For almost as long as there have been superheroes there have been attempts to bring them to life. Whether by radio serial, live-action or animated TV show or movie, comic book characters have always been a trusted source of inspiration for Hollywood studios. With over forty new comic-based movies hitting theaters during the next decade it would be easy to forget that superheroes and supervillains have also dominated the small screen.
Since 1937 when actor Rod La Rocque first portrayed The Shadow in a live-action show, the television industry has tried dozens of times to bring audiences’ favorite comic characters to life – some were highly successful (The Flash, Batman, The Incredible Hulk), while others didn’t make it beyond the concept stage or a single pilot episode.
It’s those attempts that, for whatever reason, fell to the wayside we’re going to be talking about in this piece. For a character’s show to appear in this post it’s OK if they actually had a pilot made – it could have even aired – as long as a full season of the show was never ordered by the network, then it counts. We’re also leaving off shows that are currently in development or on-hold status, such as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin off and Booster Gold.
Here is Screen Rant’s list of 15 Superhero TV Shows that Almost Happened.
Wonder Woman – 1967
After his success with the Batman live-action television series in sixties, producer William Dozier wanted to produce a show with a female superhero character. Even though he had recently introduced the late Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, she was a secondary character and he wanted to make a show that was centered around a female heroine. He hired actress Linda Harrison (Planet of the Apes) to portray a rather odd version of Wonder Woman in a 4-minute short film titled Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?
The short film was supposed to garner enough interest in Wonder Woman to support a television movie pilot, which would lead into a new series with the titular Amazon as the center character. However, the story for the short went like this: Diana Prince is a homely girl sitting at home during a storm when she begins daydreaming about being the glamorous Wonder Woman. Then she flies out the window after gawking at herself in the mirror. You can watch the short – HERE – and you’ll quickly see why the network declined to do anything with the concept.
Black Widow – 1975
Almost forty years before Scarlett Johansson was transformed into the international buxom superspy with fiery red hair known as Black Widow, Angela Bowie had her own plans for the would-be Avenger. Mrs. Bowie, the model/actress/ex-wife of glam rocker David Bowie, made a deal with Marvel and Stan Lee to purchase the television rights to both Black Widow and Daredevil (more on that further down) for one year.
Bowie’s plan was to create a television movie around the two characters and have it serve as a pilot for a spy-type television series – a popular way to introduce new shows back in the seventies and eighties. Though the show never made it to the scripting phase, Bowie did hire famed Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie’s seventies persona) costume designer Natasha Kornikoff to design Black Widow’s outfit. While the character’s looks weren’t modified much, nothing more became of the concept – outside of a few black and white promotional stills – as the networks she approached declined to pick up the show, deeming it too expensive to produce.
Daredevil – 1975
Most comic book fans think that Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Matt Murdock, The Man without Fear, in 2003 was the first time the blind superhero had ever been considered for a live-action adaptation – this couldn’t be further from the truth. While Angela Bowie was purchasing the television rights to Black Widow, she was also snagged the rights to Daredevil. Her plan was to introduce the character in the spy-type show and she even went as far as including him in the costume photoshoot.
For the shoot, actor Ben Carruthers (one time drummer for the metal band Megadeth) had the “privilege” of slipping into the spandex suit created by designer Natasha Kornikoff. It’s a good thing this show concept never got off the ground because the strange shiny suit with tiny horns and a face makeup is easily the most laughable Daredevil yet – though some would say Affleck’s red leather suit from 2003 is worse.
Dr. Strange – 1978
The road to a quality live-action Dr. Strange adaptation has been a long and winding for for Marvel and it all started with ill-fated 1978 TV movie, Doctor Strange. In the film, actor Peter Hooten plays Stephen Strange, who’s now a psychiatrist instead of a neurosurgeon. During the course of the story, he battles the evil Thomas Lindmer (a replacement for the comic villain The Ancient One) as he comes to terms with his newly-discovered magical powers.
Marvel had veteran TV writer Philip DeGuere pen the script as a pilot vehicle for a Doctor Strange television series and, as such, introduced several characters from the comics, including Morgan Le Fay and Wong. Marvel did all they could to push the project forward, even airing the movie on CBS who already had two successful Marvel projects under their belt – The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. Alas, this would all be for naught as CBS declined to pick up the series after the movie drew poor ratings.
Spider-Man – 1983
Since he first swung onto the television in 1967, Spider-Man has been adapted and rebooted in Hollywood more than any other Marvel property. He’s been “respun” twice now in five theatrical releases, with a another reboot coming up in Captain America: Civil War. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise to learn that Marvel and CBS, at one time, had plans to revive the character for television via a cameo in one of the Incredible Hulk TV movies. The Amazing Spider-Man was a mildly successful – if not cheesy – TV show in the late seventies starring actor Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker.
