Superhero movies are the greatest, chock full of special effects and populated with big stars. Their premieres are highly anticipated events and it’s no secret that a successful superhero franchise is a ticket to big money and fame for everyone involved. On TV, superhero stories offer a weekly fix – or at least a few days of binge watching – and let us get to know our heroes a little better. We can see them at home, and as they develop.
Developing superhero stories for TV poses its own set of challenges. Budget is probably the biggest. For a movie, you can throw out all the stops and blow your multi-million dollar budget on the latest of CGI with expectations of making the money back in ticket sales. When it comes to TV, though, you’re depending on viewership each and every week, and the advertising dollars they can bring in. When you add the fact that most huge movie stars aren’t interested in getting tied down with a weekly TV shooting schedule, along with the prohibitive cost of even trying to tempt them into it, and you can see where casting issues begin to get sticky.
When there’s success on the level of the original Batman TV series, Smallville, or Daredevil, the Flash, and the rest of the current crop of shows on The CW and Netflix, studio execs start to salivate and dream up more and more possibilities. In the process, fans hopes are raised, and then often dashed when all those big ideas fail to materialize. That’s show biz for you. Here’s a look at some of the many, many planned superhero shows that never saw the light of day.
15. Spider-Man (1983)
Spider-Man has been adapted, reinvented, rebooted and reinterpreted many times over both on TV and in film. The Amazing Spider-Man was a somewhat cheesy live action TV series that ran from 1978 to 1979 — but then most things were at least somewhat cheesy in the late 1970s. Nicholas Hammond had the starring role as Spidey and while the webslinger’s aficionados have given his portrayal, complete with a groovy soundtrack and badly staged fights that sub for CGI, the thumb’s up, it’s a series that has largely been forgotten. In 1983, there was talk of reviving the character via a cameo in an Incredible Hulk TV movie, with a view to relaunching Spidey’s own series. It seems like corporate shenanigans nixed the idea, however, since Universal owned the rights to The Hulk — as portrayed by Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno at the time — and they were reluctant to allow Columbia to use the character. Ferrigno’s schedule was cited publicly, but many believe that the studio bickering was the real reason the project was canceled.
14. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998)
These days, the character Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is firmly cemented in our minds with Samuel L. Jackson‘s inimitable portrayal of the agency’s leader as a ruthless badass. But, back in 1998, Fox brought out a TV movie that starred none other than David Hasselhoff of Knight Rider and Baywatch fame in the titular role. Produced by Avi Arad, the movie also featured Lisa Rinna as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine and Sandra Hess in the role of Andrea von Strucker aka Viper. In the story, Fury is a retired super agent brought back to active duty to battle HYDRA, which, in this incarnation, is an organization led by the children of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, played by Campbell Lane as an old enemy of Fury’s. It aired in May of 1998 and due to mediocre ratings (it finished fourth that night after JAG and reruns of the Titanic,) the project never made it to the TV series pilot stage.
13. Global Frequency
Global Frequency was a limited comic book series that spanned 12 issues between 2002 and 2004. It was published by Wildstorm Productions, which is an imprint of DC Comics. Global Frequency refers to a secretive, illegal intelligence organization and the series follows its arcane adventures. The series was a hit with comic book fans and it was enough for The WB to commission a pilot in 2005. Mark Burnett, of Survivor fame, was set to produce, with Michelle Forbes in the starring role as Miranda Zero, leader of the Global Frequency agency. Once filmed, the pilot was leaked on BitTorrent. Fans were thrilled, but studio executives were annoyed enough to kill the TV series. The CW was going to revive a TV series based on the show in 2009 with the late Scott Nimerfro (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) writing the script, but the pilot never got off the ground. In 2014, Fox announced yet another version of the series that would be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and written by Rockne S. O’Bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation). That version never got to the pilot stage, with script issues cited by Fox.
12. Justice League of America (1997)
Back in 1997, CBS wanted to get in on the superhero action and ordered a pilot for a JLA live action TV series. Fans and critics alike universally panned this ill-conceived outing that was distinctly short on believable special effects and a plot that couldn’t be saved. On top of that, due to licensing issues, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman couldn’t be included, and the portrayals of Flash, Green Lantern and others was more caricature than live action. An out of shape David Ogden Stiers stars as Justice League leader J’onn J’onzz and unknown Kimberly Oja as a weather girl who gets turned into the mutant Ice. Along with a plodding plot line about Weatherman, a terrorist looking to control the weather, the movie featured odd mock interviews with JLA members who talk about their superhero lives in the past tense — a past tense that this TV series project quickly became a part of.
