It should come as no surprise that when comic books are adapted for television, certain changes need to be made. TV is a different medium, and what works in print may not work on screen. Writers have decades of material to select from, which encourages mixing and matching. Adaptations of older series typically add more diversity to the all-white original stories of decades past.
But some TV versions don’t even feign faithfulness. The creators have no more interest in understanding the original comics than if they were written in ancient Akkadian. After all, they write for TV — they can easily come up with better comics ideas than hack comics writers can!
And so we wind up with adaptations that have a familiar name but a different premise, a changed cast, or an entirely different tone. Every now and then, these sweeping changes produce something worthwhile. More often than not, however, they’re a disaster. Here are 15 examples of comic adaptations that tossed out the comics, for better or worse.
15 Teen Titans Go! (2013- )
Just like the comics, Teen Titans Go! has young superheroes (Raven, Starfire, Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy) hanging out at Titans Tower and battling familiar villains (the H.I.V.E., Trigon, Terra). Only everything is played for comedy.
In the series, Cyborg and Beast Boy are lazy dimwits, Raven’s a seething vessel of snark, and Robin is a deranged, egomaniacal martinet. In one story, the Titans battle the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for control of the world's pizza supply. In another, they’re fretting because Batman and Trigon might both show up for Thanksgiving. Raven and a villain bond over their fondness for "Pretty Pretty Pegasus" (a My Little Pony takeoff).
This goofy take on the Titans has run longer than several more serious series, such as the previous Titans cartoon. The new live-action show will have to work to keep up.
14 The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
This TV movie, a follow-up to CBS’ Incredible Hulk series, isn’t in this list for the Hulk — it’s here for Thor. Rather than just revive "David" Banner (the Hulk series' showrunner disliked the name Bruce) and his brutal alter ego, it tried spinning off a new Thor series.
Hulk kept the comics' concept of Banner constantly on the run, constantly seeking a cure for his curse; Thor went further afield. This Thor isn't an Asgardian, but a brawling, arrogant Viking denied Valhalla until he can demonstrate true heroism and nobility. When David’s former student, Don Blake, discovered Thor’s hammer, he and Thor were bound together. Blake summons Thor like a genie, rather than turning into him. As summoning Thor means adventure and danger, the cowardly, cynical Blake doesn't want to do it, ever. By the end of the film, though, he's agreed to help Thor come out and do the deeds that will earn him Valhalla.
13 Iron Man: Armored Adventures (2008-2012)
This series shows how the same premise can flop or soar in different hands. When Marvel introduced a teenage Tony Stark as Iron Man in the 1990s, it was a flop. This animated series turned the genius entrepreneur into a high-school student, but they made it work.
In the pilot, Tony and his father are hunting the legendary artifacts called Makluan rings. A mysterious force crashes their plane, apparently kills Howard Stark, and leaves Tony’s damaged heart dependent on technology to keep pumping. Returning home, Tony has to watch Howard’s partner Obadiah Stane adapt Howard’s inventions as weapons of war — is it possible Stane got Howard out of the way for that purpose?
Fortunately, teen Tony is a supergenius. Using an armored suit of his own design, he begins investigating his father’s death. When he starts saving lives as well, the media christens him Iron Man. What he doesn’t know is that the real threat isn’t Stane — it’s Jin, a fellow classmate who’s also hunting the rings. Will Tony find out in time?
The two seasons were separated by a gap of several years, and both are pretty solid.
12 Captain America and Captain America II (1979)
In contrast to the adaptations above, this pair of TV pilots shows how to change everything for the worse.
As Steve Rogers learns in the first film, his father created FLAG, a “super-steroid” that elevated him to the peak of human perfection. Because he fought so fiercely for the American dream, his adversaries mocked him with the name “Captain America” before eventually murdering him.
Steve, a free-spirited artist, has no interest in following in dad's footsteps. After some bad guys have Steve assassinated, government scientist Dr. Mills saves Steve's life by injecting him with FLAG. Mills convinces Steve to become a new Captain America, fighting against his would-be killers and everyone else who threatens America. Steve got to wear that god-awful costume, so how could he say no?
The first film flopped on every level: it's clunky and boring, with uninspired villains and Reb Brown’s forgettable performance as Steve. The sequel at least boasted Christopher Lee as the villain, but offered no other improvements.
11 Josie and the Pussycats (1970-71)
Archie Comics introduced Josie McCoy in the Silver Age as a high-school student having typical Archie-style adventures. By the end of the 1960s, she’d become the lead singer in the Pussycats, so high-school antics alternated with musical antics. Plus, the series’ Mean Girl, Alexandra, had become a witch, and she kept using magic to mess with Josie.
