In an era of the Arrowverse, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the like, it’s hard to remember a time when superheroes didn’t dominate television. Agents of Shield kicked off the current era, in a post-Avengers frenzy for Marvel to cross over into television. Before that, shows like Smallville had been hits, but in the grand scheme, very few superhero TV shows ever took off with the public. For every Batman or Wonder Woman, several failed superhero outings ended up on the ever-growing garbage heap of cancelled TV series.
Which brings us to today’s little expose. The shows detailed here all tried for superhero glory at different times in history, and but for the odd cult show, all of them eventually ended up forgotten. Some tried daring moves to attract audiences. Some tried spinning off from other shows. Others…well, who knows what the networks thought when they green-lit some of these stinkers! For that matter, the technical restrictions of the eras also hindered the ambition of the shows—had they hit the air today more polished, they might have caught on. As it is, they’ve fallen into obscurity, which might be for the best.
Think you know superhero history? Take on our list of 15 Forgotten Superhero TV Shows!
Long before Beast Boy became a darling of the geek-o-sphere, another shape shifter vied for TV stardom. Manimal followed the adventures of Dr. Jonathan Chase—played by actor Simon MacCorkindale—a man who could change himself into any animal! For the most part though, Chase like to shift into a hawk or panther…largely due to budget and effects restrictions of the time. Armed with this secret power, Chase would aid his beautiful detective friend Brooke Mackenzie in solving cases and bringing criminals to justice.
Manimal ran eight episodes in 1983 on NBC before getting the ax. Critics of the time attacked the ridiculous premise, obvious budget restrictions and overall air of camp of the show. Creator Glen A. Larson had a strong pedigree of creating sci-fi shows for TV, having conceived Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider, both for NBC. Manimal, however, went down in history as one of the worst shows to ever air, a dubious honor it still holds among critics today.
14. The Man With The Power
Once upon a time, networks used to air TV movies as a way of kicking off a new series, and to promote it with grand fanfare. That still happens on occasion today—the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries being just one example. In 1977, NBC tried to do just that with a weird sci-fi take on the superhero genre called The Man With The Power.
Not to be confused with the Outer Limits episode of the same name, the telefilm The Man With The Power followed the adventures of a man who learned his father was an alien, which imbued him with telekinesis. Mild mannered school teacher Eric Smith discovered his abilities while trying to rescue a turtle from some train tracks (seriously). Throughout the film, Eric learns to use his powers for good, and gains contact with his father’s alien homeworld. After protecting an Indian princess (played by Persis Khambatta of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) from an assassination attempt, the US government enlisted Smith as a secret agent. The creative team behind the film had hoped to produce a show in the vein of The Six Million Dollar Man. Unfortunately, audiences found the premise too ridiculous, and the series never got to a second episode.
13. Birds of Prey
Before the DC TV universe dominated the ratings charts with The Flash, Arrow and a load of spin-offs, the WB tried to expand the TV universe that began with Smallville. While not a spin-off per se, the network decided to produce a Batman-family themed show, Birds of Prey. Based on the popular comic series that found Huntress, Black Canary and Oracle teamed up to fight crime, the show starred noted genre actresses Ashley Scott, Dina Meyer and Mia Sara. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, unfortunately. The network tinkered about with the characters in an effort to make the series more accessible. Huntress became an amalgam of two versions from the comics—the masked vigilante with metahuman powers, as well as the daughter of Catwoman and Batman. Black Canary, meanwhile, became the daughter of another Black Canary, who struggled to use her powers. The three heroines teamed up to fight a mysterious crime boss—actually a middle-aged Harley Quinn—after Batman and the Joker vanished from Gotham. The series never quite found its footing, and ratings never hit high enough levels to earn a second season. Instead, the show capped off its 13-episode run with a battle royale between Harley Quinn and Barbra Gordon, who regained her ability to walk and donned the Batgirl suit once more. The final episode hinted at the kind of adventure and fun the show could have offered had the producers actually done a full-on superhero show with ongoing battles akin to what would make The Flash and its ilk so successful. Instead, Birds of Prey just teased one.
It did, however, feature a fun little Joker cameo with Mark Hamill himself providing the vocals, so take that for what it’s worth.
Fledgling network Fox tried to wade into the superhero genre in 1994 with this strange premise. As created by two superhero scions—Sam Hamm, who wrote Batman, and Sam Raimi, who created Darkman and would later direct Spider-Man—M.A.N.T.I.S. cast veteran actor Carl Lumbly as a paralyzed scientist, Miles Hawkins, who develops a powerful exoskeleton which restores his ability to walk and grants him super strength. The one problem—Hawkins can only wear the suit for limited amounts of time. Rather than reveal his invention to the world, Hawkins becomes M.A.N.T.I.S., a crime fighting superhero who drives around in a hovercraft.
