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Before They Were Blockbusters


Both DC Comics and Marvel would have you think that big-budget, blockbuster films like Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, Green Lantern and The Avengers are their only attempts to bring popular comic book characters into the live-action arena. They would like everyone to forget the sometimes absurd, ridiculous and often ugly reality: that there were numerous early – and failed – attempts to bring super heroes to both the big and small screens.

You can read about these early superhero attempts and the actors who portrayed them on-screen. Some you may be familiar with, but we’ll bet you’ve never heard of many of them.

{NOTE: This list doesn’t cover every instance of every superhero who has ever appeared on TV or in a direct-to-video movie – that would be far too exhaustive. Instead, we’ve covered only those superheroes who have a movie already released, in development or will have one in development soon.}


 ‘Superman’: First Theatrical Release – 1978

1948 – Kirk Alyn - Alyn (on right) doesn’t even receive title credits in the first, and wildly popular, attempt by Columbia Pictures to bring Superman to life; his name only showed up on posters. The studio touted that it couldn’t get an actor to fill the role, so they “hired Superman himself”.

1952 – George ReevesThe man most associated with wearing the Man of Steel’s red cape on the small screen is Reeves (on the left). The series found instant fame after a successful one hour pilot titled Superman and the Mole Men and ran for 6 seasons. The first two were broadcast in black and white with the remainder in color.


‘Batman’: First Theatrical Release – 1966

1943 – Lewis Wilson - Wilson was first to portray Batman in a 15-part serial that introduced fans to items now common in the Batman mythos: the Bat Cave with its grandfather clock secret entrance, and a skinny Alfred.

1949 – Robert Lowery - A sequel starring Lowery as Batman left wartime behind and began falling in line with characters and stories fans knew, including: Vicki Vale, Commissioner Gordon and The Wizard.

1966 – Adam West - West’s campy take on the Caped Crusader is often considered to be the most iconic version of Batman. He battled classic villains with classic tools like his utility belt and the Batmobile.

The Shadow

‘The Shadow’ – First Theatrical Release – 1994

1937 – Rod La RocqueLa Rocque was the first to fight evil at night in The Shadow Strikes and International Crime.

1940 – Victor Jory - The Black Tiger was The Shadow‘s nemesis in a 15-part serial starring Jory.

1946 – Kane Richmond -Richmond wore a black mask instead of a red scarf as The Shadow in three low-budget films.

1954 – Tom Helmore - Helmore played The Shadow in the first-ever TV series.

1958 – Richard Derr - Derr starred as The Shadow in a TV-pilot-turned-film called The Invisible Avenger.

The Phantom

‘The Phantom’ – First Theatrical Release – 1998
1943 – Tom Tyler - Columbia Pictures created a 15-part serial based on the Lee Falk’s popular comic strip called The Phantom. Tyler starred as Geoffrey Prescott/The Phantom fighting off poachers in the jungles with his trusted German shepherd Devil next to his side.

“The Ghost Who Walks” could have used a better costume though, as the striped briefs make him look ridiculous – even in black and white and with two pistols strapped to his hips.


‘Spider-Man’: First Theatrical Release – 2002

1978 – Nicholas Hammond - While the outfit Hammond wears looks ridiculous by today’s standards, it’s still the first time fans were able to see ol’ Web Head’s costume come to life. The Amazing Spider-Man TV show attempted to capitalize on the success of previous superhero shows Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. Even though the show was very popular with fans, CBS canceled it after thirteen episodes due to budget concerns.

1978 – Shinji Todo - It wasn’t odd when Marvel allowed the Toei Company of Japan to create a Spider-Man TV show. It WAS odd, however, when he was turned into a crime fighter who received his powers from an alien named Garia and piloted a robot called Leopardon. Though the story had no hint of anything related to the Spider-Man mythos, the show was praised for its stunt work and special effects.


‘Daredevil’: First Theatrical Release – 2003

1975 – Ben Carruthers - This extremely laughable attempt at creating Daredevil for television was the brainchild of Angela Bowie – the wife of singer David Bowie. Fortunately, the network nixed the idea due to budget concerns before it ever got off the ground. This photo shoot  (pictured on left) was as far as it went.

1989 – Rex Smith - Smith was first to actually portray the blind vigilante of justice in the made-for-TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. The biggest change from the comics fans noticed was Daredevil’s outfit – a black ninja-like costume instead of the red outfit adorned with horns and the double “D” on his chest. The movie was supposed to be the vehicle for a Daredevil spin-off  TV show, but that never materialized.

