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It's easy to take iconic characters for granted. We just assume that the moment a Batman or a Rambo were dreamed up, the writer knew he had a world-changing icon on his hands.

Not so. It turns out a lot of the most legendary characters in pop culture came damned close to getting axed early in the game. Characters like...

7The Joker

Every superhero franchise is kind of in a Catch-22. You need a great, memorable archenemy, or even better, more than one. And you need to be able to bring him back again and again and again. But if a villain like, say, the Joker, has been out killing people for 70 years, doesn't that make Batman look a little incompetent? What kind of superhero lets somebody like the Joker keep slipping away?


This kind.

How We Almost Lost Him:

That was what writer Bill Finger was wondering. Finger, who wrote the first Batman stories, thought that if Batman's foes kept coming back, it would make him a pretty lousy crime fighter. Take a guess what happened to the Joker in his first appearance in Batman #1.


He uses playing cards. We get it.

He got stabbed right in the damned heart.

Who Saved Him?

Whitney Ellsworth.

Ellsworth was the editor of National Publications (later DC Comics) in the 1940s, and by all accounts had one of the sissiest names in history. He didn't want Finger to kill off interesting villains (like he had done with Braless Woman and Sluterella in the past), so this time he told Finger to save the Joker. A new panel was quickly added.


Do all doctors react this way when they figure out a patient isn't dead?

If you want to know just how hard it is to think up good comic book villains, remember that scene played out in 1940. Hundreds of issues, a TV show and a bunch of movies later, he's still the best they could come up with.

6Jack Shephard from Lost

Jack was the unquestionable leader of the plane crash survivors for the first couple dozen episodes of Lost and without question is the character we would most like to punch in the face.


"Pretty much everyone on board is dead. But my tie... my tie is alright."

How we almost lost him:

Like the Joker, he was supposed to die in the first episode. Oh, and he was to be played by Michael Keaton.

In typical "everything must have a twist" J.J. Abrams style, the idea was to cast a well-known actor and build him up as the main character... then whiplash the audience by killing him off in the pilot. Not a bad idea, it lets the audience know that pretty much anything can happen, which seems to be 90 percent of the Lost concept.


BOOM! POLAR BEAR! OUT OF NOWHERE!

Who Saved Him?

The producers.

Because this was still network television and challenging the audience usually means giving them a very quick glimpse of side boob, they figured the whole "killing Michael Keaton" thing (which we hope involved suddenly sucking him into the jet engine) might cross the line into pissing people off.

That's another similarity to the Joker situation. If the audience likes him, they'll hate you for killing him. If the audience hates him (again, we're talking Michael Keaton here) then the whole impact of the stunt is gone.

Then again, this is Lost we're talking about here. Does anybody stay dead?


Also, next season the Harlem Globetrotters show up.

5Rambo

If you're young enough that you just know Rambo as a character played by an aging, mumbling Sylvester Stallone desperately trying to grab some box office before he retires, you missed out. From about a decade after 1985, Rambo had a status shared only by Top Gun as a movie that added a word to the language.


And sweet headbands.

During those years, every time you saw a tough guy you'd say, "Look at Rambo over here" and everybody knew what you were talking about (and any guy who was great at anything was called the "Top Gun" on magazine covers and such). He was a damned icon of badass.

How We Almost Lost Him:

Did you know the Rambo franchise was based on a novel? It was. Have any of you actually read the novel First Blood, which was the prequel to Rambo? To save you a trip to Wikipedia, here is a massive spoiler: Rambo dies at the end. The movie originally planned to follow suit:

When you think about it, that ending is actually way more appropriate, especially considering the entire point of the story is how Vietnam vets were abandoned after the war. In that context, his crazy rampage over the city suddenly makes more sense: He was looking for a way to die like a soldier. Also, he was crazy and he wanted to drop Brian Dennehy through a skylight.


"There's no way I'm getting dropped through this skylight."

Who Saved Him?

Stallone did.

Sly apparently felt that this disenfranchised killing machine had the potential to become a massive action hero franchise, so he was opposed to killing him off. This caused a lot of tension on set, especially with Kirk Douglas (the first choice for Colonel Trautman) who demanded the death of Rambo for artistic reasons.


Pictured: Kirk Douglas on the set of First Blood.

Finally, the producers decided to go with Stallone's idea after test audiences reacted negatively to Rambo's death. They also complained about the lack of rainbows, but hey, you have to draw the line somewhere.


"Also, can Rambo have wings? Like Pegasus?"

4Spock

There are certain characters that are just impossible to imagine as anything other than what they are. Like Darth Vader; if somebody shows you early concept art that portrays Vader as a huge lizard man or as having flames painted on his helmet, you'd call bullshit. Characters like that just appear in pop culture fully formed, and you'll be damned if anyone says otherwise. Spock is one of those characters. You just can't picture Gene Roddenberry toying with the idea of making this "Spock" character a saucy Latina.

