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.
Batman: First Theatrical Release – 1966
1943 – Lewis Wilson – Wilson was first to portray Batman in a 15-part serial that introduced fans to items now common in the Batman mythos: the Bat Cave with its grandfather clock secret entrance, and a skinny Alfred.
1949 – Robert Lowery – A sequel starring Lowery as Batman left wartime behind and began falling in line with characters and stories fans knew, including: Vicki Vale, Commissioner Gordon and The Wizard.
1966 – Adam West – West’s campy take on the Caped Crusader is often considered to be the most iconic version of Batman. He battled classic villains with classic tools like his utility belt and the Batmobile.
Superman: First Theatrical Release – 1978
1948 – Kirk Alyn – Alyn (on right) doesn’t even receive title credits in the first, and wildly popular, attempt by Columbia Pictures to bring Superman to life; his name only showed up on posters. The studio touted that it couldn’t get an actor to fill the role, so they “hired Superman himself”.
1952 – George Reeves – The man most associated with wearing the Man of Steel’s red cape on the small screen is Reeves (on the left). The series found instant fame after a successful one hour pilot titled Superman and the Mole Men and ran for 6 seasons. The first two were broadcast in black and white with the remainder in color.
The Shadow: First Theatrical Release – 1994
1937 – Rod La Rocque – La Rocque was the first to fight evil at night in The Shadow Strikes and International Crime.
1940 – Victor Jory – The Black Tiger was The Shadow‘s nemesis in a 15-part serial starring Jory.
1946 – Kane Richmond –Richmond wore a black mask instead of a red scarf as The Shadow in three low-budget films.
1954 – Tom Helmore – Helmore played The Shadow in the first-ever TV series.
1958 – Richard Derr – Derr starred as The Shadow in a TV-pilot-turned-film called The Invisible Avenger.
The Phantom: First Theatrical Release – 1998
1943 – Tom Tyler – Columbia Pictures created a 15-part serial based on the Lee Falk’s popular comic strip called The Phantom. Tyler starred as Geoffrey Prescott/The Phantom fighting off poachers in the jungles with his trusted German shepherd Devil next to his side. “The Ghost Who Walks” could have used a better costume though, as the striped briefs make him look ridiculous – even in black and white and with two pistols strapped to his hips.
Spider-Man: First Theatrical Release – 2002
1974 – Danny Seagren – Spider-Man (Seagren) appeared in a series of sketches called Spidey Super Stories on the PBS show The Electric Company in 1974.
1978 – Nicholas Hammond – The Amazing Spider-Man TV show attempted to capitalize on the success of previous superhero shows Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. Even though the show was very popular with fans, CBS canceled it after thirteen episodes due to budget concerns.
1978 – Shinji Todo – The Toei Company of Japan created a Spider-Man TV show which made him a crime fighter who received his powers from an alien named Garia and piloted a robot called Leopardon. The show was praised for its stunt work and special effects.
Daredevil: First Theatrical Release – 2003
1975 – Ben Carruthers – This extremely laughable attempt at creating Daredevil for television was the brainchild of Angela Bowie – the wife of singer David Bowie. Fortunately, the network nixed the idea due to budget concerns before it ever got off the ground. This photo shoot (pictured on left) was as far as it went.
1989 – Rex Smith – Smith was first to actually portray the blind vigilante of justice in the made-for-TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. The biggest change from the comics fans noticed was Daredevil’s outfit – a black ninja-like costume instead of the red outfit adorned with horns and the double “D” on his chest. The movie was supposed to be the vehicle for a Daredevil spin-off TV show, but that never materialized.
The Hulk: First Theatrical Release – 2003
1978 – Lou Ferrigno – The Incredible Hulk is a huge gamma-irradiated monster who can only now be properly portrayed using today’s computer effects – but in the ’70s, professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno came pretty darn close. Covered in green body paint and ripped jean shorts (jorts!) the Incredible Hulk smashed his way through 82 television episodes over the course of five seasons. He also flexed his mighty green muscles in three made-for-TV movies – the last of which aired in 1990.
The Punisher: First Theatrical Release – 2004 (In the U.S.)
1989 – Dolph Lundgren – Marvel’s anti-hero Frank Castle, a.k.a. “The Punisher” is a mobster-killing, bad-guy-busting badass. His seemingly unlimited supply of fantastic weapons had fans of the character eager to see what kind of mayhem he could bring to the big screen.
Unfortunately, the first offering they received was Dolph Lundgren sans the iconic white skull on his chest, with a partner who spoke in rhyme, and riding a motorcycle. Clad in leather pants, he looked more like a Hell’s Angels reject than a hard-ass vigilante.
The movie was supposed to release domestically in 1989 but ended up having a short international run instead. The film landed on the direct-to-video shelves in 1991.
