The ‘90s were a real turning point for television. The same big budget effects and tricks that made movies so appealing for years was finally reaching television screens. It wasn’t long until the obvious came to pass, and superhero television series flooded the airwaves. Sure, comic book shows had always been around in some capacity, but for much of the ’80s, they lay dormant. DC kept focusing on films, while Marvel was trying to find the next successor to the popular Incredible Hulk series of the ‘70s with a series of TV films.
It all changed in the ‘90s, though. A push for new series based on comics followed the industry boom, as comic books became hotter than ever. But for the first time ever, they weren’t just for kids. Superhero-centric hour-long dramas, full of rich character development and shocking twists became more prevalent than ever. And what started as a push for something close to the hokey, comic-oriented stories of yesteryear quickly became something more mature, something darker, and inherently more interesting. Put on your rose tinted glasses, because we’re going back to a simpler time. These are the top 15 superhero tv shows of the 1990s.
Released to celebrate Superman’s 50th anniversary, Superboy had all the early makings of a hit. Starring newcomers John Haymes Newton and Stacy Haiduck, the show carried a lot of the early markings of the film franchise that preceded it. Developed for television by Superman: The Movie producers Ilya & Alexander Salkind, the show was a big deal but ultimately sagged in the ratings.
As a result, the series was reworked in its second season. Newton was replaced with Gerard Christopher, villains were recast and the stories took on a darker tone. The series proved a success and was planned to end after season 4, transitioning to a series of television films. But the shifting rights of the Superman franchise led to a legal battle between the Salkinds, Warner Bros., and Viacom. Though the legal dispute was settled some years later, Superboy never enjoyed a period of re-runs or syndication.
14. NIGHT MAN
Malibu Comics had a lot of characters, but Night Man managed to stand out by receiving a live-action television series. After Men in Black had become a box office hit and Ultraforce had failed to catch on as a Saturday morning cartoon, club musician Johnny Domino was struck by lightning and gained the ability to read evil thoughts, but lost the need to sleep.
Starring Matt McColm as the titular Night Man, the series bore little resemblance to the original Steve Englehart comics. Still, it was a notable addition to a syndication line-up, and one of a few series to be produced based on a Malibu line. The show not only had a two-season run but also shared a bit of television history when it featured a crossover with Jonathan Chase, the lead of ‘80s superhero series Manimal.
13. MORTAL KOMBAT: CONQUEST
For a long while, Mortal Kombat was the only video game film that could be considered a success. Taking a story structure inspired by old kung fu films, the MK flick adapted the intrigue and mystery of the game franchise with high-quality martial arts action and a spell of humor. Three years later, an attempt was made to cash in on this with a media blitz.
With Mortal Kombat 4 lighting up home consoles and arcades (and the bitter taste of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation still in fans’ mouths), a Mortal Kombat series was ordered. Set centuries before the original game, Mortal Kombat: Conquest followed the warrior monk Kung Lao as he fought the forces of Outworld. Joined by a number of allies, including a pre-Terminator 3 Kristanna Loken, Mortal Kombat: Conquest was generally well-received, but exorbitant production costs led to its sudden cancelation after one season.
12. SWAMP THING: THE SERIES
After blowing up in the ‘80s thanks to the Wes Craven-helmed film, Swamp Thing enjoyed a media blitz in the ‘90s. This peaked with the release of Swamp Thing: The Series on USA. Bringing back stuntman Dick Durock from his role as the titular Swamp Thing in the film series, the first season was highly rated on USA Network, despite a lukewarm reception from fans.
The series was retooled going into its second season, leaning away from the comics-inspired tone of early episodes and going on its own path with more science fiction oriented tales. Swamp Thing: The Series became one of USA’s top-rated series, but suffered as the network aired many episodes out of order. Regardless, the show became a cult favorite and was a popular staple of the fledgling Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-to-late ‘90s.
11. ROBOCOP: THE SERIES
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better action movie than 1987’s RoboCop, so it makes sense that it became the pop culture sensation it did. Despite 1993’s RoboCop 3 being considered a failure, it still garnered enough interest for a spin-off series to go into production.
1994’s RoboCop: The Series saw the action all but neutered. In stark contrast to the films, RoboCop was exceedingly non-lethal. Canadian actor Richard Eden took on the role of Alex Murphy, the titular RoboCop alongside a series of characters loosely related to their film counterparts. RoboCop: The Series only ran for one season, failing to catch on to the same level of cult following that the franchise had to that point. The franchise would return to TV in 2011’s RoboCop: Prime Directives and to theaters with 2014’s RoboCop reboot, but since then the franchise has remained dormant.
10. FOREVER KNIGHT
Long before Angel, there was Nick Knight. An 800-year-old vampire, Nick was a detective working in, of all places, Toronto. Forever Knight was a gem in syndication at the time. Originally a pilot called Nick Knight and starring musician turned occasional actor Rick Springfield, the series was picked up but retooled to star Canadian actor Geraint Wyn Davies.
Aired in a late night timeslot on CBS, Forever Knight had a three-season run as Nick solved crimes, fought other vampires and ultimately sought a way to restore his humanity. Unlike many other shows on this list, Forever Knight was able to wrap up appropriately. While the series left its ending open for interpretation, it’s implied that Nick died trying to once again become human.
Long before he was the Martian Manhunter, Carl Lumbly was a superhero in his own right. Landing on FOX in 1994, M.A.N.T.I.S. followed Miles Hawkins, a scientist who was paralyzed when shot during a riot. Hawkins developed an exoskeleton dubbed the Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System because he must have really, really wanted to call himself M.A.N.T.I.S.