How We Almost Lost Him:

When Star Trek was first pitched to NBC, the station felt that the character of Spock looked like the devil. Which is ridicul- actually we can kind of see where they're coming from. And now we can't unsee it.


Live sinful and burn in hell.

Who Saved Him?

Women.

Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, convinced NBC to let him keep Spock on the show as long as he stayed in the background. But Spock's stoic badassery and alien sex appeal unexpectedly attracted lots of female viewers and the show's ratings skyrocketed.

When you get down to it, Spock really is the perfect man: tall, mysterious, brilliant, a bit of an outcast... he's like James Dean and an art history professor all rolled into one pointy-eared package.


You won't be able to unsee this, either

3Omar Little from The Wire

If you aren't familiar with Omar or, even worse, aren't familiar with The Wire, shame on you. Stop reading this, you've got some Netflix business to take care of. The Wire is widely considered the best cop show ever in the history of everything.


Sorry, guys.

And on that best cop show ever was probably the best criminal character ever, Omar Little, a Baltimore stickup-man with a badass face scar and a Robin Hood complex that has been named one of USA Today's 20 reasons they still love TV.

How We Almost Lost Him:

If David Simon, the creator of the show, had executed his original vision, Omar would've been killed off after just seven episodes of the first season. This puts his total number of appearances somewhere between jack and shit.

The problem was that Omar, while based on actual stickup men, was very much an exaggerated character, basically an urban cowboy going around robbing drug dealers and stopping just short of riding into town to duel the evil rancher at high noon. For a down to earth police drama, Omar was just too scrotum-uppercutingly awesome.

Who Saved Him?

Michael K. Williams.

The actor who played Omar brought so much humor and natural charm to the role that producers basically couldn't bring themselves to kill him off. It also helped that the scar on Williams's face is fucking real. It was a gift from a Brooklyn bar patron on Williams's 25th birthday bash. If the guy had given him socks instead, Omar would've been written off like a tax deduction.


"The interest on your savings bonds counts as non-taxable income. Motherfucker."

2Wolverine

It is a testament to Wolverine's status as a pop culture icon when a movie like X-Men: The Last Stand did nothing to diminish his popularity. That's like surviving getting hit by a truck. A truck hauling shit.

How We Almost Lost Him:

First, Wolverine was first envisioned as an actual wolverine, only mutated and somehow a teenager.


"Give him a skateboard. Kids like skateboards."

Luckily everyone realized how ear-bitingly retarded this was and the character was soon reworked into the one we know today. But even then, Wolverine wallowed in obscurity, and as the comic progressed the creators considered dropping him off the series indefinitely.

Who Saved Him?

John Byrne.

Byrne, who took over as the artist of X-Men in 1977, was presented with a dilemma in that the editors feared that Logan and fellow X-man Thunderbird were too similar.


We can totally see the confusion.

One of them had to go, so Byrne chose to keep Wolverine because he, like Byrne, was Canadian and let's face it, there's not a whole bunch of Canadian superheroes out there. He dedicated himself to making Wolverine less ridiculous...

...and over time, Wolverine became a regular character in X-Men. Thunderbird, meanwhile, was killed on board an exploding plane, a death that could just as easily have been Wolverine, had the whole Canadian connection not been there. Which to our knowledge is the only example in recorded history where being Canadian actually worked to someone's advantage.

1Batman

He's a superhero. You can Google him.

How We Almost Lost Him:

We've covered several characters who were nearly killed off early on, but Batman was nearly aborted.

It was 1938, when Bob Kane approached the editors over at National Publications and presented them with his idea for a new superhero: "Bat-Man," a no-nonsense crime fighting bat-themed vigilante who didn't mind getting rough with the criminal scum. This is how he envisioned him:


"Is... is Batman behind this guy? I don't understand."

By the way, you can't tell from the drawing, but the costume was to be red.

Who Saved Him?

Bill Finger.

No matter how you look at it, Bill Finger is the man who created Batman. Turns out that Bob Kane, the man credited with the birth of The Dark Knight (a term Finger coined in 1940), did about fuck-all with the character. Finger was hired to "even out the wrinkles" in the "Bat-Man" concept (a process we hope he referred to as "Fingerbanging").

His work is the reason Batman became the kind of dark hero who would survive when thousands of brightly-colored cornball heroes came and went. Finger gave the character a bat cowl with ears and a wing-like cape, replaced the red costume with a brooding black and gray combination and slapped a big ole bat symbol right on the chest. This was the end result:

Finger also wrote the parts of Bruce Wayne, Robin, the Riddler and the bulk of the first Batman stories. In the simplest terms, if Finger had not been hired as an assistant to Kane, there may have been a "Bat-Man" character--one we likely would not know about today--but there never would have been a Batman.

The world owes you one, Mr. Finger.

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To learn more about some of your favorite characters, check out 6 Famous Characters You Didn't Know Were Shameless Rip Offs and 5 Badass Movie Characters You Didn't Know Were Real People.

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