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. There was a television show…i know its on netflix…don’t know what channel it was on.

    Birds of Prey. modeled after the Birds of Prey comic book…starred Black Canary, Huntress…and i don’t know the rest.

    I would have loved to see some mention of that in here.

    • That was on the cw

      • WB not CW

        the Hoff as Nick Fury was actually not bad considering the abortion that was foxes Generation X i was expecting the worst

        • That show was terrible, and then some; while watching it with my family, we changed channels to PBS and watched a documentary.

        • WB is CW!!!

    • That was on the cw.

    • Actually Birds of Prey is out on DVD, with a lot of great extras. I found my copy at Wal_Mart for $13. Pretty good deal, the heroines were great, it was the villains that sucked.

  2. Birds Of Prey also had Oracle & Harlequinn, though the character was different from the comic counter-part. I think Clayface made a appearance on the show, again his appearance wasn’t like what he was in the comics.

  3. anyone know why I can’t get past the first page???

  4. 6/01,/2012
    I believe there was also a film version done in the 1990s. With both Alex Baldwin and his brother William.

    • Just Alex Baldwin.

      • Actually I believe Daniel Baldwin was an extra on the movie doing a few shots as the The Shadow

  5. I liked the Flash TV show with John Wesley Shipp. With Mark Hamil as The Trickster, it was awesome. It was a template for his personality as The Joker.

    • @ Gauldar

      He also reprised the role by voicing The Trickster on JLU.

    • I loved that show. And I don’t think it was corny at all. If anything, it was way darker than the comics. And, as far as I know, it was canceled for budget reasons, since it was inmensely popular.

  6. What? No mention of Generation X before the X-Men films?

  7. Impulse appeared as a member of an ad hoc Justice League (NOT “Society”) in “Smallville.” They included a young Aquaman, Cyborg and Black Canary. The Justice Society appeared later in the series, but with characters like Hawkman, Stargirl, Dr. Fate and Alan Scott/Green Lantern.

    • Right. They also need to change his name to Bart ALLEN, not Allan.

  8. Why can’t I click to the next page on this thing? I’m stuck on page 1, darn it.

    • JC,

      Apologies – there’s some kind of glitch and we’re having a hard time tracking it down. :-(


    • JC,

      I think (hope!) it’s fixed now.


  9. Nice article. What’s the source of the photo on the opening page, though? Apologies if you’ve already answered this — I went through the comments and saw one other inquiry, but no reply.

    Again, nice piece, full of memories (some of them even good!).

    • Probably some cosplay.

  10. Well there was the made-for-tv movie for GENERATION X (which was passable for it’s time) and the God-awful “Mutant X” tv series.
    You’d think with now 5 X-Men movies, they’d re-release them on some kind of special edition dvd/blu-ray.
    Birds of Prey was pretty good, and at least had a respectable form of Oracle, Alfred Pennyworth, and Harley Quinn, along with cameos of Batman, Joker, and Catwoman. And what many people don’t know is that Huntress’ portrayal was based on her Pre-CRISIS Earth-2 version (who was in fact Batman & Catwoman’s daughter).
    I remember Smallville producers promising us a Batman cameo as far back as season 2!
    And then CW thankfully cancelled plans to make “The Graysons” about a pre-Robin Dick Grayson.
    Speaking of which, if you included that Lobo Christmas special, why not include John Fiorella’s short film pseudo-trailer “GRAYSON”? It had many cameos including Green Lantern, Superman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and The Joker.

    • I’d like to see the inclusion of GenX, but Mutant x had nothing to do with Marvel’s Mutants other than stealing the name of a decent alt-universe book starring the 616 Havok. In MX, there never was any Charles Xavier, and all the mutants were offspring of some genetic research by John Shea’s character.

      speaking of John, where was LOIS & CLARK? or even the late 80s/early 90s SUPERBOY?

  11. Great article, btw. Brought back alot of memories on the movies/videos I haven’t seen in forever.

  12. i rememberd the original black and white batman serial
    that was an bonus episode on the ghostbusters double feature
    vhs that came around in 97 i think so it was an earlier
    attempt to show batman in theatre houses way back in the
    1920′s just before pathe news and the movie matinee.

    frankie (cool rider) smales

    frankie smales tv and movie review uk

  13. the green arrow one didn’t look that bad.

  14. Nice assortment or bygone super hero adaptations. One minor correction – the actor who played Guy Gardner/Green Lantern in the 1997 Justice League pilot was Matthew Settle, not Matthew Steele.

  15. I saw The Punisher in 1989 in theaters in Rhode Island. It came to the States, buy maybe only to certain test markets.

  16. am i the only one who thought the Hasselhoff Nick Fury movie was pretty decent? good story, surprisingly well acted by the Hoff coulda done without Lisa Rinna though.

  17. Omg, these old depictions are hilarious. I can’t help but wonder, will future generations look back at our movies and find them just as comical?

    • I have no doubt that future generations will look back upon this era with disdain, yes.

  18. What about the 70′s awful TV attempt at The Avengers with Paul Lineman &I Kiss?

  19. What about the 70′s awful TV attempt at The Avengers with Paul Lineman & Kiss?

  20. boooooo, the original Punisher with Dolph gets an undeserved bad rep imo. Love that movie, sure its pretty B movieish and is obviously made in the 80s, but its alot of fun and I think they got the psychological side of the character down pretty well. At the very least its a hell of alot better then that horrible Thomas Jane version.

