Before They Were Movies: Early Attempts to Bring Superheroes to Life Onscreen

2 years ago by  

before they were films x men Before They Were Movies: Early Attempts to Bring Superheroes to Life Onscreen

Both DC Comics and Marvel would have you think that big-budget, blockbuster films like Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, Green Lantern and The Avengers are their only attempts to bring popular comic book characters into the live-action arena. They would like everyone to forget the sometimes absurd, ridiculous and often ugly reality: that there were numerous early – and failed – attempts to bring super heroes to both the big and small screens.

Over the next few pages you can read about these early superhero attempts and the actors who portrayed them on-screen. Some you may be familiar with, but we’ll bet you’ve never heard of many of them.

NOTE: This list doesn’t cover every instance of every superhero who has ever appeared on TV or in a direct-to-video movie – that would be far too exhaustive. Instead, we’ve covered only those superheroes who have a movie already released, in development or will have one in development soon.

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  1. Good job on this. A great read!

  2. Wrong! The first “Batman” theatrical film was in 1966, not 1989.

    • Ummm….it does say the first one was in ’66. How foolish. LOL.

    • @Glen – I was under the impression the film only released in Austin, TX but didn’t get a wide release. Upon further investigation it appears the film did go wide. I’ve made the correction.


      Paul Young

  3. A Turkish Captain America and She-Hulk dressed like Madonna! You couldn’t make this stuff up…. and If I hadn’t seen the pictures myself I would have scoffed in derision and disbelief.

    • When I saw Neilson, I was like, “Who is she suppose to be playing?”. When I saw it was She-Hulk, I had to thank God that never happened.

  4. For Flash, you said both the bottom actors were “on the right”. I actually liked the Flash TV show from the 90′s.

    • Same here. I thought it was alright to…

    • i also liked that show, and was sad when it got cancelled. i didn’t think it was too corny. i found it like watching a live action comic book.

  5. Alot of misspelled or misplaced words, but great article.

    • Edit,

      Thanks. Not an excuse, but it’s a 2,600 word post so even after going though once it seems a few issues still slipped through. I’ve gone through it again and hopefully caught everything.


      • Not to nitpick, but I just noticed another spelling mistake. For the page on Green Lantern, Guy Gardner’s name was misspelled as Gardener.
        Also, on the Flash page, when you’re talking about Smallville when referring to Impulse, you put The Flash in brackets, but they are two totally separate characters.

  6. Now if somebody could kindly find some of these gems on youtube and post them here that would be awesome.

    • i have seen about 1/2 of that FF on you-tube. it’s pretty horrible.

  7. What about the Electric company Spider-man? Didn’t he predate the TV show?

    • i was gonna say the same thing. showing our age aren’t we?

      • I don’t think he did anything except shrug his shoulders, scratch his head, and his “speech” was a squeaky sound effect. But I remember watching the show for the sole reason of seeing that Spider-man, hoping he’d do more. And the kids today go on and on about Captain America’s cowl.

        But I guess EC Spidey wasn’t really a genuine attempt at a live action show.

  8. You know I actually have these movies of Batman……….

  9. there was also Generation X, a failed attempt to start a show based on an X-men spinoff. It had Jubilee, Emma Frost, and Banshee.

    • There was Mutant X also…

      • nah, Mutant X was not actually related to the X-men franchise. I think there was some sort of tension between the two franchises because of the title.

        • Lawsuit is more like it, Fox sued Marvel over it.

    • This was a straight to VHS movie, I actually kind of liked it even if it was made for $100 – all of which, was spent on dry ice.

    • @Mike – Interesting…I had no idea about that one. I will add it as soon as I can.


      Paul Young

  10. Good article and research for sure. I didn’t know about Many of these. Especially the obscure TV shows..

    Yes, that Lobo was Spot on and I’m hoping the status for the new one changes from ‘In Development’ to ‘Cancelled’ or ‘Limbo’..

    I actually like the Lundgren Punisher. It’s not that bad it’s just not that good. He’s just kinda crazy in this one…

    • Lundgren’s Punisher was the best Punisher movie imo…I thought it was a theatrical release???

      • Actually, Punisher went straight to video – did not release in the theatres (got shelved in 89, then straight to video in 91).

    • Not really sure what movie they’re talking about. The Punisher doesn’t speak in rhyme on my copy.

      • That’s right. The Punisher doesn’t speak in rhyme. His sidekick, played by the father of Miranda Otto (Eowyn in LOTR)does. The movie was released theatrically outside the US.

    • plus the Lundgren version was almost spot on to the comics as to his origin & reasons. Issue #52 to be exact.

      • HA!

        An overlooked fact. I think I may even have that issue still in my comic box…

    • It was weird on the Lobo page, where it was saying about what a weird story the film has, but the story wasn’t original to the movie, it was based on a Lobo comic, and I would figure that the writer would know that.

