Monday, October 27, 2008

Attack of the Live Action Hero Series Part 2!

Last time we saw 3 great superhero live-action series DC brought to the table. The "Trinity" of DC Comics all had their shot at fame and stardom in a weekly slot that satisfied fans of all three heroes. The costumes were true to form, the powers were close, and even the campy moments were fun.

Not to be outdone, Marvel tried twice to bring their own heroes to live action. It failed once, it worked once, and then DC stepped back into the game and has ruled television ever since.

Let's check out a few more shows, as well as bring in our honorable mentions of those who were close but not quite there for the list.

The Amazing Spider-Man

No hero was more anticipated during the 70's for a series than Spider-Man. The comic book was in full swing as the most popular Marvel was publishing. The cartoon series had gone off the air almost a decade earlier but was still in full swing thanks to syndication. And boys everywhere were swinging from ropes and dreaming they were actually going between buildings as the web-slinger.

The show premiered in 1977 to mixed ratings. Nicolas Hammond was a relative unknown at the time he picked up the role as Peter Parker, but he definitely brought the character to life. The Spidey suit left a lot to be desired though. Strange, gaudy webshooters on the outside of his costume and grey mesh eyes were definitely a stretch from the drawings we'd seen in the comics, but we were open to anything at the time. Even when Spidey would crawl down a building, the lines he was tied to were clearly seen.

At about the same time, Spidey was showing up on The Electric Company, a kid's show on public television. The special effects were much better, but the costume was absolutely dead-on!

Ironically, Hammond was very seldom ever actually in the Spidey suit. Instead, a stuntman did all the rooftop leaping, building climbing, and web swinging. Even the fight scenes were done with someone else.

This really wasn't ever considered a regular series, but more of a group of television movies that aired sporatically over two seasons on CBS. The episodes are still not available on DVD, and who knows if they ever will be.

Episode of note: In one two-part episode called "The Deadly Dust", folks were treated with the appearance of JoAnna Cameron, a recognizable face to kids everywhere because she was Isis in the Saturday morning series.

The Incredible Hulk

This was Marvel's last successful live-action foray into series television, and the tone of the show was different from every other hero series ever done before or since. The show deviated from the comic books in many ways, but it managed to stand strong on its own merits.

In the series, it was not a gamma bomb that changed Bruce ("David" in the series) Banner into the Hulk. Instead, it was his own work attempting to unlock the adrenaline rush that he had not experienced when his wife had been killed in a wreck. It created the Hulk, and Banner was thought killed in an explosion that saw the death of his assistant/girlfriend, and the Hulk blamed for it all.

Relentlessly pursued by Jack McGee, a reporter who was chasing the monster, Banner had to keep moving every week to a new location while trying to find a cure for his transformations. Each episode followed a simple format: two Hulk changes--one at the 20 minute mark, and the other at the end of the show. The rest of the story was carried by Bill Bixby, who did an incredible (no pun intended) job of bringing out the tragic side of the story.

The series went off the air after five seasons, but came back with 3 television movies. The first two brought the appearance of Daredevil and Thor to the live-action world, while the third gave viewers the opportunity to see that rarest of things in series television: closure to the story. The plot twist ending of the 1990 film was kind of given away by the title of the show: The Death of the Incredible Hulk. But that didn't stop us from watching it in breathless anticipation as the final moments of the television movie were airing. In the end, we saw Banner finally get release from the monster side of himself through one final heroic act by Hulk that ended in him falling from an exploding plane and dying after changing back to Banner.

Ironically enough, Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were actually in talks to do another series of Hulk television movies bringing the character back somehow and taking his story further. Unfortunately, Bixby died of cancer in 1993 before they could bring any of those to film. Fortunately every aspect of this series (all five seasons and all three TV movies) are available on DVD so we can still enjoy them today.

Lou Ferrigno appeared in the latest Hulk movie and showed that he was still as muscular as ever. Ferrigno also gave the voice to the Hulk in the film, with a "Hulk smash!" that gave fans everywhere a thrill!

Episode of Note: The Hulk never fought any super-villains during his five season run, so we're having to go with best storyline here. In season 2 there's a two-part episode called "Mystery Man" in which David Banner gets into an accident that burns his face and gives him amnesia. His face wrapped in bandages, Banner ends up traveling with McGee to Los Angeles, never realizing that his life will be over if he takes off the bandages or turns into the Hulk with McGee around. It was a nice two-parter that gave us a lot of tense moments throughout.

