9 Comic-Based Television Pilots or Made-for-TV Films That Didn’t Quite Make Prime-Time Stars of Their Heroes
1. Justice League of America (1997)
Do we have 1997’s Batman & Robin to blame for this fiasco? Probably not, though it’s easy to see how DC Comics might have greenlit this project to capitalize on the film’s expected success. Problem was, with the rights to DC’s heavy hitters tied up in other projects, the JLA pilot had to make do with B-list heroes (Atom, Flash, Green Lantern) and characters from the lighthearted ’80s-era Justice League (Fire, Ice, Martian Manhunter) — heroes that, to put it kindly, few fans were clamoring to see in a live-action show.
The set-up is simple enough — a mysterious villain threatens New Metro City with wild weather, and it’s up to the Justice League to save the day. But almost everything else in this project is a disaster, from the cloying When Harry Met Sally-like confessionals interrupting the extremely low-budget story (the movie gets around showing expensive battle and rescue scenes by having reporters comment on the action after the fact) to the clichéd subplots about the heroes’ personal lives (Green Lantern has girl troubles because he can’t tell them about his double life! Flash can’t hold down a job because he’s unreliable!). And when your biggest special effect is having extras point at a fast-forwarded cloudy sky and scream… well, it’s not hard to figure out why this pilot was quickly shelved. David Ogden Stiers and Miguel Ferrer, in the roles of the Martian Manhunter and the evil Weatherman (seriously, we couldn’t even call him the Weather Wizard?), deserve credit for lending some class to the project, but nobody else got away with their dignity intact. Bootlegs of the final product are prized commodities at comic conventions to this day, but even if you watch it on YouTube, you’re still paying too much.
Guy Gardner: [On relationships and super-heroics] Every time I get to the point where I might be able to commit to a woman, something happens and takes that opportunity away. And they don’t understand. It’s very hard for me to get through to them that I have obligations, you know — I have to save people. But how do you tell them that?
2. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1998)
Let’s pretend you’re in charge of casting a movie about Nick Fury, the cigar-chomping, take-no-prisoners head of a super-secret spy agency. In casting the lead, you might look for a grizzled Clint Eastwood type or (and this is hardly an original thought) perhaps a badass Samuel L. Jackson type. Either way, you need someone who can pull off the damn near impossible: make a movie based on a comic about spandex-wearing secret agents in flying cars make a damn lick of sense. Given that tall order, how do you suppose David Hasselhoff got the part?
Give the Hoff his due: in the right milieu and with the right material, his particular brand of cheese produces sublime results. Here, though… Look, even before Jackson owned the role in the Marvel movies, it was obvious that Hasselhoff was hopelessly miscast. Not that the script does the esteemed scenery-chewer any favors; Fury comes out of retirement after he learns the children of his Nazi nemesis, Wolfgang von Strucker, have stolen their father’s frozen corpse in order to extract a deadly virus from his blood and use it to launch germ warfare in New York City, and only one man can stop them (it sounds better when you read it with the Movie Trailer Guy’s voice in your head). To be fair, the action scenes are slightly better than those in a typical TV movie and there’s some good work by the supporting actors, but a collective yawn from viewers scrapped any hope of this leading to an ongoing series — and considering this movie aired on FOX, that says a lot.
Jack Pincer: So, we meet again, Fury.
Nick Fury: Well, I’m not surprised, Pincer. Guys like you tend to cling to the bowl no matter how many times you flush.
3. Doctor Strange (1978)
The mystical Doctor Strange first appeared in 1963, but in a way he’s always been a creature of the ’70s, what with his flamboyant moustache and affinity for velvet and medallions. That may be why he was tapped for a rare honor in the ’70s: a TV movie of his very own, fresh on the heels of the wildly popular Incredible Hulk TV series and the not-as-popular live-action Spider-Man show.