The cartoon series, by contrast, seemed more in the humorous adventure vein of Scooby Doo. No matter where the Pussycats were booked to play, they’d run into some evil maniac with a diabolical, world-shaking scheme. In between thwarting schemes, they’d play some bubblegum rock and Alexandra (no longer a witch) and Josie would fight over hunky supporting character Alan.
After one season of adventure, CBS tried juicing things up with the less successful Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space (1972). The band's having better luck as supporting characters on Riverdale.
10 Spider-Woman (1979-80)
Marvel created Spider-Woman to prevent another company from using the name for a cartoon character. Eventually, Marvel's Spider-Woman got a cartoon of her own, but they might as well not have bothered.
In the comics, Jessica Drew’s Bronze Age origin involved so many freaky developments that it left her an isolated outcast, alienated from regular folks. Not a problem for the cartoon version. Despite developing spider-powers in childhood as the result of a spider-bite antidote gone wrong, Jessica seems perfectly normal, holding down a steady job as editor of Justice Magazine (which was obviously a terrific magazine as it has “justice” in the title). When a hero was needed, Jessica would spin a cocoon around herself, twirl and transform into Spider-Woman (the change looked a lot like Lynda Carter’s spin on Wonder Woman).
Comparing Spider-Woman to the comics is about the only interest to be found in this generic animated adventure.
9 Fish Police (1992)
The indie comic book Fish Police was a delightful metafictional comedy about a man who wakes up one morning and discovers that he's a fish. Only not a real fish, but Inspector Gill, an intelligent talking fish in a world of intelligent talking fish. A world that followed the logic of a comic book or a cartoon, rather than anything evolution could plausibly create.
That was apparently way too sophisticated for the creators of the 1992 Fish Police cartoon series, who used the surface of the cartoon — a world of anthropomorphic fish — and missed everything underneath. The series' Gill is a real fish detective in a conventional funny animal cartoon. Only this one wasn't very funny, and it only lasted six episodes.
One of the producers bragged in an interview that they’d taken an unimaginative comic book and turned it into something special. It was definitely the other way around.
8 Spider-Man (1978-79)
Although this Japanese TV series gave Spider-Man something close to his classic costume, the creators replaced everything else. Takuya, the hero, discovers a dying alien from a spider world, killed fighting the galaxy-conquering forces of the Iron Cross. Said alien injects Takuya with a concentrated spider venom, and the powers the venom gives Takuya enable him to fight against the Iron Cross as they begin their attack on Earth. Plus, he also gets a cool car and robotic battle armor. He spent the rest of the show’s run using his nifty toys to save the world from various Iron Cross monsters. The end result was closer to Japan's Ultra-Man or a Mighty Morphing Spider Ranger than any Spider-Man story from the MU.
Astonishingly this was actually a licensed adaptation, not a knockoff.
7 Shazam (1974-76)
Billy Batson became the first of comics’ many Captain Marvels whenever he said the word “Shazam!" (standing for Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, and four other powers). The best-selling superhero ever, Cap was cancelled in the early 1950s, then DC revived him in the 1970s. As Marvel had its own Captain Marvel, DC titled their series Shazam, as did this live-action version.
Unfortunately, this was an era when the networks were trying to show Saturday morning TV was educational, not mindless fluff. Billy, traveling around with his mentor named Mentor (how clever!), got cryptic life lessons from Solomon, Hercules, etc. at the start of each episode. Then he'd meet a kid whose problems dramatized the episode's moral message, but which Captain Marvel could help solve. Presto, a show that's both fun and teaches valuable lessons!
Suffice to say, they were wrong about the fun. Hopefully, the upcoming Shazam film will do better.
6 Flash Gordon (2007-08)
Alex Raymond’s classic space adventure comic strip Flash Gordon has been adapted into one big budget film, three movie serials, a 1950s TV show, a TV cartoon, and this 2007 one-season flop.
In the strip, Flash and his companions Zarkov and Dale land on the exotic world of Mongo, where they lead the fight against the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. In the TV series, the characters live in a small American city, and it’s Mongo that crashes in on them, via wormholes that allow Ming’s agents to visit town on various missions of evil. Could this have something to do with Flash’s father, who vanished years ago? What’s the world on the other side of the wormholes like? Will Flash and Dale ever get back together? Will the plots ever rise above the pedestrian?
A few critics who lasted to the end of the series argued that it improved a lot as it went along. They were a minority.