M.A.N.T.I.S. never quite found an audience, and Fox didn’t help matters by constantly retooling the show. A pair of African students who aided Miles Hawkins in an Alfred-like capacity were replaced after the pilot by a wise-cracking white guy. Other characters appeared only to vanish, as the show’s premise became increasingly outlandish, with Hawkins time-traveling and venturing to parallel worlds. The show ended after one season in 1995, and quickly slipped into obscurity.
11. The Greatest American Heroine
Believe it or not, the William Katt cult series The Greatest American Hero actually had a feminist spin-off! Sort of, anyway…
In the final year of The Greatest American Hero, the producers conceived of a new show which would follow-up the original. After Ralph, the lead character from the first series, retired from his superhero duties, he would seek out a new hero to take up the alien suit which gave him his powers. Ralph would stumble onto Holly Hathaway, an elementary school teacher played by Mary Ellen Stuart, and begin training her to become The Greatest American Heroine!
Katt and the other series principals from The Greatest American Hero returned for the pilot film of The Greatest American Heroine with hopes of it going to series several years after the original show ended. Unfortunately, ABC didn’t like the pilot, and opted instead to bury it as part of the Greatest American Hero syndication package. Fans of the show remained devoted to the original spin-off premise though, and it eventually made it to DVD in 2011.
Fox ordered a reboot for the original series late last year, but it remains to be seen whether it will ever see the light of day.
10. Highlander the Series
The Highlander movies, despite their reputation as silly dreck, still boast a devoted cult following. While the series never made a major impression in the US, it became a runaway hit overseas. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that a TV show based on the films became a worldwide hit, even if it remained little-seen stateside.
Highlander: The Series followed the adventures of Duncan MacLeod, a fellow clansman of Connor MacLeod, protagonist of the film series. Duncan would join in The Game, an ongoing battle of immortal beings for total dominance on Earth. Duncan, a pacifist, had resisted hunting and killing the other immortals, but at Connor’s insistence, came out of hiding to defend the forces of good from Immortals who would enslave humanity.
Highlander: The Series ran a shocking six seasons, even spawning a short-lived spin-off. Still, for all its success, it gained little notice in the United States. The cult of Highlander continues to keep the series alive, however: after a series of cinematic and TV movies, a reboot is said to be in the works.
9. The Invisible Man
Long before Alan Moore would make The Invisible Man into a superhero of sorts in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this UK series tried the same thing! Beginning in 1958, The Invisible Man followed the adventures of Dr. Peter Brady (no relation to the character from The Brady Bunch) who finds himself made invisible after exposure to radiation. While he searches for a cure for his invisibility, Brady joins forces with the British government to work as a secret agent.
Running for two seasons, The Invisible Man featured an array of noted British thesps, as well as a number of impressive (and often life-threatening) stunts for the time. Much like The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s, The Invisible Man pitted its hero against spies, saboteurs, the mob and petty criminals. It remained wildly popular long after the series demise, and still retains a devoted cult following. A 2008 DVD release helped popularize the show with a new generation, raising one key question: how long before it gets rebooted?!
Children of the 1970s might recall this popular flash in the pan series based on the Fawcett Comics-turned-DC Comics hero. Animation studio Filmation produced the show, which incorporated live-action and animated characters. Teen Billy Batson and his caretaker Mentor would travel the California countryside, stopping in various towns and meeting the people there. When a crisis arose, Billy would say his magic word “Shazam!” to become the powerful superhero Captain Marvel (no, not that Captain Marvel.)
Shazam! found popularity as a Saturday morning adventure series, and ran for three seasons on CBS. The show would foreshadow the later success of superhero shows like The Incredible Hulk, as well as future animated series like the Filmation-produced He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. After a brief run in syndication in the late ’70s, Shazam! faded from pop culture until the mid-2000s when DVD brought the show back to its aging fanbase, and to fans of all things superheroic. A film based on Captain Marvel (now officially named Shazam) has long been in development at Warner Bros., and the character is said to be part of the forthcoming DCEU.
7. Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad
In the wake of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers phenomenon of the mid 1990s, other networks raced to develop their own teams of martial artist superheroes. Among those that tried to find an audience was Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, a strange blending of superhero tropes and 1990s tech fiction. The show followed the adventures of amateur rock singer Sam, who gained the ability to transfer himself into the computer world as the superhero Servo. There, he would do battle with viruses which would take the form of monsters. Sam also could enlist the help of his friends, who could take the form of robotic armor to augment Servo’s powers.
Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad tried to combine the popular Saturday morning action themes of the day—smart ass teenagers, rock bands, amateur computer hacking and giant robots & monsters recycled from Japanese television footage. Despite then-kiddie heartthrob Matthew Lawrence as Sam, and with Tim Curry providing the voice of the show’s mastervillian Kilokahn, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad never found an audience. It lasted only one season, before landing on the scrap heap of would-be Power Rangers also-rans.
