The Silverhawks may be partly metal, partly real, but Judge Kerry Birmingham is partly lethargic, mostly cranky.
"They fly on silver wings! They fight with nerves of steel! Partly metal, partly real, they are the Silverhawks!"
Gather 'round, children: You may have heard stories of the 1980s, a mythical age when both hair and fashion were at their ultimate point of absurdity. It was also a great time to be a kid who loved cartoons. I mean, there's the Cold War and Thriller and Reaganomics. But the important thing here is that this was still a time when a small kid get wake up unbearably early on a Saturday morning, or race home after school during the week, and see some truly strange and wonderful animation. This was before Disney's episodic animation domination and cartoon-only channels, so the field was full of cartoons watched religiously and somewhat indiscriminately by enthusiastic youngsters like myself (I was young once! Fun fact!). Among these cartoons, some of which were forgotten and some of which are in the process of being turned into blockbuster film franchises, was a little something called Silverhawks. A little obscure and a lot derivative, Silverhawks is nonetheless still fondly remembered by a lot of nostalgic 80s animation fans.
Facts of the Case
Hardboiled galactic watchdog Commander Stargazer, stationed on the asteroid base Hawk Haven in the distant galaxy of Limbo, witnesses the prison break of one of the galaxy's most notorious gangsters, Mon*Star. Swearing revenge on Stargazer for imprisoning him, Mon*Star retreats to his planetary base, the Brim Star, where he harnesses the energy of the Moon Star to turn himself into a monstrous, Mr. Hyde-esque version of himself. While there, he recruits many of his old super-powered allies (the shapechanger Mo-Lec-U-Lar, sniveling Yes-Man, and a host of bad guys) and begins to terrorize Limbo once more. Stargazer's appeal to Earth for help leads to the creation of the Silverhawks, soldiers and scientists who have undergone cybernetic augmentation in the form of shiny, metallic uniforms. The core team consists of Quicksilver, the team leader; Steelwill and Steelheart, empathic twins with robotic hearts; Bluegrass, ace pilot, cowboy, and guitarist; and the Copper Kid, a mute mathematician from the Planet of the Mimes. Together and under Stargazer's watchful eye, they use their powers to protect Limbo and thwart Mon*Star's plans.
Silverhawks ran for 65 episodes in 1986, the first 32 of which are
included in this collection:
Every episode ends with a brief coda in which Bluegrass, under the guise of teaching the Copper Kid about the universe as part of his flight training, educates the viewer with basic facts about space and space travel.
Silverhawks is an unapologetically blatant swipe of the more popular Thundercats, stealing everything from the basic storytelling structure and character dynamic to the voice cast. Everything about the Silverhawks mimics the Thundercats, right down to the stock animation, virtually every episode, of Mon*Star transforming into his bestial self-a trick ol' Mumm-Ra would do in every episode of Thundercats. Both shows were produced by animation stalwarts Rankin & Bass, who saw the wisdom of ripping off their own ideas (they would do it again with an even more faded copy, the marine-themed Tigersharks): the cops-and-robbers formula transposed to exotic locales—in this case, space—was a winning template and apparently worth repeating. Both shows were deemed "toyetic" by toy manufacturers, meaning easily adaptable to a toy line; as blatant as most 80s cartoons were about their merchandising tie-ins, Silverhawks was always clearly pushing for a new action figure or vehicle (as mid-run additions like gold-plated Hotwing and time-traveling Flashback, as well as a bevy of character-specific mechanized birds, will attest). The relatively simple premise and its distinctive visuals of metalized space cops made it both unique among its brothers and the same as every other toy commercial disguised as entertainment.
