In the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with 2008’s Iron Man and continues along its merry, lucrative way with this November’s Thor: The Dark World, it can be easy to forget that, to date, the comics purveyor has had an abysmal track record in the realm of live-action television. With last night’s premiere of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still fresh on the brain, let’s look back at the many live-action shows and failed pilots based on Marvel properties and revel in the hammy acting, primitive costuming, and villainous turns by Jessica Walter.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977–1979)
Not counting the trippy Spidey segments that ran from 1974 to 1977 on the PBS children's program The Electric Company, Marvel’s first attempt to parlay the success of its web-slinging cash cow into the live-action arena didn’t exactly make a good impression on comic-book fans — or TV critics, for that matter. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Nicholas Hammond, an actor best known as a Von Trapp family singer and the football stud from the "oh, my nose!" episode of The Brady Bunch. As much as the guy tried, Olympic gymnast he was not, and the effects department wasn't up to the challenge of capturing the character's agility; the fight scenes have all the grace of Captain Kirk dodging the rubbery arms of a man in a reptilian bodysuit. Despite generally strong ratings and a funky soundtrack, the CBS series took heavy criticism, particularly for its lack of bona fide supervillains from the source material. Instead, the wise-cracking wall-crawler was pitted against a motley crew of street thugs, drug pushers, and the occasional evil hypnotist.
The Incredible Hulk (1977–1982)
Despite being based on the comic book, this popular CBS series may have been more closely inspired by The Fugitive. A heavily irradiated scientist named David "Don't Call Me Bruce!" Banner (played by Bill Bixby) is forced to wander the backroads of America after being accused of a crime he didn't commit; like a monstrous version of Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap, he always seems to run into the one person in town who needs help. At least once per episode, Banner's standard-issue warning of "Don't make me angry — you wouldn't like me when I'm angry" is ignored by various thugs-of-the-week and, after a legitimately frightening transformation sequence, the Hulk arrives to unleash some delicious, usually slow-motion mayhem. Thanks to its "man without a home" premise and forlorn theme music capping off each episode, The Incredible Hulk had some real pathos working in its favor — it also had a shirtless Lou Ferrigno in a green wig made of yak hair. Still, it remains the most successful live-action Marvel live-action television adaptation to date, although, given the competition, that isn’t saying much.
Dr. Strange (1978)
Okay, now we're into the ugly stuff. This CBS telefilm based on a lesser-known Marvel character served as a backdoor pilot and plays like a classic Hammer horror movie crossed with a sleazy drive-in exploitation flick. The plot of the surprisingly macabre movie follows psychologist Dr. Stephen Strange, who must tap into his latent magical powers to stop Arthurian villainess Morgan le Fey (portrayed by Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter, flashing serious cleavage in a catsuit) from stealing men’s souls, because that’s the sort of thing an evil witch is supposed to do. The movie went up against the Roots ratings juggernaut in its initial airing, which all but ensured that a series pickup wasn't going to happen, and it didn't. And that's just as well, given that the Doc’s first crack at astral projection looks and sounds like an epic pornographic fantasy picture.
Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979)
The short window of 1977–79 was certainly a wild time for Marvel properties on television (and more specific, CBS). Both of these Captain America telefilms starred Reb Brown, he of the infamous B-movie Yor, the Hunter from the Future and the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Space Mutiny." It’s a pretty safe cinematic rule that when you’ve hitched your star to “Big McLargeHuge,” quality is a secondary concern — but at least Brown's suitably beefy. After being shot up by a “super steroid” codenamed “FLAG,” our hero gains the power to ... tool around in an A-Team–style van and drive motorcycles at high speed. The sequel is even crazier, as Cap must battle a warlord named General Miguel (played, for some reason, by Christopher Lee), who plans to spray American cities with a chemical agent that causes rapid aging and then death. Unnecessarily complicated plan? Yes. Easily foiled? Yes. An excuse for Christopher Lee to be rapidly aged to death in the conclusion? Yes. Not answered is how the producers ever could have thought that fans wouldn't notice that Captain America's shield is transparent.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
After a six-year cliff-hanger, David "Don't Call Me Bruce" Banner and his green-skinned alter ego returned to action in this TV movie, in which he attempts to reverse his Hulk-ish tendencies through laboratory work in gamma radiation research. He also has a real love interest this time around, who — surprise! — has little to no impact on the proceedings other than allowing TV promos to squawk, "This time, he's fighting for love!" This film is interesting primarily for featuring the first live-action adaptation of Marvel's Thor, a full 23 years before Chris Hemsworth would embody the Asgardian hero. The son of Odin is absolutely ridiculous in this movie, though. The first thing he does after we are told about his inherent goodness and quest for justice is electrocute David Banner and destroy most of a laboratory without provocation; he then spends much of the rest of the film showering and running shirtless on the beach. But at least we get one transcendent moment when the two would-be Avengers come to blows and the jockish Thor bellows, "This will send you back to hell, you ugly troll!"