Hammond’s series was short-lived – canceled after two seasons – but his pal Bill Bixby would go on to find much more success as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk series. Bixby approached Hammond about bringing Spidey back into the TV fold and the project received network approval, with them ordering a script featuring both characters. It’s rumored the show would’ve also featured Spider-Man’s newly acquired black costume. However, as network studios are wont to do, Universal owned the rights to The Hulk at the time and was hesitant to allow Columbia access to the character. The project was eventually abandoned citing scheduling conflicts as Lou Ferrigno (who played the titular Hulk) was filming Hercules overseas at the time – but studio turf wars was the most likely obstacle.
Daredevil – 1985
The seventies and eighties are widely considered to be Golden Age of animation for many comic characters, with superheroes such as The Fantastic Four and of course, Spider-Man, entertaining audiences for years via action-packed Saturday morning cartoons. One character that almost received his own cartoon was that of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, a.k.a. the Daredevil. In the mid-eighties, legendary comic writer Mark Evanier was tasked by ABC to retool the “bible” (a book containing everything about a show) and write a pilot for the animated series.
In an interview with Comics Should Be Good columnist Brian Cronin – read it HERE – Evanier explained he intended to revert Daredevil back the style in which writer Wally Wood had made famous. Additionally, Evanier decided to include Murdock’s loyal companion, a seeing-eye dog named Lightning. Eventually the project was dropped for unknown reasons but the Evanier cites an unrelated disrespectful comment by a Marvel employee to an ABC executive as the main cause for its demise.
Daredevil – 1989
Outside of Spider-Man, the other property Marvel has tried to adapt into a series most often, live-action or animated, is that of Daredevil. They finally achieved critical success in 2015 when a live-action Daredevil series debuted on Netflix, but that wasn’t the character’s first appearance on television. In 1983, ABC paid acclaimed writer Stirling Silliphant (Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) to pen a script for a live-action show but that project was quickly scrapped. However, NBC would try their hand a jump-starting a live-action series by including Matt Murdock/Daredevil in a featured role in their TV movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.
The character, played by Rex Smith, was fairly true to the comics in tone but his origins were changed and the costume was more “ninja-inspired”, featuring an all-black outfit, minus the signature horns and famous “DD” logo on his chest. That outfit would appear twice more in the “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” comic miniseries and the 2015 live-action show. While the network fully intended to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for the character, nothing ever materialized from it.
She-Hulk – 1989
Jennifer Walters is a smart, competent lawyer who just happens to also be Bruce Banner’s cousin. So when she was in need of a life-saving emergency blood transfusion, Banner pumped a few pints into her veins. Of course, his blood is also The Hulk’s blood, so naturally, Walters had a “green” reaction to it – becoming the powerful and sexy She-Hulk. The character hasn’t been around as long as other Marvel properties, first appearing in the 1980 comic Savage She-Hulk #1 but she quickly became a fan favorite.
While She-Hulk has made numerous appearances in animated series and video games, she’s never been given a live-action adaptation – but that’s not for a lacking of trying. In 1989, there were plans to include She-Hulk in the third Incredible Hulk TV movie – The Death of the Incredible Hulk – but those were ultimately scrapped. Then in 1990, notorious schlockmeister Larry Cohen (Q: The Winged Serpent) wrote a script for a live-action She-Hulk movie which he planned on directing. The project even went so far as to cast Brigitte Nielsen in the titular role but nothing ever came from it beyond a photoshoot.
Power Pack – 1991
While arguably comic books were originally aimed towards kids, most of the characters were adults, with very few children superheroes in the market. Marvel changed all that when they introduced the Power Pack in 1984. The four siblings – Alex, Julie, Jack, Katie – ranged in ages from twelve to five and each had a received a super power from a dying alien of the Kymellian race known as Aelfyre Whitemane.
The comic was ultimately canceled in 1990 after 62 issues, though it received a retooling of sorts in 2005, but Marvel did attempt to keep the characters alive via a live-action show in 1991. They developed the show to be part of NBC’s Saturday morning lineup and a pilot episode was even made. While only minor changes were made to the characters, their powers and the original Power Pack canon, the show had a definite cheesy, early-nineties feel to it and NBC decided against picking it up for series. You can watch the entire 30-minute episode – HERE.
Solarman – 1991
While most comic fans have likely never heard of Marvel’s Solarman, he shouldn’t be confused with Dell Comic’s 1962 comic character Solar, Man of the Atom. Marvel’s Solarman was rather meta, as he was a teen named Benjamin Tucker who dreamed of eventually becoming a comic artist for Marvel. He receives his superpower from a stolen alien device called the Circle of Power – a bracelet once belonging to the evil villain Commander Gormagga Kraal.
The character was created by David Oliphant in the late-eighties and Marvel had big plans for the character in both the comic book and animated television worlds. Sadly, even with the great Stan Lee writing the scripts and artwork submitted by legendary artists Jim Mooney and Mike Zeck, the comic was canceled after only two lackluster issues. However, a pilot episode for the would-be animation series was produced and eventually aired once on Fox Kids, but the quality of the writing and animation was so poor (even for that era) that the show was never picked up. You can watch all 20 minutes of it – HERE.
