Capes & Cowls: A History Of Superheroes On TV

Capes & Cowls: A History Of Superheroes On TV

If you thought superheroes were only dominating movie screens at the moment, you clearly haven’t been paying attention to television. Even in a comic-book-movie-heavy year like this one, with seven superhero pics hitting theaters (“Deadpool,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2,” “Suicide Squad” and “Doctor Strange”), the sheer output is dwarfed by close to a hundred hours of programming featuring small-screen costume crimefighters that will hit TV this year.

READ MORE: The 25 Most Memorable Moments In Superhero Movies

Tomorrow sees the arrival of the second season of Marvel’s “Daredevil” on Netflix. The first run was an acclaimed take on a key character, but it’s also one of at least ten superhero-related shows to air in 2016 (there’s also “Arrow,” “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D,” “The Flash,” “Gotham,” “Agent Carter,” “Powers,” “Supergirl,” “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and “Legends Of Tomorrow”). And that’s not even including the countless animated shows.

This is despite the budgetary limitations that often comes with television, which can’t capture the same kind of city-smashing spectacle that their big-screen cousins can. But then, there’s a long tradition of comic-book heroes overcoming low budgets and production values to reach millions of viewers, and the form arguably captures the episodic, soapy story lines of the page better than any movie could. So, with “Daredevil” hitting Netflix tomorrow morning, here’s our brief guide to the history of live-action superhero TV shows.

The 1950s: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

Long story short: comic books were popularized and got massive in the 1930s and reached a peak during WWII, where characters like Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman sold millions of copies at a time. Even before then, prototypical superheroes were already popular on radio serials, where The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and Doc Savage were among those who enthralled listeners all over the U.S. Soon, characters were crossing mediums: “The Green Hornet” became a comic in 1940, while a “Superman” radio serial began in 1942.

Some of these characters ventured to the big screen, with movie serials featuring Zorro, The Shadow, Captain Marvel/Shazam, and Captain America hitting screens before the war ended. Two of what are now the biggest hitters, Batman and Superman, got their own serials too, with Kirk Alyn playing the latter in fifteen hugely successful chapters for Columbia. But the serials were soon to die away, as, in the late 1940s, television took off.

One of the first true hit television dramas in the Golden Age of Television was a superhero show of a sort, in the shape of ABC’s “The Lone Ranger,” which translated a popular radio serial character, the masked Western hero, onto screens with Clayton Moore in the saddle. It helped put the network on the map, and broke into the top ten rated shows at a time when almost everything was a drama anthology like “Texaco Star Theatre” or “Fireside Theatre.”

Superhero comic sales had plummeted after WWII, with Western, horror, sci-fi, and romance comics often taking their place, but the heaviest hitters remained in print. Perhaps with the intention of cashing in on the success of “The Lone Ranger,” B-movie producer and theater owner Robert L. Lippert bought the rights to Superman, hiring key DC Comics writer Whitney Ellsworth and Robert Maxwell, who’d produced the Superman radio serial, to make an hourlong glorified pilot called “Superman and the Mole Men” in 1951, with the rest of the series, titled “The Adventures Of Superman,” being shot that year (though not airing until nearly a year later).

Shot quickly and cheaply (the cast was paid just $2000 an episode), with our hero battling gangsters and thugs rather than his traditional rogue’s gallery of villains, it would shift in tone over time, from its noir-ish early days to more campy, comedic later seasons. It proved a success in syndication across six seasons, and is still shown in repeats today. After the sixth season, there were hopes that at least a further two would be made, with writing getting underway on a seventh season in 1959.

Then, shockingly (and yet perhaps what the 1950s “Adventures Of Superman” is best remembered for today), George Reeves, the star of the show, was found dead in his L.A home of a gunshot wound to the head. Reeves had long had a difficult relationship with the character that made him famous, reportedly had money troubles, and his death was officially called a suicide.

But Hollywood conspiracy theorists have long suggested that he could have been murdered, with Reeves’ former lover, Toni Mannix (who was married to MGM fixer Eddie Mannix, the basis for Josh Brolin’s character in “Hail, Caesar!”), among the suspects. The final days of Reeves’ life were dramatized in the 2006 film “Hollywoodland,” ironically with future Batman Ben Affleck playing the actor. However he died, Reeves’ death ensured that “The Adventures Of Superman” died with him, and television mostly stayed away from superheroes for the next decade or so.



The 1960s: Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel 

Not long after the end of “The Adventures of Superman,” producer Ed Graham optioned the rights to Clark Kent’s comics stablemate, Batman, in the hopes of producing a Saturday morning TV show along similar lines, and with football player turned actor Mike Henry (who’d go on to star in Tarzan movies and “Smokey And The Bandit”) lined up to play the hero. When he couldn’t make a deal with CBS, ABC swooped in instead, with producer William Dozier, an ex-husband and producing partner of Joan Fontaine, put in charge of the show.