  11. I liked all the Smallville recognition. One thing that I loved about that show was their abundance of heroes (who otherwise would probably NEVER be seen on screen).

  12. They all played Barry Allen minus Bart Allen from Smallville, but I miss Wally West:_-(. I have Wally’s face from the Justice League 2000 animated series. Just in live-action:-D.

  13. Ah, the stuff of comic book lore. I lived through some of these and have heard about most of them over the years. This puts perspective on some of the newer projects, since they have come along way in some areas. It also gives a clear example of why, from a production design standpoint, the whole tight spandex costume idea often sounds better than it actually looks…

  14. Errata:

    * The Incredible Hulk Returns, the TV movie in which Thor features, was the first, not the second, of three Hulk TV movies.

    * Reb Brown played Captain America in two TV movies, not one. The first featured a very silly, very ’70s take on Cap’s costume. The second had a somewhat less silly costume, and Christopher Lee as the bad guy.

    * The Dr. Strange movie was made for TV, not “direct to video”, since nobody was making “direct to video” movies in 1978.

    * The 1990 Flash show was not “too corny” (it got very respectable ratings and reviews), but too damned expensive (more than $1 million per episode, which would be more than $2 million in today’s dollars, not counting special Hollywood inflation). Though it had odd moments, the show was actually respectful of the character.

    • I remember watching Dr. Strange. You’re right. I hadn’t even heard of VCRs. They didn’t start becoming common until the early eighties, and then they were pretty expensive luxury items that only some had. No, we had to clear the schedule, negotiate the family TV (black and white for us), and watch the show. It never aired again, maybe late at night. I did see it once on VCR much later I think.

      And the 1990 Flash was a respectable show. I wasn’t crazy about it. It seemed like they were trying to make it dark and gritty like Batman. Thankfully they don’t resort to that sort of desperate coattail riding these days.

    • @jason – There were 3 Hulk TV movies – Daredevil was in the first, Thor in the 2nd and She-Hulk was supposed to be in the 3rd but was dropped.

      Brown did indeed play in two films. A minor point since he is on our list but I made the change.

      You’re right about Dr. Strange. I corrected that.

      I stand by my opinion on The Flash. The show was a psychedelic feast of corniness. I love the costume though.


      Paul Young

      • I know this is old but I had to post…

        Thor was in the first tv movie called “The Incredible Hulk Returns” in 1988.

        Daredevil was in the second movie called “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” in 1989

      • Lois & Clark was even worse, yet I’ll bet you (and everybody else) loved that show.

    • Additional errata:

      The 70′s Wonder Woman series aired one season on ABC set in World War 2 and two seasons on CBS set in the modern day.

      The Aquaman pilot with Justin Hartley was called Mercy Reef.

      The references to the Justice Society in Smallville for Aquaman, Flash/Impulse and Green Arrow should be changed to Justice League.

      Also, there was a brief shot of the Justice Society’s Flash helmet in the trophy case and archival footage in the Smallville episode “Justice”.

  15. i was 11 when the Hammond spider-man show was on, and i thought it was awesome then, but now it’s pretty sad.

    also, no mention of the green hornet?

    • @jeffro – Grreen Hornet started as a radio serial and not a comic book or strip. I ruled it out because of that. The Shadow started in pulp magazines and The Phantom was a comic strip first, hence why I left them in.


      Paul Young

      • Ala Wikipedia-”The Shadow is a fictional character appearing in serialized dramas on radio in 1930 and later in pulp magazines beginning in 1931.” Hence, by your reasoning, the Shadow should not be on this list either. In any case, the Hornet deserves more respect than has been given him, especially by the most recent theatrical release, which I was unable to watch all the way through. If you include him, maybe we can goad someone into making a movie worth watching.

  16. is it bad that there are only 2 i didnt know about (one of the wonder woman and she-hulk)

    you probably missed some but overall a good list

  17. D. Jason Fleming – The 1990 Flash show was not “too corny” (it got very respectable ratings and reviews), but too damned expensive (more than $1 million per episode, which would be more than $2 million in today’s dollars, not counting special Hollywood inflation). Though it had odd moments, the show was actually respectful of the character.

    I agree with D. Jason Fleming on this, i used to watched it when i came home from high school it was one of my favorites

    • Yep, was probably the best incarnation of Flash to date. I actually thought they did an excellent job considering it was for TV.

      • I loved the Flash TV show too. Own it on DVD and think it’s really well done for its time and budget. Mark Hamil as the Trickster is just great!

