With the recent release of the first footage from Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger,” it’s reasonable to feel either fortunate, or in some cases frustrated, at the current glut of comic book TV shows. And yet, for every long-lasting superhero show to grace our screens, there’s a handful of others that never even made it past the pilot.
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What is a pilot, you may ask? To quote “Pulp Fiction,” “The way they pick TV shows is, they make one show. That show’s called a pilot. Then they show that one show to the people who pick shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get chosen and become television programs. Some don’t, become nothing.” Here are some of the comic book ones that became nothing.
15. AQUAMAN (2006)
Riding high off of the success of their superhero teen drama “Smallville,” and the recent success of the Aquaman-featuring episode “Aqua,” the folks at the WB decided to take another crack at the superhero genre. Originally titled “Mercy Reef,” the show would put Aquaman into the “Smallvile” mold, and would even feature a now-iconic “Smallvile” actor. Oh, not the actual Aquaman from “Smallville,” of course, because spinning off one DC TV show into another would just be a surefire failure, right? Instead, they went with future Green Arrow Justin Hartley, and rounded out the cast with Lou Diamond Philips, Ving Rhames and Adrianne Palicki (who shows up a surprising amount on this list).
Hartley’s A.C. Curry is a far cry from Jason Mamoa’s lumbering alpha-male Aquaman, and we’re not yet far enough removed from the “Smallville”-era of superhero TV to properly contextualize it in its era rather than simply compare it to the shows of today. Even so, the later retitled “Aquaman” is at the very least a serviceable showcase, and was well received when released on iTunes. Who knows? Perhaps it would have lived to fight another day had the WB not merged with UPN to form The CW.
14. WHO’S AFRAID OF DIANA PRINCE? (1967)
While many may think of Linda Carter’s beloved 70’s show as Wonder Woman’s first live-action appearance, there were actually two previous attempts to bring the mighty Amazonian to the small screen, the first of which came on the heels of the hit ’66 “Batman.” A five-minute pilot was produced as a proposal for a show featuring the feminist icon, Wonder Woman. To call it a disservice to the character is putting it mildly.
Sure, it is in the vein of the then-current “Batman,” but while that show never let the jokes tear too much into the integrity of its central character, the bulk of this pilot involves laughing at the homely, silly Diana Prince, whose mother berates her for not having a boyfriend. When Diana gazes into the mirror, she sees her alter ego, Wonder Woman (played by “Planet of the Apes” star Linda Harrison), primping, preening and admiring herself while the narrator laughs at the “silly girl” because “she thinks she has the beauty of Aphrodite.” The pilot, which has found its way online, reeks so much of ‘60s sexism that you can almost hear it being pitched by the men at Sterling Cooper while the secretaries glare.
13. THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD (2006)
After the success of Guillermo Del Toro’s visionary adaptation of Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” in 2004, the Syfy Channel wanted a crack at that sweet, sweet Mignola money and commissioned an animated pilot based on his one-shot comic “The Amazing Screw-On Head,” to be helmed by future “Hannibal” showrunner Bryan Fuller. A steampunk story of a robot agent working under president Lincoln, the pilot was released in 2006 first online, then later as a DVD, but never progressed to a full series.
It’s tragic the show was never picked up, not just because of its brilliant black humor and inventive premise, nor simply for its stellar cast, including Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce and Patton Oswalt. What makes “The Amazing Screw-On Head” so remarkable is its ability to seamlessly translate Mike Mignola’s distinctive art style to moving images. In both story and style, “Amazing Screw-On Head” would have been like nothing else on television.
12. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERBOY (1961)
Wanting to continue the television adventures of Superman after the tragic, and suspicious, death of “The Adventures of Superman” star George Reeves, producers took a cue from the comics and took a look back at Clark growing up in Smallville with “The Adventures of Superboy.” This would be the first time both Superboy and Lana Lang would be depicted outside of the page and would be a far more grounded Superman adaptation than the previously attempted “Adventures of Superpup” who mined its “humor” from dressing little people up in dog costumes.
