Superhero blockbusters have dominated the action movie genre for years, but it wasn’t always the case that movies like “The Dark Knight” or “The Avengers” broke records and breathed life into characters more than half a century old. Before you could watch action movies online starring superheroes, superhero TV shows were popular culture mainstays. If you haven’t checked out some of the most compelling superhero TV shows of the past, you haven’t seen all superheroes have to offer.
“Wonder Woman” (1970s)
“Wonder Woman” has yet to see a recent blockbuster adaptation, but her name is thrown around by filmmakers considering a movie adaptation. She’s certainly poised to star in the eventual “Justice League” film. Filmmakers need to look no further than the hit 1970s “Wonder Woman” series starring Lynda Carter for inspiration.
As School Library Journal explains, the “Wonder Woman” TV show played a large role in portraying this heroine as a feminist ideal. She doesn’t need to rely on men to rescue her, but she’s also a complex character who has real emotional needs. For three seasons, Wonder Woman fought criminals and supervillains in the name of peace and equality.
“The Incredible Hulk” (1970s/80s)
“The Incredible Hulk” has been featured in two solo films since 2003, and the character appeared in 2012’s smash-hit “The Avengers.” Although his films have done well, moviegoers have yet to embrace the Hulk’s solo films as much as they have Iron Man’s, for example. “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, which ran for five seasons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, may have been the character’s most popular appearance outside of comic books.
Starring Bill Bixby as David Banner (the name was changed from “Bruce” to “David” for the show) and wrestler Lou Ferrigno as the green-skinned Hulk, “The Incredible Hulk” was like a superhero version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ferrigno would go on to voice Hulk in his eventual movie incarnations.
“Lois & Clark” (1990s)
It may have taken until 2013 and the Henry Cavill–starring movie “Man of Steel” for a Superman movie to surpass the success of the 1970s and `80s Christopher Reeve films, but Superman wasn’t completely gone from media in the decades between. “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” was a ratings hit for the four seasons it aired in the 1990s. Starring Dean Cain as Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, and Teri Hatcher as his girlfriend and intrepid reporter Lois Lane, “Lois & Clark” embraced the “soap opera” side of comic books and emphasized characters over superhero battles.
With “Lois & Clark,” viewers got to know Clark Kent as the primary identity of the superhero, rather than Superman — something that would carry on to “Man of Steel.” No longer totally bumbling and comical, Clark was a developed character with everyday problems, in addition to being the most powerful person on the planet. His chemistry with Lois made the show a must-see for comic fans and romantic drama fans alike.
“Batman: The Animated Series” (1990s)
Some superhero TV shows were a response to superhero films, but in the case of “Batman: The Animated Series,” the early `90s cartoon, the show would go on to earn more acclaim than the Tim Burton films it originally emulated. Although aimed at children, it was a hit with adults as well, due to the serious tone that was faithful to the comics.
Created by Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini, “Batman: The Animated Series” ran for four seasons and featured Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker leading an ensemble cast of some of Batman’s best-known allies and enemies. Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn, a character who went on to become an integral part of the comic book universe, was created as a henchwoman for the series.
These four TV shows are just the tip of the superhero small-screen iceberg. There’s the classic 1960s “Batman” series with Adam West, and a “Captain America” TV movie from 1979. There’s even a teenage-angst version of “Superman” in the 1990s show “Smallville.” It can be interesting for comic book fans and non-fans alike to see how the media has portrayed superheroes over the decades. The explosion of superhero-film blockbusters is relatively new, so if you want to see how superheroes once leapt off the comic pages, look no further than your TV.
Image by Lamentelia From Flickr’s Creative Commons
About the Author: Margaret Prickett is a TV critic and comic book blogger with a degree in cinema and media studies from UCLA. Her reviews have appeared both online and in local publications.