The Fantastic Four: First Theatrical Release – 2005
1994 – Alex Hyde-White (Mr. Fantastic), Rebecca Staab (Invisible Woman), Jay Underwood (Human Torch), Carl Ciafalio (The Thing)
Low-budget B-movie king Roger Corman was chosen to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s superpowered group the Fantastic Four to life. Unfortunately, they only allowed him a budget of a scant $1.5 million – most of which he spent on The Thing’s suit.
The film served only to maintain Constantin Film’s movie rights to the characters and was never intended to be released in theaters – though the actors and crew working on the film weren’t aware of this at the time. As with most early attempts at live-action superheroes, the film suffered from the limited special effects technology of the day.
While The Thing’s rock suit was actually pretty good and the Human Torch looked OK, Mr. Fantastic’s stretching ability was laughable and Invisible Woman’s power was displayed by just making her no longer appear in frame.
Nick Fury: First Theatrical Appearance – 2008
1998 – David Hasselhoff – Marvel produced a made-for-TV movie in the late nineties using one of its lower-tier characters starring David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – though few people understood why. Fury is brought out of retirement to once again help S.H.I.E.L.D. battle the evil forces of HYDRA, before they can attack Manhattan with the deadly Death’s Head virus. Hasselhoff sports the traditional eye patch, scruffy beard and chewed-on cigar butt that was synonymous with the character up until that point.
Thor: First Theatrical Release – 2011
1988 – Eric Allan Kramer – The Mighty Thor made his debut appearance in the second of three made-for-TV movies for the Incredible Hulk TV show. Kramer was tasked with playing the Norse god and did so with a mild tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top performance. The producers chose to keep Thor more in line with his Viking roots by dressing him up in fur, leather and a metal breastplate instead of the more familiar red and blue outfit.
One thing that wasn’t changed (thank goodness) was Thor’s hammer – Mjolnir. Kramer wields it like a true demi-god and uses it to dispatch groups of bad guys on more than one occasion.
Green Lantern: First Theatrical Release – 2011
1979 – Howard Murphy – Murphy was the unlucky actor chosen to first portray the Green Lantern in a live-action setting, in NBC’s 1979 special Legends of the Superheroes. His costume was a direct copy from the comics but makes the all-CGI costume Ryan Reynolds wore look good.
1997 – Matthew Steele – CBS tried (unsuccessfully) to launch a Justice League TV show in the late ’90s, where Steele played Guy Gardener – a software salesman by day and the Green Lantern by night.
2010 – Doug Pinton – In the ninth season of Smallville, Pinton shows up as Alan Scott/Green Lantern wearing his trademark power ring in some archival footage that Clark and Chloe stumble upon.
Captain America: First Theatrical Release – 2011 (In the U.S.)
1944 – Dick Purcell – Republic Studios teamed up with Marvel to make a 15-episode Captain America serial starring Dick Purcell.
1973 – Aytekin Akkaya – In the Turkish-made film Captain America and Santo vs. Spider-Man, Akkaya portrays Cap as the head of a task force assigned to take down the evil Spider-Man.
1979 – Reb Brown – Steve Rogers (Brown) was made a struggling artist pre-transformation in two full-length Captain America TV movies.
1990 – Matt Salinger – The story, costume, and villain were all better in this direct-to-video Captain America movie starring Salinger, yet somehow the movie still managed to fail.
Black Widow: First Theatrical Appearance – 2010
1975 – Angela Bowie – In the mid-seventies Angela Bowie received the rights to Daredevil and Black Widow from Stan Lee for one year, but this ill-fated photo shoot was as far as the idea ever went. All the studios Bowie approached deemed the endeavor too expensive.
Green Arrow: In Development
2006 – Justin Hartley – Sharpshooter vigilante Oliver Queen/Green Arrow made his first appearance in the sixth season of Smallville, played by Justin Hartley. He worked with the new Justice Society, attempting to take down the evil LuthorCorp, but occasionally worked on his own missions. He uses a compound bow and a crossbow instead of a standard recurve bow, but with the familiar battery of homemade trick arrows.
2012 – Stephen Amell – The CW produced a new series titled Arrow starring Amell in the title role as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow. The show has a darker and edgier feel while his costume is more reflective of the character’s origins. He dresses more like Robin Hood, using the traditional recurve bow and his stockpile of trick arrows.
Dr. Strange: In Development
1978 – Peter Hooten – Hooten played Dr. Stephen Strange in this ill-fated TV movie attempt by Marvel. The film was supposed to be the launching vehicle for a Dr. Strange TV series but after the film received a less than lukewarm reception by audiences the project was nixed. Currently Marvel is working on a new Dr. Strange project.