    • Are you kidding? Lungren’s Punisher had nothing to do with Marvel’s Punisher except the name. If you want to see a good Punisher movie go see Punisher: Warzone. Now, THAT’s the way to do a Punisher movie.

      • actually, go watch the short Thomas Jane just did (or go watch it again). THAT’S the way to do a Punisher movie (although I liked the Ray Stevenson version, too).

        • Actually ALL of the Punisher movies have sucked badly. The ‘War Zone’ one was better than the rest (including the silly Thomas Jane self made short “Dirty Laundry” which for some reason gives some younger fans an erection.) but still very bad. I used to, in the early-to-mid 1980s think the Punisher would make for the best movie and I and all my friends immediately said Dolph Lundren would have made the best Punisher. This was right when the legendary original Punisher mini-series by Steve Grant and Mike Zeck (the only comic artist who has ever drawn the Punisher well IMO) so Lundren made a lot of sense. He was not as physically pit bullish as Zeck’s Punisher but he could have passed.

          These newer Punishers are all based on that F***ing horrible Mike Baron/Klaus Jansen/Whilce Portacio ‘Skinny James Bond clone’ Punisher that Marvel went with after the successful mini-series.

  21. Good list. I had forgotten about the Legends Of The Superheroes special! :)

    Not listed: Thor’s first appearance was the 1987 feature directed by Chris Columbus, Adventures In Babysitting.

  22. Hellraezer. I beg to differ. None had Lungren’s Punisher’s maturity. Just reckless almost unscripted violence. Weak story and characterization. But we are entitled to our opinions.

    • Weak is a very weak word to describe the abyssal void that was the screenplay as well as Dolph Lundgren’s “acting” abilities.

      • In defense of Lundgren, it did not matter what actor was in that role. The screenplay was so amateurishly bad and the directing so abysmal that even Louis Gossett Jr. comes off looking bad!

  23. Here’s how i see it…Some of these shows/movies came out when I was heavily in to reading comics (early 70′s and mostly Marvel). I was STARVED to see my heroes in ANY shape or form on the tube or movie screen. When Wonder Woman came out, it somewhat captured my curiosity (even though I wasn’t a fan). I caught many episodes when they originally aired. Then came…SHAZAM!. I loved it and never missed it (yep, even though I wasn’t a Captain Marvel fan). I watched some episodes of ISIS (because I thought she was a BABE!). Then came Ron Ely’s, Doc Savage in 1975 and I super excited about that! It basically was ripped from the 1st 4 Doc Savage comics that Marvel produced from the early 70′s…but it pretty much flopped and that was the end of that.

    1977…Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man. YES!!! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when this came out then I saw it and thought, “He looks kinda weird. And what’s up with those eyes?”. But that’s all we had back then so, I loved it and never missed an episode.

    1978…I was excited when the Hulk hit the airwaves. Now, I was a big Hulk fan (my best friend from elementary school days was) but was a bit disappointed when they didn’t get his origin ‘quite right’ and why wasn’t he tossing cars like pebbles? What?!?? He got shot and he’s bleeding?? And a black costumed Daredevil and an idiot Thor covered in fur?? And a Captain America wearing a motorcycle helmet and a plastic shield and a Doctor Strange wearing weird pajamas and Lungren’s Punisher outfit??!?? NOOOOOOOOO!! I was upset that my Marvel heroes weren’t like the pages of the comic books that I treasured, but you know what? It’s ok…cause that’s all we had back then.

    Then came the movie that broke the mold. Superman. Wow. Amazing…and I wasn’t even a Superman fan. Superman 2? EVEN BETTER!! I loved Burton’s Batman. Yep, there was a time when DC really had it going and Marvel couldn’t get anything right. Things come in waves and the tides will probably change again.

  24. Both the Birds of Prey and The Flash were good shows I have both series onDVD enjoyed them very much both shows wer ahead of their time costs as well The biggest problem was Netwoks preempted the shows and people got bored wondering if those shows were ever going to air. Both shows had stories that needed to be told or there wer questions to be answered with characters but got cancelled before stories were told or answered.

  25. The reason Rex Smith was in black, rather than dressed like a devil, was b/c the network was afraid the red devil outfit would offend viewers in the Bible Belt.

    Yup. True story.

  26. There was a 1996 “The Phantom” movie starred by Billy Zane.

  27. Around the same time as the Capt America, SpiderMan, Capt Marvel, and Hulk tv shows (late 70s), there was some tv special called Power Man or something, and it was when I was young and like a previous poster, was excited for anything bringing my beloved superheroes “to life” on the screen, but I remember being disappointed by this PowerMan show, I can’t remember why, but I remember thinking it was not the same as what I knew from the comics. I think it was a caucasian main character, whereas I knew Power Man as an African American … and I can just remember being so excited for it from commercials, looking forward to watching it … and then I don’t even think I watched the whole show, and I remember complaining to my grandmother that it wasn’t the same Power Man. I think it might have been what is titiled “The Power Within (1979)” on — a Spelling pilot on ABC.

  28. I remember an Iron Man movie around the late 70′s or early 80′s. I never saw it but I remember seeing the poster. I can’t seem to find any info about it on the internet so I thought you would talk about it, but nada. Help, anyone?

  29. She Hulk! Man, I would LOVE to see a GOOD flick starring her!