about par with adventure shows of the time -- so, not good. The other problem is that the King heroes, all of whom were created in the '30s, weren't any more relevant in the mid-'80s than they are now. By 1986, how long had it been since you had kids pretending to be Flash Gordon or Mandrake? Did kids ever pretend to be Mandrake?

Now, on a personal level, I had grown up reading Phantom comics, so I had (and still have) a certain amount of fondness for him, which is what prompted my initial tune-in. Heck, I even bought a Phantom Defenders action figure put out by Galoob. However, the version of the character on the show (the 26th Phantom, for those of you keeping track), was inexplicably jacked-up with animal-based powers. "By jungle law," he'd intone, "the Ghost Who Walks calls forth the power of ten tigers," followed by a brief Super Mario-esque infusion of "tiger strength." Or something. Amazing stuff, that jungle law!

Despite my Phantom fandom, and despite the game effort to market Defenders (with Marvel even putting out a short-lived tie-in comic in '87), it just didn't take. Subsequent attempts to revive the King heroes via a 1996 Phantom feature (which is underrated) and a 2007 Flash Gordon TV show (which isn't) also met with the same degree of audience apathy. Today, Defenders of the Earth is as relevant as it ever was: not at all. The show's sixty-five eps have garnered a couple of different DVD releases, and it's also available to watch online via Hulu, but honestly, that opening sequence above, in all its kitschy, '80s goodness, is probably as good as it gets. 

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