    • I agree that the Flash wasn’t what you would call “corny”. Nor was it “campy” like Batman with West. But they did seem to go out of there way to make it appear slightly unreal. It’s been a really long time since I saw any of it, but I remember specifically that there were anachronistic touches to it, a mixture of older and newer cars, etc, not big things, but they sort of enhanced the comic book aspect of it. One of the worst things a film maker can do is to make a comic book character “real”. I could never watch the Hulk TV show, because it really wasn’t the Hulk, it was a mutant version of The Fugitive. And yes, I do understand the limitations of the medium of the day, and the fact that it was a small screen budget, but that’s when you go the Batman route, if you can’t afford really good special effects, then you get over-the-top villains and OTT actors to play the parts. And really, the show was about Bruce Banner, not the Hulk. (Sorry ‘Robert Bruce Banner’). (I’m ranting, I know) Anyway, I think the Flash had more potential than most things I’ve seen made for TV. !!! About to go seriously off subject here. Did anyone ever see something called Lightspeed? (or Stan Lee’s Lightspeed). Guess he couldn’t get the rights to do Quicksilver, or even the Whizzer, (I would have watched this second one, just to see if he got made fun of). Just as well really.

      • Do you mean DAVID Banner? They changed his name from “Bruce” to “David”, according to Stan lee, because they felt “Bruce” sounded too effeminate.

  18. The Thing from ’94 looks better than the new ones! How in the crap is that possible?!?!

    • The ’94 movie Thing looked like the version that gained more power in the comics in the late 80′s giving even Grey Hulk a run for his money.
      The newer Thing has that smoother look as in the comics before that time and to date.

      • Actually the comics before that time featured a not at all “smoother” Thing, much closer to the Corman film version than the newer movies. Look at Jack Kirby’s run on FF during the 60s.

  19. Iron Man was to receive his first television appearance in the next Incredible Hulk television show. After Daredevil and Thor, they ultimately cancelled the idea.

    I have an old copy of a Marvel News comic book discussing Universal Pictures making Iron Man as far back as 1990. Thank God it wasn’t made until the time was right.

  20. I found a Justice League of America that apparently was made in Canada, bought it on Ebay because it’s the closest I’ll get to see one actually made (that was, until I saw the Avenger’s movie) There is hope yet.

  21. Who are those ridiculous looking x-men on the first page, those look like bad home-made costumes.

  22. No mention of Mantis?

    • M.A.N.T.I.S. was not the comics Mantis (Marvel). It was a different character.

  23. Man I wish Captain America looked like he did in the 40′s that would have been awesome

  24. These make me uncomfortable… mainly because I remember so many of these earlier versions so well.

  25. I still enjoy the Batman TV show and own the entire series on bootleg DVD. Julie Newmar aka Catwoman is still the hottest ever, sorry Ann.

  26. Like Strange, Hoff’s Nick Fury was also a TV movie and not DTV. In fact, it had not been available on video until 2008…and only at one specific store.
    It should be said that Hoff’s Fury flim was indeed bad…but give it some props. It did have Hydra, Viper, Dr. Zola. Dum-Dum Dugan and Clay Quartermain.

    • Yeah, I can completely remember the TV guide listing for the Nick Fury made for TV movie when it first aired. It was what they called a “back door pilot” in that they hoped if it got great ratings they would make a series out of it. You’d think people would actually research this stuff before just slapping a list together.

      • @Pervis – Slow your roll buddy. There isn’t much difference between a made-for-TV movie and a direct-to-video movie but I’ve made the change. The site I used to research these called it an American film so I went with DtV.

        I take offense at implying I just slapped this list together. This is the only list of this type anywhere on the internet – go ahead and Google it – you’ll find nothing this comprehensive.

        There are 23 characters represented here by 53 actors spanning 2600 words – I had to make up a damn Excel spreadsheet to just keep up with all the notes. Heck, I spent a few days just trying to find images for all of them because a few are so rare and so old.

        What exactly was your “research”? Oh yeah, you remembered a TV Guide listing – that sounds reliable.


        Paul Young

        • Because IMDB is not in your ability to do reasearch?

          Give me an f-break. This was riddled with errors and miss-information.

          • Pervis,

            First, it’s “misinformation” not “miss-information” (as long as you’re being critical.


            Change your tone or you’ll find yourself disappeared from the site.



        • While there may have been several errors in the typing of this article, I feel that the author did quite a stand up job when there were inconsistencies shown to correct them as quickly as possible.

          Take the information he has given with a grain of salt and enjoy the article. Don’t bash on someone who has taken the time to write up something that was quite an undertaking to begin with.

  27. What about Blackhawk with Kirk Alyn

  28. I really hope they do Lobo Justice. The Paramilitary Christmas was awesome. It was surprising how close they got to the comic. I can’t wait.

  29. I’m so glad I was born after most of these popped up lol.
    I can’t decide whether I should watch some of these shows and movies though… they look horrible, but funny at the same time.
    It’s an interesting read, but darn you Paul! Why’d you have to dig up old skeletons! ;)

    • The Punisher, The Flash, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man (American version) and the 90s Captain America movie are worth a watch. Enjoyable for what they are.

      I was 10 when CA came out in 90 and it was also a sick day movie to make me feel better.

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