The Flash

The clear winner of our recent poll, and one of my favorite heroes! We have no idea why a second-string character like the Flash warranted a live-action weekly series, but it was fun! This show took a few liberties from the comic book world, but his costume couldn't have been more true to life. Even Barry Allen's origin was incredibly accurate (though the addition of an older brother named Jay was a little stretch). Actually, Barry's brother Jay was a nod to Jay Garrick, the original Golden-Age Flash.

This show had everything: great special effects (for the time), fun supervillains (Mirror Master, Captain Cold, and of course, the Trickster all made appearances in some form or another), and a gothic overtone for Century City remeniscent of the Michael Keaton Batman movie (it had come out recently before the series began shooting). The running effect has been improved greatly and is used weekly on Smallville now, but this is where it got its start.

The show only lasted one season (21 episodes), but what fun it was! The entire series is available on DVD and even though the acting can be cheesy at times, it's a great way to spend an weekend.

Episode(s) of note: Mark Hamill finally shed his Luke Skywalker image by appearing as The Trickster in two different episodes (including the series finale). Hamill was such a viciously wicked crazy man that he was later asked to do the voice of Joker in the Batman animated series.


The latest attempt to bring the legend of the Man of Steel to life changed the focus completely. The first rule of the series was simple: No flights, and no tights. We would see Clark Kent's formative years as a teenager and grow to understand how he became the hero he would someday become.

Though the writers held true (for the most part) to their rule of no flying for Clark, they did manage to give him a new super power every season to still give the fans something to be happy about. Unfortunately, the Clark/Lana on-again, off-again relationship didn't work over the long haul and wore thin quickly. The first three seasons it was tragic...after that it got to be bothersome. It was especially unbelievable once Chloe found out about Clark's powers. The perfect girl was staring him in the face week after week, and he still pined after Lana (a character given basically no personality or any reason to like her)? To their credit, the producers never expected it to go this long. Clark started out a junior in high school, then it was revealed he was actually a freshman that first year so they could keep him in high school four years (he went to the prom 3 out of the first four seasons).

To their credit, the idea of making Lex Luthor a good guy for the first few seasons was a wonderful twist. His friendship with Clark really made you root for the guy you knew would eventually become this twisted villain someday. Even though you knew his slow descent into evil was inevitable, you still held out hope for him. Rosenbaum's Lex remains the single greatest television villain ever for a comic book series. He blew away all previous incarnations of the character in television or movies, and would make a perfect choice if they ever decided to try and do another Superman movie.

After seven seasons, Michael Rosenbaum left the show and has publically stated he's not coming back in the eighth (and supposedly final) season for any guest appearances. That makes this season a probable bust for fans, but you still have to give them credit for giving us appearances by heroes like Green Arrow, Aquaman, Impulse, Cyborg, Supergirl, and Black Canary over the years.

Episode of note: No question's got to be season six's great episode "Justice". All the previous superhero guest stars showed up for one battle against Lex's evil testing facility 33.1. Unfortunately, it should have been a two-part episode. We got to see Impulse doing his thing, but Cyborg and especially Aquaman didn't get a lot of screen time. Still, it was nice to see them together and it was a great way to send off Green Arrow for a while.

Honorable mentions:

The Green Hornet

This series only lasted one season and it aired during the same years Batman was on the air, but it didn't reach the popularity of Batman.

Remembered now mostly for Bruce Lee's role as Kato, the series has never been released (legally) on DVD so most modern fans have never seen a complete episode. With the release of a Green Hornet movie looking like a sure thing in the future, we may still see this come out some day.

Lois & Clark

Notable more for Teri Hatcher's incarnation of Lois Lane than anything else, this show brought Superman's story to the modern age. The special effects were better than the George Reeves series, and we were finally treated to Lex Luthor on a regular basis, but the stories were a little "out there" at times.

The series focused more on the romantic relationship than adventure, and once they got married the series lost most of its sexual tension (who has sexual tension after marriage?) and it wasn't long before it was canceled.

The Greatest American Hero

This is kind of cheating since he was never actually a comic book hero of any kind, but I had to include him just because he was a fun part of my childhood. The theme song alone brings back the memories every time I hear it.

