It’s a new year, and once again we find the entertainment slate rich with superhero-related content. Marvel and DC are again gifting audiences with an onslaught of highly anticipated films, from February’s Black Panther premiere to Aquaman coming at the end of the year. Even Pixar’s getting in on the action with the long-awaited sequel to The Incredibles. Meanwhile, comics are never short of exciting events from year to year, but news about Infinity Countdown, Doomsday Clock, and various creative team roster changes promise to spark interest from even the most cynical reader. However, for several years now, the clear winner of the superhero entertainment genre has been TV.
Saturday morning cartoons are a fondly remembered staple of many childhoods, since they provided a steady stream of superhero content to mainstream audiences. Even in the face of annual superhero blockbusters, there are enough shows on primetime, Netflix, and Hulu that shine in quality, innovation, and faithfulness to the source material. Superhero TV is experiencing its most popular and creative renaissance yet… which can make you forget that not all of these shows are smash hits. There is a long history of false starts, missed opportunities, and poor production that have all doomed many unlucky shows to obscurity. Before you start complaining about superhero fatigue, check out the shows that were cancelled before they saw the light of day, and feel grateful for all the good shows we have now.
15 JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA
Let’s start with a classic. Veteran superhero fans may vaguely remember watching Justice League of America, an ambitious (but pretty amateurish) TV movie produced by CBS in 1997. Its plot focused on a female meteorologist who gains superpowers. She then meets and joins the Justice League in their fight against crime, which includes superheroes like Green Lantern, the Flash, the Atom, Martian Manhunter, Ice, and Fire.
While CBS was initially interested in picking up the show, the final product failed to meet expectations.
JLA is famous for a lot of things: its predictable plot; its lackluster roster, and the stinging criticism leveled against it by audiences and comic writers like Mark Waid. It’s also famous for actually being the pilot episode of a potential TV series. While CBS was initially interested in picking up the show, the final product failed to meet expectations. For some reason, CBS still aired the pilot and rebranded it as a movie… sealing its fate in the face of poor reviews.
Marvel has undeniably ushered in a new era of live-action superhero shows, and its streaming partnership with Netflix has helped it achieve this honor. The 2015 premiere of Daredevil impressed fans with its inspired plot and cinematic production value, showing just how incredible superheroes could be on the small screen. Thanks to its success, Netflix has continued to pump out great, multi-season Marvel shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
Yet long before the Netflix show, the Man Without Fear almost starred in a solo series in the 1980s. At that time, the character of Matt Murdock appeared in a throwaway TV movie by NBC, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. The movie was supposed to be a springboard for a spin-off Daredevil series starring teen idol Rex Smith and written by Stirling Silliphant. But network interests and budgetary restraints stopped production in its tracks.
13 INCREDIBLE HULK
Speaking of the Hulk, the big green monster also has a failed TV show under his belt. It’s a surprising development for this popular Marvel character, considering the numerous TV shows, cartoons, and movie adaptations that have successfully been produced since the late 1970s. This failure is also rather surprising given the people involved: Jeph Loeb, Executive Vice President of Marvel Television, and critically acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro.
Soon after he took over the MCU’s television branch, Loeb offered del Toro the chance to pen and direct a drama starring Bruce Banner in 2012.
Del Toro accepted, and pre-production initially sped along with frequent announcements about potential supporting characters. However, after a year of speculation and dwindling news, Loeb revealed that the adaptation was put on hold for another new project, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The rest, as they say, was history.
Of course, if you’re getting sick of Bruce Banner as the Hulk, why not try his cousin Jennifer Walters? The super lawyer was transformed into the incredible She-Hulk after Bruce performed an emergency blood transfusion to save her life, and she’s been an ensemble darkhorse among comic fans ever since her first appearance in 1980. But there has been a notable struggle to include this character in other superhero media.
Marvel has tried to bring She-Hulk to life at least twice in the last thirty years. The first attempt came on the heels of The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989. She-Hulk was set to appear in a sequel film, but she was ultimately written out. The following year, director Larry Cohen developed a pilot script and cast Brigitte Nielsen for his intended TV show. But once again, this plan fizzled out and died before it ever took off.