Dozier had reportedly never read the comic, and approached writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who’d later win acclaim for “The Parallax View” and “Three Days Of The Condor”). In 2008, Semple, who was living in Spain at the time, recalled his first meeting with Dozier to Variety. “‘This,’ he said, with a look of humiliation bordering on shame, ‘is what ABC has given us.”

And yet, he said, “The TV show concept virtually exploded in my sangria-enhanced brain, full-blown” — not to do Batman as serious drama, but as campy pop-art comedy.

The pair took their idea back to the network (“Bill eloquently pitched the script and its high-camp POW!! BLAM!! WHAMMO!! style, those onscreen graphics already written it,” Semple said), and though ABC was surprised, they bought into it, and took the show straight to series without the need for a pilot. The hope, in fact, was that a movie would be made to help introduce the characters, but ABC was so enthusiastic about the show that production on the film was delayed until after the first season wrapped (it ultimately hit theaters just two months after the last episode aired, in July 1966).

Actor Adam West was cast in the title role after Dozier saw him as a James Bond-aping spy in a Nestlé Quik commercial, while Burt Ward, aged just 19, was cast as his ward, Robin, and veteran British actor Alan Napier as Alfred. The show also gained attention with a canny use of guest stars playing the colorful villains, including Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, and George Sanders (and later Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach) as Mr. Freeze. It was quippy, full of slapstick for the kids and some wry satire for their parents, and every other episode (two aired every week) had a cliffhanger in a manner that echoed the old serials.

The show was, at first, an enormous hit, taking the fifth and tenth slots on the most watched shows of 1966, with over thirteen million people watching each episode. It seemed perfectly timed somehow, with a silly, slightly psychedelic vibe bridging the gap between “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Woodstock.” But ratings dropped precipitously after the first season. “Despite efforts to juice it up with a Batgirl and a Batcycle and other ornaments,” Semple later wrote, “the series was a one-trick pony at heart, and barely staggered through a second season.” (In fact, he’s slightly off: the show actually had an abbreviated third season in 1967-1968, after which its high budget caused ABC to cancel it). “I think Batman was the best thing I ever wrote. As a whole work, it came out the way that I wanted it to and I was excited by it,” Semple said in an interview with the Archive Of American Television.

Modern Batman is a grittier affair, for better or worse, but even though rights issues kept the show off DVD until as late as 2014, the series has had a long life as a cult item, inspiring parodies (including the perfect “Simpsons” one below), a 2013 comic set in the world of TV shows, and endless self-ribbing cameo appearances with Adam West, who appeared in later “Batman” cartoon series.

It also inspired a brief run of other superhero shows: Dozier himself produced a single season of “The Green Hornet” for ABC in the fall of 1966, notable for starring Bruce Lee as Kato, while the following year saw NBC air a double-bill of superhero-themed sitcoms, “Captain Nice” and “Mr. Terrific,” though neither lasted. By 1968, though, with the mood darkened in America by Vietnam and the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the genre seemed out of step with the times again, and costumed heroes disappeared from screens once more.


The 1970s: Don’t Make Me Angry. You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

They didn’t disappear for long, though, in part thanks to a new company on the scene who’d reinvented the comics business. DC Comics had been plugging along for decades, but in the early 1960s, Marvel editor Stan Lee introduced a new line of heroes: first The Fantastic Four, then Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, and many more. Poppier and more relatable in many ways than the untouchable gods of DC, they were runaway hits, selling 50 million comics a year by 1968, and not just to kids, but to adults as well.

Lee soon pushed to get the characters onto TV, but the best he could do were some brief appearances from Spider-Man on “The Electric Company,” a PBS show intended to scoop up viewers too old for “Sesame Street” (here’s one with Spidey facing off in a movie theater against Count Dracula, played by a young Morgan Freeman).

In the meantime, a third DC hero made it to the small screen successfully, in the shape of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, the badass Amazon created by the colorful William Moulton Marston in 1941 (for more on the fascinating story of how she came to be, read Jill Lepore’s superb book “The Secret History Of Wonder Woman”). After “Batman,” William Dozier had attempted to get a pilot made for a “Wonder Woman” series, but it didn’t have much momentum.

In 1974, ABC got as far as a pilot, with Cathy Lee Crosby as a rather less faithful version of the character. It aired as a TV movie in March 1974, but was seen as a misstep by the network, who didn’t pick it up, though they commissioned a second, more faithful version, written by Stanley Ralph Ross, who’d written a third of the episodes of “Batman.” Former Miss World USA Lynda Carter was cast in the title role, and the success of the first pilot led to two further specials, and then an eleven-episode first season, all set during WWII.