Though it was never picked up to series like later Superboy shows starring John Haynes Newton and Tom Welling, “Adventures of Superboy” star Johnny Rockwell gives a great interpretation of the titular hero, both drawing from Reeves’ previous performance and making the character his own. Though 13 stories were planned, only the pilot was ever produced. Sure, the folksy family-focused feel of the pilot makes “Adventures of Superboy” play more like “Andy Griffith” than “Action Comics,” but that wholesome nature both reflects what was and serves as one of the final gasps of unrepentant Americana on the precipice of a decade where everything changed.
11. JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (1997)
“Wait, I remember the Justice League show. That was a great cartoon!” you might be thinking. But oh no, dear readers. While Bruce Timm’s animated adaptation might be the definitive TV Justice League, it was not the first. That distinction belongs to a 1997 failed live-action pilot later aired as a TV movie. CBS seemingly wanted to cash in on the success of both the Batman film franchise and the new sitcom boom by creating this unholy hybrid of the Keith Giffen era of “Justice League” and NBC’s “Friends.”
Hey, did you watch the new “Justice League” trailer and think “Golly, I hope they interrupt the action with ‘Real World’ style camera confessionals?” Maybe you hoped to watch an unemployed slacker Barry Allen struggle to find work while Guy Gardener argues with his girlfriend? Or perhaps future “Daredevil” actress Michelle Hurd getting stalked by David Krumholtz? Hell, maybe you just wanted to see the entire JLA in ill-fitting, clunky costumes, including “M*A*S*H” alum David Ogden Steirs as a seemingly overweight Martian Manhunter. In that case, have we got a pilot for you! Otherwise, in terms of flagrant DC Comics character assassination, “Justice League of America” is the Zapruder Tape.
10. LOCKE & KEY (2011)
If you only know Roberto Orci as the almost-director of “Star Trek Beyond” who put 9/11-truther messages in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” you might be surprised to discover the incredible clout he has in the TV world, being the producer behind spooky hits like “Sleepy Hollow” and “Fringe.” Yet even he couldn’t get Joe Hill’s haunting “Locke & Key” to the small screen.
A horror novelist, and son of American treasure Stephen King, Joe Hill decided to take a swing at comics and knocked it out of the park with IDW’s “Locke & Key,” a book that has seemingly been begging for a screen adaptation since its first volume was published. Though talk of movie or TV takes have floated forever, the closest it came for a while was the Orci-produced pilot for Fox, which thus far hasn’t seen the light of day save for a trailer. For a while, it looked as though all hope for “Locke & Key” was lost, but just recently it was revealed that “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson would produce a new pilot of the series for Hulu. Will it get picked up or join the others on this list? Only time will tell.
9. WONDER WOMAN (1974)
That’s right, not only was Linda Carter not the first live action Wonder Woman, she wasn’t even the first of the ‘70s. Just two years prior to the premiere of the famous incarnation, ABC ran a pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a made-for-TV movie with hopes of ratings gold to justify a series. Said gold never materialized, and the concept was radically revamped for its more famous successor.
Fans of the current incarnation of Wonder Woman would be thrown by “Wonder Woman ’74,” but it actually is rooted in the comics of the era, mainly the Diana Prince period from around 1968-1972, where Diana was a dressed-down secret agent-like character. As such, this Wonder Woman feels more like “Charlie’s Angels” or “Hart to Hart,” with Diana Prince tracking down a villainous Ricardo Montalban and being seduced in a discotheque. True, there’s little of the high-octane combat we’ll surely see this summer in “Wonder Woman.” Still, when you take the era into account, “Wonder Woman ’74” is a fairly entertaining piece of television, though its failure did make way for the superior 1976 series, so perhaps its for the best this curio was a one and done.
8. MARVEL’S MOST WANTED (2016)
Adrianna Palicki’s second, and yet somehow not last, appearance on this list is the most recent, likely the most well known, and easily the most secretive. In this age of the internet when everything from government secrets to “Deadpool” test footage turns up online, nothing so much as a screenshot has turned up from the twice-tried “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” spin-off meant to star Palicki and actor Nick Blood as their characters Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter.