6. Super President
The lone animated entry on this list, Super President, quite simply, needs to be seen to be believed! The show ran for a season and a half on NBC beginning in 1967. It followed the adventures of US President James Norcross, who gains superpowers following a cosmic storm. With the ability to shape shift, Norcross dons a red and white costume to fight crime all over the world, traveling in a flying vehicle (called an Omnicar) and operating out of a secret hideout beneath the White House. Despite being known publicly by the Super President moniker, only Norcorss’ Henry Kissinger-like advisor Jerry knows his secret. The two access Super President’s secret headquarters through a secret passage in the Oval Office!
If the premise sounds totally bizarre, that’s because it is—a fact not lost on audiences of the time. Even in 1968, the show came under fire from media watchdog and parent groups for portraying the President as a superhuman being. They also could have attacked the show for lousy animation, dumb plots and plain weirdness! Decades after its initial run, Super President found a second, infamous life. The show plays every year at Comic-Con as one of the worst cartoons ever!
5. Black Scorpion
Black Scorpion started as a movie (which you also probably haven’t heard of) produced by the great Roger Corman for the Showtime network in the 1990s. Based around a very busty female cop who operates in Angel City (a thinly disguised Los Angeles), the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the show in the early 2000s at the dawn of their original programming block. Black Scorpion followed the adventures of Darcy Walker, a cop by day who moonlighted as the vigilante Black Scorpion at night. Tough in hand-to-hand combat and skilled with hacking computers, Black Scorpion also did battle with her own gallery of rogues, played by some familiar character actors of the superhero genre.
Black Scorpion ran a single season on Sci-Fi in 2001 before getting cancelled. The somewhat intentionally campy tone didn’t endear it to viewers, nor did the strange dominatrix costume of the titular character. With shows like Smallville providing a more serious take on the genre, Black Scorpion quickly faded to black.
Following the success of Tron in 1982, ABC paired with producer Glen Larson to create this superhero show which utilized a character in a glowing suit. Automan revolved around Walter Nebicher, a computer programmer who created a superhero hologram that could exist outside the computer world to fight crime. Courtesy of his mother’s (I Love Lucy‘s Lucille Ball) powerful influence, Desi Arnaz, Jr. won the lead as Neibicher, while Chuck Wagner played Automan. Accompanying them on missions was Automan’s sort of pet, Cursor, who could draw new objects for Automan to use out of thin air. Each week, the two would team up to foil the plots of standard superhero TV baddies like jewel thieves and the mob.
Despite a major rollout by ABC, which included toys, video games and the like, Automan never found an audience. The show only lasted one season, long enough for it to develop a cult following, though, which finally saw the show released on DVD in 2012. Weird, dated, and downright silly, Automan represents a wacky low for the superhero genre.
Though all the rage in Japan, Ultraman remains almost totally unseen by American audiences. The show first debuted in the 1960s, and has run consistently since. Featuring lots of standard Japanese sci-fi tropes, including giant monsters and super powered martial arts heroes, the show followed a force of Earth defenders called The Ultra Garrison, who could combine to form the titular hero.
American broadcasters had shown interest in bringing Ultraman to US audiences since the show debuted. In the 1980s, Turner Broadcasting licensed one iteration of the show (called Ultraseven in Japan) for broadcast in the US. Unsatisfied with the English dub of the series, Turner opted to shelve the project until the 1990s. With Mighty Morphin Power Rangers taking the world by storm, Turner Broadcasting reedited and redubbed the series for broadcast on TNT. 49 episodes ran to audience indifference before the show vanished again.
2. The Cape
With NBC mourning the disaster of Heroes—acclaimed and popular in the first season, but a mess thereafter—the network opted to try again at creating a popular superhero show. The Cape debuted in 2011. It followed police officer Vince Faraday, who was framed for murder by a mysterious villain called “Chess.” In an effort to foil Chess and clear his own name, Faraday begins training with a gang of robber-circus performers to become The Cape, a superhero in the vein of The Shadow.
The Cape debuted to mixed reviews and mediocre viewership. Audiences didn’t know what to make of the unintentionally ridiculous title, or the bizarre setup for the plot. It aired only 10 episodes before NBC dropped the show. A sort of series finale aired on NBC’s website, rather than during the broadcast schedule. Despite the presence of a number of noted genre actors—Summer Glau, Keith David, and Vinnie Jones—The Cape never generated much interest, and will likely remain an odd footnote in superhero TV history.
1. Electra Woman and Dyna Girl
Kiddie TV moguls Sid and Marty Kroft decided to try their luck at the superhero genre with Electra Woman and Dyna Girl in 1976. Like most Kroft fare, the show adopted a camp vibe rather than take its concept seriously. It also satirized the popular superhero shows to date, like Wonder Woman and Batman. The premise revolved around two reporters, Lori and Judy, who would fight crime as the spandex-clad Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. The two used a variety of Electra-prefixed weapons to battle nefarious supervillians, saving the world each time.
Electra Woman and Dyna Girl lasted only 16 episodes before cancellation, when it vanished into obscurity. The WB tried to revive the show as a parody in 2001, though the pilot failed to generate a series and never aired. In 2016, a reboot aired via YouTube, casting social media personalities as the title characters…to a mixed reception.
Remember one that we didn’t mention? Tell us in the comments!