While most superheroes have origins in the pages of Marvel Comics or DC Comics, a surprising number of characters debuted on the small screen. From the Technicolor–hued 1960s to the modern age of event television, original heroes have given creators the chance to play in the conventions of the superhero genre without the expectations and limitations that come with iconic characters.
Now, CBR is taking a look back at some of the most noteworthy superhero television shows that weren’t based on comics. While this list is hardly comprehensive, we’ll be focusing on live-action shows that featured costumed avengers, super-powered characters or other trappings of the superhero genre. While some of these shows had origins in other non-comic forms of media, they all become defining works for their respective characters.
16 Mutant X
After the blockbuster success of 2000’s “X-Men” reinvigorated the live-action superhero genre, Marvel and Tribune Entertainment started planning a new syndicated live-action show called “Mutant X.” While not directly based on any preexisting X-Men properties, that show was the center of a legal battle between the X-Men film producers 20th Century Fox and the show’s producers (Marvel, Tribune, and Fireworks Entertainment). When all the legal dust had settled, “Mutant X” was prohibited from using any concepts related to the X-Men franchise.
Lasting three seasons in syndication, “Mutant X” followed a team of “New Mutants,” born with powers as a result of the company Genomax’s genetic experiments. Led by John Shea’s former Genomax scientist, Adam Kane, the members of Mutant X protected other New Mutants from Genomax’s ongoing nefarious plots. While the show garnered a few comic book tie-ins from Marvel, most of the characters had TV-friendly powers like heightened reflexes and “tele-empathy.” After 66 episodes, the series ended on a cliff-hanger when Fireworks Entertainment was dissolved.
Despite its brief run, “M.A.N.T.I.S.” broke an impressive amount of ground. Starring Carl Lumbly as scientist Miles Hawkins, the series was the first live-action series centered solely on an African-American superhero. After being paralyzed by a police sniper during a riot, Hawkins developed the “Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System,” a power suit that restored his ability to walk and gave him enhanced strength and agility. Using knockout darts and a flying car called the Crysalid, M.A.N.T.I.S. fought crime and tried to keep his inventions from becoming a SkyNet-like force in a future technological dystopia.
After a Sam Raimi-produced pilot aired in 1994, almost everything about the series but the title character was retooled, and the show was extensively recast before a one-season run on Fox. Although the series was initially more grounded, more sci-fi elements like time-travel and parallel universes were included after a mid-season retooling. After 22 episodes, the series ended with a battle-weary M.A.N.T.I.S. being killed by a giant invisible dinosaur.
14 Misfits of Science
Long before “Heroes,” NBC created a group of prime-time superheroes in the short-lived “Misfits of Science.” The series, which ran for one season, starting in 1985, followed the light-hearted adventures of three “human anomalies” who worked for Dean Paul Martin’s Dr. Billy Hayes and the Humanidyne Institute. The team included Kevin Peter Hall’s shrinking Dr. El Lincoln, Mark Thomas Miller’s electric rock star Johnny B, and Courtney Cox’s first recurring role as the telekinetic teen, Gloria Dinallo.
After debuting in the series’ pilot, a character named Ice Man was written out of the show due to legal issues with Marvel. Lasting 16 episodes, the Misfits and their Humanidyne allies tackled threats like irradiated hamburgers and plague-carrying rabbits, often traveling to threats in an ice cream truck called the ‘Fundae Sundae.’ After failing to compete with CBS’ mega-hit “Dallas” in its Friday-night timeslot, the series was canceled with one episode going unaired in the United States.
13 The Secrets of ISIS
Despite a retroactively-unfortunate title, “The Secrets of Isis” starred one of the few TV-first characters to become part of a major comic book universe. For two seasons that started in 1975, Joanna Cameron’s Andrea Thomas took on the forces of evil by using an Egyptian amulet to transform into Isis, a goddess with a litany of magical powers. The show was originally part of the CBS Saturday morning live-action block “The Shazam!/Isis Hour,” with those shows even crossing over a few times. After her live-action series went into syndication, Isis also appeared in several Filmation-produced cartoons.
