Making the Grade: Kenner Super Powers Action Figures

ilovethe80s

Let me set the scene for you. The year is 1986, I’m a 13-year-old nerd from the Canadian sticks, and my family is on one of our annual road trips to some lovely locale in eastern Canada.

That summer, we were tooling around Baie-Comeau, one of the larger communities on Quebec’s north shore… a lovely place to visit, but also a staunchly French-speaking region, which — for a budding bibliophile like myself — was less than ideal when it came to souvenir-seeking pursuits.

My parents — living as we did in a town with limited retail options — decided to make a trip to the local Woolworth’s store, which back then was quite the retail adventure to this wide-eyed waif from the woods. While my parents made their way towards the clothing and sporting-goods departments, I casually ambled over towards the action-figure aisle of the “Jouets” section of the store. (What can I say — even if I was technically a teenager, the hormones that would eventually take over my body had not yet rendered me incapable of enjoying a Saturday afternoon saunter through a toy store.)

superpowers-header

And then… then I saw them. Sweet Jesus in the garden, it was as if the fluorescent lights themselves flickered a little brighter, beckoning me over to glimpse a piece of the promised land. There, carefully arranged on metal hooks, was an entire wall filled with dozens and dozens of Kenner Super Powers Action Figures, the greatest superhero action figures evereverEVER.

For real. They were all there, from Superman to Cyclotron, from Mister Miracle to Mister Freeze. Even that “limited release” Cyborg action figure, the one that would cost me plenty of pennies to procure on eBay many years later, was standing there inside his blister pack, all but begging me to pick him up, to stroke his cardboard backing, to fondle his smooth plastic bubble….

Ahem.

Well, the best part is that, this being 1986 (the third and final year that a new series of Super Powers figures would be released) — and this being a store in an area of the world where Tintin and Asterix were more likely to appeal to les enfants — the store was practically giving them away at bargain-bin prices, a cool $4.99 Canadian each, if memory serves. I already had about four or five of the figures at home, so that meant I needed to make an investment of about $145, give or take a few Canadian coppers, to complete the set.

I begged my parents for a small loan, offering to do anything — anything — to pay it off. Mowing lawns, shoveling sidewalks, raking leaves, feeding orphans, donning a Shirley Temple wig and singing “The Good Ship Lollipop” for the old folks at the nursing home… there was nothing I wasn’t prepared to do if it meant finagling funds for these four-inch wonders.

Alas, no dice. My parents, probably acting out of a concern for my mental well-being and social development, declined to bankroll such a frivolous purchase, and I had no choice but to bid farewell to the figures, vowing as I left the store that (1) someday all those figures will be mine and (2) my parents are in for a real shock come retirement-home time.

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There’s a happy ending to this story, one that involves eBay and some measure of arrested development on my part, but let’s keep the focus on the figures.

There were three waves of Super Powers figures, from 1984 to 1986. Three separate comic-book mini-series were commissioned to promote each wave (along with a special mini-comic inside each toy pack), and 1985 saw the debut of Super Powers: Galactic Guardians, a Saturday-morning cartoon depicting the never-ending struggle between the heroes and villains in the line-up. The accompanying merchandising bonanza ran the gamut from the expected (birthday decorations, lunchboxes, Underoos, official carrying cases) to the not-so-expected (nothing says “James Bond suave” like a pair of Super Powers cufflinks, I’ll tell you that for a dollar).

Really, the figures were a class act all the way. Right down to the tiniest details, the figures are the spitting images of the heroes we’ve grown to cherish.
Plus, for many of the characters the Super Powers line would be their first chance at statuesque stardom: DC stalwarts like Wonder Woman, Flash, Hawkman, and Green Lantern first appeared as action figures within this line-up, which also paid homage to DC’s rich trove of second-string heroes (Martian Manhunter, Firestorm, Green Arrow, Dr. Fate, etc.) while also delivering some fine specimens from Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” sagas: Darkseid, Orion, Kalibak, and so on. (In a heartwarming footnote, Darkseid and his dastardly minions were redesigned for the toy line by Mr. Kirby himself, earning him some of the first royalties ever paid to him for his countless creations.)

