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.
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.
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.")
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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.
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.