Fall offers an abundance of new and returning TV superheroes, which started in August with Netflix’s highly anticipated team-up, The Defenders. While the superheroes headlining this latest Marvel venture may be recognizable to you — Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) — some of their TV predecessors weren’t so lucky and came and went without much fanfare.
Have a look at some TV superheroes you may not recall.
Having famous parents will give a person a leg-up in show business, but that’s only part of the battle — just ask Desi Arnaz, Jr., whose legendary parents’ prowess wasn’t enough to keep him from starring in Automan, a 13-episode wonder that aired on ABC from late 1983 through the spring of 1984. Following the adventures of unfortunately named cop/computer specialist Walter Nebicher (Arnaz, Jr.) and his AI hologram creation Automan (Chuck Wagner), the show combined corny humor (its second episode was titled “Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever”) with goofy special effects (Automan’s Tron-inspired suit was made out of special reflective fabric), to negligible results. By summer, he was gone, along with his Autocar and Autochopper.
Taking its inspiration from the DC series of the same name, the WB’s Birds of Prey imagined a Batman-free future for Gotham — one in which three of the city’s strongest women (Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Oracle, played by Dina Meyer; Helena Kyle, a.k.a. Huntress, played by Ashley Scott; and Dinah Lance, played by Rachel Skarsten) team up to fight crime, assisted by a police detective (Shemar Moore) and, of course, Batman’s manservant Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie). The show’s splashy premise made it a popular viewing destination early on, but ratings quickly eroded; after Prey‘s 13-episode first-season run, the network opted not to renew.
Avoiding camp is often a tricky proposition for superhero series; their concepts require such a delicate suspension of disbelief that it can sometimes be easier just to embrace the silly humor inherent in the idea of a costumed crimefighter. The Sci Fi Channel series Black Scorpion is a case in point: Drawing its inspiration from a pair of Roger Corman films and leaning heavy on the exclamation-pointed aesthetic of the 1960s Batman series (right down to hiring special guests Adam West and Frank Gorshin), it starred former Miss Kansas Michelle Lintel as the titular hero, a police detective leading a double life as a masked vigilante. Like Batman, Black Scorpion relied on combat training, cool gear, and impossible gadgets to do her work, which may have been part of why she ended up battling low-budget baddies like Aerobicide (and her sidekicks Bend and Stretch) — and that, in turn, likely had a lot to do with why Black Scorpion lasted only a single 22-episode season before being retired.
If for no other reason than that its supporting cast included the magnificent Keith David, CBS’s The Cape should have had a long and healthy life on television. Alas, this 2010-11 midseason replacement was quickly doomed by lukewarm reviews and dismal ratings, more than likely the byproduct of a thoroughly convoluted (if still fairly exciting) premise involving an honest cop (David Lyons) framed for murder by a criminal mastermind (James Frain) who thinks he’s killed his patsy — but he’s really only driven him underground, where he’s been schooled in the ways of combat and trickery (as well as outfitted with a nifty cape, ergo the series title) and reborn as a hero hellbent on exposing the crimes of his nemesis. Originally booked for a 13-episode run, The Cape was cut to 10 installments, the last of which was subject to the then-unique indignity of airing only on the network’s website — but it did at least walk away with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Miniseries, Movie Or A Special.
A sort of goofy precursor to The Greatest American Hero with a Captain America twist, 1967’s short-lived Captain Nice followed the clumsy adventures of Carter Nash (William Daniels), a nebbish police chemist who ingests a “super serum” that endows him with special powers (strength, invulnerability, flying) without making him particularly heroic. Garbed in a uniform made and monogrammed by his mother (the incredible Alice Ghostley), Carter Nash becomes Captain Nice and gets himself mixed up in all sorts of goings-on, all while remaining blissfully ignorant of the affections of meter maid Candy Kane (Ann Prentiss). Although it had a solid creative pedigree, springing from the mind of Get Smart co-mastermind Buck Henry, Captain Nice was always campier than funny, and after 15 episodes, NBC had seen enough.
Sid & Marty Kroft, better known for their puppet shows and Land of the Lost, attempted their own superhero show in 1976 with Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. Days of Our Lives’ Diedre Hall and actress Judy Strangis starred the titular Electra-duo. The pair used advanced “Electra” branded devices — like the Electra-Beam and the Electra-Strobe — to fight supervillains while aided by scientist Frank Heflin (Norman Alden) at the ElectraBase. After producing sixteen 12-minute segments for their Saturday morning Kroft Supershow, the Krofts chose not to produce additional material during Supershow’s second season. Forgotten by audiences at large, it was memorable to handful of TV executives, leading to an unaired 2001 WB pilot featuring Night Court’s Markie Post and a 2016 webseries starring Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart.