The Flash: In Development
1979 – Rod Haase – The Flash (Haase) made his first onscreen appearance in Legends of the Superheroes wearing an atrocious costume.
1990 – John Wesley Shipp – While Shipp’s version of The Flash was a tremendous upgrade in terms of character and costume, the show itself was just too corny to warrant more than one season.
1997 – Kenny Johnston – Johnston’s Flash was the leader of a team of superheroes in this failed CBS TV pilot Justice League of America. The costume also took a major step back.
2004 – Kyle Gallner – Gallner appeared as Bart Allan in season four of Smallville and again as “Impulse” (The Flash) in season six as a member of the Justice Society.
2014 – Grant Gustin – After his debut performance as Barry Allen in season two of Arrow, Gustin got his own show, superspeed-resistant suit, origin story, and team. The character and show took on a more light-hearted feel, while still fitting in to the TV universe created in Arrow.
Aquaman: In Development
2005 – Alan Ritchson (left) – Ritchson made just three appearances as Arthur Curry/Aquaman in Smallville, in seasons five, six and 10. He was an on again/off again member of the Justice Society and displayed all the same superpowers as his comic book influence: super swimming speed and telepathy with all oceanic life.
2006 – Justin Hartley (right) – Hartley became the Prince of Atlantis in Aquaman – a TV series that never made it past the pilot stage because CW decided not to pick up the show after the WB/UPN merger. Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar changed most of Arthur Curry’s backstory – “A.C.” was made a teenager living in the Florida Keys who, after the disappearance of his mother, was raised by his adopted father.
Hawkman: In Development
1979 – Bill Nuckols – Nuckols played Hawkman in Legends of the Superheroes, showing up alongside other DC characters to celebrate the birthday of the retired hero the Scarlet Cyclone. Except for the large protruding yellow tabs on either side of his mask, Hawkman’s costume looks decent by today’s standards, even though it was designed in the late seventies.
2010 – Michael Shanks – Hawkman, played by Michael Shanks, showed up in season nine of Smallville during a special two-hour episode titled “Absolute Justice”. His costume had the traditional strap-on wings and spiked mace, but a chest piece – which served a technical purpose on set – was added that made it look odd.
Lobo: In Development
2002 – Andrew Bryniarski – To date, the only attempt at a live-action Lobo film came from director Scott Leberecht titled The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special, which he made on a ultra-modest budget of $2,4oo for the American Film Institute.
The film’s bizarre story revolves around the Czarnian anti-hero/mercenary being hired by the Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus in an attempt to take over Christmas. Bryniarski’s performance as Lobo is spot on – as is the entire look that Leberecht managed to recreate surprisingly well.
Wonder Woman – In Development
1967 – Linda Harrison – In this strange failed TV pilot titled Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?, Harrison played Wonder Woman while Ellie Wood Walker played Prince Diana.
1974 – Cathy Lee Crosby – Crosby plays the flaxen-haired Amazon with superhuman agility in this made-for-TV movie that also served as the pilot vehicle for the TV series.
1975 – Lynda Carter – The most famous Wonder Woman was played by Carter for three seasons on ABC, which became one of their most popular shows of the time.
2011 – Adrianna Palicki – Palicki was chosen to play Princess Diana/Wonder Woman in a television reboot, but NBC canceled the project before the pilot episode ever aired.
Captain Marvel/Shazam – In Development
1941 – Tom Tyler – Tyler played Captain Marvel in a 12-episode serial which is the very first superhero live-action show.
1974 – Jackson Bostwick – Shazam! was a half-hour TV show on CBS which starred Bostwick as Captain Marvel for the entire first season.
1975 – John Davey – Two episodes into season two of Shazam! Davey took the cape and played Captain Marvel until the end of season three.
1978 – Garrett Craig – Captain Marvel – played by Craig – joined his friends in the Legends of the Superheroes TV special.
She-Hulk – Movie Status Unknown
1990 – Brigitte Neilsen – Marvel’s green female super-heroine She-Hulk was originally slated to make an appearance in the third and final made-for-TV film The Death of the Incredible Hulk, but was ultimately left out. Shortly after that, a She-Hulk TV series was announced, but it too ended up being a project that never got off the ground.
Writer/Director Larry Cohen planned a live-action big screen adaptation of She-Hulk with Neilsen announced to play the title role in 1990. However, all that came of the project was a series of photographs with Neilsen dressed as She-Hulk and her alter-ego Jennifer Walters.
With Marvel and DC Comics announcing the planned theatrical releases of over 40 films going deep into 2020, there will be plenty of changes to this list (sadly, no Lobo yet).
Did you find any early attempts at live-action superheroes that you didn’t know existed before now – if so, which ones are they?
Follow me on Twitter – @MoviePaul – and let me know which comic character’s TV roots you like the best.