The Fantastic Four

‘The Fantastic Four’: First Theatrical Release – 2005

1994 – Alex Hyde-White (Mr. Fantastic),  Rebecca Staab (Invisible Woman), Jay Underwood (Human Torch), Carl Ciafalio (The Thing)

Low-budget B-movie king Roger Corman was chosen to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s superpowered group the Fantastic Four to life. Unfortunately, they only allowed him a budget of a scant $1.5 million – most of which he spent on The Thing’s suit. The film served only to maintain Constantin Film’s movie rights to the characters and was never intended to be released in theaters – though the actors and crew working on the film weren’t aware of this at the time.

As with most early attempts at live-action superheroes, the film suffered from the limited special effects technology of the day. While The Thing’s rock suit was actually pretty good and the Human Torch looked OK, Mr. Fantastic’s stretching ability was laughable and Invisible Woman’s power was displayed by just making her no longer appear in frame.

Nick Fury

‘Nick Fury’ – First Theatrical Appearance – 2008

1998 – David Hasselhoff - Marvel allowed a direct-to-video movie to be produced with one of its lower-tier characters, using David Hasselhoff to star as Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - though few people understood why.

Fury is brought out of retirement to once again help S.H.I.E.L.D. battle the evil forces of HYDRA, before they can attack Manhattan with the deadly Death’s Head virus. Hasselhoff sports the traditional eye patch, scruffy beard and chewed-on cigar butt that was synonymous with the character up until that point.


‘Thor’: First Theatrical Release – 2011

1988 – Eric Allan Kramer - The Mighty Thor made his debut appearance in the second of three made-for-TV movies for the Incredible Hulk TV show. Kramer was tasked with playing the demi-god and did so with a mild tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top performance. The producers chose to keep Thor more in line with his Viking roots by dressing him up in fur, leather and a metal breastplate instead of the more familiar red and blue outfit.

One thing that wasn’t changed (thank goodness) was Thor’s hammer – Mjolnir. Kramer wields it like a true demi-god and uses it to dispatch groups of bad guys on more than one occasion.

Green Lantern

‘Green Lantern’: First Theatrical Release – 2011

1979 – Howard Murphy - Murphy was the unlucky actor chosen to first portray the Green Lantern in a live-action setting, in NBC’s 1979 special Legends of the Superheroes. His costume was a direct copy from the comics but makes the all-CGI costume Ryan Reynolds wores look good.

1997 – Matthew Steele - CBS tried (unsuccessfully) to launch a Justice League TV show in the late ’90s, where Steele played Guy Gardener – a software salesman by day and the Green Lantern by night.

2010 – Doug Pinton - In the ninth season of Smallville, Pinton shows up as Alan Scott/Green Lantern wearing his trademark power ring in some archival footage that Clark and Chloe stumble upon.

Captain America

‘Captain America’: First Theatrical Release – 2011 (In the U.S.)

1944 – Dick Purcell - Republic Studios teamed up with Marvel to make a 15-episode Captain America serial starring Dick Purcell.

1973 – Aytekin Akkaya - In the Turkish-made film Captain America and Santo vs. Spider-Man, Akkaya portrays Cap as the head of a task force assigned to take down the evil Spider-Man.

1979 – Reb Brown - Steve Rogers (Brown) was made a struggling artist pre-transformation in this full-length Captain America TV movie.

1990 – Matt Salinger - The story, costume, and villain were all better in this direct-to-video Captain America movie starring Salinger, yet somehow the movie still managed to fail.

The Flash

‘The Flash’ – In Development

1979 – Rod Haase (top left) The Flash (Haase) made his first onscreen appearance in Legends of the Superheroes wearing an atrocious costume.

1990 – John Wesley Shipp (bottom left) While Shipp’s version of The Flash was a tremendous upgrade in terms of character and costume, the show itself was just too corny to warrant more than one season.

1997 – Kenny Johnston (top right)Johnston’s Flash was the leader of a team of superheroes in this failed CBS TV pilot Justice League of America. The costume also took a major step back.

2004 – Kyle Gallner (bottom right) Gallner appeared as Bart Allan in season four of Smallville and again as “Impulse” (The Flash) in season six as a member of the Justice Society.

Wonder Woman

‘Wonder Woman’ – Movie On Hold

1967 – Linda Harrison - In this strange failed TV pilot titled Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?, Harrison played Wonder Woman while Ellie Wood Walker played Prince Diana.

1974 – Cathy Lee Crosby - Crosby plays the flaxen-haired Amazon with superhuman agility in this made-for-TV movie that also served as the pilot vehicle for the TV series.

1975 – Lynda Carter - The most famous Wonder Woman was played by Carter for three seasons on ABC, which became one of their most popular shows of the time.

2011 – Adrianna Palicki - Palicki was chosen to play Princess Diana/Wonder Woman in a television reboot, but WB canceled the project before the pilot episode ever aired.

Now that you know their funny histories, you can enjoy the new releases knowing they went through a lot to get to the big screen.



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One Response to Before They Were Blockbusters

  1. adamas

    April 30, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Is it bad that I actually can remember seeing the ’78 Spider-man series?