Saving the world one channel at a time
Well before the onslaught of superhero movies over the past 10 years, superheroes had been making their way onto the small screen both through adaptations of comic books (Wonder Woman) and with completely new characters developed for television (Heroes). Many of these shows have become huge hits and part of pop culture immortality (The Incredible Hulk, Batman) while others have ranged from forgettable to downright embarrassing (My Secret Identity, Automan).
Superheroes have appeared on television as far back as the 1950s with Adventures of Superman, and the genre hit its stride in the 70s with Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man (as well as its spinoff The Bionic Woman), making the superhero TV show a staple in television programming. In the '80s, though, the genre started to lose ground with short-lived shows like Automan and Misfits of Science that provided a lot of flash but little to no substance. The genre rebounded a bit in the '90s when Lois and Clark demonstrated that a superhero show could appeal to superhero fans as well as to people who wanted to see a well-executed romantic comedy/drama.
Indeed, the best superhero stories strive to balance super heroics with human emotion so audiences have characters to care about while they're dazzled by special effects (Smallville). Too often, though, the high concept of people who can fly or turn invisible or punch through walls overwhelms any character development, leaving audiences with little to hold on to (Manimal).
Recent hits like Smallville and Heroes were able (for the most part) to maintain this proper balance, and it seemed like the time was right for a new wave of superhero shows. Unfortunately, shows like Birds of Prey and the Bionic Woman reboot both failed to capture audiences, and Heroes itself started to decline with season two. This season, the superhero TV show is set to make yet another comeback, beginning Tuesday night with No Ordinary Family (ABC, 8pm), which reworks the familiar concept of a family of superheroes. Then, in January, NBC's The Cape arrives, telling the story of a framed police officer who adopts the persona of his son's favorite comic book character to fight crime. Both shows hope to tap into the pop culture popularity of superheroes while appealing to a mainstream audience.
Below, we have selected the ten best and five worst superhero shows ... as well as one that manages to fit into both categories. (Most of these shows predate Metacritic, so these rankings are based on our own preferences, rather than Metascores; feel free to suggest your own alternative lists in the discussion section at the end of this article.)
The 10 Best Superhero TV Shows
1. Batman (ABC, 1966-68)
Hero(es) & Powers: Batman and Robin (fighting and detective skills, utility belts providing basically everything they could ever need)
Long before Christian Bale or Michael Keaton portrayed the Dark Knight, Adam West brought the caped crusader to the small screen. With canted angles, celebrity cameos, villains from The Joker to King Tut and the occasional appearance by Batgirl (who almost had a series of her own), the 1960's Batman defines the idea of camp. West's Batman and sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) deliver all of their dialogue in a brilliant, over-the-top fashion, helping to make the show a superhero TV icon.
2. The Incredible Hulk (CBS, 1977-82)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: David Banner/Hulk (super strength, invulnerability)
Borrowing the structure of The Fugitive -- a hero on the run who helps someone new every week -- The Incredible Hulk brought the Jolly Green Goliath from the comic book page to the small screen subtly and effectively. Bill Bixby is intense but warm as Dr. David Banner, a man desperate to keep his anger in check as he searches for a cure for himself. Even with its now-dated special effects, The Incredible Hulk is still head and shoulders above either of the recent Hulk films due in no small part to Bixby's performance and the show's excellent Hulk transformation sequences.
3. Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS, 1975-79)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (super strength, magic lasso, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and invisible jet)
Spanning two different networks (ABC and CBS) and two different time periods (the show is set in the 1940s in season one and during the 70s in later seasons), Wonder Woman remains a classic if for no other reason than Lynda Carter's amazing resemblance to the original comic book character. While in many movies and TV shows costumes are altered or adjusted, in Wonder Woman, it looks as if the character walked right out of the panel and into real life. Featuring Cloris Leachman as Wonder Woman's mother in the pilot and Debra Winger (in one of her first roles) as Wonder Girl, the show remains the best and most fun portrayal of the Amazon princess from Paradise Island.
4. The Six Million Dollar Man (ABC, 1974-78)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Steve Austin (super strength and advanced sight due to bionic limbs and eye)
"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology." After barely surviving a crash, Colonel Steve Austin is rebuilt with bionics, making him a super-powered government agent. Based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, The Six Million Dollar Man was a big hit in the seventies and made Lee Majors a star. Loaded with slow-motion fight sequences and the now classic "electronic" sound of his bionics in action (a sound that has been referenced countless times over that last 30 years), The Six Million Dollar man went on to spawn spin-off The Bionic Woman and several made-for-TV movies (most notably 1989's Bionic Showdown, with Sandra Bullock in an early role).
5. Superboy (syndicated, 1988-92)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Clark Kent/Superman (super strength, flight, heat vision and x-ray vision)
The Superboy TV show leaves Smallville behind and features Clark Kent in college, where he learns how to use his powers to help people. Produced by the same people responsible for the first three Superman films, several episodes of the series (later retitled to The Adventures of Superboy) were written by comic book writers, which helped keep the show true to its origins. Superboy's original lead (John Haymes Newton) was replaced after the first season with Gerard Christopher, but this change didn't shake viewership and the ran for another three seasons.
6. The Greatest American Hero (ABC, 1981-83)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Ralph Hinkley (red costume gives him super strength and the ability to fly)
Aliens give a schoolteacher a red suit that provides him with super powers in The Greatest American Hero. William Katt plays Ralph Hinkley, who struggles to use his newfound powers with help from FBI Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) and lawyer Pam Davison (Connie Selleca). In its three seasons, The Greatest American Hero did a solid job of finding a balance between comedy and adventure. Katt and Culp have great chemistry as they get to know each other while trying to save the world.
