The ongoing serial nature of comic books is a defining aspect of the medium. As Marvel and DC Comics' superheroes and other comic book characters have jumped into other forms of media, the tradition of ongoing, universe-building stories has been adapted, too. While some comic adaptations get the chance to flourish in this kind of storytelling for years, others don’t. Whether by design or by circumstance, some comics-based productions only get one opportunity to tell a story.
While some of these one-offs, like TV movies, can lead to a full series, others are only aired once before fading into obscurity. Now, CBR takes a look back at some of these forgotten one-shot specials. For this list, we’ll be looking at any comics-based pilots, TV movies or specials that were official releases or broadcast at least once anywhere in the world.
Just a few months before “Blade” set the tone for a new kind of superhero movie in theaters, “Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premiered on May 26, 1998 on Fox. Starring David Hasselhoff as the famous Marvel spy, this TV movie billed the retired Fury as “the last superhero.” In the film, Fury was called back into S.H.I.E.L.D. active duty to battle HYDRA and stop the children of Baron von Strucker from releasing a deadly virus in Manhattan.
With a cast including Garry Chalk’s Dum Dum Dugan and Lisa Rinna’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, the David S. Goyer-written pilot was moderately faithful to the comics. While the production received mixed reviews, Hasselhoff’s macho tongue-in-cheek performance received some praise, with Stan Lee calling Hasselhoff “the ultimate Nick Fury” at the time. Although plans for a series based on the pilot didn’t come to fruition, this remains the only Marvel production centered on Nick Fury as a solo lead character.
While Adam West and Burt Ward made headlines recently for reprising their roles as Batman and Robin in animated form, that wasn’t the first time the duo returned to their iconic roles. Over two NBC specials broadcast in January 1979, ”Legends of the Super-Heroes” showcased a surprisingly deep bench of DC Comics characters, including Hawkman, Huntress and Black Canary. Both specials also featured William Schallert’s Scarlet Cyclone, an elderly hero who was also referred to as “Retired Man.”
Loosely inspired by “Super Friends,” these Hanna-Barbera productions were largely comedic affairs. The first special saw the heroes gather to celebrate Scarlet Cyclone’s birthday before fighting a Legion of Doom that included Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Sinestro and the Legion villain Mordru. The second special featured an Ed McMahon-hosted roast of the superheroes, complete with a musical number. While these specials were largely in-step with the variety shows of the era, both had abysmal ratings. “Legends” was a rare chance to see some more obscure characters on screen, but cheap costumes and failed attempts at humor reduced the specials to a curious oddity.
In its prime, “Tales from the Crypt” was one of the most culturally significant programs on television. In January 1992, the still-young Fox network aired a “Crypt” spin-off based on another EC Comic. Hosted by Bill Sadler’s on-edge gunslinger, Mr. Rush, “Two-Fisted Tales” featured adaptations of war and adventure stories. The program featured three live-action half-hour tales, two of which were adapted from old EC adventures.
The first of these tales was “Showdown,” a Richard Donner-directed western about a gunfighter haunted by his victims. The second was “King of the Road,” where Brad Pitt played a young street racer who kidnapped the daughter of a town sheriff to lure him into a drag race. The last of these tales was “Yellow,” a Robert Zemeckis-directed WWI story with a strong cast including Kirk Douglas, Dan Aykroyd and Lance Henriksen. Although “Two-Fisted Tales” only aired once, all three segments were later rebroadcast as “Tales from the Crypt” episodes with new introductions from the Cryptkeeper.
Long before Benedict Cumberbatch donned the Cloak of Levitation, Peter Hooten became the first live-action Doctor Strange in a feature-length TV movie. Premiering on September 6, 1978, “Dr. Strange” had the misfortune of airing on CBS opposite the landmark mini-series “Roots.” While the show’s low budget was evident in costumes and special effects, this production remained the only live-action interpretation of the character until 2016’s “Doctor Strange.”