The appeal of Silverhawks is clearly a nostalgic one, aimed squarely at those who were once starry-eyed little kids of a certain generation, and like most '80s animation framed that way—Masters of the Universe, Transformers, G.I. Joe—it falls apart when removed from the filter of Saturdays-and-cereal sentimentality. Silverhawks suffers from the same maladies of other, more prominent series from the period: shoddy and simplistic animation; a reliance on stock footage (take a drink every time the same footage of the team disembarking their ship, the Maraj, is used); stories watered down to the point of silliness: did they really think making Copper Kid come from "The Planet of the Mimes" was a good idea? Because you can't go home again, there are all sorts of logical leaps an adult mind can't handle, like tornadoes in space (to say nothing of breathing, and the basic story structure doesn't lend itself to any sort of scrutiny: an adult viewer will find themselves thinking, "You know exactly where Mon*Star is! Why don't you go arrest him or kill him or something?!" Years away from more sophisticated and less insulting plotting, early 90s fare like X-Men and the seminal Dini-Burnett Batman: The Animated Series that wore their complexities and ambiguities like a badge, Silverhawks falters on its willful condescension.
Removed from the more critical eye of adulthood, Silverhawks still holds up as a diverting bit of space opera. If the subtext (one's humanity forsaken for the technology to get the job done) is never really given more than a superficial nod, there's still a silly, giddy adventure story to be had. There's a lot of creative missteps, sacrifices for the target demographic: Bluegrass's guitar/gun, one-note villains like Mumbo-Jumbo and Buzzsaw, virtually every scene with the Copper Kid-but there's also a lot of lofty science fiction ideas buried in the mix, high concepts like artificial suns, planet-like organisms, and bodies modified for space travel. In a different context, this could have been the stuff of hard science fiction and high drama, a police procedural in a Star Wars vein. Instead, we're placed in a universe where physics is as malleable as reality itself, where the most heinous criminal in the universe is guilty of little more than needlessly elaborate schemes and surrounding himself with colorful henchmen. The Silverhawks rarely find a threat that can't be solved by blasting it with lasers (or a killer guitar riff, as the case may be) and heading back to Hawk Haven, where stern Humphrey Bogart stand-in Stargazer awaits with another mission that requires flying through space on fake bird wings made of metal. The consequence-free universe of the Silverhawks is a nice diversion for a Saturday morning or an afternoon dodging long division homework, and if it's not the best or most sophisticated or most original of its kind, it's still a welcome addition to those of us who spent more than a few afternoons watching Mon*Star transform and playing with the toys (one day I'll own that Flashback figure!).
The only extra of note is "Partly Metal, Partly Real: Remembering Silverhawks," a thin reminiscence on the show and its origins. Several producers and a toy company executive relate how easy their rapport was, while the only voice actor to participate, Maggie (Jakobson) Wheeler, the voice of Steelheart and musical villain Melodia, reflects on how this was her first in a series of really annoying characters (she went on to a notorious recurring role as Chandler's on-off girlfriend, Janice, on Friends). Much of the ten minute running time is spent ruminating on the success of the toy line, which should be indicative of where everyone's priorities were. The "exclusive" sneak peek of the animated DC Universe Wonder Woman is the same featurette included earlier with Batman: Gotham Knight. The sound is in mono and just as garbled and tinny as you imagine, while the picture quality is atrocious throughout, full of fading, scratches, and frame jumping. Three of the four discs are picture discs, while the final disc is double-sided to accommodate the documentary featurette.
There's a bevy of legitimate criticisms that can be lobbed at Silverhawks—it's derivative, it's simplistic, the animation is lazy—but there's enough creative juice in the core concepts and the universe of over-the-top characters where the Silverhawks dwell to distinguish it as a premise both entertaining and teeming with a ton of science fiction potential. The way things are going, it's only a matter of time before the animation-to-feature-film trend casts its sites far enough down to embrace the Silverhawks (Matthew McConaughey IS Bluegrass!). Hamstrung by the limitations of its time, the target audience, and production values, Silverhawks is still a fine synthesis of cops-and-robbers and superheroic space adventure, serials made over with the merchandising eye of Kenner. That's good enough for kids with moderate standards in animation—or adults who remember being that way.
This one falls squarely under "guilty pleasure," and the defendant is lucky that the judge is sympathetic in light of a childhood affection for the show and, yes, those shiny, shiny toys (oh, Bluegrass, where have you gone?). That being the case, the court chooses to let "pleasure" overshadow "guilty" and declares SilverHawks: Volume One innocent despite the limp extra and unacceptable picture and sound quality.
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