Because nobody asked — and hell yes, I’ll take any excuse to bring these guys out of storage and play with them for, um, “educational” purposes — here are some rapid-fire reviews of all the characters in the original three series, organized from most awesome to least:

Batman
The light-gray-and-blue outfit might cause conniptions among current fans of Batman’s darker look, but when you first see the determined look chiseled into his tiny face, there’s no mistaking who is the (Bat)man. You can practically hear the figure snarl, “Gotham is mine, scum.” His “power action punch” punches the bejeezus out of villainy. Because he’s Batman, is why. A+

superpowers-supermanSuperman 
You just knew they couldn’t call this the Super Powers collection without including the man who went and lent his name to “superheroes” in the first place. A class act all the way, from his steely blue eyes to his “power action punch.” A+

Joker  
True to the look of the mid-’70s to early-’80s Joker, this figure’s lanky look puts every live-action take on the Clown Prince of Crime to shame. But what really makes this figure stand out is its accessory, a grinning green mallet that the Joker can use to “power action pummel” any hero that gets within whackin’ range. Sweet. A+

Green Lantern
Cool, cool, cool. The essence of the Hal Jordan version, right down to the lantern-rigid jawline and forehead curl of brown hair. When his legs are squeezed, he raises his right arm to ready his ring for battle. As one would expect. A

Cyborg
The rarest (and most highly sought after) Super Powers figure, Cyborg also has the distinction of being the only African-American figure featured in the set. Affirmative action aside, he’s still the most striking figure, thanks to the metallic look of his costume and faceplate, as well as his three removable hand attachments. A

Plastic Man
How can you not love Jack Cole’s classic contribution to the commonwealth? Featured power is his super-stretching; just squeeze his arms and he gains a few inches where it counts (stop that). A

Firestorm
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this hot-headed hero. Maybe it’s because I like a hero whose head is on fire. At any rate, this is one cool customer. Power action punch, in case you were wondering. Not the most original action, perhaps, but it’s not like Kenner is capable of making him transmute elements for our amusement. A-

Doctor Fatesuperpowers-fate
This was an interesting choice to include in the second wave, inasmuch as the good doctor at that point had yet to star in his own series (he first appeared in comics in 1940, but never as a headlining hero). Still, his two-tone yellow-and-blue ensemble is striking. When activated, he raises both his arms — all the better to kick mystical butt. B+

Penguin
I’ve got to give this figure a higher mark, if only to point out that its excessive rotundity stretches the definition of “action” figure, to say the least. Great depiction of Batman’s adversary, any way you cut it. Squeeze his chubby little legs together, and he raises his umbrella-toting arm for combat. B+

Darkseid
Fitting, I think, that the supreme lord and master of Apokolips is the largest figure of the lot. He comes with the standard “super power punch” and one extra goodie: shine a light through the thingie on the top of his head and his red eyes light up to produce his feared “Omega beams.” Oooooooh. Scary. B+

Hawkman
One of the more visually striking Silver Age DC heroes, Hawkman comes with a mace, because nothing says “bird-themed lawman from the farthest reaches of space” like a medieval weapon. But that’s okay, because squeezing his legs makes his wings flap, and a flapless Hawkman would be a very sad Hawkman indeed. Would I grade a Hawkwoman action figure higher, if such a thing existed? Yes. Yes, I would. B

Aquaman
No hook-handed, long-haired crazy old man of the sea here — this is the Classic Aquaman look, right down to the fins on his calves and the scales on his tunic. No surprise, his super power is the very theme-appropriate “power action deep sea kick.” Only quibble I have is the trident he comes with actually has five prongs on it. TRI-dent, people. It’s right there in the name. B

Green Arrow
So, is anyone else wondering if Stephen Amell is going to grow a goatee for the next season of Arrow? ‘Cause he totally should. This figure came with “power action archery pull,” which is just a fancy way of saying “his arm comes up when you squeeze his legs whether he’s holding his bow or not.” Still, a very fine piece of craftsmanship, as evidenced by the fact the toymakers later used his mold to create figures for the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves action figures. “Why a spoon, cousin?” “Because it will hurt more, you twit!” Hee. B

superpowers-mistermiracleMr. Miracle
This is one of the rarest figures in the line, especially if you’re looking for one with the removable cape and handcuffs to complete the “power action wrist lock escape.” But it’s worth the hunt to find this figure with its accessories, because the look of triumph on his teeny face when he “escapes” from his shackles is a sight to be savored. B