The show initially started out with something of a typical vigilante story slant, but for the back half was retooled to focus on more science fiction elements. M.A.N.T.I.S. is well-regarded by fans today for its storytelling, including one story where Miles was thrown into the future and learned his exoskeleton technology created an apocalyptic future. M.A.N.T.I.S. uniquely ended on something of a downer note, with Miles seemingly dying in the first season finale.
8. HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was massive. Starring relative newcomer Kevin Sorbo as the title character, the series was launched with a number of tv movies before beginning starting a run in syndication. With his family murdered by his step-mother Hera, Hercules sets off on a journey to avenge their deaths by doing good across the world.
Sorbo’s turn as Hercules was almost as legendary as the character himself, propelling the character into stardom. The show was well received, running for six seasons and only ending because of Sorbo’s decision not to renew his contract. Hercules also had its share of big-name guest stars, bringing in the likes of Bruce Campbell, Claudia Black and Gina Torres for appearances. Hercules still enjoys a thriving fan community to this day and paved the way for other similar fantasy series to enter production.
7. THE CROW: STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Written from a place of personal pain, James O’Barr’s 1989 graphic novel The Crow was always going to be something notable. But when it was adapted into a feature film in 1994, it became a cult hit. A tale of love and revenge highlighted by the real-life tragedy surrounding star Brandon Lee’s death, The Crow became a franchise overnight.
Despite the film’s follow-up The Crow: City of Angels‘ poor reception, the go-ahead was given for a TV show. The Crow: Stairway to Heaven was a loose adaptation of the film, with Mark Dacascos taking on the role of Eric Draven. Rather than seeking vengeance for his death, Draven was seeking to do good deeds until such a time as he was accepted into the afterlife. Despite strong ratings and positive reviews, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven ended after one season when production company Polygram was bought out by Universal.
6. HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES
When Highlander hit theaters in 1986, nobody could have guessed what a hit it would become. Starring Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown, the film quickly became a fan favorite and garnered enough success to warrant additional sequels. While the quality of the sequels leaves a lot to be desired, it generated enough interest to lead to a television series.
Highlander: The Series debuted in 1992 and starred Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod, an Immortal from a clan of highlanders alongside Connor MacLeod. Though Christopher Lambert appeared as Connor for the pilot, he remained absent from the series, not appearing alongside Paul again until his character’s death in Highlander Endgame. Highlander: The Series proved a hit in syndication and enjoyed a healthy six-season run, though the final installment of the series, the TV movie Highlander: The Source, left a sour taste in the mouth of fans.
5. XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS
Sure, Hercules: The Legendary Journey came first, but nothing touched the reception given to Xena: Warrior Princess. Originally intended to die after a three-part storyline on Hercules, the reception to the character of Xena led to the production of her own ongoing series. In an era where female heroes were drastically downplayed, the arrival of the well-written, action-oriented series was a breath of fresh air.
Starring Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor, Xena would eclipse Hercules in popularity, with a fanbase still active to this day. Xena ended in 2000 after six seasons, but has remained a viable property, and was floated around for a reboot in 2017. The role also made Lawless a fan-favorite for the role of Wonder Woman. Though Lawless never got a live-action spin as the character, she did voice Wonder Woman in 2008’s Justice League: The New Frontier animated film.
When you have a show as big as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, it is inevitable that you get a spin-off. While there have always been plenty of rumors for spin-offs and reboots even still today, only Angel managed to make it to television. Following Buffy’s erstwhile vampire boyfriend Angel on his quest for redemption, the show quickly became as respected as its counterpart.
From the death of Doyle to the maturation of Cordelia Chase, or even more notably the complete revamp of the foppish Wesley into a weary demon hunter, Angel enthralled fans with darker storylines than Buffy‘s. Angel was constantly at odds with his darker inhibitions, and the mature tone allowed the series to explore the dynamics of a vampire with a soul. Angel ran for five seasons and was received well enough to possibly justify a sixth, but The WB chose to ax the series over cost concerns.
3. THE FLASH
Perhaps no television show is as iconic or as tragically cut short as 1990’s The Flash. Starring soap opera star John Wesley Shipp as forensic scientist Barry Allen, the show blended together the comic’s version of Barry and his then-successor Wally West to create a science-oriented series with a clear inspiration from Tim Burton’s Batman franchise.
The show was well-regarded for its time but wasn’t able to keep up pace with other television shows. Despite positive word of mouth, it was up against powerhouses like The Simpsons and A Different World shows, which were themselves relatively new. The Flash also suffered from high production values, with Shipp’s Flash costume running $100,000 and notoriously being very fragile. Though the show ended after one season, its legacy lives on today as many elements are referenced on the current iteration of The Flash on The CW.
2. BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
There’s not a lot we can say here about Buffy, the Vampire Slayer that you don’t already know. Debuting in 1997 at the height of The WB, the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led series picked up threads started in the 1992 cult favorite movie of the same name and turned it into a high school drama. The result was a tightly written, emotional rollercoaster with memorable characters and one of the best superhero shows the ‘90s had to offer.
Adding a cast of classmates, a vampire love interest and making high school life a literal hell made Buffy an institution of modern television. Even now, with the 15th anniversary of the final episode fast approaching, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer remains a mainstay of modern pop culture. The series continues still today in comic books, with talk of a relaunch popping up every few years.
1. LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN
With the film franchise underperforming at the box office, the decision was made to find a new home for Superman on television. Unlike previous adaptations of the story, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman closely followed the comics treatment of the Superman persona and focused on the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent as much as it did Superman.
Lois & Clark proved to be a hit, with the characters finally marrying in season 4. This notably had an impact on the comics as well, with writers agreeing to delay their own intended wedding story to better tie in with the television series. Having to come up with a story on the fly to delay the wedding, the end result was the critically acclaimed “Death of Superman,” which changed the course of Superman’s history for years to come.
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