Justice League of America – 1997
DC Comics has wanted a live-action version of their superhero team the Justice League for several decades. Before deciding to finally move forward with Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, they had already tried the live-action route several times prior. The first time was an ill-fated reunion show in 1979 with the two-part television special Legends of the Superheroes. It featured all the main cast from the sixties Batman show but was a laughable failure in execution. Watch the opening – HERE.
While the group would ultimately make their live-action television debut in season six of Smallville, DC tried to produce a television series well before that with the unaired pilot titled Justice League of America. In order to bypass licensing issues with characters such as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, the show featured the (at the time) lesser-known heroes of Green Lantern, The Flash, Atom, Fire and Ice. In the show, the team battle the evil meteorologist known as the Weather Wizard (highly modified from canon.) Somewhere between the bad writing and ridiculous costumes, the show lost its way and was never picked up by CBS. Watch the whole thing – HERE.
Bruce Wayne – 1999
In 2014, Fox debuted the television show Gotham, which centered on a young Jim Gordon attempting to clean up his city, as well as, followed the early pre-teen years of Bruce Wayne. However, this isn’t the first time a Bruce Wayne-centric television show was planned. In the late ’90s, screenwriter Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant) pitched a TV show to Tollin/Robbins Productions that followed an orphaned teenage Bruce Wayne, looking at the influences which molded him into the superhero we know.
Originally, HBO was in negotiations to produce Bruce Wayne but WB fell in love with the project and had planned to run it alongside of their new Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff show, Angel. But even though a series “bible” was created to support a five to six season run, the show never made it out of the pre-development stage. It was rumored that Shawn Ashmore (X2) and Trevor Fehrman (Clerks II) were considered for the role of Bruce, though that has never been confirmed. The show would ultimately be retooled by WB to become the hit series Smallville.
Aquaman – 2006
DC Comics’ Prince of Atlantis, Aquaman, has appeared numerous times in several animated series such as Super Friends, Batman Beyond, Superman: The Animated Series and even had his own Latin parody show The Aquaman Man and Friends Action Hour (seriously, watch it – HERE). However, the Atlantean’s first live-action appearance would come during the fifth season of Smallville in the form of Arthur “AC” Curry (Alan Ritchson). WB felt that character was so well received that he warranted having his own television show – something that has worked very well for The Flash.
They recast “AC” with actor Justin Hartley, then added veteran actors Ving Rhames and Lou Diamond Phillips to the cast. The show was tentatively titled “Mercy Reef”, which is appropriate since the story for Aquaman was so badly distorted from the source material cancelling the show after producing the disappointing pilot was a merciful move. If you want to watch the 45-minute disastrous pilot, it can still be found floating around online or purchased thru various streaming media outlets.
The Hulk – 2010
There’s no doubting the impact the popular eighties TV show The Incredible Hulk had on the superhero television landscape. For five seasons each week, viewers would tune in to see what tragedy the green monster would be a part of. The Hulk is such a popular character among comic book fans, that he’s been seen in four films, so it’s no surprise that Marvel had also planned a TV revival, of sorts, with him as the star.
In 2012, after Jeph Loeb became the head of Marvel Television, famed horror director Guillermo del Toro was approached to write and direct an hour long television show featuring The Hulk. After it was announced that Red Hulk would be the main villain of the show, fans on both sides of the aisle were excited to have such a talented horror director attached this property. However, after several months of speculation and slow news, Loeb said the project had been put on hold to focus on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. To date, there has been no new information on this potential series.
Wonder Woman – 2011
In 2011, NBC hired legendary television writer David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal) to pen the script for the pilot episode of a new Wonder Woman TV series. Adding to that hefty television resume, NBC enlisted the directing services of Jeffery Reiner (Friday Night Lights, Columbo) – the series should have been in good hands. Alas, that would turn out to be just a pipedream.
Adrianne Palicki (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) was cast as Diana Prince, with Hollywood veteran Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) joining her. Elizabeth Hurley (Bedazzled) was cast as the the show’s main villain – and that’s where things started going downhill. Wonder Woman’s outfit was changed dramatically from the 1975 version, falling more in line with the retconned version from the modern comics. However, shortly before the show was supposed to premiere, NBC unexpectedly canceled the series entirely. You can watch it – HERE – to see why.
Some of these attempts to give comic book superheroes a live-action television show we really wish would’ve happened (del Toro’s The Hulk, animated Daredevil series) and some we’re glad never saw the light of day (Wonder Woman 1967/2011, Aquaman). With shows like Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Legends of Tomorrow all debuting soon, it’s great to see though that studios are constantly looking for way to bring fans’ favorite characters to life.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!