5 Bizarro Attempts At Superhero TV Shows
On top of the dozen or so superhero shows already on TV, there are a whole bunch more on the way, from HBO's upcoming Watchmen to a wide array of Marvel shows coming to Disney Plus, aka "The streaming service that finally made it clear the market was saturated." But before we complain about superheroes having flooded every possible medium, it's good to look back to see just how far we've come. The history of capes and masks on TV is rife with awful material that would make Adam West weep silently in a dark room. For example ...
Who's Afraid of Diana Prince? Made Us Embarrassed For Wonder Woman
Speaking of Adam West, before the 1960s Batman series was cancelled (due to low ratings and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of sets being destroyed before it could be renewed by another network), producer William Dozier figured that maybe he could make lightning strike twice. He thus commissioned a failed pilot for a show about Wonder Woman called Who's Afraid Of Diana Prince? All that remains of what could have been a legendary disaster is a bizarre five-minute screen test/presentation.
The first half features Diana and her mother, who is portrayed as a harried harpy who fears her aging daughter will never land a suitable bachelor. The ungrateful offspring has no idea how it feels to have an unmarried daughter her age! (Mom mistakenly says Diana is 28 million years old. Diana corrects her: She's only 27 million.) Actual Mother dialogue:
"How do you expect to get a husband, flying around all the time?"
"What about Wonder Woman? Does the nation care about what she needs? Like a fella?"
"This is no kind of night to be flying around in that outfit of yours. Eat your roughage!"
That dialogue is less cringey than the protracted scene in which Diana changes into costume, then leers at her bad self in the mirror. It's a profoundly weird sequence, with another supposedly more attractive actress playing Diana's mirror image, the sultry siren she longs to be:
The occasionally in-sync preening and posing goes on for a full minute --time it yourself!
Wonder Woman then changes into her costume and becomes an entirely different actress. If you want to make this even more sad, know that this was the first time Wonder Woman waseverseen in live-action.
Another pre-Lynda-Carter attempt, 1974's Wonder Woman pilot, wasn't much better, starring a blonde Cathy Lee Crosby dressed like a flight attendant on Bicentennial Airlines. This one was 75 minutes long and featured a main character with no actual superpowers. Instead she battled donkey smugglers who implanted devices in the animals. It was the lead actress' first major role, and she's said that the two studios producing it wanted to meet in the middle between "James Bond" and "comic books." The result lived up to neither.
The ratings were described as " respectable but not exactly wondrous," which roughly translates to "People watched it, but they might not admit it." One critic wrote, " I feel strongly about the disgraceful thing ABC did to Wonder Woman," which is pretty amazing, considering the standards of the era.
Justice League Of America Tried To Make "Friends With Superheroes"
There have been a handful of lame attempts to bring DC's flagship super group to the small screen. 1979's Legends Of The Super-Heroes was a terrifically unfunny Hanna-Barbera debacle, and Smallville brought together a teen version that barely qualified. So give 1997's Justice League Of America, another failed pilot, a few points for trying. This League features an impressive, if decidedly '90s, lineup: Green Lantern (the Guy Gardner "hero-in-a-vest" version), the Atom, Flash, Martian Manhunter, Fire, and Ice.
If you're thinking "Oh, six superheroes who are friends with each other? That's similar to another show in the late '90s, about six non-superheroes who are friends with each other," know that this may have been the underlying idea. One critic called it " Friends with superpowers," but it's got more of Real World: New Metro City vibe, complete with a shared clubhouse and straight-to-camera confessions.
New Metro City, by the way, isn't based on any comic book city, unless it's somehow a reference to a Marvel video game stage from 20 years later. It featured a villain called the "Weatherman" (who might be based on the Flash's Weather Wizard, but that's giving the writers a lot of credit), and switches tone wildly between mockumentary, adventure story, and sitcom.
But the most memorable aspect is the costumes, which are on par with a mid-major Comic-Con parade. The Atom looks like he got kicked out of American Gladiators, because come on, man, cool it with the shoulder pads. And Fire's disguise consists mainly ofapplying green eye shadow halfway down her face.
And finally, you have the casting ofM*A*S*H's David Ogden Stiers as J'onn J'onnz, the beer-bellied Martian Manhunter. (The dude was nominated for TWO Emmys! What is he doing here?)
Perhaps due to his inability to walk up a flight of stairs without clutching his chest, J'onn never takes on the weather-controlling villain, and stays as far away from the final battle as possible. Instead, his main contribution to the heroics is shapeshifting into a Fire doppelganger so she can dump an underage romantic stalker. Add it all up, and you get what comic scribe Mark Waid described as "80 minutes of my life I'll never get back."