11 BLACK WIDOW
Rumors that a Black Widow film is finally in development arise every six months or so… and superhero fans are pretty much over it. That's a shame, since she is the most marketable superheroine in the MCU’s cinematic roster. Natasha Romanova is a classic comic character, and Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal has helped captivate even casual fans with her rich history and character development. So the absence of her own film has frustrated fans for years.
Marvel first tried to create a live-action Black Widow TV film and series in 1975 starring Angela Bowie, David Bowie’s ex-wife.
But this is an issue that has lasted for decades. Notably, Marvel first tried to create a live-action Black Widow TV film and series in 1975 starring Angela Bowie, David Bowie’s ex-wife. Executives also decided to include Daredevil in this series as Natasha’s love interest and partner against crime. However, multiple networks deemed the project too expensive to produce, ending it with only a few photo shoots to show for all their efforts.
10 DOCTOR STRANGE
Marvel threw its hat into the ring for one more superhero TV show attempt in the 1970s. Superhero made-for-TV films were just starting to gain traction -- you saw how inspiring the Incredible Hulk movies became in the 1980s -- so Marvel premiered a Doctor Strange TV film in 1978 on CBS. Starring actor Peter Hooten as psychiatrist Stephen Strange, this film had him discover his magic powers and face off against Ancient One replacement villain Thomas Lindmer.
At the same time that the TV film was being developed, Marvel was also hard at work creating a spin-off TV show based on the Sorcerer Supreme. Writer Philip DeGuere created a pilot episode that would further expand on the Doctor Strange mythos and introduce important characters like Morgan Le Fay. However, the TV film met with harsh criticism and poor viewership, so the subsequent series was ceremoniously abandoned for better projects.
9 X-MEN: PRYDE OF THE X-MEN
Another example of Marvel’s early TV faux pas comes from the X-Men. Many of us remember the original animated X-Men cartoon from the 1990s, which served as a wonderful introduction to superheroes for many current fans and represents an early example of fantastic superhero TV shows. Surprisingly, X-Men was Marvel’s second attempt at adapting this comic property for television.
The first attempt occurred rather disastrously in 1989.
Taking inspiration from the Uncanny X-Men comics, Marvel produced a pilot episode for a new X-Men project called X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men. The intended series was going to focus on the titular Kitty Pryde and her team’s exploits against Magneto and the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, financial troubles and staff transitions prevented further work on the series. This original idea did help Marvel in its second attempt at the show, and inspired Konami’s 1992 X-men video game. So it’s a pretty happy ending.
8 GENERATION X
Unfortunately, Marvel’s X-Men related television woes were far from over. In anticipation of the animated X-Men series finale, Marvel tried to launch a live-action television spin-off series in 1996 called Generation X. Directed by Jack Sholder, famous for Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, this new teen drama focused on hero-in-training Jubilee and her friends.
There were several significant problems with this concept from the start. The show was set at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but Generation X students never trained with Professor X in the comics. Bizarrely, to combat this issue, Emma Frost suddenly became the owner and director of the school with superhero Banshee in the show, like in the comics of the same name. Plus, the show didn’t win any points for casting its Chinese lead with a white actress. The project was ultimately never picked up, and instead aired as a standalone TV movie before being abandoned entirely.
7 HELLFIRE CLUB
Marvel has really tried to make the X-Men work as a television show. At least we can’t blame the '80s for this surprisingly recent fail. In 2015, Marvel and Fox joined forces to announce the development of two X-Men related live-action television shows. The first was the critically acclaimed series Legion, which premiered on FX in 2016. The second was… much more of a work in progress, mostly because this show was going to be about the Hellfire Club.
24 writers Evan Katz and Manny Coto were all set to bring these elite and decidedly evil mutants to the small screen.
It had a similar team roster and world domination plans as seen in X-Men: First Class. However, little development news came about in the year after the collaboration was first announced. By the end of 2016, Fox executives admitted to turning its sights on a more family-friendly alternative, The Gifted.