He never got a superhero name, but Ralph Hanley got a cool costume. The only problem was that he didn't have an instruction manual to help him figure it out. The show was played for laughs more than anything else, but it stands as one of those 80's shows you just love to watch when you stumble across them on television today. The costume was actually pretty cool--except for the boots. I have no idea what they were thinking there.

William Katt keeps saying there are plans for a "Greatest American Hero" movie to be made, but I wouldn't hold my breath. It would be fun to watch, but I doubt they could do it justice. Besides, given the way our country currently is, he couldn't call himself the Greatest American Hero without hurting someone's feelings, so he would have to instead call himself "A Pretty Good Hero Born In North America"--and let's admit it, that just doesn't sound fun.

Birds of Prey

Before there was Smallville, there was this series. It was a great idea (Batman is missing, Huntress was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, Oracle was pretty true to the comics) mixed with a bad idea (Dinah was not Black Canary as in the comics, but later revealed to be the daughter of the Black Canary with psychic powers), but the overall tone of the series was cool.

It only lasted 13 episodes, so it never really got the chance to build on the premise it was creating. The addition of Harley Quinn as a psychiatrist was nice, and one can easily see where the storyline could have gone. Still, I guess it's better to go out early than drag on too long (right, Smallville?).

Mercy Reef

The CW's attempt to bring Aquaman to the small screen in a weekly "Smallville" type series only had one episode--and the influences of Smallville are obvious, thanks to the fact it was created by the writers of that series--but if you've watched the pilot episode you probably didn't go away disappointed. The special effects were great, and you can easily see where the show could have held up nicely for a couple of seasons. Justin Hartley was a great choice for Aquaman/Arthur Curry, and the supporting cast was just as good.

Unfortunately this series never got any further than a pilot, though Hartley did manage to make it into the DC universe as Green Arrow on Smallville.


Currently still airing on NBC, this show started out with high ratings and promise during its first season. Treating each season as a complete storyline allowed the writers the ability to keep the story going just long enough to keep it interesting, while not filling it up with unnecessary stuff just to keep it running for unlimited seasons.

Unfortunately the writer's strike last season forced them to scramble to end a 23-episode storyline in only 11 episodes, so the sophomore slump was definitely there. From what I understand, the third season hasn't really taken off yet either, so this series may be on its final legs as well. Still, the premise is great, and the fact that we see folks with different powers every season along with the regulars keeps it open to possibilities if they can turn it around.

There's no doubt that DC comics has ruled the television screen for years, even as Marvel has ruled the movies. Hopefully we'll see that turn around someday.

But these weren't the only heroes to ever have their chance at live-action! There were those who had the chance to show up for television movies, series pilots, and Saturday morning shows! Let's take a look at those other heroes who have shown up in the flesh at least once in our final look at live action heroes next Monday!


The Groovy Agent said...

Excellent, well-researched article. Another winner! One boo-boo: Smallville premiered in Oct. of 2001, while Birds of Prey came along a year later. I loved BOP, btw. Thought it was better'n Smallville, m'self.

Rick said...

Loved the article. Also Marvel tired for TV Stardom with 2 Captain America movies and one with Dr. Strange. I guess you will mention those next week.
Of all the comic book based shows I think the Flash was the best and closest to its comic book counterpart.

msboku said...

Dude, You are behind the times. The Greatest American Hero movie is going to be made. Cannell and Katt have released the info in fact...William Katt has
let out a comic book, with Chris Folino, called Sparks.
Next year Mythology Wars (Another Katt comic)will be out. And the Big news, William Katt
is releasing the Greatest American Hero comic book in November! Followed by a web series of shorts with the original voices of William Katt, Connie Selleca and Robert Culp!
Here is the link to Catastrophic comics (William's comic book company.
Tell them Marci Sent you.

He is going to conventions and comic book stores for signings so, keep your eyes peeled.
And if you want to talk about the Greatest American Hero go here.
We're a great bunch and the bd has been very active for about 3 yrs.
Yup! We chat GAH and keep up on where the gang will be!

Brian said...

Groovy Agent: Thanks for setting me straight on Birds of Prey. I don't know how I missed that.

Rick: Cap and Doctor Strange will both be making appearances next week!

msboku: I knew Katt had a comic series out there, but didn't think the movie was finalized yet. I know he wants to make one, but I thought they were still shopping for a studio. When it comes out, I'll be in line though!

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