The spin-off was initially in the works during the second season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” when the characters were introduced to critical acclaim. ABC passed, and the concept was retooled and presented again the following year, where the network’s reception was so positive that Palicki and Blood were written off the main show and a pilot was made. Despite all of that, the pilot was passed on in 2016, and to date no footage has been seen, with no announced plans to make the pilot available to fans nor reintegrate Morse and Hunter into the MCU. Geez, this thing’s harder to track down than S.H.I.E.L.D’s secret Hydra files.
7. POWER PACK (1991)
If you were a comic-reading kid in the ‘80s, maybe you remember “Power Pack”, a B-team of four super-powered kids created by Louise Simonson and June Brigman. The original “Power Pack” books may have seemed like pure kiddy fare, but they actually dealt with some heavy themes, like drugs, gun violence and bullying. The TV adaptation created for NBC and later aired as a TV special on Fox? Not so much.
One thing the failed “Power Pack” pilot teaches us is that the kind of spunky kids we enjoy on the page can get supremely grating on screen. The show swaps out the comic’s mature themes for a plot revolving around a magic amulet and some “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” style of antics between the powered kids and their beleaguered parents who seem entirely unfazed by their superhuman progeny. The show tries desperately to capture some of that ‘80s Amblin kid magic, to be the comic book version of “The Goonies.” The key difference? The Goonies, as they say, were good enough. “Power Pack” wasn’t, and the network thankfully did say “die.”
6. PLASTIC MAN (2006)
Some pilots you can just tell why they weren’t picked up. Sometimes it’s a poorly finished product, sometimes it’s just not the right climate, or the network is going through a change. Others it seems absolutely mind boggling that a network could pass on something that was such a perfect fit. Heck, just the very idea of “Mr. Show” alum and current “SpongeBob” voice Tom Kenny producing a Plastic Man pilot, and playing the titular character, in a show for the Cartoon Network which was hungry for a hit at the time, it seems only logical the show would get picked up.
Instead, all we have is the initial offering: a brilliantly bizarre 10-minute short entitled “Puddle Trouble.” The show displays a wicked sense of humor, a distinctive and at times edgy animation style, and nobody has ever been more perfectly suited for a role than Kenny is for the reformed Eel O’Brien. The show has a blend of ‘90s self-awareness and contemporary whimsy that would have provided a perfect bridge between the vintage Cartoon Network of “Courage the Cowardly Dog” and the current era of “Adventure Time,” and would have brought a currently underserved character to a new generation.
5. SOLARMAN (1988)
Originally an independently created superhero by educational comic author David Olyphant, Marvel agreed to publish a revamped series of “Solarman” books under their label. Olyphant, wanting to capitalize on the upcoming mainstream publishing deal, raised the money to produce a 22-minute pilot for a Solarman Saturday morning cartoon. The pilot was released on VHS to promote the book, and eventually would air as a special on Fox Kids, but the show would never be picked up by any network, despite Olyphant’s claims he had been offered a $15 million deal.
It’s not hard to see why “Solarman” didn’t quite make the impact it had hoped. It’s a strange concept that never feels remotely original, with an origin story that blatantly rips off “Green Lantern,” a character who seems like a blend of Captain Marvel, “Superman IV” villain Nuclear Man, and the other, more popular environmental superhero who would debut a year later, “Captain Planet.” Perhaps the only notable thing about “Solarman” is its animation style, which feels reminiscent of the trippy ‘80s classic of adult animation “Heavy Metal.” Perhaps if the villainous Gormagga Kraal had some Sammy Hagar blaring from his ship, we might have all grown up with “Solarman.”
4. BATGIRL (1968)
Adam West and Burt Ward often get recognized for their significant roles in the history of Batman, but few give the proper credit to Yvonne Craig, whose Batgirl not only had a significant role in Season 3, but also arguably saved the show from cancellation. It’s been the subject of much debate and speculation whether the origin of TV’s Batgirl was intended as an addition to, or a replacement for, the struggling Batman series, with different critics and historians referring to the 1968 produced short that functioned as Barbara Gordon’s debut, battling Killer Moth’s henchmen alongside Batman and Robin, as either a pilot or merely a “special presentation.”