The two-hour film, which premiered Sept. 6, 1978, took some liberties with the doctor’s origin story; no longer a former surgeon who became Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme after many years of study in Tibet, Dr. Strange (Peter Hooten) is a New York-based psychiatrist who is drawn into the magical world only after his predecessor, Thomas Lindmer (played by the late British actor John Mills), is attacked by Morgan Le Fey (Jessica “Lucille Bluth” Walter), a sorceress acting on behalf of the evil demon Balzaroth (voiced by Ted Cassidy, portrayed by what looks like a talking tree stump surrounded by a fog machine). Once you get past the dated musical score and extremely primitive special effects, it’s actually not terrible, though a bit slow-paced at the beginning — and diehard Doc fans expecting some classic “By the hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” patter will be sorely disappointed.
Dr. Strange: What will I be called upon to do?
Thomas Lindmer: Become more than a man. And renounce such Earthly pleasures as are given to men who are only mortal: the pleasure of ignorance, or offspring, or an easy death.
Dr. Strange: Will I be asked to give up even love?
Thomas Lindmer: The universe is love. That you shall have.
4-5. Captain America/Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979)
With The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman proving that superheroes could hold their own in a weekly television series, it’s no surprise that producers in search of more comic-book superstars to put on the small screen went straight to Captain America, the living symbol of truth, justice, freedom and all that good stuff.
Trouble was, the producers apparently figured that Captain America’s story (patriotic WWII super-soldier literally put on ice and awakened decades later to confront a much changed America) was too hard for a 1970s audience to comprehend. Instead, they recast the Star-Spangled Avenger (played by Reb Brown with laid-back… what’s the opposite of gusto?) as a former Marine/aspiring artist who ingests an experimental chemical created by his late father (called FLAG, if you can believe it, for Full Latent Ability Gain) and so — as naturally as night follows day — puts on a costume to fight terrorists and muggers alike. Granted, this was the era of the new-age mellow dude and all that, but come on, people. It’s Captain freakin’ America, not… whoever it was that Brown was told to play. Also: the shield? You know, that one essential accessory that distinguishes the Captain from every other costumed hero in existence? Doesn’t quite have the same gravitas when it’s made of clear plastic and obviously weighs all of four ounces. Not even Christopher Lee’s appearance as Miguel the evil terrorist in Death Too Soon could save the franchise, and Cap’s fans had to wait until 1990 before seeing their hero come to life again (though most fans who saw the direct-to-video movie that year will tell you they would have happily waited a little longer).
Surf Guy: I figured you got out of the Marines two weeks ago.
Steve Rogers: I’ve been coming down the coast, slow and easy. You know, kickin’ back. [“Kickin’ back”…? Dude, you’re Captain America; you don’t kick back, you kick ass.]
6. Generation X (1996)
That they gave the role of Jubilation Lee to a decidedly non-Asian actress is regrettable but not unforgivable, and it’s not what ultimately sinks this ship. Based on the then-popular book starring the X-Men’s junior-league team, this made-for-TV film about teenagers with super powers must have seemed a sure winner — but they probably said the same thing about The Misfits of Science when that first aired, too.
Like the later X-Men movies, Generation X is set in a world where genetic mutation is against the law and young mutants are trained in secret to use their powers for good. But instead of a kindly professor in a wheelchair, the Xavier Institute is staffed by telepath/bondage fetishist Emma Frost and Irishman Sean “Banshee” Cassidy (sporting the worst “taste o’ me Blarney Stone” accent ever attempted on screen). Budget restrictions forced the producers to chop some of the book’s team members from the cast, to be replaced by new characters whose super powers were a little easier to produce on a dime (behold the boy whose body can absorb the properties of anything he touches… which we know because he tells us). Given a bigger budget, a slightly less ridiculous plot (dream machines? really?) and a clearer directorial vision, this film might have had a chance to impress more viewers and spawn a weekly series. Alas, it was not to be. Still, it’s worth a peek if only for the manic glee with which Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) portrays the villain, an evil scientist who proves his mastery of the dream dimension by subliminally forcing a room full of businesspeople to fart simultaneously on cue. As one would.
