Up Up and Away! The history of Superheroes on television




Stephen Amell stars as Oliver Queen, known as Green Arrow to comic book fans, in the hit CW series 'Arrow.' In the series, Queen is known only as the Hood, as the show takes a somewhat darker tone than campy superhero series have in the past...

Wait--series like what?

The love-affair with the superhero in America has been written about at length; ever since 1950s McCarthyism brought about the Comics Code of America, popular comic book genres like horror, war, crime and romance each fell the wayside. An entire artform became dominated and defined by men in tights punching each other for a great number of years--and many of us grew up feasting on as much superhero material as we could get our hands on.

Of course, television is not exempt from this love affair.

Over the decades, many series have attempted to bring to life the daring adventures and heroics of these costumed characters in live action. So, as a tribute to the success of 'Arrow,' I offer you a history of superheroes on TV!


'Adventures of Superman' 1952



The story begins in black & white, with George Reeves donning a crest with an 'S' on it and a cape that reached his ankles.

Sponsored by Kellogs, 'Adventures of Superman' was filmed first for the cinema and later broadcast in syndication on television, finally finding a permanent home at ABC. Superheroes were popular in children's comic books but society wasn't necessarily as willing to suspend their disbelief back then as they are today, where superhero films receive rave critical reviews alongside serious dramas.

As such, 'Adventures of Superman' became a sort of amalgamation between the heroics of the colored pages and the crime thriller serials popular on television in the 1940s. Take a crime thriller but supplant the brave police officer hero with a bulletproof man in tights--'Adventures of Superman' was Clark Kentborn.

Amazingly, 'Adventures of Superman' attracted prominent film actors to its cast, giving the series a credibility with older viewers it would have otherwise lacked. George Reeves played Clark Kent, better known by his alter ego Superman; Lois Lane began as Phyllis Coates, but eventually was replaced by Noel Niell, a popular dancer and pin-up model; Jack Larson played Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen. 

The most impressive aspect of 'Adventures of Superman' was the cutting-edge flying effects employed. The series included shots of Reeves taking off, flying mid-air, as well as landing, providing headaches for the cast and crew alike. For wire-assisted take offs, Reeves would often be forced to perform the stunt himself, receiving more than one injury on set (stunts were nowhere near as safe as we expect them to be today, back in the 1950s). Eventually, the dangerous wires were replaced with a powerful springboard, which would launch Reeves over the camera.

'Adventures of Superman' ran for six years and 104 episodes and the era of the live-action television superhero had begun.

IN THE COMICS: Superman is the most recognizable superhero of all time. Recently, following the "New 52" shake-up over at DC Comics, Superman is now romantically involved with Wonder Woman, rather than Lois Lane. He remains the head of the Justice League of America.

ON FILM: The hit series 'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' followed up on the character in the 1990s. 'Smallville' was a very successful adaptation of the Clark Kent character during his younger days. Coming soon will be 'Man of Steel,' a feature film from the director of 'Suckerpunch.'


Batman and Robin

'Batman' 1966

Everyone loves the Adam West & Burt Ward version of Batman & Robin, complete with all of its technicolor camp. I have actually already written at length about the history of this excellent show as a part of my Television Time Machine series-- go and check it out here!!

IN THE COMICS: Batman remains incredibly popular and his current run of comics has been amongst the highest selling comic books of the past year.

ON FILM: While Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight' trilogy ended quite recently, there are already plans for a reboot of the Batman film franchise, following 'Man of Steel'--this is in effort to create a shared universe for DC Comics heroes like Marvel's 'The Avengers.'


Captain Nice'Captain Nice' 1967

The instant success of 'Batman' brought on a rash of campy superhero productions, none more goofy than 'Captain Nice.' The short-lived series starred William Daniels as Carter Nash, a mild-mannered mama's boy who would take a secret formula to transform himself into the titular character.

The weird thing is, Captain Nice wasn't all that different from Carter himself: he even ran around in a superhero costume made out of pajamas, sewn lovingly by his doting mother. The joke of the Captain Nice character became clear when it was announced that his super-powers included the ability to fly... but he refused to use this ability due to a fear of heights. Lulz?

'Captain Nice' was created by Buck Henry, the genius behind the classic series 'Get Smart,' but alas, Carter Nash wasn't as beloved a character as Maxwell Smart--'Captain Nice' only ran for one season, including fifteen episodes.

