Thursday, 4 June 2015

[Flashback] Defenders of the Earth

Defenders of the Earth is an incredibly bizarre cartoon that in no way shape or form should work, but does anyway precisely because of the self-assured swagger it carried itself with. The Defenders of the Earth were a team of superheroes put together not through any thematic or artistic ideas but simply because the same company owned the licenses for all four characters and they thought it was a good idea to scrape them all together and put them in the same show.

So in the fantastical future year of 2015, Flash Gordon (a space adventurer), the Phantom (a gritty pulp adventurer who fights pirates in Africa), Mandrake (a magician who fights crime) and Lothar (a strongman) team up because they are all owned by King Features Syndicate and battle Ming the Merciless.

It sounds absolutely terrible, but then you see the intro and realise it is actually amazing.

The Defenders of the Earth intro is probably one of the finest of all eighties cartoons. There's an amazing confidence as each main character gets sung about as if they are the most bad-ass person in the world. The best moment is Mandrake's rogueish grin as his giant magical form blows up spaceships, answering the question of "why is there a crime-fighting magician in this super team?" The lyrics were also written by Stan Lee, which is never a bad thing.

 Everyone knows who Flash Gordon is (or at least they should do, the live action 1980 movie is a classic). He's the leader of the Defenders of the Earth (which is only fair as Ming is his villain) with a personal grudge against Ming for killing his wife in the first episode. Flash Gordon is cool because he wears red and flies spaceships, though he's pretty much the generic hero figure. But it's actually Flash Gordon, that gets some points.

The Phantom on the other hand is ridiculously awesome. He's a problematic character insofar as he's based on the good old 'white man's burden hero' trope, the hereditary guardian of a (surprisingly multiethnic) African tribe who sit about wearing headdresses and waving spears outside their mud huts. Look, he's from the 30's. The show always tried to treat the African characters with respect though, albeit in that slightly befuddled 80s cartoon way that attempted to respect Native American characters by having them turn up in warpaint and be obsessed with totem poles (looking at you MASK, Centurions and uh, everything).

By jungle law, the ghost that walks calls forth the power of ten tigers! Yeah, you know you want to be him.

The Phantom isthe latest in a line of legendary heroes. He lives in a cave shaped like a skull and also has a helicopter shaped like a skull. It's called a Skullcopter. Most importantly he can call upon the power of ten tigers, which features some sort of cool effect where about eight tiger heads flash towards him (it was never ten, I always counted). Apparently that power is only something the cartoon version of him had, but it's permeated into the popular public consciousness around him.

He was ridiculously popular in Europe - there was even a Phantom theme park in Sweden which only closed as recently as 2010. No-one talks about the 1996 live action movie. Ever.

Mandrake the Magician was also a character from 1930s newspaper comics, and was a magician who fought crime. He's commonly regarded as the first ever comics superhero and inspired the real Mandrake the Magician (not even Flash Gordon got to become a real person!). His powers are completely amped up for the Defenders of the Earth cartoon, which is handy given that he's fighting an evil space empire. He has the power to do whatever the plot commands him, whether it be control peoples minds or turn invisible (though he doesn't use all his powers all the time as that would be unfair on poor Ming). He also dresses like a stereotypical magician all the time, even in scenes when he's relaxing at home, which shows dedication to the job.

Lothar was a character who originated in the Mandrake comic, and was originally an African prince who renounced his people so he could work for Mandrake as his "giant black slave" which... look, it was the '30s. Thankfully Lothar is actually a real character in the Defenders cartoon, providing the brawn and tactics for the team. He's actually depowered from the original, who was apparently invulnerable to magic and any weapon forged by man.

Mandrake and Lothar are also cartoon's first same-sex couple. In the first episode we see Lothar has left his wife for Mandrake and they now live happily together in a house with their adopted asian child. At least, that's the impression I get from the very strange setup, and had Tumblr been about when Defenders was broadcast I'm sure it would be the number one ship on the net.

There's a bizarre subplot where all the characters are also single fathers. In that way where cartoons thought kids could only identify with other kids (this is completely wrong, kids wanted to be Flash Gordon not Rick Gordon), every character has a child. They're all pretty boring apart from the Phantom's daughter Jedda who has the nice subplot that the Phantom is actively training her to be the next Phantom. There's no mention of any other mothers apart from Flash's dead wife and so we must assume that these characters juggle battling Ming with raising a child alone.

Even Ming gets in on the act with his own (evil) son. Sadly there is no episode where he and Flash sit down to compare notes on being a dad and juggling work with childcare.

Is the cartoon any good? Sort of. The animation is a bit poor at times, and doesn't always match with what the script clearly wants (for example one episode features the super powered villain defeated when he falls down... a tiny hole, which one assumes was supposed to be an insurmountable cliff). There's no particular depth to the stories or characters, but they're told in an exciting enough manner and a good sense of pace and action. The soundtrack is also top notch.

Personally, the highlights of the show are "A House Divided" which is a Phantom episode which explores the personal history of the character in a nice way, and "Terror in Time" which guest stars Prince Valiant! Sadly it's a missed opportunity that Valiant was never in the Defenders to begin with. Hey, if you've got the license to use them, they might as well be on the team!

In today's age of superheroes suddenly being popular again, it would be nice to see a live action film of Defenders of the Earth pop up, if only to make people sit and stare and say "Wait, what the hell sort of setup is this?"

As long as they keep the same intro.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, DOTE...loved that one.
    Props for the same sex couple, I giggled. XD