Sean Cassidy: You know, for an oversexed mind-witch, you really are a tightass.
Emma Frost: Oh, why don’t you go wax your chest hair!
7. Return of the Incredible Hulk (1988)
Six years after The Incredible Hulk went off the air, Dr. David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) and his angry alter ego (Lou Ferrigno) returned to television in a trilogy of made-for-TV movies, with the first two also doubling as back-door pilots for television series starring two other Marvel heroes.
Return finds our doctor on the verge of ridding himself of his Hulk persona when a former student tracks him down looking for his help. Seems young Donald Blake was exploring in the Far North when he stumbles across an ancient Viking grave, complete with mystical war hammer that allows him to call forth Thor the warrior-king to do his bidding. Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, until you realize this isn’t Thor the Mighty Thunder God but rather Thor the Big Strong Dude with a Mullet and Penchant for Bar Fights. Fans of the original series were serviced by the Banner/Hulk plotline about a stolen gamma ray transponder doohickey thing (the name really doesn’t matter), but despite this film and Thor’s unexpected cameo in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting, it was hard to sell network executives on the continuing saga of a time-displaced Norseman righting wrongs in the mortal world. Maybe things would have turned out different if the producers had thrown a sexy Sif or Enchantress into the mix…
Jack McGee: I’m looking for a man…
Thor: [interrupting] You have found one!
Jack McGee: This is a particular man.
Thor: Oh, I am a particular man… and I do not like your face.
8. Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The surprise success of Returns encouraged NBC to return to Marvel for future project ideas, which explains why Trial of the Incredible Hulk came out so quickly after Returns. In retrospect, they probably should have taken things a bit more slowly.
Like Returns, Trial paired the Hulk with another Marvel hero not known at that point for many appearances outside the comics. In this case, it was the crusading attorney/blind-as-a-bat vigilante known as Daredevil. Now, if you’re looking for a superhero to star in a budget-conscious show, then Daredevil is not your worst option; he’s a street-level hero whose fight scenes and super powers don’t require a lot of expensive special effects. But the story that brings him and the Hulk together makes very little sense, the dialogue borders on the ludicrous, the token female is completely wasted and John Rhys-Davies, who makes for a fine Gimli or pompous professor elsewhere, is criminally miscast here as the ominous (and decidedly non-bald) Kingpin of Crime. And don’t get me started on Daredevil’s choice of black footy pyjamas for a costume.
David Banner: I’m a good doctor. I thought I’d lost it, but I haven’t. I can fix anything they broke in you…except your spirit.
9. Aquaman (2007)
Aquaman has long been seen as a “weak sister” in the DC universe, a legacy of the criminal underuse of his character in the Super Friends cartoons; a typical example of a joke at his expense was a subplot in the second season of HBO’s Entourage that involved Vincent Chase starring in an Aquaman movie (or that Robot Chicken sketch where all the superheroes in a Real World-type reality show constantly snicker behind Aquaman’s back).
With Smallville paving the way for younger, hotter superheroes, Warner Bros. tested the waters (rimshot!) for an Aquaman retread by introducing Alan Ritchson as Arthur Curry in “Aqua,” a 2005 episode of Smallville that re-imagined a young Aquaman as an environmental activist. Unusually high ratings led Warner Bros. and The CW to commission a pilot for an Aquaman series, one with Justin Hartley in the lead and Lou Diamond Philips graduating to the Jon Schneider phase of his acting career (i.e., old enough to father a teen heartthrob, but still rugged enough to woo the ladies). Though the pilot (which never aired on television) was a huge hit when released on iTunes, the hoped-for series didn’t materialize and fans would never learn the secret of Arthur’s Atlantean roots — but many did get a chuckle when Hartley next showed up as Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen on Smallville acting opposite Ritchson in the Aquaman role. The superhero universe can be a small and funny place, indeed…
Arthur: You want to know the real reason why I freed those dolphins? It’s because I felt like they were calling to me.
Eva: What are you saying, you can talk to fish now?