7. The Flash (CBS, 1990-91)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Barry Allen/The Flash (super speed)
Police forensic scientist Barry Allen is struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals -- giving him super speed -- in The Flash. The show kept the original comic book origin story and did a great job of recreating The Flash's costume as well as later pulling in a few of the Flash Rogues. Unfortunately, the show wasn't close enough to the comic to keep the fans watching or exciting enough for non-comic fans, and The Flash was cancelled after one season.
8. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (ABC, 1993-97)+ Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Clark Kent/Superman (super strength, flight, heat vision and x-ray vision)
Blending superheroics and romance, Lois and Clark first put Teri Hatcher in the spotlight and gave audiences a Superman that was more than just a superhero. Lois and Clark always made the show as much about the relationship between the two characters as it was about Superman fighting crime. Cut short after only four seasons, the series finished with several unresolved plot lines after writers were initially told there would be a fifth season.
9. The Tick (Fox, 2001-02)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: The Tick (super strength, invulnerability and "drama" power)
The Tick, along with his sidekick Arthur and colleagues Batmanuel and American Maid, fight crime through absurd, ridiculous, and most often very funny means. Based on the comic book of the same name, The Tick may have been too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences with its on the nose parodies of well known superheroes. The show aired for only nine episodes but developed a cult following that eventually lead to its release on DVD.
10. Smallville (WB/CW, 2001-present)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Clark Kent (super strength, flight, heat vision and x-ray vision)
Retelling the origin of Superman from his early days in high school, Smallville found a fresh take on the Man of Steel nearly 70 years after he first appeared in comic books. Incorporating everything from Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and even the Legion of Superheroes, Smallville manages to honor the Superman legacy while never being trapped in it. Currently in its tenth season, Smallville will wrap up this year, and we'll have to wait and see if Clark Kent will finally don the iconic blue and red suit.
The 5 Worst Superhero TV Shows
1. Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (ABC, 1976-77)
Hero(es) & Powers: Electra Woman/Dyna Girl ("electracomps" - bracelets that shoot lasers, force fields, freeze rays and pretty much anything else the plot requires)
Part of the often bizarre Krofft Supershow, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl is a fine example of what a superhero show looks like when all you have are leftover costumes and no money. Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis are both perfectly wooden as heroes who fight against such brilliantly named villains as The Spider-Lady and Glitter Rock. In 2001, a new pilot was filmed with Markie Post as Electra Woman, but the show was not picked up.
2. Manimal (NBC, 1983)
Hero(es) & Powers: Dr. Jonathan Chase (ability to transform into any animal)
Though he had the power to become any animal, Dr Jonathan Chase pretty much stuck to hawks and panthers (and, one time, a snake) for all eight episodes of Manimal. Goofy special effects, uninspired storylines and a timeslot against Dallas all helped Manimal get cancelled quickly. Years later, the character returned in an episode of the equally terrible Night Man (both shows were created by Glen A. Larson).
3. Black Scorpion (Sci-Fi, 2001)
Hero(es) & Powers: Darcy Walker/Black Scorpion (hand-to-hand combat skills, Scorpionmobile and a ring that shoots energy blasts)
Spinning out of the two Black Scorpion movies (from the house of Roger Corman), the TV show continues the adventures of Darcy Walker, a police officer who also fights crime outside the system using her superheroine alter-ego. Featuring a main character who wears a dominatrix outfit and drives a "Scorpionmobile," the movies and the show were smart not to take themselves too seriously, but ultimately ended up being more dumb than fun. A somewhat too-earnest attempt at trying to exist in the same genre as the 1960's Batman TV show (and even featuring a cameo from Adam West), Black Scorpion lasted only one season.
4. Night Man (syndicated, 1997-99)
Hero(es) & Powers: Johnny Domino/Night Man (telepathic ability to recognize evil, power suit that allows him to fly, eye lens that shoots a laser)
Saxophonist Johnny Domino is struck by lightning while playing music in a cable car, so naturally he attains the mental ability to pick up the frequency of evil in Night Man. Sporting a ludicrous body suit that lets him fly and see in the dark (out of one eye), Night Man battles against both insomnia and the evil billionaire Kieran Keyes. Employing special effects and storylines that were groundbreaking in the 1970s (but not so much in the late 1990s, when the show debuted in first-run syndication), Night Man actually managed to last two seasons.
5. Birds of Prey (WB, 2002-03)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Female superhero team (each with different powers and abilities that complement each other)
After Batgirl is shot by the Joker and confined to a wheelchair, she uses her intelligence, superhero connections and technology to turn herself into Oracle, who fights crime behind the scenes. Together with The Huntress (daughter of Batman and Catwoman) and Dinah Lance (telepath and daughter of the original Black Cannary), they are the Birds of Prey. Very loosely adapted from the comic book, Birds of Prey was an attempt to recreate the success of Smallville but fell short with too many dumb changes from the comic book (Dinah's daughter is a telepath -- really?) and weak action sequences.
In a Category of Its Own
Heroes (NBC, 2006-10)Add to Netflix Queue
Hero(es) & Powers: Various
A group of ordinary people develop superhuman abilities, turning into both heroes and villains in NBC's huge 2006 hit Heroes. The first season borrowed characters and storylines from several different comics, creating an exciting and engrossing season. And it was pretty much all downhill from there. Almost completely out of ideas after the end of Season 1, Heroes limped on for three more seasons before being put out of its misery. Many plot lines were left unresolved when the show was cancelled, but NBC has declined original creator Tim Kring's proposed TV movie wrap-up because at this point no one really cares how it ends; they're just glad it's finally over.
What do you think?
What are your favorite and least favorite superhero shows? Are you planning to watch No Ordinary Family? Let us know in the discussion section below.