Before they feuded over Mutant X, Fox and Marvel teamed up for Generation X, a 1996 TV movie that positioned Banshee (Jeremy Ratchford) and Emma Frost, a.k.a. the White Queen (General Hospital vet Finola Hughes) as the leaders of a Professor X-less Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Our heroes and their young charges squared off against Russel Tresh (Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer), a mad scientist whose quest to access the “dream dimension” involves scooping brain tissue out of a mutant named Skin (Austin Rodriguez). Bringing superhero action to the screen on a television budget is always a tall order even under the best of circumstances, however, and that problem is compounded when you’re dealing with a script that calls for a large cast bestowed with a dazzling (in theory) array of powers. Toss in a screenplay that gives too many of our teen mutants short shrift and a director who seemed to be actively encouraging Frewer’s hammiest instincts, and it’s no wonder that Generation X hasn’t been followed by future small-screen X-outings (yet).
Before superhero-watchers were treated to Wonder Woman, they got The Secrets of Isis, starring Joanna Cameron as a high school science teacher whose discovery of an ancient amulet during an Egyptian archaeological dig bestows her with the power of the titular goddess. Part of the same Filmation stable that produced its frequent crossover buddy Shazam!, the two-season Saturday morning hit represents peak ’70s superhero action, with a highly permeable fourth wall and loads of kid-directed moral lessons (delivered straight to the camera during each episode’s closing moments) to go along with the many moments of peril defused by Isis’s poetry-prompted powers.
Undoubtedly one of the odder heroes to shamble out of the Marvel hivemind during the publisher’s occasionally trippy late 1960s-mid-1970s run, Man-Thing is the unfortunate aftermath of a spy ambush meant to steal the work of a biochemist trying to recreate the “super soldier serum” that created Captain America — when he injects himself with the serum in order to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, then crashes his car into a swamp that also happens to house the Nexus of All Realities, Dr. Ted Sallis mystically merges with the muck to become the virtually indestructible creature who brings burning pain to all those who know fear (in other words, just about anyone who sees a lumbering red-eyed giant in the middle of a swamp). This 2005 TV movie, which originally aired on the Sci Fi Channel, altered vast chunks of the Man-Thing’s origin (Ted Sallis is now a Seminole chieftain rather than a scientist, for starters) and made it more of a murderous beast than an interdimensional guardian, leaving Man-Thing a low-budget horror movie that served as an adaptation of its alleged inspiration pretty much in name only — and a missed opportunity to present a fun, enthusiastically goofy B-movie version of one of Marvel’s cultiest cult favorites.
What’s a socially responsible doctor to do after being shot in the spine and paralyzed from the waist down? Well, if you’re Miles Hawkins (played by Carl Lumbly), you dedicate a sizable portion of your considerable wealth to the development of a powerful exoskeleton and other assorted cool gear, you give yourself a secret identity that doubles as a fancy acronym (Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System, or M.A.N.T.I.S. for short), and you fight crime in a hovercraft between R&R sessions in your secret underwater lab. As M.A.N.T.I.S., Hawkins made life miserable for nemeses like unscrupulous industrialist Solomon Box (Andrew J. Robinson), but the one bad guy he couldn’t defeat was network indifference; Fox pulled the plug on the show before it could make it to a second season, leading to a series finale in which our hero is killed in the line of duty while battling an invisible dinosaur.
For decades, Manimal served as the butt of jokes whenever NBC wanted to make fun of its own programming choices. Though only the second-worst series the network aired (the worst being the Love Boat wannabe Supertrain), Manimal featured the catchier name and premise. Jaws 3’s Simon MacCorkindale starred as Dr. Jonathan Chase, a man who could change into the shape of any animal the production could afford; typically a hawk or a panther. Teaming up with Detective Brooke Mackenzie (Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson), Chase used his special abilities to fight crime. The premise failed to excite viewers and was canceled after eight episodes were produced. In fact, Manimal was one of eight new series NBC quickly axed in 1983. Curiously, MacCorkindale would reprise his role as Chase in a 1998 episode of Night Man called “Manimal.”
A good-natured, Ghostbusters-inspired paranormal action comedy anchored by Dean Paul Martin, Misfits of Science is notable not only for its eclectic cast — which included a young Courteney Cox, fresh off her big break in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video, as well as future Predator Kevin Peter Hall and ALF‘s sputtering landlord, Max Wright — but for the talent behind the scenes, a group that included first-time writer Tim Kring. Although the show was a pet project of NBC president Brandon Tarkitoff, it was ultimately too expensive to justify continuing in light of low ratings, a casualty of Misfits‘ unenviable position across the schedule from Dallas. After 15 episodes, Science was blinded, although it remains a cult favorite for a small group of devoted fans — for proof, check out Will Harris’s ebook Misfits of Science: An Oral History.