The '70s Captain America Gave Us The Least-Super Steve Rogers
Before Chris Evans' beard rushed people through puberty, and even before the 1990s saw a Captain America film in which it's implied that the Red Skull murdered Martin Luther King Jr., Reb Brown starred in not one but two made-for-TV movies as Steve Rogers in 1979.
Well, Steve RogersJunior. It turns out Steve Senior was the inventor of the world's dumbest acronym: F.L.A.G., short for the decidedly non-heroic Full Latent Ability Gain. F.L.A.G. also made him the original Cap in the CBS Made-for-TV Universe, using the super-steroid to fight Nazis back in the day. As luck has it, the tonic only works on members of this one family, so it's up to Steve Jr. to carry on the bad-guy-busting.
Of course, you can probably guess that he's not quite ready for the Avengers, what with his superhuman ability to outrun dune buggies and slide down railings at slightly faster than normal speeds. His transparent Frisbee of a shield doesn't really help, either.
It was meant to capitalize on the TV success that Marvel was having in the '70s with Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. And it kinda did, considering it got a sequel: Captain America 2: Death Too Soon, which cast legendary white person Christopher Lee as a Mexican drug lord.
Then again, playing Spanish-speaking villains was kind of Lee's thing in the '70s. His plan: Use an experimental drug to prematurely age all of the citizens of Portland, Oregon unless he gets millions of dollars. The film concludes when Lee spills the magic potion and wrinkles himself to death.
The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk Was An Early, Terrible MCU
So you're a TV executive and you want to make a Daredevil pilot. What better way than to entice an aging Lou Ferrigno to reprise his most famous role than to introduce Matt Murdock as the Man Without Fear than by having him take on the Hulk as a legal client in THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK?
Rex " You Take My Breath Away" Smith stars as the blind lawyer in a film where there is no actual trial. But the two quasi-heroes bond over their similar pasts. "Hey, your body was tragically altered by exposure to toxic radiation? MINE TOO!" Together they take on classic comic baddie Kingpin, played as an ode to Don Henley's Boys Of Summer. He's got his hair slicked back and sunglasses on, baby.
This Daredevil trains to fight crime using the Gymkata method,which comes in handy when crooks steal from places with uneven parallel bars. Mind you, this all premiered six weeks before Tim Burton's blockbusterBatman, which is like ordering a steak and getting a slice of ham that someone's been using as a doorstop as the appetizer.
This also wasn't the first time the Hulk was leveraged for a backdoor Marvel pilot. One year earlier, The Incredible Hulk Returns pitted the big green guy against someone sort of resembling the Mighty Thor. Instead of Dr. Don Blake using an ancient hammer to transform into the God of Thunder, Blake finds a hammer containing Thor, who pops out and does Blake's bidding like some furry-shouldered Genie. And after Trial, they would kill off the Hulk by throwing him out of a plane in Death Of The Incredible Hulk, thus saving us from a 1992 Iron Man, probably.
The '50s Superman Spinoffs Were Downright Insane (And Tasteless)
One of the best early superhero shows was The Adventures Of Superman, which (for its time) did a credible job of making viewers believe a man could fly. But Superman's producers weren't content with the profits from a single show.Multiple spinoffs were pitched, none of which made it past the pilot stage. The first was The Adventures Of Superpup, and, um, I'll just leave this here:
If you haven't taken a second to guess in between screaming, the show was about canine versions of classic Superman characters: Bark Bent, Perry Bite, Pamela Poodle. To pull off this Lynchian nightmare, they used the same sets as Superman, possibly to give off the illusion that you had in fact started an episode of the actualSupermanshow, but the drugs hadn't kicked in yet.
The cast was made up almost entirely of little people, presumably sweating their asses off under the grotesque masks. Now add in the disturbing circus music of the intro, which gives absolutely no context about the show and instead mostly features a mouse waving at what is presumably the audience's departing sanity:
The Adventures Of Superboy was a more mainstream effort, with a produced pilot, a full season's worth of completed scripts, and a tenacious commitment to saving money. The same "Prop 'em on a milk crate" special effects technology was used on all three programs, and it showed.
Here's Superman soaring through the skies:
The leads were practically interchangeable! But the most shameless money grab came in 1959, when series star George Reeves died from a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances. While one might logically conclude that there was no going forward at that point, producers hatched a plan to launch a new show: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.
That part is not so weird, as a comic book by the same name ran for years. But how do you film a series about Superman's pal without, you know, Superman? The producers' morbid solution was to film Jimmy's adventures, then use recycled Reeves' flying footage and stunt doubles to fill in for the dead actor. Luckily, the guy who played Jimmy Olsen decided that " it was not agreeable with me to go on and do that." This is proof that maybe the most important skill a creative person can have is knowing when to walk away.
For more, check out Why DC's Catwoman Is The Superhero Movie We Need:
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