Although Filmation’s Isis appeared in a DC Comics-produced eight-issue series in the 1970s, a different version of the character joined the DC Universe during 2006’s maxi-series “52.” The Isis of the comics married Shazam antagonist Black Adam and was a recurring character for much of the next decade. Although Isis has not had a starring role since DC’s New 52 reboot, Adrianna Tomaz, her comic book secret identity, briefly appeared in “Justice League of America.” In 2010, Isis returned to television in an episode of “Smallville,” where Erica Durance's Lois Lane briefly transformed into the hero.
Shortly after the release of “Tron” in 1982, the “Automan” produced some similar effects for television during an ambitious short-lived series. Starting in 1983, this ABC series followed Desi Arnaz Jr.’s Walter Nebicher, a police computer genius, and his creation Automan, a sentient hologram who was “the world’s first truly automatic man.” With the abilities to copy any physical action he’s seen and interface with any electronic system, Chuck Wagner’s Automan posed as Otto J. Mann, a convincingly named F.B.I. agent. In addition to his other powers, Automan could also merge with Nebicher to form an invulnerable being with the minds and skills of both characters.
While the series only ran for 12 episodes, the show featured some special effects that are still impressive for the time. Automan’s suit was created by a mixture of chroma-key effects and fabric containing the same kind of highly reflective balls that were used for Kyrptonian outfits in the Superman movies on the 1970s. The main duo was accompanied by Cursor, an amorphous polygon that could create any number of “Tron”-esque hard light vehicles.
In the wake of the highly-serialized success of “Lost” and the first few years of the ongoing superhero film boom, NBC had a strong candidate for a hit with “Heroes.” Starting in 2006, Tim Kring’s superhero drama would follow a massive cast as they discovered their newfound abilities and tried to save the world. The show’s blockbuster first season was a critical and commercial success, making cast members like Hayden Panettiere and Zachary Quinto into stars. With involvement from comic creators like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, the series didn’t shy away from its superhero roots during its 77-episode run and garnered several comic book tie-ins.
After the successful first season, the second season got off to a moderately strong start before the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike cut the season short. As viewers and critics turned away from the show, the show petered out over the next two seasons. In early 2016, the 13-episode revival “Heroes: Reborn” was released to tepid reviews.
10 Monster Squad
Unrelated to the cult 1987 film of the same name, “Monster Squad” was a short-lived live-action series on NBC’s Saturday morning lineup. In this bizarre one-season show, a wax museum attendant named Walt, played by Fred Grandy, created a “crime computer” inside a sarcophagus that brought several wax monsters to life through “oscillating vibrations.” Plagued by their previous misdeeds, Henry Polic II’s Dracula, Michael Lane’s Frankenstein, and Buck Kartalian’s Wolfman sought to redeem themselves by fighting crime with Walt’s assistance.
While this series wasn’t the first time classic monsters had been recast as heroes, it’s certainly among the most ridiculous. Show creator Stanley Ralph Ross brought over the campy tone he helped define as a writer on 1966’s “Batman.” Like “Batman,” “Monster Squad” usually brought in a celebrity guest star to play the villain of the week during its 13-episode run, including one who tried to tickle the monsters to death with a feather.
9 Dark Angel
While “Dark Angel” might be most remembered today for making Jessica Alba a star, it was a well-regarded sci-fi series in its day. In a heavily-promoted pilot directed by series producer James Cameron, the show established a post-apocalyptic Seattle in the far-off future of 2019, where an electromagnetic pulse caused the total collapse of American society. Over 43 episodes, the show followed Alba’s Max, a genetically engineered super-soldier, as she fought Manticore, the military program that created her.