In the movie, Hooten’s Strange -- a psychiatrist -- fell into the world of the mystic arts after his patient, Eddie Benton’s Clea, was possessed by Jessica Walter’s Morgan le Fay. Instead of being taught by the Ancient One, Strange learned the mystic arts from John Mills’ current Sorcerer Supreme, Thomas Lindmer. After embracing his mystical lineage, Strange defeated le Fay and became the new Sorcerer Supreme. While the program was not a ratings success and did not become a series, the network already had a full docket of live-action superhero programming with “The Incredible Hulk,” “Wonder Woman,” and The Amazing Spider-Man” airing concurrently.
Running from 1977 to 1982, “The Incredible Hulk” was one of the more successful live-action superhero programs of the 20th century. After a cliffhanger series finale on CBS, NBC revived the show over three TV movies that were meant to serve as backdoor pilots for other Marvel heroes. “The Incredible Hulk Returns” premiered in 1988 and featured a team-up between Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk and Eric Kramer’s Thor, a Norse god barred from entering Valhalla. In 1989, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” saw the Hulk and Rex Smith’s Daredevil team-up to take down the Kingpin, played by John Rhys-Davies.
In 1990’s “Death of the Incredible Hulk,” the Hulk died after an adventure with Elizabeth Gracen’s Russian spy Jasmin, a version of Black Widow in all but name. While the first two movies were huge ratings successes, neither Thor nor Daredevil received their own series (though of course, how they have film and TV series, respectively). After the ratings failure of “Death,” plans for a fourth movie that might have featured She-Hulk or Iron Man were scrapped.
In 1966, Superman was the subject of a Broadway musical called “It’s A Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.” With a campy tone heavily influenced by that era’s pop art, the show was well-reviewed and even earned some Tony Award nominations, but it wasn’t a hit with audiences. In 1975, ABC adapted “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane” for television.
While several musical numbers were dropped and others were modernized, the special followed the show’s plot fairly closely, with David Wilson’s Superman fighting a mad scientist named Dr. Sedgwick and rival Daily Planet reporter Max Mencken. Lesley Ann Warren’s exaggerated performance as Lois Lane earned her the chance to screen test with Christopher Reeve for the same part in 1978’s “Superman.” Reviews at the time said that the televised special didn’t capture the energy of the stage show, and both mostly faded into obscurity. The ballad “You’ve Got Possibilities” became standard outside of the show, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa rewrote the show’s book in 2008.
Created by Louise Simonson and June Brigman in 1984, the Power Pack were Marvel’s preeminent preteen superhero team. After being given powers by an alien, the four Power siblings, Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie fought crime and navigated the Marvel Universe in over 60 issues of their own series in the mid-to-late 1980s. Since the conclusion of their long-running series, the Power siblings have aged some and occasionally play supporting roles in the comics today. More recently, the Powers starred in a handful of out-of-continuity all-ages comedic miniseries.
In 1991, NBC ordered a live-action “Power Pack” pilot. While the network didn’t pick up the series, Fox aired the half-hour pilot a few times in the early 1990s. The pilot was very much in-step with the children’s programming of the time, and the Power siblings were more or less like their comic book counterparts, despite some minor alternations. While nothing ever came of this pilot, the rights to “Power Pack” were put up as collateral in the deal that eventually set the stage for the formation of Marvel Studios.
After the success of “Smallville,” the WB looked to bring Aquaman to the small screen in a big way in 2006. After the character’s appearance on “Smallville,” Al Gough and Miles Millar developed a pilot around Justin Hartley’s Arthur “A.C.” Curry, a super-powered Floridian beach bum. As Curry learned about his Atlantean heritage, he would’ve dealt with environmental threats in the show, which also could’ve been titled “Mercy Reef.” With a decent cast including Ving Rhames, Adrianne Palicki and Lou Diamond Phillips, the show about a young Aquaman would’ve been a sensible companion to “Smallville.”