Ratings were good, but ABC dawdled on commissioning a second season, at which point CBS swept in to pick it up, moving the setting to the modern day and dumping most of the cast except for Carter. Two further seasons aired, helping put the character, her lasso, her spinning transformation, and the like in the popular consciousness, but CBS failed to recommission the show after the third season. To date, it’s really been the only successful attempt at bringing the character to the screen (a 2011 pilot starring Adrianne Palicki wasn’t picked up), something that Gal Gadot hopes to change in next week’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.”

Part of the reason that “Wonder Woman” was cancelled was that it suddenly had a lot more superheroic competition on TV. “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman,” superheroes in all but costume, became blockbuster hits in the time it took “Wonder Woman” to make it to air. And the Marvel characters were hitting screens too, after years of Stan Lee pursuing a slate of television projects.

In the fall of September 1977, along with the debut of their version of “Wonder Woman,” CBS aired TV movie pilots for both “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” Both got strong ratings, were picked up to series, and began airing in the spring of 1978. ‘Hulk’ was by far the most successful: with the show borrowing a structure from TV classic “The Fugitive,” with Bill Bixby’s Dr. David Banner (a name changed from the comics because CBS execs thought the name Bruce was “too gay-ish”) on the run and meeting and helping out various folks while occasionally transforming into a green giant (played by Lou Ferrigno). It ran for five seasons, with three reunion movies airing in the late ’80s, and though it departed from the comics in a big way, it remains somewhat influential — Louis Letterier’s 2008 film of the same name is undoubtedly inspired by the series as much as by the comics.

Less successful was the take on Peter Parker. Created by “Kojak” writer Alvin Boretz, and starring former “Sound Of Music” Von Trapp kid Nicholas Hammond as the hero, it departed largely from the comics, with none of Spidey’s traditional villains appearing, and obvious budget constraints hampering affairs. Ratings were good enough to make it to a second season after a brief six-episode first, but it was cancelled at the end of the thirteen-episode second season (Stan Lee later said he was “disappointed” by the effort).

CBS seemed to have a schizophrenic approach to superhero shows in general. Alongside the shows they picked up, they also filmed pilots for “Doctor Strange” and “Captain America,” airing in 1978 and 1979 respectively, but by the end of the decade, only “The Incredible Hulk” remained on air, with executives reportedly worried that they’d come to be associated too heavily with the genre. There was a brief period where superheroes ruled the airwaves (there was also a “Shazam” Saturday-morning kids’ show on CBS, that ran from 1974 to 1976, and two live-action comedies featuring Justice League members called “Legends Of The Superheroes” that returned Adam West and Burt Ward to their trademark roles), but despite the success of “Superman” on the big screen, they soon went away again, and would remain that way for some time.



The 1980s and the ’90s: The Death And Life Of Superman

Once “The Incredible Hulk” left the air, few superheroes were to be found on the small screen. Comedy “The Greatest American Hero,” about a teacher-turned-superhero, ran for three seasons on ABC between 1981 and 1983, but it wasn’t based on a comic book, and didn’t last too long.

Otherwise, the 1980s remained hero-free until 1988, when the first of three supershows that would cast a long shadow over the genre for the next couple of decades aired. The Salkinds, who’d bought the “Superman” screen rights for the first three movies, produced a syndicated “Superboy” series that began airing in 1988 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the character. It managed to last four seasons, despite significant cast and creative changes, but was cancelled after the fourth when Warner Bros. regained the rights to the character, and doesn’t seem to be much missed by fans.

Not long after “Superboy” hit the screen, the enormous blockbuster success of Tim Burton’s “Batman” seriously revived interest in the genre, and a few cash-in attempts came to the screen after. The most successful were animated ones, with “Batman,” “Superman” and “X-Men” cartoon series still seen as definitive adaptations by some fans. Things went less well in live-action: a 1990 “The Flash” TV series lasted a single season, there were three seasons of “Swamp Thing” on USA, and the short-lived “Human Target” on ABC.

The only one to actually capitalize on the success of “Batman” was “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman.” Developed by writer Deborah Joy LeVine, it starred Dean Cain as everyone’s favorite Kryptonian, and Teri Hatcher as his reporter love, Lois Lane, and threw back to the 1950s “The Adventures Of Superman” in placing as much emphasis on the Daily Planet and the hero’s identity as on the superheroics, with an almost screwball comedy-ish feel to proceedings. Budget still meant that many of the series’ classic villains weren’t present, but it was still more successful than most at blending action with romance and comedy, and Cain and Hatcher came to define the characters for a generation. Ratings were decent (it helped that the show coincided with the controversy over the death of Superman in the comics), but ABC shifted the show around the schedule in its later seasons, and after being recommissioned for a fifth run, it was finally cancelled in 1997, just as the superhero genre was about to get another boost…

The 21st Century – You’re One Bad Day Away From Being Me

The same year as “Lois & Clark” left the air, Joel Schumacher‘s “Batman & Robin” seemed to kill the cinematic superhero dead. But if reading comics has taught anyone anything, it’s that superheroes don’t stay dead for long. After years of failures and near-misses, Marvel suddenly had a run of good luck, and between 1998’s “Blade,” 2000’s “X-Men,” and 2002’s “Spider-Man,” suddenly superheroes were massive again, and things only kept getting bigger, eventually building towards the glut of billion-dollar grossers we have today.