11. The Graysons (2008)
The long and largely successful run of Smallville, first on The WB (2001-2006) and then on The CW (2006-2011,) spawned a number of other projects, some of which made the grade and others, like this iffy idea, did not. In the DC universe, Dick is one of the Flying Graysons, an acrobat troupe, and he is forced to watch as the mafia slaughter his parents in a bid to pressure the circus owners to cough up cash. The series was going to take up the story after Dick’s family is murdered. They were going to change Dick’s name to DJ and look at his life before he became Robin and eventually Nightwing. Warner Bros. decided not to go ahead with the idea, and said in a media release, “the concept doesn’t fit the current strategy for the Batman franchise.” Word had it that Christopher Nolan wasn’t cool with the idea of other Batman stories airing while he was in the middle of his Dark Knight Trilogy.
10. Wonder Woman, Amazon (Multiple attempts)
Lynda Carter’s version of Wonder Woman, which played from 1975 to 1979, set such a high standard, we’re not surprised that there’s been trouble getting the series back on TV ever since then – not that they haven’t tried. In the 1990s, Warner Bros. announced a new Wonder Woman TV show not once but twice, and then didn’t even get a pilot shot. During the Smallville years, there were plans to include Diana Prince as a character on the show, but at the time, Joss Whedon was toying with plans for a film, (a plan that Warner Bros. eventually turned down, leaving him to make the Avengers,) and so it never happened. Then David E Kelley (L.A. Law, Boston Legal, among others,) wrote and shot a pilot for a TV series for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment in 2011. The pilot starred Adrianne Palicki (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Orville,) in the title role, but the pilot never even aired. You can still check out clips of it on Youtube, and probably figure out why Warner bowed out of the project. Billed as a “reinvention” of Diana Prince, who is now a corporate exec and juggling that home-work balance. Naw. The CW gave it a shot under the name Amazon, but then went ahead with The Flash instead. We’ll just have to wait for the DC movie later this year and then see if anyone can bring her back to the small screen.
9. She-Hulk (1990)
The Incredible Hulk, with Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the big green guy, ran for five seasons from 1978 to 1982. It was so successful that it had studio execs eager to create that next big thing asap. Rumors were flying around that they planned on a female version of The Hulk, so much so that, according to co-creator John Buscema, he and Stan Lee created and trademarked She-Hulk to protect the property, which they did in 1980. Those early plans fell through, but in 1990 there was another effort to bring She-Hulk and her human persona Jennifer Walters to the small screen. Volleyball star Gabrielle Reece was slated to play She-Hulk with Mitzi Kapture (Silk Stalkings, Baywatch) as Jennifer. Even Bixby and Ferrigno were supposed to return as regulars, but apparently the studio wanted bigger names attached to the project, and while filming began on the pilot, it was never finished.
8. Wonder Woman (1967)
While Adam West was tearing up the small screen as Batman from 1966 to 1968, TV execs looked to try and capitalize on the comic superhero craze. Batman producer William Dozier came up with a Wonder Woman project and had Stan Hart and Larry Siegel — TV writers who both began their careers in Mad magazine – write a pilot script under the title Who’s Afraid Of Diana Prince? The sixties being the sixties, the short pilot features Diana as an awkward young woman played by Ellie Wood Walker (whose previous claim to fame was an appearance in Easy Rider) who lives with her mother and gets a lot of flack for not having a boyfriend, not eating all her dinner and all that. It’s probably best that this one went no farther than the pilot.
7. Young Justice (2015)
Young Justice, the animated series, was popular with fans but was canceled nonetheless after two short seasons. The CW tried to capitalize on a fan base that was hugely disappointed by the cancellation by introducing a live action version that was slated to begin airing in 2015. The series would add to The CW’s roster of teen dramas with a romantic angle between Superboy and Jordan Chambers, a take on the superhero story that fans were ambivalent about. Casting was already announced, including Amber Heard as Kara/Supergirl and veteran Lennie James in the role of Snatch, but, despite the fan anticipation, the show didn’t make it to air. It doesn’t look like a live action version of the show will be coming anytime soon, however, in November 2016, Warner Bros. Animation announced that a third season of the animated show would be back on the air soon.