6 MARVEL’S MOST WANTED
Since Fox didn’t want to deal with the evilness of the Hellfire Club, Marvel turned to ABC with its dreams of a morally ambiguous show. Marvel had been trying to develop a Mockingbird solo series since 2011 with the network, but nothing ever came to fruition. With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. With a certified hit in 2013, Marvel decided it give it another shot under the banner of Marvel’s Most Wanted.
Bobbi Morse, and her ex-husband Lance Hunter, appeared in the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in their respective heroic roles. Marvel’s Most Wanted would be a spin-off of that followed the duo on the run. Marvel presented ABC with this show idea twice, even producing a pilot episode for executives, but each time they were turned down. By 2016, ABC had killed the idea entirely.
5 DAMAGE CONTROL
One of the most interesting aspects of a superhero universe is its non-superpowered people: the everyday men and women who find their lives dramatically altered by the strange new world around them. Marvel Comics has captured the fun of this idea several times over the years, particularly with its 1988 limited series Damage Control about a group of civilians tasked with cleaning the collateral damage of superpowered fights.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Marvel first tried to adapt this hit comic series.
Comedy writer Ben Karlin was enlisted to write the script and executive produce what would be a half-hour show on ABC. However, development has stalled since this first announcement, and Damage Control has appeared in other MCU works like Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s now 2018, and the show has no official cast, no production crew, and no clear release date. It’s basically dead in the water.
4 BLUE BEETLE
But fear not, True Believers! Marvel had a rather lousy history of TV adaptations, but DC has had its fair share of blunders over the years as well. The first notable example comes in the form of Blue Beetle, the heroic moniker of no less than three different DC characters. There have been rumors that DC was developing a live-action series based on teen Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes, but there are more concrete examples of a series featuring the second Beetle, Ted Kord.
In 2010, DC president and CCO Geoff Johns teased online that there were tentative plans for a Blue Beetle solo series in the works. In the next two years, test footage was developed, casting decisions were slowly being made, and a production team was coming together. However, DC couldn’t land its pitch with any major networks, and the idea was scrapped by 2013.
Prior to the Blue Beetle debacle, DC struggled to garner interest for another superhero solo series based on Aquaman. Longtime superhero fans know that Aquaman has been considered something of a joke with more casual, mainstream audiences. Jason Momoa is rapidly repairing the image, but the legacy tanked what would have been a pretty solid new series about the aquadynamic character based on Smallville.
Aquaman was left in the dust.
Producers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar first explored a teen version of Aquaman while working on Smallville, but they wanted their next superhero project to be a unique introduction to the character rather than a spin-off. They developed a pilot with a fresh new cast and a new interpretation of the Aquaman mythos, piquing the interest of the WB. Unfortunately, when the WB and UPN merged into The CW, Aquaman was left in the dust.
2 BRUCE WAYNE
Speaking of Smallville, the surprisingly popular modernization of Superman’s origins was based on a failed attempt to introduce the world to a newer, and younger, version of Bruce Wayne. After the several successful Batman films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well a successful animated cartoon, DC felt pretty confident about bringing the character to a new demographic of fans.
Iron Giant writer Tim McCanlies first pitched his Bruce Wayne origin story to HBO in 1999, and executives quickly latched onto the idea. However, The WB also got wind of the idea and subsequently courted McCanlies, persuading him that this teen solo would be the perfect companion to its megahit series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, DC made the split-second decision to try to create a Batman: Year One live-action movie based on the Frank Miller comic. When that movie fell through, Smallville was conceived and developed instead.
1 WONDER WOMAN
Prior to Patty Jenkins’ incredible Wonder Woman movie, adapting the Amazonian for television was one of DC’s most consistent failures. Executives first tried to develop a solo series in 1967 as a spiritual successor to Adam West’s Batman series, but the failed pilot was reduced to a TV film instead. Lynda Carter finally helped DC strike gold with a Wonder Woman show in the 1970s, but executives have struggled to produce a more modern series ever since.
One of the more hilarious attempts came in 2011... and no, we’re not talking about the Joss Whedon script.
A TV pilot was written by David E. Kelley, and Adrianne Palicki was cast as the titular Diana Prince. NBC was tentatively excited about the series, but the network ultimately decided not to pick it up. At least we’ll always have the promo photos to remind us of the bullet we dodged.