Movie theaters are packed right now with great superhero film after great superhero film. It’s a golden age for the genre as a whole, and while there are even a handful of really great superhero shows on television right now, we can’t help but feel like television is getting the watered-down version of superheroes, and perhaps the golden age of superhero TV shows has passed now that writers are saving all their really great stories for the movies.
Sure, all those retro superhero shows suffered from some wonky special effects, occasionally the acting could be really cheesy and sometimes certain shows suffered from up and down quality. By today’s standards, a lot of them just seem really goofy in hindsight, but there was just a charm and originality to those shows that’s just mostly lacking from superhero TV these days. Some of them were pioneers of the genre that paved the way for the big budget films we have now, and most of them don’t even require your nostalgia glasses to appreciate just how special, unique and entertaining they still are today! Maybe someday, we’ll get a return to what superhero television once was, but for now, check out these 15 goofy retro superhero shows WAY better than anything on TV now!
15. BATMAN (1966)
People like to make jokes about the ’60s Batman TV show with Adam West because it was campy, goofy, the acting was cheesy, action bubbles would pop up on the screen when people fought and sometimes Batman and Robin would break into dance. To a 2016 audience, it’s easy to forget that all ’60s TV was campy and goofy.
What people don’t like to mention is that Batman was one the first major comic book superheroes to get his own live-action series, and it was Batman’s first appearance outside of a comic book. This show is how Batman was introduced to mainstream popularity and it set the stage for all future adaptations like Batman: The Animated Series and the Dark Knight trilogy. Without Adam West’s Batman, you might have never heard of the character at all.
Manimal was an interesting chapter in superhero history. The show only lasted for two and a half months between September 30th and December 17, 1983 for a total of eight episodes, but despite its short run, you (or at least your parents) have probably heard of it. It became a cult classic after its cancellation and as of 2014 was even in the mix for a movie adaptation from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay under Sony Pictures.
The show followed Dr. Jonathan Chase, a wealthy young industrialist with the ability to shapeshift into any animal. He also had the ability to take on various traits of multiple animals at one time without shapeshifting, such as the speed of a cheetah or the fast strikes of a snake.
13. MISFITS OF SCIENCE
Misfits of Science is another short-lived ’80s superhero show, but this one owes most of its staying power to being the first major breakout role for young actress Courtney Cox. It lasted a little longer than Manimal at a full 16 episodes and is also now considered a cult classic. It was only canceled at the time because it couldn’t garner high enough ratings competing in the same time slot against CBS’s Top 10 hit Dallas.
The show followed a team of superhumans assembled by research scientist Dr. Billy Hayes consisting of Dr. Elvin Lincoln, a man with the power to shrink himself; Johnny Bukowski, a rock-and-roll musician with the ability to control and produce electricity; and Gloria Dinallo, a teenager with the ability to control and move things with her mind.
12. KNIGHT RIDER
Knight Rider was the show that made David Hasselhoff an American icon. Seven years before Baywatch would see him saving bad swimmers from sharks, Knight Rider had him fighting crime and the forces of evil with the help of his indestructible and artificially intelligent talking supercar, KITT.
Although the show ended over 30 years ago, it’s still such a staple of pop culture that his character served as an inspiration to Peter Quill in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Hasselhoff even got a cameo appearance and a song on the soundtrack. There was an attempt to revive the series in 2008 with a new actor, but it just isn’t Knight Rider without the Hoff. Luckily for fans, another revival is in the works starring Hasselhoff with director Justin Lin behind the scenes.
11. THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO
The Greatest American Hero is another strange chapter in superhero history as it might be the first televised instance of an intentional superhero parody. It lasted for just under two years between 1981 and 1983, but it’s another show that has somehow remained memorable despite a very short run on television. It’s also currently in development to be rebooted.
The show followed Ralph Hinkley, a public school substitute teacher for special education high school kids in Los Angeles, who is given a super suit by aliens who instruct him to use it to fight crime and injustice in the world. The suit has a seemingly endless array of abilities that Ralph continues to discover throughout the series. The reboot will star a female lead, fitting with the final episode of the classic show which saw Ralph passing the suit onto a female successor.
10. WONDER WOMAN
Before Gal Gadot rocked the box office as Diana Prince, the only live-action Wonder Woman that everyone knew and remembered fondly was Lynda Carter. Like the movie, the first season of Wonder Woman took place in the past; in this case, it was the 1940s during World War II, while the second and third seasons moved the setting up to the 1970s.
Despite being an iconic show now, the original TV movie pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman took an odd approach with a non-powered, blonde Diana Prince failed, so the creators developed a second pilot replacing Crosby with Lynda Carter as a more comic book accurate depiction of the character. This new version of the show was picked up and quickly became popular lasting four years from 1975 to 1979.
9. LOIS AND CLARK
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman is fairly divisive as a Superman show. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was conceived from the beginning as being a romance over an action-adventure series. Comic purists take issue with the cheesiness of everything and lack of production value, while fans of the show were excited about the focus on the romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, as well as the sense of humor the show had.
The show always featured some kind of villainous threat for Clark to deal with, but the main focus was on the love “triangle” between Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Superman, with Lois obviously unaware that they were the same person for most of the show’s run. It may not have been a perfect adaptation of Superman, but it was a charming romance and a lot of fun.
8. FLASH GORDON
Flash Gordon is probably best known for the 1980 movie starring Sam J. Jones and Max von Sydow, but 26 years before that, in 1954, it was a 39-episode TV series. Both were based on a comic strip first published in 1934, and followed Flash Gordon, a handsome young athlete turned space hero in his battle against evil, primarily his arch-nemesis, Ming the Merciless, ruler of the planet Mongo.
