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Breaking the Mold: Kenner's Super Powers Collection

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Courtesy of Brian Adams // Cool & Collected

Star Wars was dead.

As unlikely as it may seem, that’s the situation executives at the Kenner toy company were facing in 1984. With George Lucas insisting that 1983’s Return of the Jedi would be the last Star Wars feature film for years—if not ever—interest in the company’s expansive toy line based on the space saga was beginning to fade. At the same time, sales of Mattel’s He-Man and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe lines remained brisk. Kenner was looking at a future without a franchise.

To improve their forecast, the company looked to another modern mythology: DC Comics. The publisher had a character library spanning five decades, an animated show (Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show), and dozens of monthly comics to maintain awareness of their brand. Amazingly, no one in the toy industry had ever pursued a line of 3.75-inch action figures based on some of the most recognizable fictional heroes ever created.

That familiarity led Kenner's Super Powers line to success. But their expansion to include some of DC’s lesser-known creations would ultimately be its undoing.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

From the moment of Superman’s debut in 1938, DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications) has been keenly aware of the value of licensing agreements. In those days, the Kryptonite-hating hero was depicted on paper dolls, wooden toys, and fan club tokens. His counterpart, Batman, enjoyed similar success as a brand ambassador, with merchandise for both spiking to coincide with both 1966’s Batman live-action television series and 1978’s big-screen version of Superman.

In the action figure realm, however, superheroes didn’t get a break until Ideal released costumes for their Captain Action line in the 1960s. Their utility player, Captain Action, could be dressed to resemble a number of comic book characters, including Superman and Captain America. Later, the Mego company would popularize a line of 8- and 12-inch dolls with soft-cloth costumes that echoed Hasbro’s large-scale G.I. Joes. While the scale was impressive, it made producing accompanying vehicles and playsets a tall order.

Mego evaporated in 1979, taking their DC offerings along with them. Despite the continued success of Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon, no one had thought to capitalize on the characters' popularity with a small-scale line until Kenner reached out. With sales of Star Wars plastic dwindling, the company that had once marketed Play-Doh and the Easy-Bake Oven wanted another deep bench of action figures. The company's attempt to entice DC with a presentation prototype of Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam) stuck on a stick so he could "fly" won them right to produce a full line of action figures.

Super Powers drew heavily upon the work of José Luis García-López, a Spanish artist who illustrated DC’s widely-referenced style guide of 1982. García-López’s style was spare but familiar, depicting the company’s characters in a way that made them accessible to licensees, without hard-to-replicate flourishes. Sculptors at Kenner eyed García-López’s drawings; consumers saw his work on the card backs that lined retail shelves.

Kenner Super Powers via Facebook

When Kenner's Super Powers action figures hit store shelves in 1984 with a 12-figure lineup—including the mandatory Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman—they were an immediate hit. At the action figure height standard of 3.75 inches, pioneered by Kenner with Star Wars and later aped by Hasbro for their G.I. Joe line, kids were drawn into a world with which they were already familiar, thanks to DC’s existing status in popular culture. The heroes could meet and deliberate in a Hall of Justice playset; Batman could jump into his Batmobile; in some foreshadowing of the more inane toy expansion ideas to come in the 1990s, Superman could deploy his Supermobile, an extraneous vehicle for a man possessing the ability to fly. (The box art lamely promised it "shields Superman from Kryptonite.")

bchick1022 via eBay

Kenner also launched an aggressive print and television marketing campaign, highlighting the ability of each figure to display an actual "super power" when kids squeezed their arms or thighs together. The Flash’s feet would begin to tremble; the Joker would smash his mallet over an unsuspecting adversary’s head.

As Kenner plotted a second wave of 12 figures, Mattel had taken notice. To compete for the attention of comic book enthusiasts, they secured a license from Marvel to produce a similar line they labeled Secret Wars. While both did well, Mattel faced criticism that they were too preoccupied with the toy behemoth that was He-Man and were devoting only minimal resources to their Marvel toys. The more ambitious Super Powers line drew on the imaginations of artists like George Pérez and Jack Kirby, with the latter’s characters (including Darkseid) driving the toy narrative for the second wave.

Yet Kenner wasn't above a little cost consolidation: When Super Powers rolled out as Super Amigos in foreign territories, their Riddler figure was nothing more than a repainted Green Lantern with question marks added to his torso.

Mattel

As the Super Powers lineup grew to 33 figures and several vehicles, Kenner saw potential to build on the popularity of their flagship line with ancillary products. They considered a rollout of 2-inch mini-figures, but the molds got lost in transit; they also plotted a line of plush dolls, but those never made it past the prototype stage.

Interest in the line began to wane in 1986. What had initially attracted Kenner to the license—a deep bench of characters that would fuel years of comic book, television, and movie releases—wound up being problematic for consumers. While Superman and Batman were among the most recognizable people real or imagined on the planet, DC’s supplementary library was not. Kids passed up toys like Kalibak, Red Tornado, and Tyr; retailers cut orders. So Kenner turned their attention to a line of Real Ghostbusters figures based on the animated series.

DC would go on to feed a near-endless array of figures throughout the 1990s and beyond, fueled by the success of Tim Burton’s Batman films and their animated offerings. Toymakers realized it was better to offer endless iterations of the same popular hero than put an unfamiliar face like Firestorm on shelves.

Despite those fumbles, Super Powers was never destined to be a footnote. Thanks to García-López’s attractive art and the efforts of sculptors, collectors routinely chase original figures and swap stories about characters that never made it past the prototype stage. The biggest homage to the line may have come in 2014, when Mattel released a line of oversized figures in Super Powers packaging to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary. Sandwiched between Superman and Batman was the Riddler—deliberately colored and styled to look like the repainted Green Lantern he originally was, mangled ring finger and all.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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