Lex Luthor
I’m on record as preferring the modern-era, capitalist-bastard version of Lex Luthor over the earlier mad scientist version. This figure came out at the tail end of Luthor’s “cackling in a secret lair while building another death ray” days, so it’s no surprise the bio on the toy package mentions that incident with the hair that caused Mad Scientist Luthor to go mad in the first place. At least they put him in a specially designed “battle armor” for this line instead of a lab coat or the green-and-purple-tights outfit he wore through most of the ’70s. Hey, he may be mad, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to give the ladies a treat. B-

Shazam!
Comes with “power action thunder punch,” because if you’re going to rip off Superman you might as well go all the way. Oh, that’s unfair — Captain Marvel (renamed Shazam! here to avoid Marvel’s legal minions) was a decent enough character, though one I’ve never felt really belonged in the DC universe, despite constant efforts to shoehorn him in there. As for the figure itself: it’s okay. B-

Martian Manhunter
I’ve always had a soft spot for this guy, who only really started to get his due when the Justice League cartoon came out. Plus, he’s one of the few to get a removable cape, and one with a turned-down collar at that. That said… they weren’t really pushing the uniqueness of this character, giving him the same default “power action punch” as Superman and a few others. C+

Robin
Sigh. No, I suppose we can’t have our Dark Knight without tolerating his Gaudily Clad Squire. I dunno, there was always something about the chipper look on his face that bugged me. That and the fact his little plastic legs are so smooth, which makes me think thoughts about how smooth the real Robin’s legs always were, and now I’m thinking thoughts I shouldn’t be thinking. Came with “power action karate chop,” which I’m sure always made Darkseid quiver with fear. C

DeSaad
This guy was one of the first Super Powers figures I bought when I was a kid, and I only knew him through the Super Friends cartoon, so to say I was pissed that the store only had Darkseid’s lackey instead of Darkseid is an understatement. They made up his “vibro-shocker” attachment to give him something to do with his arms, but the real treat is the unintentional comedy caused by his removable skirt, which never seemed to stay up as far as it should. C

Kalibak
Comes with “power action beta club swing,” which — if you notice carefully — is the same upward motion that Green Arrow uses. No surprise, this simian sycophant of Darkseid uses his club to, uh, club things. Not the brightest of bulbs, to be sure, but at least he makes an interesting silhouette. C

Steppenwolf
“Get yer motor runnin’…” This character — another denizen of Apokolips loyal to Darkseid — is kind of cool, in that he comes with a molded backpack and an attached “electro-axe” that he can chop up and down with. Nothing terrible about him, just not a character that I have any fond childhood memories about, so… meh. C

Mantis
Ditto. C

superpowers-wonderwomanWonder Woman
“Comes with her own invisible jet — just put her legs in the sitting position and pretend she’s soaring!” Eh, not quite. Believe me, I wanted to rank her higher based on the fact she’s the sole female figure in the bunch, but I have to be objective. And objectively speaking, don’t give me a Wonder Woman figure that can’t stand up on her own two feet.  C-

Mr. Freeze
His “power action cold-blast punch” was just two little guns in his torso going in and out when you squeezed his legs. Riveting. This Batman villain’s containment suit was redesigned for the toy line, and while it’s not terrible for a cold-themed villain, it still feels awfully busy, especially compared to the sleeker version that would later debut in the Batman animated series. Plus, Batman already had two villains (Joker and Penguin) to compete with the two Superman villains (Brainiac and Lex Luthor) in the line. Stop being so greedy, Bats! C-