While the first season of the show focused on Max and Michael Weatherly’s cyber-journalist Logan Cale, the second season was more of an ensemble piece. After spending its first year in the same timeslot as the WB’s similarly named Buffy spin-off “Angel,” Fox moved the show to its infamous ‘Friday night death slot,’ where several sci-fi shows have quietly died out. Although a third season was temporarily green-lit, the series was canceled in 2002. The intended plots for a third season became the basis for a brief series of novels.
8 Street Hawk/Super Force
After the success of a vehicle-based hero on “Knight Rider” in the early 1980s, two separate series starred motorcycle-based superheroes in the following decade. First, ABC launched “Street Hawk” in early 1985. After being injured in the line of duty, police officer and dirt bike aficionado, Jesse Mach, was chosen to participate in a top-secret program driving the souped-up motorcycle Street Hawk. Taking the name of his bike as his alias, Mach, played by Rex Smith, acted as a vigilante by night and a police spokesman by day over the course of a 13-episode series.
A few years later, “Super Force” premiered in syndication starting in 1990. Originally conceived as a companion show to “Superboy,” this series was moderately more successful and lasted for two seasons. With 48 episodes, the series followed Ken Olandt’s Zachary Stone, an ex-astronaut, as he tried to avenge his police officer brother’s death. With the help of Larry B. Scott’s scientist, FX Skinner, Stone donned a prototype space suit, rode a prototype motorcycle, and eventually developed limited psychic abilities. One of the first season’s villains was played by real-world Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy, during his brief acting career.
7 My Secret Identity
In another series that was syndicated in the United States, “My Secret Identity” followed the adventures of a teenager named Andrew Clements, played by a young Jerry O’Connell. After being hit by his neighbor Dr. Benjamin Jeffcoates’ particle beam, Clements developed invulnerability, super-speed and the ability to levitate. With Jeffcoates, played by Derek McGrath, as his confidant and mentor, Clements went around performing various good deeds and fantasizing about being a hero named Ultraman, who bears no relation to the famous Japanese superhero.
Over the CTV program’s three seasons, the Canadian show featured stories that ranged from light-hearted romps to surprisingly sentimental tales featuring Jeffcoates, Clements and his friends. Starting in the show’s first season in 1988, Clements learned how to use his powers by propelling himself through the air with aerosol cans before eventually learning to fly in the show’s second year. Later in the show’s 72-episode run, he traded his invulnerability for super-strength after being hit by the particle generator again.
6 The Six Million Dollar Man/The Bionic Woman
In two of the most iconic action series of the 1970s, Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner played cybernetically-enhanced characters who became better, faster and stronger than regular humans. Originally created in Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel “Cyborg,” Steve Austin was wounded in an experimental plane crash before receiving a bionic arm, bionic legs and a bionic eye. After three TV movies, “The Six Million Dollar Man” premiered on ABC in 1974. Over 101 episodes, the series became famous for its pioneering slow-motion effects as it chronicled Austin’s missions for the Office of Scientific Investigations.
After being injured skydiving during her debut on “The Six Million Dollar Man,” Jaime Sommers was given a bionic arm, bionic legs, a bionic ear and her own series “The Bionic Woman.” Across two seasons on ABC and one on NBC, Sommers served as an agent for the OSI for 58 episodes starting in 1976. Both characters reunited for a few TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. “The Bionic Woman” was briefly revived in 2007, and both characters have appeared in numerous comic books over the years. Mark Wahlberg is set to play Steve Austin in the upcoming film “The Six Billion Dollar Man,” scheduled for 2017.
Although the series is largely remembered as a punchline today, “Manimal” was a serious affair when it debuted in 1983. In the short-lived NBC series, Simon MacCorkindale’s Dr. Jonathan Chase fought crime with his inherited ability to transform into any animal. Over eight episodes, Chase morphed into hawks, panthers and other types of animals in transformation sequences by special effects legend Stan Winston. While the show didn’t last a year, it was hardly the only one, since NBC famously canceled all of their shows that debuted in 1983.