Aside from the original Buck Rogers a few years before, Flash Gordon was the first true live-action superhero TV show. Diverging from the storyline of the comic strip, it was set in the year 3203 and Flash and his companions were members of the Galactic Bureau of Investigation. The ’54 show was what rocketed Flash Gordon into mainstream popularity, sparking multiple films, TV shows and animated cartoons since its debut.
7. BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY
The original Buck Rogers is often credited with bringing the concept of space exploration adventures to the forefront of pop culture. The 1979 version of the show solidified its place as a cult classic TV show just like its 1950 predecessor, following in the footsteps of the 1920s comic strip that inspired them both. It was the inspiration for Flash Gordon and the character was said to be part of the inspiration for Han Solo in Star Wars, which is ironic because the success of Star Wars led to the 1979 revival of Buck Rogers.
The show followed Anthony “Buck” Rogers, a 20th-century astronaut who has been frozen in suspended animation for 500 years as he’s revived in a future where Earth is threatened by alien invaders. He uses his 20th-century grit and swashbuckling sense of adventure to thwart the alien invaders.
Before Sam Raimi’s name became a part of Spider-Man history in 2002, he created another bug-themed superhero show for the Fox Network in 1994 called M.A.N.T.I.S. about a wealthy, mild-mannered doctor named Miles Hawkins who is shot in the spine during a riot and paralyzed from the waist down. He uses his company’s resources to develop a powered exoskeleton that restores his ability to walk as well as giving him superhuman abilities to become the M.A.N.T.I.S. which stands for Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System.
It only lasted for 22 episodes, but poor ratings led to constant “retooling” of the premise, incorporating everything from parallel universes and time travel to supervillains and monsters. It serves as one of the most WTF relics of superhero television, but it never failed to be entertaining in its weirdness.
5. THE TICK (2001)
Another short-lived goofy superhero show, another certified cult classic. 2001’s live-action edition of The Tick starring Patrick Warburton only produced and aired nine episodes before cancellation but it has a huge following even today. Viewers at the time were mostly familiar with the Tick’s animated series that aired between 1994 and 1997, but the live-action version took things to a more adult place, often with sexual dialogue and situations.
Warburton, who was a producer on the show, puts the blame of cancellation on Fox how says that they didn’t promote the series often because they didn’t own it as they did The Bernie Mac Show and 24. They also put it in a difficult time slot against popular shows like Survivor: Africa and NBC’s Must See TV lineup. It received fan and critical praise, but as Fox is known to do, another classic was canceled before its time.
4. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1978)
The Incredible Hulk which ran for five seasons from 1977 to 1982 was an immensely popular show and to this day, still one of the greatest superhero shows that ever aired. It was deeply emotional, intense, funny and action-packed, which is more than anyone can say for any of the Incredible Hulk’s modern live-action films.
It even spawned three made-for-TV movies after the series finale which brought about the first live-action appearances of other Marvel heroes like Daredevil and Thor. The series is so beloved that actor Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk (as opposed to Bill Bixby who played the un-Hulked Dr. Banner) was brought back by Marvel to lend his voice to every live-action version of the Hulk since, including those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
3. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (1977)
Before Tom Holland, before Andrew Garfield, before Tobey Maguire, for 13 episodes between 1977 and 1979, we had Nicholas Hammond wearing the web-shooters of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Say what you will about the bad effects, the hammy acting, or the juvenile tone, this Spider-Man was the only live-action version of the hero we would get for the next two decades.
It began with a two-hour TV pilot, the first official Spider-Man movie. Its five-episode first season debuted to great ratings, but as the series was expensive to produce CBS aired the seven-episode second season sporadically throughout 1978-1979 specifically to hurt competing shows and making a number of changes to attract adult audiences. The ratings continued to do well, but CBS ultimately decided to cancel it, claiming they didn’t want to be perceived as a “superhero network” since they already had The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman.
2. DARK ANGEL
Dark Angel was Jessica Alba’s breakout role into Hollywood stardom and James Cameron’s follow-up to his massive hit, Titanic. It followed Alba’s character, Max Guevera through the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk wasteland of Seattle in the far-off future of 2019. Max was a genetically-enhanced super soldier who escaped from the Manticore facility at the age of nine where they experimented on her and other children.
She spends the series searching for other surviving members of the Manticore facility, fighting corruption with the aid of an underground cyber-journalist and doing her best to escape the clutches of Manticore as they pursue her to recover their lost asset. Dark Angel was an action-packed, cyberpunk thrill-ride, but it was unfortunately canceled at the end of its second season due to a sizeable ratings drop and the expensive nature of the show’s production.
1. THE SECRET WORLD OF ALEX MACK
If you grew up in the ’90s, your favorite superhero show was probably The Secret World of Alex Mack. It was a wildly successful show between 1994 and 1998 and one of Nickelodeon’s longest running shows at the time. They were offered a fifth season and a feature film, but it ended because the show’s star Larisa Oleynik was burned out on the character and wanted to finish high school.
Oleynik played Alex Mack, a teenage girl who gets drenched in a mysterious chemical and gains an array of superpowers like telekinesis, shooting electricity from her fingers, and turning herself into a silvery goo to travel around incognito. Much of the series revolves around Alex trying to live a normal life while keeping her powers a secret, but she’s constantly on the run from Danielle Atron, the chemical plant CEO responsible for the chemical that resulted in Alex’s powers.
Can you think of any other classic superhero shows that trump what airs today? Let us know in the comments!
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