As the rage to get comic book properties up on the big screen as fast as possible continues, I began thinking about the days when the best superheroes could really hope for was time on the small screen. Television used to be the only way comic book readers could see their heroes come to life, often with mixed results. From the first appearance of George Reeves on TV flying through the air to the current hype around Heroes, TV has often been friend to the superhero.
I decided to really take a look back and find the best and worst that TV superheroes had to offer. Some of these didn’t have the greatest special effects or the best story but they captured the essence of what makes superheroes great. Others were cancelled right as they started picking up steam and still others just sucked from the get-go. Whatever their fate superhero TV shows paved the way for the billion-dollar industry that comics to film have become. I wanted to sing the praises and the downfalls of those pioneers.
I haven’t just brought you a list with no backbone, I also decided I’d put my two cents in as to why the shows worked or didn’t work, how the could improve them or if they should have ended when they did. If you’re familiar with these shows I hope this is fun reading for you and if not I hope it amps you up to rent them from your local video store.
5. SMALLVILLE (2001-Present):
For those who don’t watch this is the story of a world without Superman. Not because he’s dead or gone but rather he hasn’t been invented yet. With this show we watch Clark Kent grow from high school misfit into superhero. Though started as a kind of Dawson’s Creek meets Superman the creators have done a great job of balancing superhero action with soap opera drama. As a writer and as a fan of Superman I’ve also enjoyed seeing how week-to-week the creators will work in all the ideas, characters and major events from the comic books into the show.
Granted this isn’t for everybody and I fully understand those who get turned off by the fast and loose style with which Smallville plays with Superman’s history. The way I’ve always explained it is that I look at it as an Elseworld series, which has actually helped a few people get into it.
WHAT WORKS: The show’s ability to create large story arcs without getting lost in them is one of the show’s biggest strengths. There is always a major goal or major bad guy each season that Clark must face but while that story simmers to a boil the show manages to have multiple self-contained stories to hold your interest. I also happen to like Tom Welling as Clark Kent; I think he does a great job of being unsure but still heroic.
WHAT DOESN’T: The Jump The Shark factor has become an increasing problem. Now four or five years out of High School, working for the Daily Planet and actively performing heroic deeds the show has little left it can do without actually letting Clark become Superman. The show’s insistence on leaving Clark with no alter ego is having a negative effect on the last two seasons even with the inclusion of Doomsday. Another big problem was the loss of Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor. Rosenbaum was the best actor on the show and his Lex was incredibly engaging as well as evil. Smallville hasn’t been able to shake that loss yet.
4. FLASH (1990-1991)
Though it only ran for one season The Flash TV series was one of the best simply because it adhered to a very Silver Age ideal while being set in modern times. Not to sound sappy but this was a family adventure show that everybody could watch and enjoy. It had lots of action, plus decent stories and even good acting. Sure some of it was corny but only in the best way possible. Actor John Wesley Shipp was a great Flash though admittedly he did look very “nineties” when watching the show now.
Oddly enough the creators first offered the role to Jack Coleman, then famous for Dynasty, but he turned them down to pursue a career on Broadway. It’s interesting because Coleman would later gain fame as Noah Bennet on Heroes. The show even managed to work in some of the Rogues Gallery including Captain Cold, Mirror Master and Trickster (played by Mark Hamill pre-Joker).
WHAT WORKED: The show worked the same way shows like A-Team, Riptide and other adventure shows aimed at kids and adults worked. They kept the shows steeped in reality e.g. Flash goes after corrupt politicians, hit men and drug lords but also kept it light enough and full of enough action to hold the fickle attentions of children. Remember this was the beginning of the Tarantino era of dark, brooding and violent so having a show like The Flash was really refreshing.
WHAT DIDN’T: Some who see the show now sight the cheesy effects as the biggest Achilles heel for the show but I disagree. In that era those effects were pretty high end, so much so that the price tag per-episode led to the show’s quick demise. I also think the show just didn’t get enough time to really blossom. Constant scheduling changes and an era where everybody wanted to shoot guns and be melancholy killed The Flash before it ever really began.
3. WONDER WOMAN (1975-1979)
Even though I can cite Wonder Woman’s Linda Carter as my very first introduction to the female crush it has little to do with my choosing it as one of the best. Wonder Woman was one of the first superhero shows to build on the lessons learned in quality by the 1950s Superman series and then add a bit of modern day grit and grime.