Slowly, things got going again on the small-screen too. Things didn’t go so well at first. The syndicated “Mutant X” was a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of the “X-Men” movie, resulting in three modestly-rated seasons and a costly lawsuit between Fox and Marvel. Network line-ups were scattered with various other short-lived shows at this time too, including spoof “The Tick” (now being revived at Amazon), supernatural TNT show “Witchblade,” obscure “Batman” spin-off “Birds Of Prey,” and an ill-fated one-season attempt at a small-screen “Blade.”

The most successful by some distance — and actually, the longest running running superhero show ever, and a record that’ll take some beating — was yet another Superman-related show, “Smallville.” Developed for the WB by “Shanghai Noon” writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, it came after plans for a show about a young Bruce Wayne were scrapped in favor of Darren Aronofsky’s ultimately aborted “Batman: Year One” movie.

The result was a show that focused on a young Clark Kent before he donned his suit and moved to the big city, blending superhero action with teen romance that evoked shows like “7th Heaven” or “Dawson’s Creek,” with a young Clark (Tom Welling) initially friends with eventual nemesis Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum), and romancing Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) rather than Lois Lane, though the latter would eventually turn up.

It was never a critical darling, but more successfully than any other show up to that point, it managed to meld a certain TV soapiness with the far-out sci-fi elements, marking the first live-action appearances of classic villains like Brainiac and Darkseid, even if the budgetary restraints sometimes showed (it also homaged the past, with Christopher Reeve appearing in a number of episodes). Ratings were never spectacular (it never ranked within the Top 100 rated shows), but it maintained a loyal audience, to the extent that it lasted for ten seasons and over 100 episodes, first on the WB and then on the CW.

It remains highly influential too, in its way: the formula has been replicated with the CW’s current batch of superhero shows, with “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and “Legends Of Tomorrow,” plus CBS’s ‘Supergirl.” Hailing from producer Greg Berlanti, the shows have proved bigger in scope to some degree, able to use near-movie-quality effects in bringing their action sequences to life. Proving more faithful to the comics than even “Smallville,” they have also followed that show’s formula to some extent, with blandly handsome teen-friendly leads, twisty plots, and plenty of romance.

They remain niche concerns for the most part, but the closest TV’s ever come to a true crossover hit was NBC’s “Heroes,” which drew from heavily from comic books. The series briefly captured the post-“Lost” mania for mystery and serialization on network TV, and initially drew huge audiences, but couldn’t keep up the quality and lost viewers quickly, with last year’s miniseries “Heroes Reborn” failing to recapture the magic.

Between its early success, and the increasingly enormous nature of the box office of films like “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers,” hopes have remained high that a superhero show could blow up with the mainstream. Surprisingly, DC’s “Gotham,” a Batman prequel show, hasn’t quite managed it.

AThough their recent efforts tie into the blockbuster movies, Marvel haven’t either: “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D” started strong but fell off quickly, feeling like a bit of a ’90s throwback in many respects, while “Captain America” spin-off “Agent Carter” was better-received, but had poor ratings. Their Netflix shows are their most ambitious plan yet: four interlinked seasons, with “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” to be joined by this year’s “Luke Cage” and next year’s “Iron Fist,” before the characters unite in a “Defenders” team-up miniseries.

To some extent, they’ve been highly creatively successful too: “Daredevil” being the best attempt to date at bringing a Frank Miller-ish grittiness to television (sometimes too much so), and “Jessica Jones” turning its superhero story into a stealthily powerful metaphor for abuse survivors. But with Netflix still closely protecting their data, there’s no clue as to how many people are actually watching the shows (and some suggest that it’s fewer than some of Netflix’s other shows like “Narcos” or “Orange Is The New Black”).

There’s more on the way, including NBC’s comedy “Powerless,” and the “X-Men”-tied “Legion” from “Fargo” mastermind Noah Hawley. Despite, or perhaps because of, their sheer volume, we might still be ways off from a superhero TV series dominating the culture in the same way that big-screen blockbusters have done. That said, the biggest TV drama in a generation is already based on a comic book: it’s just that “The Walking Dead” doesn’t have a pair of tights or a cape in sight…

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Comments

Chris H

Missed several shows (Isis, NightMan, Misfits of Science, Automan, Manimal). Also got some info wrong (Smallville ran for over 200 episodes). Nonetheless, cool article…

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