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The second Hulk TV flick served as a backdoor pilot for a potential Daredevil series, a tactic that worked about as well as it did for Thor. After foiling an attempted subway rape (seriously) by transforming into the Hulk, David Banner is accused of the crime and put in jail to await trial. Afraid he will transform into the Hulk again on the witness stand and massacre an entire courtroom, Banner must trust his one ally, blind defense lawyer Matt Murdoch, who moonlights as the vigilante hero Daredevil. Together, they team up to clear Banner’s name and take down Fisk, a.k.a. Daredevil's arch-nemesis the Kingpin, via much punching and growling. Surprisingly, apart from Rex Smith’s decidedly non-Daredevil black costume, there’s not much to nitpick here. Isn't body-slamming a prosecutor through a table pretty much the sort of thing the Hulk is likely to do?
The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
In the final live-action telefilm about the Hulk, David Banner enters the nineties still searching for a cure to his unfortunate affliction, which of course means he's posing as a janitor at a scientific research facility. After finishing some complex equations left unattended on the blackboard, Good Will Hunting–style, he teams up with the compound’s resident white-haired, bow-tie-wearing leader to induce and study the Hulk's transformations. Meanwhile, a few agents from some sort of Eastern-European spy network arrive to poke the hornet's nest that is Banner. It all culminates in a chase sequence that sees the Hulk fall out of a plane, revert to Banner, and die shortly after impact. And that was the end of live-action Hulk action on television, in part owing to Bill Bixby’s death from cancer in 1993. Say it ain't so, Lou Ferrigno!
Generation X (1996)
This TV film is literally everything a middle-aged ad executive figured teenagers would find irresistible in the mid-nineties which is to say: neon-colored clothing, smoke machines, and that ever-so-popular grunge music. An X-Men spinoff that put Emma Frost (played by General Hospital's Finola Hughes) and Banshee (Jeremy Ratchford) in charge of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, this version focused on teenage mutants in training, making it, essentially, a 1996 version of last year’s X-Men: First Class. The action centers on Frost’s attempts to mold young, mutated minds while also contending with an evil scientist named Tresh (Max Headroom's Matt Frewer) who intends to dissect mutant brains to fuel some kind of “dream dimension” device. If that sounds confusing to you, then you’re in good company, but at least there are plenty of totally non-creepy mutant teen make-outs going on, so that’s something.
Night Man (1997–1999)
What a difference a couple of years can make. Instead of the hip teenage appeal hoped for with Generation X, the syndicated series Night Man, based on the Marvel-owned Malibu Comics title and produced by Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Manimal), looked more like a Baywatch-crossed superhero series for repressed housewives. Flush to the gills with hot jazz, the series featured the buff and dreamy Matt McColm as a saxophone player named Johnny Domino, who gains the ability to sense evil after an accidental lightning strike. The trade-off (and title explanation) is that he loses the ability to sleep. And so, Night Man is essentially a story about an insomniac jazz musician who battles petty crime with the help of an advanced, technological bodysuit. The opening credits have to be seen to be believed, showing off the rock-hard body of McColm like he’s Fabio on the cover of a Danielle Steele novel. It’s like a superhero version of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys with even more priority on eye candy.
Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998)
Remember when David Hasselhoff was Nick Fury? (Hasselhoff does!) Those were good times, right? Yet another failed attempt by Marvel to launch a new television series, this low-budget TV movie should be commended for its level of Marvel-universe inclusiveness, cramming in geeky supporting characters and visual shout-outs to the comic books, such as the floating S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. But that's about all the film should be commended for, sadly, other than featuring a treasure trove of awful performances for us to watch with ironic glee. The story is pretty classic, echoing the history of the Nick Fury character now in the hands of Samuel L. Jackson: Hasselhoff is a retired super-spy who is called back to duty to take down the terrorist organization Hydra, which was founded by his original arch-nemesis and ex-Nazi Baron Strucker. But the one to watch here is Sandra Hess (best known as the actress who replaced Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade in the second Mortal Kombat movie): As Strucker's daughter Viper, she butchers a German accent with a gusto little seen in modern B-movies.
Mutant X (2001–2004)
This low-key, low-budget series somehow managed to be broadcast in syndication for three seasons and 66 episodes without anyone noticing, which is a dubious achievement to say the least. Only tangentially connected to the X-Men, the series played off the eighties New Mutants series, essentially an earlier version of the Generation X concept. In this series, the mutants were not born with their gifts but created through genetic modification. They then banded together to resist the imposing will of the company who created them. One company not happy about the series was 20th Century Fox, which sued Marvel and the show’s production company, Fireworks Entertainment, claiming it had exclusive rights to all material connected to the X-Men universe. The suits were eventually settled, but not before Fireworks Entertainment dissolved, spelling the end for Mutant X. As such, the characters of Mutant X can only really be described as “inspired by” the X-Men. Thanks to the restrictions of Fox’s lawsuit, the show possessed only a vaguely familiar Marvel background, leaving the rest of its appeal to early aughts superhero soap opera, à la Smallville.
Blade: The Series (2006)
It has now been more than seven years since Blade: The Series was canceled after only twelve episodes. The little-remembered Blade spinoff starred rapper Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones as the titular character previously played by Wesley Snipes in three feature films, as he attempts to infiltrate deeper into the vampire world through the use of a sexy vampire double agent played by Jill Wagner. In execution, it reflected its parent network, Spike TV, as the channel searched for the right blend of action and titillation to entice its target demographic. Blade: The Series was the first scripted show for Spike, which, judging from its hasty dumping of the series after its first season, seemed to have bitten off more than it could chew. The lesson: Don’t produce a series if you can’t afford what it costs to make one.