A Look Back at Kenner's DC Super Powers Toys
With superhero movies dominating today's box office, superhero toys can be found at toy stores everywhere. Yet for a geezer geek like me, I remember a time in the early '80s when that wasn't the situation at all. Mego's line of DC and Marvel superhero action figures, play sets and vehicles that were popular during the '70s had largely disappeared, and Mego itself was on its way to bankruptcy. In 1984, DC awarded the toy license of their characters to Kenner, and the result was one of the best superhero toy lines ever to hit the shelves: the Super Powers Collection.
Kenner produced the Super Powers line as a way to compete with Mattel's He-Man line. The novelty that Kenner emphasized when it initially launched the Super Powers Collection was that each action figure had a "super power" that kids could activate by pressing together the figure's arms or legs. For example, Superman would make a punching motion when his legs were pressed together, the Flash would make a running motion when his arms were pressed together, and so on.
Yet what really made the Super Powers line stand out--both in the '80s and in decades since--was its diversity of character selection. In that sense, Kenner's approach to making DC action figures matched its approach to making Star Wars action figures: Just as its Star Wars line included figures of main characters, supporting characters, and characters who were nothing more than set decoration, its Super Powers line included DC characters that were very popular (Superman, Wonder Woman) and characters that were more obscure (Red Tornado, Mr. Miracle).
With its total of 34 action figures, 7 vehicle toys, and a Hall of Justice playset, the Super Powers line presented a significant portion of the DC universe that kids could add to their toy collection. Fans wouldn't see such a diverse selection of DC characters in single toy line until the Justice League Unlimited line, which didn't arrive in toy stores until 2003--almost 20 years after Kenner launched the Super Powers Collection.
Here are a few other interesting tidbits about the Super Powers Collection and its place in comic book history:
- The Super Powers line was the only direct toy tie-in to Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends cartoon, which ran from 1973 to 1986. Curiously, Super Friends was cancelled two years after the Super Powers line was launched.
- Because he was included in the Super Powers line, the character of Cyborg (who was largely associated with the Teen Titans superhero team) was portrayed in the Super Powers-linked Super Friends cartoons as a member of the Justice League. In the comics, Cyborg wouldn't be promoted to the Justice League until 2011, when the New 52 reboot cast him as a founding member of the League.
- In order to compete with Kenner's Super Powers, Mattel bought the rights to produce Marvel superhero figures under the Secret Wars line. Yet because Mattel already had a hit with its He-Man toys, the Secret Wars toys were of poorer quality only existed to appeal to kids who were interested in superheroes but not He-Man. (It's hard to imagine how a company like Mattel could consider a toy line based on Marvel characters to be a lower priority and thus produce substandard products, but that's exactly what happened with the Secret Wars line.) Marvel worked with Mattel to produce a series of tie-in comic books to help promote the toys; the resulting Secret Wars miniseries, as well as DC's own subsequent Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, became the first of what would be called "mega events". Mega events soon became commonplace plot devices in superhero comic books.
- Even though the Super Powers line was aimed at kids, some of the vehicle toys were unintentionally (and hilariously) morbid. For example, the Batmobile toy had a spring-loaded Bat-Claw for holding villains built into the car's rear bumper, while the flying Supermobile toy had handcuffs built into places where landing gear would normally be located. Use your imagination.