Fox’s ownership of the film and TV rights to Marvel’s X-Men characters enabled the publisher to see some of its heroes on the screen at a time when they weren’t able to adapt those titles themselves, but it has also been a source of persistent complication between the companies — and occasionally the basis for a lawsuit, as was the case when Marvel produced Mutant X, a syndicated series about a bio-geneticist named Adam Kane (John Shea) whose remorse over having helped create a generation of mutants leads him to round up and lead a group of genetically altered heroes on a mission to protect and train mutants at risk of being harmed or exploited. The story possibilities were fairly endless, and the ratings were sufficiently healthy for three full seasons’ worth of episodes, but Fox sued the various companies involved, arguing that Mutant X was a breach of their licensing agreement. Marvel eventually settled out of court, leaving its production partners Tribune Entertainment and Fireworks Entertainment to continue fighting on their own — and when Fireworks went bankrupt, Mutant X died a sudden death.
Those lucky Canadians, man — not only do they have publicly funded health care, but the Great White North is also home to photon beams that endow teenage boys with superhuman abilities. (This may explain how the guys in Rush are able to rock so hard.) That’s the premise, anyway, behind My Secret Identity, which starred a young Jerry O’Connell as Andrew Clements, a Toronto teen who just happens to be pals with a super-genius scientist (Derek McGrath, a.k.a. Andy Andy from Cheers) who helps him navigate the perils of superpowered puberty. Part of the same block of delightfully ’80s syndicated series that included Out of This World and She’s the Sheriff, My Secret Identity made Saturday afternoons fun for a few years before soaring off into obscurity.
Years after Manimal faded into the annals of misbegotten TV crimefighters, the show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, got a second shot at helping develop a small-screen superhero with Night Man, a syndicated (and loosely Marvel-derived) series about a saxophone player (Matt McColm) who acquires the ability to telepathically detect evil (but is no longer able to sleep) after being struck by lightning. Did we mention that this poor fellow’s name is Johnny Domino? Given its intensely silly premise, visibly low budget, and a supporting cast that briefly included Taylor Dayne, it’s perhaps most surprising that the show managed to last for two seasons, enjoying a 44-episode run (during which Night Man came across Little Richard and Donald Trump as well as Manimal) before disappearing into the darkness.
Before ABC had access to the Marvel Comics library of characters, it tried to grow its own superhero TV show. The result was not fondly remembered, if recalled at all. The Shield’s Michael Chiklis starred as Jim Powell, the patriarch of a regular California family that survives a plane crash in the Amazon and gains special powers. Once home, they attempted to balance family dysfunctions with their new calling as heroes. Despite being co-created by future Arrow and Flash innovator Greg Berlanti, the show’s sci-fi dramedy format, a strange fit for ABC at the time, bled viewers. Picked up for a full season in October of 2010 thanks to a strong premiere, the order was cut to twenty episodes early the next year and canceled in May of 2011.
Based on the comic book by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, Powers had the best of intentions, but lacked a wide enough platform to be seen. District 9’s Sharlto Copley starred as Detective Christian Walker, a cop assigned to the LAPD’s Powers Division whose beat included crimes perpetuated by or against extranormal individuals. The first season saw Walker — once a costumed hero himself — investigating his former mentor and facing the temptation to regain his powers. While featuring an interesting premise and a handful of good performances, the production values left a lot to be desired. Also, the show was only available on Sony Playstation consoles via its Playstation Network; severely limiting its availability as a first-run program. A second season was ordered, but Sony soon pulled the plug after the series debuted in May of 2016.
Despite surviving for three seasons, USA’s Swamp Thing aired long before basic cable channels were known for quality original content. The series did little to change that reputation. Stuntman Dick Durock reprised his title role from the Swamp Thing feature films as Alec Holland, a scientist burned and left for dead by the twisted Dr. Anton Arcane (Mark Lindsay Chapman). Instead of dying, he became a supernatural vegetable creature dedicated to keeping the evil men do out of his swamp. Initially campy and family-friendly, the show would become a darker tale after its thirteenth episode. But with episodes aired out of order, and the generally poor quality of writing, the show never amassed more than cult following. Ironically, that following led to some of USA’s best ratings at the time — which gives you an idea of how small cable audiences were thirty years ago. Today, most are surprised to learn that the show ever existed.