Linda Carter was incredibly sexy on the show but never fell back on it, which was a major switch from most of the shows of the seventies. Instead she focused on kicking ass and always doing the right thing. You never doubted her as Wonder Woman or Diana Prince; she managed to create two very different characters, which helped the show create real drama.
The show was also quick to remove the more comic-book elements and drive the show as a straight adventure-drama. Wonder Woman’s more fantasy driven enemies were replaced with real world crime and issues. Kidnapping, murder, political intrigue, and end-of-the-world conflicts mixed with good old-fashioned spy-on-spy stuff to give Wonder Woman a more realistic feel. Shows like Heroes would never have happened without Wonder Woman.
WHAT WORKED: One of the things that worked well for the show was how the creators danced around a lack of special effects for Wonder Woman’s powers. Using tiny sparks on her bracelets as well as the “suggestion” of how strong her lasso was kept people from questioning the lower effects. Mainly the budget was used for when she had to jump high or use the invisible jet. There was also the incredibly catchy theme song and, like I said before, Linda Carter in the Wonder Woman outfit.
WHAT DIDN’T: Essentially Lyle Wagner as Steve Trevor was just too lame to be believed. It was like watching a game show host try to be a spy and it completely sucked the show into a cheese whiz world it didn’t belong in. One personal pet peeve was that whenever they showed Wonder Woman swimming under the “ocean” it was crystal clear and you could see the sides of the pool.
2. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1952-1958)
This is the one, the granddaddy of them all and one of the best superhero TV shows ever. This classic take on Superman stands up even by today’s standards. George Reeves played his Superman perfectly, encompassing that fatherly protector quality that defined the Golden and Silver Age Superman. From the original movie Superman Vs The Molemen to the run of the TV series The Adventures Of Superman kept the wholesome spirit of Superman alive without becoming incredibly hokey. The series was shot so well you actually long for a time when life was simpler.
There was no real story arc to The Adventures Of Superman, each episode was its own thing and never led into any huge season ending cliffhanger. It was also interesting that none of Superman’s infamous arch villains appeared on the show either. No Lex Luthor, no Brainiac, nothing but gangsters and thugs and thieves. Even with the repetitive themes the show never got boring or ceased to be entertaining.
WHAT WORKED: The spine of what worked was the fact that George Reeves was a classically trained actor who brought a real sense of ability to his performances. He introduced a subtlety and nuance to his Man Of Steel, even introducing a bit of loneliness and longing to belong. That’s heady stuff for a children’s show sponsored by a breakfast cereal. I also loved how Reeves was one of the few to show Clark as different from Superman but not bumbling. He wasn’t a clod or a nuisance; instead he carried himself as a respectable newspaperman. Managing that while still making him different enough to believe nobody would know his secret was top-notch acting.
The surrounding cast was also wonderful. Noel Neill was a wonderful Lois Lane (better than the first season choice of Phyllis Coates). Neill played Lane as tough but not bitchy, even managing to not get lost in the damsel-in-distress tag the series creators tried to label her with. Jack Larson really personified that gosh-golly style of Jimmy Olsen but was never annoying and even managed to inject some humor.
WHAT DIDN’T: Though I felt the series lost something when it went to color nothing ever didn’t work with The Adventures Of Superman. It stayed top-notch television until the tragic day George Reeves died.
1. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1977-1982)
To me The Incredible Hulk was and is the best TV superhero show that ever aired. Even after twenty-seven years off the air the episodes still stand up not as just great adventure TV but as great TV in general. The Incredible Hulk worked in much the same way The Dark Knight did by creating reality around fantasy. These weren’t incredibly fantastic tales of a green skinned goliath facing the US Army or giant monsters; these were tales of one man trying to over come a tragedy.
The Incredible Hulk followed Bruce Banner on his quest to try and figure out how to cure himself of the monster. Week to week we followed Banner (called David thanks to a TV exec thinking Bruce sounded “too gay”) as he fell into situations that allowed The Hulk to help people. At the end he always struck off alone which was crushing to watch. The best part about this show was that you cared about Banner; you weren’t just waiting for The Hulk to show up.
WHAT WORKED: Everything, every last damn thing worked on this show. Starting with Bill Bixby who played Bruce Banner as this stoic and tragic hero. This was a guy you just wanted to help but couldn’t do anything for. He was so good that you actually rooted from him to control the Hulk outbursts because you knew it pained him so much.