After the pilot was filmed, the show essentially got lost in the shuffle as the WB and UPN merged to form the new network the CW. While the pilot aired in some international markets, the episode was released on iTunes in the United States, where it sold well and received mostly positive reviews. Although Hartley’s Aquaman never took off, he at least joined “Smallville” as Oliver Queen, Green Arrow, as a regular cast member during the show’s later years.
After the character-defining success of “The Adventures of Superman,” producer Whitney Ellsworth created “The Adventures of Superpup” to capitalize on that show’s popularity. This bizarre pilot featured anthropomorphized dogs as canine versions of Superman and his supporting cast. In this 1958 production, the human names of characters were changed into animal puns, so Clark Kent became Bark Bent and Perry White became Terry Bite. Lois Lane was replaced by Pamela Poodle, and Jimmy Olsen became a hand puppet mouse that lived in Bent’s desk.
After the deaths of George Reeves, who played Superman, and series regular John Hamilton, plans for additional “Adventures of Superman” episodes fell through. Those deaths also made stations skittish about picking up another Suerpman-related show. While this pilot wasn’t officially released to the public until 2006, its version of the Daily Planet was called the Daily Bugle, years before Marvel’s newspaper of note would take the same name.
While Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” might be heralded for the his revolutionary artwork and its foundational role in modern comics, the character is more of a historical figure to many modern readers. The series follows private investigator Denny Colt, who was seemingly killed after being doused by chemicals. After being buried, he rose from his own grave and vowed to fight the criminals that the police couldn’t go after as The Spirit. Although Frank Miller’s poorly received 2008 feature film cast the character in a dark world, the Spirit’s first live-action adventure was a much brighter affair.
After sitting on the shelf for a year, “The Spirit” premiered on ABC in 1987. While the pilot never became a series, it starred “Flash Gordon’s” Sam Jones as the Spirit and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s” Nana Visitor as his love interest, Ellen Dolan. The production captured the... spirit... of the Spirit reasonably well, especially given its tight budget. Thanks in part to the fashions of the era, the pilot was filled with a vibrant color that most live-action superhero productions have shunned.
After a failed attempt to bring Wonder Woman to the small screen in 1968, the DC hero first appeared on screens in 1974’s “Wonder Woman.” Based on Denny O’Neil and Michael Sekowsky’s short-lived late-1960s revamp of the character, this era featured a powerless Wonder Woman who embraced her identity as Diana Prince. She became a secret agent and learned martial arts from a blind man named I-Ching.
While this version of the character didn’t last long, it inspired ABC’s “Wonder Woman” TV movie in 1974. Starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a powerless, jumpsuit-wearing Wonder Woman, the film carried over the comic’s focus on espionage and the Diana Prince identity. While the production received decent ratings, it re-aired for years on local stations in syndication. Crosby later said that the update was a mistake, and that she was initially offered Lynda Carter’s role as a more traditional Wonder Woman. After a highly-publicized pilot failed in 2011, Wonder Woman is set to make her solo big screen debut in 2017’s “Wonder Woman.”
On a list of bizarre productions, this might just be the weirdest. After years of false starts, Warren Beatty optioned the rights to Chester Gould’s iconic comic strip detective Dick Tracy in 1985. In 1990, Beatty starred in the action-musical “Dick Tracy,” which fell short of the promise of its massive marketing campaign. After years without a sequel, the property lingered in licensing limbo. In the midst of lengthy, complex legal proceedings, Beatty, who still had the rights, produced “The Dick Tracy TV Special” in 2008.
Aired a few times on Turner Classic Movies, this special featured a half-hour long interview between Beatty, in character as Tracy, and film critic Leonard Maltin. In the deeply strange interview, Tracy said that the 1990 film was too colorful and that he didn’t care for the Stephen Sondheim-written musical numbers before disagreeing with Beatty’s political leanings. Despite its peculiarity, the special was later used in court as proof that Beatty was still using his rights to the character. As recently as 2016, Beatty maintained his interest in developing a new Dick Tracy feature film.
