Superman has had four live-action TV shows — a record that no other character shows any signs of trying to catch up to. They are Adventures of Superman (1951), Superboy (1988) — this was renamed The Adventures Of Superboy in later seasons (and they also replaced the actor at that time), Lois & Clark (1993), and Smallville (2001). He also had at least half a dozen animated serieses, many of them combining Superman with Batman or other DC characters. The first live-action series produced a TV movie, Superman and the Mole Men, in 1951 — one year before Superman’s last theatrical serial. He’s also had a number of overseas ripoff films made, including three different Bollywood films in two languages.
Batman had the notorious Adam West TV series, in which two half-hour episodes aired each week, the first always ending with a cliffhanger where Batman and Robin would be tied to a giant waffle iron while the countdown ticked away on the fiendish plot to douse the whole city with Beatnik Gas. The 1966 film came out of this series. More recently, an animated series drawn in a very stylized pseudo-Japanese manner has produced a feature-length animation called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which is rumored to be pretty good, and a sequel to that called Mr. Freeze: Subzero. These turned out to be the start of a whole sequence of direct-to-DVD animated movies featuring the whole gang of DC characters, often retelling tales from major “event” arcs in the source comic books, such as the Death of Superman, in highly condensed form.
The Adam West Batman show had a little-known spinoff: in 1979, a one-hour special aired which was called Legends of the Super Heroes. It featured West and Ward as members of the Justice League. This League didn’t include Superman or Wonder Woman, but they did have the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, Black Canary, the Huntress (who?), and Captain Marvel. It was made by Hannah-Barbera and it had a laugh track. A second “Legends” special followed, and that was thankfully the end of it.
Speaking of chunky pseudo-japanese stylized art, the two Hellboy Animated films were apparently made for TV. The art is actually pretty damn awful. Which is a shame, because otherwise they’re not bad, especially the first one, Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms.
Spider-Man had a short-lived live action TV series which produced one TV movie, Spider-Man Strikes Back a.k.a. Spiderman: The Deadly Dust. He was done in animation many times. Mostly we ignore animated outings here, due to how numerous and unremarkable they are, but I just can’t skip over the animated Spiderman TV show of the early ’70s. After the first couple of seasons the show was taken over by Ralph Bakshi, who turned everything all drug-trippy, with stories by Lin Carter which seemed to involve visiting a Victorian-style Lost World every single week... and at the same time they stopped spending money and started using recycled footage for about half of each episode. The series may have stunk by any ordinary standards, but it was unforgettable. Admit it, the theme song alone (“does whatever a spider can!”) is impossible to dislodge from your memory. Also noteworthy was the late-'70s Japanese series sometimes called Supaidâman or Supaidaaman in English, which presented the Marvel character quite faithfully, except for making him a space alien who pilots a giant robot.
The Hulk had four or five TV movies before and after the series starring Bill Bixby, ending with The Death of the Incredible Hulk in 1990. Plus the usual animated outings.
Captain America had two 1979 TV movies in which his costume includes a blue motorcycle helmet. During the VHS era these films were much more readily available for rental than most other TV movies, giving them a faux air of featurehood. One of the several animated versions ran in the early ’60s, and it is the earliest thing I have any memory of ever watching on television, at a neighbor’s house, when I was too young to follow half of it. For me that left the Captain America character with a sort of spooky dreamlike undertone ever since.
Dr. Strange had a TV movie in 1978. Said to be “amazingly bad”.
The Spirit got a pilot TV movie in 1987, starring Sam J. Jones of Flash Gordon fame. It apparently treated the character in a much more straightforward and respectful way than the Frank Miller movie. Which probably means it was not nearly as much fun.
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a TV movie. With David Hasselhoff!
This was followed recently by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a spinoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe meta-series, starring Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, and featuring only a bare smattering of recognizable Marvel characters. Word of mouth is that it started quite poorly but then improved.
The Flash had two TV serieses: the first was from 1990, and featured possibly the most grotesque fake-muscles-moulded-into-the-suit costume ever. It had a two hour TV movie as a pilot. Later on, they made two more direct-to-VHS movies just by editing together some TV episodes. Now he’s got a new CW show which is a spinoff of Arrow (below), which is in turn has a vaguely spinoff-like relationship to Smallville. The Flash character did actually make an appearance in Smallville itself, but with a completely different story from the current one. The new show appears to be a hit, and unlike Arrow, I've managed to watch more than two episodes without losing interest. In fact, I may well stay caught up on this series... depending how intolerable the heinous love-triangle subplot becomes. That one element damn near ruins everything else!
The Justice League of America got a 1997 TV movie made as a pilot for a series, and the movie was never aired. It’s been compared to an episode of Friends with superpowers.
Wonder Woman had a ’70s TV series, starring a beauty queen who was embarrassingly unathletic looking. Its pilot movie, which was set in WWII, was oxymoronically called The New Original Wonder Woman. The series switched from the ’40s to the ’70s when the show moved from ABC to CBS. I’ve never seen any of the ’40s material; it’s rumored to be less dumbed down than the later stuff.
Spawn had an animated cable TV series, and two animated films have come out of it. The video boxes are prominently labeled “NOT for children!” The live-action movie was aimed at a younger audience than this animated version was. I haven’t seen the first animated release, but I have a copy of the second, and I was not impressed. It was obviously spliced together from episodes of the TV series, and there were many areas of mediocrity in the effort. Dull pacing, voice acting sent in by fax, confusingly extraneous pieces of plot, many gratuitous incidents where the good guy deliberately delays saving people in order to build up more suspense... bleh. But it was cool that Spawn was more randomly murderous as he tries to figure out whose side he’s on.