Oh: did I mention that Captain Nice had a girlfriend in the police force named Seargent Candy Kane?

IN THE COMICS: happily, there are no Captain Nice comic books.

ON FILM: This idea has been left back in 1967. Mercifully.


Green Hornet and Kato'The Green Hornet' 1967

ABC delivered another of the most iconic television superheroes in history: The Green Hornet.

This series is a curiosity in television history, as it only lasted a single season of twenty-six episodes, yet it has risen to cult status and is known well as the breakthrough television role of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

'The Green Hornet' television series was based on the radio show and comic books of same name. It was centered around millionaire playboy Britt Reid (much like 'Batman's Bruce Wayne) who owned and published a newspaper called the Daily Sentinel. Reid fought crime under a green mask, alongside his partner Kato and his weapon-enhanced car Black Beauty.

Black BeautyThe series carried one major difference from shows like 'Batman:' in the storyline, The Green Hornet posed as a criminal boss of the underworld, wanted by the police. The Hornet does this in order to infiltrate the seedy underbelly of his city, getting close enough to violent gangs in order to bring them to justice.

Thanks to his obvious physical prowess and martial arts expertise, the Kato character (played by legend Bruce Lee) quickly became more popular than the title hero. Despite only running for a single season, tie-in merchandise such as children's coloring books often featured Kato front and center, with the Hornet as a background feature.

IN THE COMICS: 'The Green Hornet' has the rare claim to having been created as a radio serial prior to being adapted for comic books. As such, the comics mirror the television series almost precisely, both stemming from the same subject matter.

ON FILM: 'The Green Hornet' was adapted as a big-budget feature film in 2011 starring Seth Rogen as Britt Reid; the film tanked at the box office and was critically panned. A Hong Kong martial arts film entitled 'Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen' was released in 2010, loosely based in The Green Hornet.


Wonder Woman'Wonder Woman' 1975

Don't worry, we haven't run out of campy superheroics just yet!

Who could forget 'Wonder Woman,' the 1970s television adaptation of the popular DC Comics hero. After several attempts at creating TV-movies based on the character (but actually just using the name and creating different, blonde characters with no apparent super powers), the 1975 series decided to turn to the source material to inspire the costume, the powers and the character.

Lasting three seasons and fifty-nine episodes, 'Wonder Woman' starred the beautiful Lynda Carter as Diana Prince, alter ego of Wonder Woman. The initial pilot was unsuccessful but producers stuck with the idea and eventually the series found a steady audience. Now, whether that audience was tuning in to see Wonder Woman's heroics or merely to view Carter in a skimpy outfit remains up for debate.

The series initially aired under the confusing title 'The New Original Wonder Woman,' but likely over Wonder Woman braceletstime people realized that those words are paradoxical and frustrating. The series followed the comic book stories very closely, including Diana Prince joining the US military. The series deviated from the comics in certain minor ways, which became famous in their own right: no more famous than Prince's transformation into Wonder Woman being achieved by spinning on the spot at high speeds.

DVDs of this cult hit series were finally released in 2005, so you can go check out Carter's spinning in all its glory.

IN THE COMICS: Wonder Woman remains one of the most popular books published by DC Comics.

ON FILM: David E. Kelley wrote and produced a pilot for a new 'Wonder Woman' series for NBC in 2011, but it was never aired. Adrianne Palicki starred as the main character. Reportedly, one of the flaws with this new pilot was that it served as an update of the 1970s series rather than a fresh look at the source material.


'The Incredible Hulk' 1978

The Incredible HulkArguably the most successful superhero television series of all time, 'The Incredible Hulk' took some liberties with its source material, but managed to bring a truly super-human character to life on screen. Starring Bill Bixby as David Banner and Lou Ferigno as his massive, gamma-irradiated alter ego. Bixby's character was named David, not Bruce like the comics, because according to television executives, the name Bruce was associated with homosexuality, a fact that series star Lou Ferigno deemed "the most absurd, ridiculous thing" he had ever heard.

The series lasted five seasons and focused on the endless travels of David Banner, a man afflicted with a very peculiar condition. You see, when David Banner gets angry (or experiences an excess of any negative emotion) he physically transforms into a super-strong green giant known as the Hulk.

Executives behind 'The Incredible Hulk' were left with a rather daunting task: just how were they going to depict a massive muscular giant?