After the success of 1968’s “Barbarella,” infamous British horror mongers Hammer Films launched an effort to bring the horror comics icon Vampirella to the big screen in 1976. After that effort’s failure, Vampirella didn’t make her live-action debut until 1996’s Showtime-produced “Vampirella,” starring former Bond girl and “Mortal Kombat” star Talisa Soto in the titular role.
This poorly-reviewed TV movie followed the vampire from the planet Drakulon as she made her way to Earth to seek revenge on her father’s killer. With the help of Adam Van Helsing and the vampire slaying organization P.U.R.G.E., she tracked down her father’s killer, Jamie Blood, played by 1970s rock star Roger Daltrey. Plagued by wild variances in tone and a low budget, this campy 86-minute feature quickly found its way to the home video market. While the film’s credits ended with the promise of a follow-up film called “Death’s Dark Avenger,” the sequel never materialized.
Marvel’s most recent TV movie, “Man-Thing,” loosely brought the guardian of the Nexus of All Realities to life. Released as a Sci-Fi Channel original movie in 2005, the film recast Marvel’s neutral elemental force as an aggressive swamp-dwelling monster. While the Man-Thing of the comics has a varied power set that includes the ability to make those who fear him burn at his touch, the film’s monster can merely control the vegetation of his swamp -- more Swamp-Thing than Man-Thing.
In the movie, Conan Stevens’ Ted Sallis was a Native American shaman who was killed by an oil developer. After being murdered, Sallis became the monstrous Man-Thing and went on a bloody campaign of vengeance to protect his Dark Waters. Although the Man-Thing of the comics has a surprising number of connections to the Marvel Universe, the movie’s creature exists as an independent character. The film was released theatrically in some international markets and received overwhelmingly negative reviews. In the end, it was just a giant-sized commercial flop.
Although the X-Men didn’t make their feature film debut until 2000, the first live-action X-Men production came with 1996’s “Generation X.” The Fox television film featured a moderately faithful take on the teen X-team, led by Finola Hughes’ Emma Frost and Jeremy Ratchford’s Banshee. While the film’s versions of Skin, M and Mondo are fairly in-line with their comic counterparts, the traditionally Chinese-American Jubilee was portrayed by a caucasian actress and familiar characters like Chamber and Husk were replaced by the original characters Refrax and Buff.
In this unsuccessful pilot, the team fought Matt Frewer’s unhinged Dr. Tresh, a scientist who wanted to steal mutants’ brains in order to give himself psychic powers. Although the pilot is not remembered fondly today, it received mixed reviews when it initially aired. While Marvel’s mutants were not featured in any televised live-action productions for two decades, the powerful mutant David Haller will be the focus of “Legion,” set to debut in 2017.
Long before “Legends of Tomorrow” and “Smallville” showed how a DC super-team could be feasibly portrayed on a TV budget, “Justice League of America” brought DC’s premiere super-team to the small screen. With “The Flash” of the early 1990s still in recent memory, CBS produced this comedic pilot in 1997. Very loosely based on “Justice League International,” the pilot followed Kimberly Oja’s Ice as she gained powers and met a team consisting of Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Fire and Martian Manhunter. Between the pilot’s feeble attempts at humor, the League managed to defeat Miguel Ferrer’s Weatherman, a reconfigured Weather Wizard.
While the pilot has never officially been released or shown in the United States, it was broadcast in some international markets. The poorly-reviewed pilot took inspiration from “The Real World” and “Friends,” housing most of the league in a communal space and featuring strange confessional interview segments. With characters who only had the faintest resemblance to their comic book counterparts, this unsuccessful pilot remains a bizarre footnote in the Justice League’s illustrious history.
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