A character named Painkiller Jane, who has Wolverine-like super healing power, had a series on the Sci-Fi Channel. It lasted only one season, but... Kristiana Loken. I watched a couple of episodes; aside from her, it’s pretty dull. There was a TV movie two years earlier, entirely unrelated to the series (the “Jane” character doesn’t even have the same last name), starring Emmanuelle Vaugier.
The Crow had a TV series called The Crow: Stairway To Heaven, and a TV movie which was more or less a remake of the theatrical film.
Dick Tracy had two TV serieses, and one TV movie in 1967.
The Phantom recently reappeared in an animated TV series called Phantom 2040, about the great-grandson of the Phantom in the 1996 film, which was set in the ’30s. Margot Kidder is one of the voice actors in Phantom 2040, by the way. She also did a voice for Captain Planet. In this version “The Ghost Who Walks” has apparently become an eco-warrior, like the aforementioned Captain. There is supposed to be a feature-length version, probably direct-to-video.
Flash Gordon has appeared in animation at various times, and one TV movie derived therefrom. There was a live-action TV series in the ’50s; I’ve seen two or three episodes, which were very very cheap. Another series ran on the Sci-Fi Channel starting in 2007; it got only one season of 21 episodes.
Buck Rogers had a TV series in the ’50s and another in the ’70s, with one TV movie — a pilot, I believe — emerging from the latter. By Hollywood standards, Buck is way overdue for a true feature film, which he has never had.
The Black Scorpion cable TV series had a pilot movie called “The Sting of the Black Scorpion”.
Blade has not had any previous film or TV appearances, but a German film called Night Hunter apparently bears a very strong resemblance to the Blade story that came after. But then, there’s an artist who claims he invented Blade back in the ’70s, and sued.
New in 2012 is Arrow, featuring the DC character Green Arrow. This guy is not a very well-known superhero (and has no superhuman powers), but back in the day his stories got attention in the comic book world for grappling with Serious Issues more than other books did. This is sort of, but not really, a spinoff of Smallville.
That show is turning out to be the beginning of a whole linked universe in CW TV shows. After spinning off The Flash as noted above, in 2016 they’ve added a new ensemble show, made up of superpowered guest characters from the two existing shows, called Legends of Tomorrow.
Daredevil is getting a new series on Netflix — one of a set of four that will be forthcoming there, we’re told — which is unrelated to the 2003 film.
Jessica Jones is another Marvel/Netflix series. Jessica has super strength but doesn’t do the costumed hero thing. Instead she wears plain clothes and works as a private eye, with all the cynicism that’s expected for the Hollywood version of that job. The whole thirteen episodes (so far) are spent battling a single villain: a mind controller named Kilgrave, played by David Tennant. (He’s called “The Purple Man” in the comics, but not here.) Luke Cage / Power Man shows up as Jessica’s love interest, or at least as her fuck buddy. I’ve watched some of this and rather like it so far.
Gotham is a series about the adventures of Jim Gordon as he rises in the ranks of the Gotham City Police Department, with cameo appearances by some guy named Bruce Wayne.
One interesting TV series was called Birds of Prey. It used several obscure female characters from the DC pantheon, such as Black Canary. The protagonist was a daughter of Batman and Catwoman who, in the comics, existed only in a parallel universe. It didn’t last long. I regret not having watched more than a couple of episodes. But then, those who have watched them tell me that such regret is quite misplaced.
The X-Men have had lots of animated TV serieses, but no previous feature-length films, and no live-action TV shows except for a strange thing called Mutant X, which used the concepts of the X-men but none of Marvel’s characters. Marvel sued, and took a settlement, allowing the show to stay on the air. But then it ended on a cliffhanger due to some of its backers going broke.
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had a TV series in the ’50s, and another in the ’00s. In the latter she can actually turn into animals.
The Swamp Thing briefly had a series following the two theatrical movies.
Witchblade had a series on TNT that lasted for two seasons. Apparently it was fairly successful; there’s speculation that it ended not due to lack of ratings but due to the star’s drinking problem.
Marvel’s group of super preteens, Power Pack, got a pilot made but didn’t get picked up as a series. It was intended for saturday mornings.
Timecop became a short-lived TV series.
Modesty Blaise got a TV pilot, non-comedic this time, but the series wasn’t picked up.
The Sabrina The Teenage Witch sitcom is based on an Archie Comics character. It ran for seven seasons, despite using a horrible cat puppet.
AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead is based on a comic book series published by Image, which is ongoing as of this writing. Both the comic and the show have numerous spinoffs: video games, web video serieses, novels, and a whole second AMC show called Fear The Walking Dead.
I was originally going to discuss some live-action TV serieses in greater depth down here, like the well-remembered Bill Bixby version of The Incredible Hulk, or the laughable Linda Carter version of Wonder Woman, but forget it. I will note only that Smallville, though very well done in many ways, just doesn’t work for me. They try to combine achingly normal small town atmosphere with more weirdness than The X Files, and try to combine practically unlimited power with standard teen angst, which is rooted in powerlessness. They even give young Clark Kent a totally unbelievable fear of heights, just to try to bring some fake dramatic tension to the situation. This is much like having him underuse his powers in order to create phony suspense about who will win a fight — something the show is also guilty of, as are some of the Super[man/girl] movies. Between the well-dramatized difficulties and conflicts of teen life in a small town, and the need to keep creating new “put two scorpions in a jar and make them fight” action plots, the show pulls apart in the middle.
Sure beats the crap out of something like Jake 2.0, though.