5 Smallville (2001-2011)
Smallville fell between the classic, costumed Superboy and John Byrne’s 1980s reboot of Superman, in which Clark didn’t don the cape until adulthood. Despite the series’ policy of “no flights, no tights,” this version of Clark Kent was very much a superhero, just not in costume. Rather than being the comic book’s wimp or Byrne's more confident version, star Tom Welling's take on Clark is just kind of broody.
Most of Clark’s foes were “meteor freaks” endowed with power from the kryptonite that hit Smallville at the same time Clark’s rocket crashed down. One has super-freezing powers, another turns into an insect, another has mind-control abilities, and so on. Smallville was less like the comics town and closer to the Sunnydale Hellmouth of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
However, this is another series where the changes didn’t hurt. It racked up an impressive ten seasons, moving closer to the source material as it went along, with Clark finally debuting as Superman in the finale.
4 Dr. Strange (1978)
In the comics (and the 2016 Doctor Strange), Stephen Strange was an arrogant jerk of a surgeon that gets injured in an accident, then initiated into magic in the Far East.
In the 1978 pilot Dr. Strange, Stephen's a compassionate psychiatrist and wonderful human being (that's why he's worthy of magic power). The mysticism here isn't Far Eastern but Arthurian, as Stephen's mentor is Merlin and his archfoe is Morgan le Fay. Though surprisingly, Merlin — er, "Doctor Lindmer" — still has the very non-Arthurian Wong as his sidekick. And Clea, Strange's comic book love from another dimension? She's just an ordinary college student caught up in the madness.
Director-writer Philip DeGuere made the changes in the belief that trekking to Tibet to learn magic might have been groovy in the early 1960s, but it was dated by the late 1970s. The story is more entertaining than Reb Brown's Captain America or the live-action Spider-Man series (see #1), and it does its best to stay visually faithful to Steve Ditko's acid-trip visuals from Stephen's early adventures.
3 Batman (1966-68)
In some ways, the 1966 Batman hewed close to the comics. Unlike Smallville, Shazam, or the live-action Spider-Man, the series was packed with superhero/supervillain action, including Joker, Penguin and Catwoman. Several plots even came straight out of the comics.
The creators, however, bent over backwards to ensure that nobody would take any of it seriously. They served up each episode with a heaping pile of camp, such as having Batman in a discotheque dancing the Batusi (a takeoff on a real dance, the Watusi). Kids who didn't notice the camp, and parents who enjoyed it were able to watch with the little ones, which all led to some sky-high ratings.
Many comics fans out of kidhood were much less enthused to see a genre they loved mocked so publicly. They were even less enthused when the camp seeped into the comics. Time, though, seems to have healed those wounds. Batman is no longer the standard by which everything comic book is judged or described, so there's more nostalgia for the show and less cringing. And for many people, the late Adam West remains one of the great Batmen of the screen.
2 Swamp Thing (1990-91)
You know you’re not getting Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (or the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson original) when the big green has a theme song to the tune of the Trogs’ "Wild Thing".
And sidekicks: Bayou Jack, Tomahawk (why yes, he was Native American), Abby Arcane, and a couple of teenagers.
And equipment, such as a marsh buggy and Bayou Jack's "bayou blaster" water cannon.
It's true that by 1992, Swamp Thing was a top DC character with his own live-action TV series. Still, turning him into a cartoon with an affiliated toy line (hence the equipment) seems like a bad idea in hindsight. Heck, it should have seemed like a bad idea in foresight. The stories focused on Arcane and his mutated Un-Men attempting to wrest the secret of Swamp Thing's biorestorative formula from him, or doing anti-ecological evil such as despoiling the rain forest. Hurting nature is bad, boys and girls!
Some toy-centric cartoons have become fondly remembered childhood entertainment. Swamp Thing is not one of them.
1 The Amazing Spider-Man (1978-79)
Yep, Spider-Man has actually earned two entries in this list. This live-action version can't be blamed on translation to another culture, unless comics-to-1970s TV counts.
The two things that make Spidey’s comics adventures stand out are his colorful rogue’s gallery and his personal suffering — no matter how well he did against the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, his personal life was usually in free-fall. This version dispensed with supervillains; after a couple of episodes involving mad scientists and psychics, it was strictly mundane crime bosses and the like.
Of course, TV's Hulk was similarly mundane, but that show was fueled by Banner's personal drama. Spider-Man had no drama, nada, none, zippo. No Uncle Ben, no tragic backstory, no Aunt May leaning on Peter, no constantly misfiring love life. In fact, Nicholas Hammond's Spidey had almost no personal life at all. He's just a generic TV hero whose name happens to be Peter Parker.
Got a favorite adaptation we didn't mention? Tell us in comments.