What’s certain is that this eight-minute clip was produced as a proof of concept of some kind, either for the character or indeed an entirely new show, and the variation on the end theme singing “Batgirl!” instead of the usual “Batman!” certainly lends credence to the latter theory. Either way, Barbara Gordon was added to the third season of the “Batman” TV show, and Yvonne Craig never got to lead a show of her own, though she did star in a fantastically campy P.S.A. advocating equal pay for women in 1972.
3. X-MEN: PRYDE OF THE X-MEN (1989)
This isn’t the first time CBR has discussed the failed first X-Men pilot. It’s a fascinating curio whose origins are as interesting as its content. Marvel Productions had been working on a “Robocop” animated series for kids, and chose to reallocate the budget intended for a 13th episode of the Paul Verhoeven murder-filled Jesus-allegory to a slightly more family-friendly concept, the X-Men. However, shortly after the completion of “Pryde of the X-Men,” which gets its title from lead character Kitty Pryde, Marvel was sold off and fell into financial decline, forcing them to abandon the project.
“X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men” is absolutely fascinating, as the basic skeletal structure for what would become “X-Men ’92” is quite obviously there, but there are still huge disparities, ranging from an Australian-accented Wolverine to a Japanese/American animation style that calls to mind ’80s cartoons like “Jem and the Holograms” to perhaps “Pryde’s” most obviously advantage over its successor, a voice-over narration provided by Stan Lee himself.
2. GENERATION X (1996)
The “X-Men” franchise has had a rocky history with television. Sure, sometimes you get critical darlings like “Legion,” other times you get massive flops like “Mutant X.” Yet despite its significance as the first screen appearance for many characters, one part of the “X-Men” screen canon appears to have fallen to the wayside of history: the failed pilot turned made-for-TV movie “Generation X.”
It’s easy to read a synopsis of this pilot, or hear that they made up characters, or see its clear attempt to capture the 90’s “kewl” factor, or see Jubilee as white, or the myriad of other potential red flags of fail and write this show off. But bear with us, “Generation X” is actually really entertaining. The cast has great chemistry, even if school headmaster Emma Frost comes off a bit stiff and Jeremy Ratchford’s “Irish” accent for Banshee is questionable. Yes, it’s atrocious whitewashing, but Heather McComb is a great Jubilee and Agustin Rodriguez provides a really sympathetic anchor for the show as Skin. Of course, “Max Headroom’s” Matt Frewer steals the show as Russel Tresh, a villain more engaging than some of the later X-Men films would offer up. Trust us, “Generation X” is worth another look.
1. WONDER WOMAN (2011)
Wouldn’t you know it? Here’s Adrianne Palicki again. The superhero actress who seemingly can’t catch a break in pilot season takes on the tiara of the heroine seemingly no one knows how to adapt. “Wonder Woman” was a fairly high-profile pilot due to its producer, perpetual hit-maker David E. Kelly, and it came as something of a shock when NBC passed on the show. So why would something so high-profile get passed over? Simple: It is…just awful.
There’s no way around it. The pilot has since leaked online, available for the tenacious to track down, but trust us: don’t. If you’re a comic fan, it will enrage you. If you’re a Wonder Woman devotee, this is tantamount to sacrilege. Don’t believe us? Let’s talk about how Diana Themyscira is the public alter ego of Wonder Woman, who runs a multimillion-dollar corporation to fund her Wonder Woman exploits and sell tons of WW merchandise, including a doll whose breast size Diana seems obsessed with, but she also has an alter-alter ego of Diana Prince, a sad girl who spends her nights with a cat alone watching “The Notebook” and not wanting to update her Facebook to “single.” So…yep.
Which of these pilot episodes do you wish got picked up for a TV series? Let us know in the comments!