One of the most brilliant things the creators did was to style it after the 50s adventure show The Fugitive. In The Fugitive the main character is an ordinary guy accused of murdering his wife. He keeps trying to convince an inspector that he saw the real murderer, a one armed man who broke into his house. With no one to believe him The Fugitive escapes to pursue the one armed man and along the way helps out people he meets. In The Incredible Hulk Banner is The Fugitive only instead of being wanted for murder he’s believed to be dead. The inspector is replaced with an investigative reporter looking to prove The Hulk exists and The Hulk himself is the one armed man, the thing Banner wants to be rid of.
Using that structure allowed the show to be reality based and add elements of the fantastic. That kind of drama coupled with great writing and direction makes The Incredible Hulk one of the best shows on TV in any genre.
5. SHAZAM (1974-1977)
OK I know this is a big nostalgic gem for some people but please, take yourself out of the nostalgia thing and really look at the show. This was one of the biggest pieces of crap to ever fall from the ass of the TV world. Nothing on this show worked, not the acting, the direction, the effects, nothing. Not to mention the round about slapping the show did to what the comic book was.
Billy Batson wasn’t a ten-year-old boy living in a major city handed the power of Shazam by the Wizard Shazam. No, instead at some board meeting the powers that be decided that Billy should be a fifteen-year-old kid traveling the country in a motor home with some creepy old man giving the show a NAMBLA-in-tights feel that didn’t work.
On top of that the actor who played Shazam once Billy said the words had zero charisma. I’m not talking he was kind of boring or not right for the part I mean I wanted to shove mirrors under his nose to make sure he was still breathing. The guy literally stood around and smiled like he was in a toothpaste commercial and then mumbled his lines. They couldn’t even get the guy to lie straight during the “flying” scenes. Instead he looked liked a “C” turn on it’s side with awful backgrounds whizzing behind him.
This show was so bad I would almost like to believe it was performance art meant to insight a reaction. Unlike Superman or The Hulk, when I watch see old episodes of this show I can get through maybe ten minutes before the douche chills over take me and I must switch channels for my own survival. In this I guess Shazam stands for:
Suck Horrible Awful Zero Ass Mediocre
4. CAPTAIN AMERICA/CAPTAIN AMERICA DEATH TOO SOON (1970s)
You have to admire anytime two made-for-TV movies can be so awful they make a worst list. In only four short hours these two movies did more to shit in Jack Kirby’s mouth than just about anything else. If you haven’t seen them imagine a bunch of TV executives trying to figure out how to combine the seventies love Evel Knievel with Captain America. Sounds like it sucks right? Well, yep it did, real real bad.
Even at the ripe old age of 7 or 8 I knew these movies were absolute crap. First of all Steve Rogers is a painter who’s patriotic father was a spy in the 1940s nicknamed Captain America. When artist Steve gets hurt the, Government, for no f*****g reason, gives him the super-solider serum to save him only this time the serum is called FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. Think that’s it with the suck? Think again.
So after the serum gives him special powers the Government they design a costume based on a sketch artist Steve drew and asks him to be Captain America. With no training outside of painting fruit and landscapes, Artist Steve agrees and the adventures begin. After building his specialized van and motorcycle the audience is treated to God awful acting broken up only by motorcycle stunts and the essential morality lessons.
Reb Brown who played Artist Steve/Captain America had an emotional gamut that ran from A to B. Seriously this guy couldn’t emote pain if you set his hair on fire. Instead he lummoxes around like a linebacker with no game to play in trying to look sweet and forlorn. Instead he looks like every other frat boy/jock/date rapist and you half expect this entire thing to be his way of pledging the local fraternity.
Thankfully these films never amounted an actual TV show but they did do their damage. I didn’t pick up a Captain America comic for ten years because I thought it was just like these awful movies.
3. LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
Imagine Sex & Metropolis or Desperate Housewives Of Superheroes and you get the essential idea behind Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. Many people loved this show and applauded its new take on the Superman mythos; I was not one of them. Sure I was intrigued that it built itself on the John Byrne idea that Clark was the real person and Superman the alter ego but it failed to execute it.
First of all Dean Cain made a lousy Superman and an ever worse Clark Kent. Cain’s Superman was way too pussy looking and his Clark Kent tried to hard to be cool and funny. It all failed and essentially you watched Dean Cain try and smile through the fact that he couldn’t act.
Teri Hatcher was nothing but eye candy set out to look pretty and yell for Superman’s help. All the attempts to make her a “strong female character” usually fell apart during the last half of the show. Lois & Clark also tried to hard to be current with its language and humor which instantly dated it and now makes it insufferable to watch.