6. Aquaman (2006)
Aquaman has appeared in animated versions many times, but hasn’t starred in his own live action show or movie – yet. He appeared in an episode of Smallville during its fifth season as a character called Arthur Curry, aka AC, played by Alan Ritchson. The WB liked the episode and its ratings so much they thought Aquaman could star in his own show. The series would be called Mercy Reef, and Justin Hartley (who played Oliver Queen on Smallville and is currently starring in This Is Us) took on the role of Aquaman. They even added screen veterans Ving Rhames and Lou Diamond Phillips to round out the cast. The story was to begin with AC growing up in the Florida Keys, gradually discovering his identity as the king of Atlantis. The pilot, however, was disappointing – some fans thought disastrous was a better word – and then The WB and UPN were both dissolved in a corporate move that would create The CW, and the project was dropped.
5. Daredevil and Black Widow (1975)
Angie Bowie — the former wife of the late rock icon David Bowie — worked as a model and actress. During her marriage to the Bowie, she bought the rights to produce a TV series based on the Daredevil/Black Widow comics, casting herself in the starring role. It got as far as some publicity photo shoots with co-star Ben Carruthers as Daredevil, but the project never found the backers to put it together before her option ran out after 12 months. Angie recently sent an email to manwithoutfear.com to confirm the story, adding that the series was considered too expensive to produce at the time. Of note: Angie hired costume designer Natasha Korniloff, the genius responsible for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, to design Black Widow’s outfit
4. Locke & Key (2011)
Locke & Key is a popular series from IDW Publishing written by Joe Hill with artist Gabriel Rodriguez, among others. The limited series debuted in 2008 and the story begins with a group of Rebels during the Civil War who find a dimensional portal where demons are waiting to enter earth. Enter Benjamin Locke, who creates, not surprisingly, a series of magical locks to keep the demons at bay. The series follows generations of the family over the years in a story about demon possession, plucky teenagers in the late 1980s, and the search for the keys. The series won British Fantasy Awards in 2009 and 2012, and an Eisner Award for Best Writer went to Joe Hill in 2011, so there is a definite fan base for any TV adaptation. DreamWorks bought the rights in 2010, and there was talk of a TV show with Steven Spielberg producing and Josh Friedman writing and acting as showrunner. The pilot was shot in the spring of 2011, but Fox decided not to pick it up even after it got a positive reception at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. MTV was reportedly considering Locke & Key, but the project has since been shelved. In 2016, there was more talk of another series written and executive produced by writer Joe Hill, but no further details have emerged.
3. The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006)
The Amazing Screw-On Head comes to us courtesy of Mike Mignola and Dark Horse Comics. This unusual superhero story appeared as a one-off in 2002 as a black comedy/adventure. The titles refers to a metal robot with — as the name implies — a head that can be screwed off and attached to other bodies. He lives in America during the time of Lincoln. In the comics, President Lincoln asks him to hunt down Emperor Zombie and his henchmen, setting off a series of adventures. The TV series was developed for the Sci Fi Channel (now we know it as SyFy of course,) in 2006 as an animated show, and a pilot episode aired with Paul Giamatti voicing Screw-On Head and David Hyde Pierce a Emperor Zombie. The pilot, however, was never picked up, but it does still exist on DVD and Youtube.
2. Deadman TV Series (2011)
Deadman is one of the more obscure superheroes in the DC Comics universe, at least if you’re only a casual fan. He first appeared in print in 1967. He’s showed up as a peripheral character in other comic book series and as the lead in his own mini series from the 1980s on. Deadman is the ghost of a trapeze artist by the name of Boston Brand, Deadman being his stage name. He has the power to possess living beings, a power granted to him by the Hindu god Rama Kushna. His is a long, convoluted tale of revenge and redemption, and it sounded good enough to the bosses at The CW network in 2011 for them to greenlight a TV series adaptation helmed by Eric Kripke, who created the megahit Supernatural. Sadly, since the initial announcement in August of 2011, there’s been no more news of this project.
1. The Spectre (2011)
Fox TV wanted to get in on the TV superhero craze back in 2011, and they ordered a script for an adaptation of The Spectre’s story. The Spectre is one of DC’s longest running superheroes, having first appeared in print in 1940 as created by Superman team Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily. He’s a powerful superhero in the classic tradition — immortal, omniscient — and he wears a tight spandex suit with a hooded cape on top. He was once Jim Corrigan, a cop on the way to his engagement party when he’s murdered by random villains who stuff his body into a barrel, fill it with cement, and throw it into the water. He comes back for vengeance, but then turns it into a mission to destroy all evil. Sounds like it had promise, but with no news since 2011, the project, starring Nathan Bragg, apparently died in the water.