The History of Superheroes on TV
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres this week, and it looks like a sure hit. Before it arrives, let’s take a look at the long (and often depressing) history of superheroes on TV.
The ground rules for this list are as follows:
- It must be a live-action superhero show.
- It must be based on a comic book. (Sorry, Heroes fans. All five of you.)
Adventures of Superman
The very first superhero to appear in-the-flesh on television was the Man of Steel himself, in 1952’s The Adventures of Superman. It managed a good run, lasting six seasons in syndication.
It’s kind of hard to believe that the 1966 cheesefest, as iconic as it’s become in pop culture, only lasted three seasons. The Adam West/Burt Ward series, which was created as both an action series and a comedy, was ABC’s first-ever foray into live action superherodom. (ABC is the same network airing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Lynda Carter donned the star-spangled panties for this ABC series (which jumped to CBS after its first season), debuting in 1975. It was definitely a step up from Batman‘s silliness, but it also failed to truly depict the Amazonian warrior as she’s known in the comics. But at least it had the invisible plane. It lasted for three seasons.
The Amazing Spider-Man
Stan Lee reportedly despised this first attempt at bringing Spider-Man to life, due to a terrible creative experience at CBS. The 1977 series differed wildly with the source material, and lasted just 13 episodes, which were somehow spread out to make two seasons.
The Incredible Hulk
Arguably CBS’ most successful try at a superhero show, the 1978 Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno series lasted five years, totaling an impressive 82 episodes. Six years after the series was canceled, the cast and crew reunited to film a trio of made-for-TV movies, which aired on NBC instead of CBS.
One of the many TV shows based on Superman, this one took the approach of following Clark Kent as he first takes up the mantle of “superhero,” while he’s attending college. It was produced by the same team credited with the Christopher Reeve movies. It lasted for four seasons in syndication, starting in 1988.
After its production deal with Marvel Comics ended — a run that included several TV movies in addition to the series listed above — CBS quickly jumped ship to try out a partnership with DC Comics. The Flash, starring John Wesley Shipp, premiered in 1990 and got a full season pickup, but lasted no longer than that one season.
DC’s environmentalist hero debuted on USA Network in 1990, after starring in a pair of big-screen films. Dick Durock starred as the title character in both the movies and the show, which lasted for three successful seasons.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
ABC’s first superhero series since Wonder Woman, eighteen years prior, saw Dean Cain take over the blue-and-red tights, while getting second billing behind Teri Hatcher’s modern take on Lois Lane. The 1993 soapy saga succeeded on the strength of the will-they-or-won’t-they sparring of the two lead actors. But after the duo finally tied the knot in season four, the show fell prey to the Moonlighting curse, and viewers lost interest.
The Crow: Stairway to Heaven
This TV adaptation of the film series — itself based on James O’Barr’s underground comic book — ran for just one season in syndication, beginning in 1998.
Just four years after the end of Lois & Clark, The WB decided in 2001 to bring Superman back to the small screen for yet another retelling of his mythos. This lavishly produced series brought a teenage Clark Kent into the real world with a “no flights, no tights” take on the source material, while stretching out Clark’s transformation into Superman across a whopping ten seasons.
Ben Edlund’s quirky/campy comic book was first brought to the small screen in animated form, but a few years later, Edlund managed to get a live-action version made. Patrick Warburton starred as the title character in a half-hour sitcom format, which ran for just nine episodes on Fox in 2001.
TNT’s 2001 adaptation of the Top Cow comic book starred Yancey Butler as Detective Sara Pezzini, wearer of the mythical gauntlet. Butler bore an uncanny resemblance to the character’s appearance in the comic book, and the first season succeeded on smart, serialized storytelling. This was all undermined by a bone-headed season finale, which rewound time and took back every single thing that had happened on the show so far. When the show’s entire mythology was rewritten in the second season, ratings tanked. I still wonder why the producers ruined a promising show with such an idiotic move.
Birds of Prey
In 2002, the WB attempted to capitalize on the success of Smallville by tapping the DC Comics well a second time with this superhero girl power team-up. Birds of Prey was a slick, stylish, big-budget production starring Ashley Scott and Dina Meyer that imagined a Gotham City many years after Batman had retired, having birthed an illegitimate daughter with Catwoman. This superheroine, calling herself The Huntress, teams up with Oracle and a new Black Canary to protect Gotham from Harley Quinn and any number of baddies. Despite a big-ratings debut and a promising start, the show was cut short after its first season of just 13 episodes.
Following Marvel’s success with the Wesley Snipes film trilogy, the vampire hunter came to TV in 2006. The show starred Onyx member Kirk Jones as the Daywalker, and aired on Spike. It proved unpopular among fans, and lasted just twelve episodes.
Following Birds of Prey and an unsuccessful Aquaman pilot, as well as the end of Smallville, The CW made yet another attempt to bring more DC Comics characters to the small screen in 2012. And they appear to have hit the nail on the head with Arrow, which has generated both fan and critical acclaim for its compulsively watchable storytelling and hunky star Stephen Amell. The show is currently in its second season, and still going strong.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
And finally we come to today. Even though it’s not based on any specific characters in the Marvel universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. is cleverly situated to weave itself in and out of Marvel’s big-screen continuity while serving as a perfect entry point for new viewers. Plus, it’s created and produced by geek god Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly fame, not to mention some little movie that no one saw called The Avengers. Early reviews are positive, and ABC seems to be going all-in with marketing and PR. If any show this season has a chance of being a runaway success — straddling both the geek set and average viewer demographics — it’s this one.