The show also had no idea what it wanted to be so it tried to be everything and failed. First the romance was central and then the action and then both and then it all fell to shit. The supporting actors were loathsomely boring and the “sexual tension” between Lois & Clark never worked. With zero chemistry between Cain and Hatcher you started to feel like this was a brother and sister team trying to find time to get it on.
Even trying to include Lex Luthor, Toymaker and other Superman rogues fell flat and the show was cancelled thankfully before they could move forward with the Lois & Clark Find A Baby season four cliffhanger.
2. HEROES (2006-present)
Yep, sorry, this show is an absolute shit storm and it surprises me that anybody who actually loves comics and superheroes would watch this show without throwing up all over themselves. This is a show written by people trying to make comics cool instead of trying to tell an interesting story. The first season is so boring I was making deals with God to get through it. Plus I’m all SET with a show that makes a cheerleader the savior of the world.
Now before anybody starts getting all uppity with me about how incredibly original the concept for Heroes is may I suggest you check out the series Rising Stars by J. Michael Straczynski and then get back to me. Not only is Heroes boring but also the characters are seriously one dimensional to the point I was predicting what they would do before they did it. I know Jeph Loeb was involved with this but seriously, what was that mast thing he did that didn’t blow chunks.
Heroes has no idea what it wants to be and so it becomes this weighed down convoluted epic that underwhelms at every turn. You can’t spend so much time building up to some huge event and then have it be as anti-climactic as Heroes tends to be. I’m also tired of shows trying to throw in everything but the kitchen sink to interest viewers and then never tying those loose ends up. Answering questions with questions or cliffhangers isn’t good TV it’s lazy writing.
I’ve also grown annoyed with how Heroes is so all over the place. I understand the writers strike created a problem for the show but please, take a step back and figure out where the show is going. Even the die-hard fans are starting to have had enough of the dragging storylines and lack of direction.
Heroes might have started as a good idea but it is now a failed experiment. Time to scrape it and start over; we’ll all be better off.
1. BATMAN (1966-1968)
I don’t care who thinks this was some kind of kooky pop art gift to television this series blew large chunks of bile all across the TV. This wasn’t Batman, this nearly killed Batman by making him some weird punch line to hipper-than-thou art movement of the sixties. Nothing about this show was redeemable except maybe the theme song and that just don’t cut it.
I have an idea; let’s make Bruce Wayne a moron, a daft insipid idiot who couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were on the heel. Then add a bland and uninteresting Dick Grayson to the mix, a nearly Alzheimer Alfred, and a slap stick Commissioner Gordon who shouldn’t have led an ice cream parade much less a police department. Once this is done make the Joker a buffoon, the Penguin constipated, and The Riddler annoying. There you have it, a show that weekly dug up Bob Kane’s corpse and layered a fresh pile of shit in its mouth and reburied it.
No, I didn’t find the constant “Holy this and that” of Robin endearing, nor the stupidity of Batman funny. It felt like these two started this out of boredom not because they watched their PARENTS DIE!!!! The whole appearance of the words BIFF, BAM, WHACK, BAROOM (my personal favorite) during the fight scenes wasn’t cool or funny, it just added to the stupidity of the show.
I also loved diabolical fiends like Egghead who had to use the word “egg” in everything he said. For instance “It’s Eggsciting to think how Eggsasperated Batman will be trying to figure out Eggsactly what my crime will be.” This show was so bad and so horrid that I found myself rooting for the bad guys to kill Batman and Robin. I would shout at the screen “Don’t leave them in some huge trap and walk away, just shoot them.”
The show and it’s subsequent effect on Batman nearly destroyed what the caped crusader was all about and I’m glad this many years later people are beginning to understand just how bad it was. Well except for Tim Burton who essentially made a big budget version of the TV with his craptacular Batman movies.
So there you have it, my list of the 5 best and worst live action superhero TV shows. Just for fun I wanted to also throw out some honorable mentions. I’m sure some will ask why I didn’t include JLA or Dr. Strange to which I can only say those were just pilots and not full series. I will say I wrestled over including The Greatest American Hero and Misfits Of Science to my best list but ultimately decided they should be honorable mentions. I wasn’t a huge fan of Birds Of Prey or Mutant X but when I made this list I found myself more ambivalent about them than anything else. As for the Green Hornet with Bruce Lee I haven’t seen enough of it to make an informed decision.
Until next time!!