Actor Richard Kiel, who played the villain Jaws in a number of James Bond films, was originally awarded the role. After painting poor Kiel green and testing him for the screen, the son of one of the producers pointed out that, while Kiel was quite tall, his lanky physique did not resemble the bulky Hulk of the Marvel comic books. Kiel was then replaced by a professional body builder rather than an actor, by the name of Lou Ferigno.

Hulk with womanTransforming Ferigno into the Hulk took over three hours, with a green wig made of dyed yak hair and hard contact lenses that had to be removed every fifteen minutes.

The series delved quite deeply into the nature of both the Banner character as well as the Hulk's animalistic nature itself. Bixby threw himself into the role and the series, pushing for insightful and intelligent plot lines for each episode.

Years after the end of the television series, three NBC made-for-TV films were produced, with both Bixby and Ferigno reprising their roles. The final movie, 'The Death of the Incredible Hulk' was directed by Bixby himself, who would later pass away due to cancer in 1993.

IN THE COMICS: As part of the "Marvel NOW" initiative, 'The Indestructible Hulk' now features Bruce Banner working closely with S.H.I.E.L.D., harnessing the Hulk side of him in the war against supervillains and terrorists.

ON FILM: After two disappointing features, the Hulk character had a star-making turn in 'The Avengers' where he was played by Mark Ruffalo. Reportedly, Marvel's "phase three" of feature films is centred heavily around the adaptation of the fan-favorite 'Planet Hulk' comic book storyline.


'The Flash' 1990

The Flash


1990 gave us the first on-screen rendition of DC Comics' The Flash, a character who can move at superhuman speed. Starring John Wesley Shipp (better known to younger Ragers as Dawson's Dad on 'Dawson's Creek'), 'The Flash' was a television thriller with great special effects and scripts far more intelligent than anyone expected from a superhero show.

Remember, the big comics2film rennaissance didn't occur until 2001, so back in 1990 superheroes were still seen as superannuated by Hollywood suits. Surprisingly, 'The Flash' was actually a very good show... but it still only survived for a single season of twenty-two episodes.

Why the short lifespan? Well 'The Flash' was placed in direct competition with 'The Simpsons,' a death knell for any series at the time. The series featured Mark Hamill ('Star Wars') as The Trickster, one of the Flash's more colorful villains. Hamill was delightful in the role, one of his few live-action roles of the 1990s.

The show was gone before its time, but the original 22 episodes can be seen on DVD and BluRay.


Birds of Prey'Birds of Prey' 2002

Finally, we come around to 2002's 'Birds of Prey,' an adaptation of a DC Comics series about an unlikely trio of female crime fighters.

The show starred Dina Meyer as Barbara Gordon, The Oracle; Ashley Scott as Helena Kyle, The Huntress; Rachel Skarsten as Dinah Redmond, The Black Canary. Set in New Gotham City (what happened to the old one?), Batman is long gone and these three crime fighters are all that stands for truth and justice in the famous city of crime.

The series featured DC Comics characters that didn't normally get attention outside of the comics world, including Harley Quinn, the villain usually paired with The Joker.

IN THE COMICS: the three characters remain in the DC Universe following the "New 52" initiative however they are not teamed together.

ON FILM: Fans of 'Arrow' will recall The Huntress character from earlier this season making an appearance. It is also worth noting that The Black Canary's real name is Laurel Lance... but... I've said too much...


There you have it: a quick run-down of some of the most prominent superhero series in television history.
Which character do you think should get their own show next? Let us know in the comments below!



Message Posted On Feb 22nd, 2013, 3:56 am
I know this is not a complete list of the Superheros on television, but you left out some notable shows, The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman, for examples. And if you are going to include Capt. Nice, how can you forget Mr. Terrific, which aired at the same time. Or My Secret identity with Jerry O'Connell which aired in the late 1980s. Glaring omissions even for a small piece like this.

Message Posted On Feb 21st, 2013, 7:51 pm
Thanks for the memories of these great shows! It was a fun read, and reminds me how I miss Lynda Carter ;)
Clark Kent

Message Posted On Feb 21st, 2013, 5:35 pm
how can you have something like this and leave out the BEST superhero TV series ever IE SMALLVILLE.

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Message Posted On Feb 21st, 2013, 2:14 pm

Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing should be adapted into an HBO series. Even if it has to be animated, like Spawn.