Orion
Sorry, Kenner. You can call it an “astro-punch” or a “thunder punch” or an “atomic punch” — we all know it’s just punches. Like Mister Miracle, Orion is one of the New Gods in perpetual conflict with Darkseid’s evil forces, which makes you wonder why they didn’t turn Highfather into an action figure, too. Fears of lawsuits from Charlton Heston’s lawyers, maybe? At any rate, this is one of the figures that’s the most different from its comic counterpart; comic-book Orion has a small metallic helmet, not the massive thing that’s squatting on this action figure’s shoulders. Obviously, they did this to accommodate the two-sided swiveling head that shows Orion’s happy face and angry face… but why they didn’t just give him a removable helmet to accomplish the same effect is beyond me. C-

Flash
Yeah, he’s one of the top dawgs in the DC universe and I have to say that TV show of his is pretty fly (do the kids still say “fly”?), but this figure does not do him justice. He’s pretty bulky in stature (going against the sleeker look preferred by most Flash fans), he’s shorter than the other figures, and his “power action lightning legs” (disclaimer: legs not actually made of lightning) go back and forth when you squeeze his arms together — an appropriate motion, for sure, but just to keep the fershlugginer figure from falling over. At least you have your TV show, Barry. C-

Tyr
A figure with a spring-loaded gun in place of his right arm, Tyr was a minor Legion of Super-Heroes villain until he was chosen for the third wave, presumably because of the character’s ability to fire his artificial arm/weapon at unsuspecting heroes. It was a stupid concept in the comics and it’s a stupid concept in an action figure, mostly because it just makes him look like some kid tore off his arm and stuck on a random piece of plastic. Also: space Mohawk. ‘Nuff said.  D+

Red Tornado
You want to know how much DC didn’t care about this android superhero? At the same time his action figure with “power action tornado twist” was showing up on toy shelves, he was literally being dismantled in the comic books. And who can blame them? He had a convoluted backstory involving dimension-hopping sentient tornadoes, displayed no personality whatsoever and his secret identity was, no joke, “John Smith.” D

superpowers-samuraiSamurai
An admirable attempt at racial diversity — he’s a Japanese teacher with the power to generate his own tornadoes and such (another Red Tornado rip-off, in case anyone’s taking notes) — but he’s hobbled by the fact that he never appeared anywhere outside of the Super Powers show. Plus, he looks like he’d be really cold in that Village-People-Meet-the-Sub-Mariner ensemble. D

Golden Pharaoh
Another figure created solely for the Super Powers line, he appears to be a half-inspired attempt to inject a little diversity into the mix, though that attempt at diversity might have gone a little bit better if he wasn’t a British archaeologist struck by a “mystical bolt of energy” that turned him into the Golden Pharaoh. He has “the power of the pyramids,” whatever the hell that means. His arm-wings spread into flying position when you squeeze his legs. Good for him. D

Brainiac
So, he’s this alien robot, see? And his greatest weapon is his 12th-level computer mind, right? And so naturally his secret super power is… his “power action kick.” Sure, why the hell not? And after he high-kicks the crap out of Superman, he no doubt plans a triumphant return to the Radio City Rockettes on Broadway. “If I can MAKE it there, I can make it ANYWHERRRRE…” D-

Parademon
Owning just one Parademon is like owning just one of the Stormtroopers from Star Wars in action-figure form: their only reason for existing is to attack in packs and die like the good cannon fodder they are, so owning just one is kind of sad. Plus, it looks nothing like the Parademons pictured in Kirby’s Fourth World books, and good luck getting the buck-toothed bugger to stand up straight. D-

superpowers-cyclotronCyclotron
A superhero with spinning legs and a removable faceplate to reveal his inner robot. What’s not to love? Plenty, starting with the fact that this complete non-entity (an android whose microchip brain houses information on all known heroes and villains) was created solely for this line, and has never appeared anywhere else before or since. Plus, his “power action spinning legs” is a sad rip-off of Red Tornado’s movement. And when you’re ripping off Red Tornado’s shtick, that’s a sign you’ve made a serious error somewhere along the way. Given the many worthy, actual DC heroes that didn’t make the cut (*cough* Batgirl *cough* Swamp Thing *cough* Supergirl), this figure was a bigger disappointment than five Zack Snyder movies put together. And that’s a lot of disappointment, in case you were wondering. F

 

 

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