Director Joel Schumacher has commented that in the making of the misbegotten 1997 movie Batman and Robin, he received studio notes to make the film more "toyetic," i.e., that the story feature more opportunities for action figures, vehicles and other ancillary playthings. Toy tie-ins automatically come with any superhero movie or show, but needn't compromise a piece of pop entertainment. Some of the best comic-book adaptations of the past decade are TV versions of the DC Comics franchise, particularly the Cartoon Network's "Justice League," which finished last year.
"Legion of Superheroes" (airing 11 a.m. Sundays on the CW) feels particularly toyetic, possibly because there's so damn many of the title characters. (The marketing department may be providing a similarly heavy hand on the CW's latest, gadget-driven "Batman" cartoon.) A DC comic-book property dating back to the late 1950s, "Legion" never made the jump to another medium before now, and the recent release of its first DVD, along with the commencement of its second season, reveals a show that comes just short of living up to its potential.
In the comic's lore, teenage Superboy was recruited, via time travel, to join a club of young heroes from a thousand years in the future. The show's pilot episode, "Man of Tomorrow," tweaks the idea, finding Clark Kent as an untested youth who knows he has powers, but not that he'll be the costumed champion of humanity. (He's addressed as "Superman" on the show, reportedly due to a complicated copyright dispute over the name "Superboy.") The first season spins the premise as young Superman's coming of age, as if he's spending a year of college abroad, only in the 31st century.
At times, "Legion" approximates the shiny pop of "Futurama," only with fight scenes instead of cultural parodies. One of the most cleverly animated characters, Triplicate Girl, can split into three karate-kicking copies, each in her own color-coded go-go outfit. The "Legion of Superheroes 1" DVD (Warner Home Video, $14.98) serves as a good introduction to the show, but an introduction is all it is. The disc only contains four of the 13 episodes of the first season, in a fairly shameless act of double-dipping.
The second season takes a significantly darker turn, shifting emphasis from young Clark Kent to a testy, brooding clone called "Superman X." The season's unifying arc involves a grim struggle with an alien warlord called Imperiex (designed to evoke the dynamic drawing style of comics pioneer Jack Kirby). When one of Triplicate Girl's "selves" is killed, she changes her name to "Duo Damsel" in an oddly affecting portrayal of mortality.
You don't expect the characterization of Anton Chekhov from figures who wear flight rings and battle the Fatal Five. Nevertheless, "Justice League" and the more lighthearted "Teen Titans" set a high standard for sharply defined, archetypal figures in operatic conflicts. So far "Legion," despite its recent angsty turn, presents fairly familiar types, with the seemingly countless Legionnaires proving rather generic amid the razzle-dazzle.
"Legion's" TV adaptors get credit for embracing the comic book's notorious trait to showcase some of the silliest superheroes ever invented. One of the show's regulars, chubby Bouncing Boy, fights evil by making himself spherical and ricocheting around like a rubber ball. The even more preposterous "Matter Eater Lad" had made cameos to show off his power to ingest anything. Admirably willing to place self-satirizing humor alongside weighty drama, "Legion of Superheroes" just needs to grow up a little bit more to rise above its toyetic instincts.