Despite the show’s brief tenure, “Manimal” crossed over with a few other superheroes. In one episode of “Manimal,” “Automan’s” Walter Nebicher made an unofficial cameo. In a 1998 episode of the Ultraverse-based series “Night Man,” Manimal teamed up with the show’s titular hero to defeat a time-traveling Jack the Ripper. Since Marvel purchased Malibu Comics and the Ultraverse in 1994, “Manimal” technically crossed-over with a distant part of the Marvel multiverse. In 2014, Sony Pictures Animation announced that it was developing “Manimal” as a feature film with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay producing the project.
4 Electra Woman and Dyna Girl
While “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl” only existed as a short-running segment on “The Krofft Supershow,” the series left a lasting impression in popular culture. In that live-action ABC kids variety show, Deidre Hall’s Electra Woman and Judy Strangis’ Dyna Girl parodied tropes of the superhero genre, especially those featured in 1966’s “Batman.” When the Sid and Marty Krofft-produced characters weren’t maintaining secret identities as reporters for “Newsmaker Magazine,” the duo would track crime with the ElectraBase’s CrimeScope computer. Over 16 segments starting in 1976, the heroines fought crime using their powerful wrist-mounted ElectraComs, which could produce force fields, shoot energy beams and had several other plot-convenient abilities.
After the series was syndicated for years, the WB tried to revive the series as a dark comedy in 2001. Although that pilot wasn’t picked up, the duo starred in a 2016 film originally serialized as a web series. “Electra Woman and Dyna Girl,” which starred YouTube sensations Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart, was moderately well-received.
3 Greatest American Hero
Believe it or not, “Greatest American Hero” was one of the few shows to top both the television of music charts at the peak of its popularity. Debuting in 1981 on ABC, the series followed William Katt’s Ralph Hinkley, a hapless teacher who was given a power-granting suit by aliens. After losing the instruction book, Hinkley was left to discover the various plot-convenient powers of the suit along with Robert Culp’s F.B.I. agent Bill Maxwell over the course of three seasons.
In the summer of 1981, “Greatest American Hero’s” theme song, Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It or Not,” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, largely on the strength of the show’s early popularity. Throughout the show’s 44-episode run, the series mixed comedy with a few more serious stories. After two seasons, the series moved to Friday nights, where it was canceled before the four final episodes could air. In 2015, Fox announced that it would be ordering a pilot for a revival of “Great American Hero,” written by Rick Famuyiwa and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
2 Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
In one of the most ambitious television series ever broadcast, “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future” was a syndicated show that mixed live-action, early computer-generated imagery and “interactive television.” Over one season starting in 1987, the series followed Tim Dunigan's Captain Power and his team of human resistance fighters as they fought Lord Dread and his machine forces in a post-apocalyptic world. With a writing staff that included J. Michael Straczynski, the show featured a surprising amount of violence and adult themes for a kids show.
“Captain Power” might be most famous for its accompanying toyline, which could use a light gun to interact with special VHS tapes and new episodes of the show. While the on-screen action wouldn’t change, the toys would keep track of how many points a player scored. Despite its ambition, the show never connected with its desired adult audience and was heavily criticized for its merchandising. Although scripts were produced for a second season, the show was canceled in 1988. Earlier this year, series co-creator Gary Goddard announced that the series would be revived under the new title “Phoenix Rising.”
1 The Green Hornet
While the Green Hornet first appeared on a radio serial in the 1930s, some of the character’s most prominent days came with the ABC series “The Green Hornet.” Over 26 episodes, newspaper publisher Britt Reid, played by Van Williams, fought crime as the Green Hornet with his partner Kato, played by Bruce Lee. With a gadget-filled car called the Black Beauty, the duo posed as wanted criminals in order to take down criminal operations from the inside. While the show only lasted one season, both characters appeared on “Batman,” where they teamed up with Adam West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo. Unlike “Batman,” “The Green Hornet” wasn’t intentionally campy, even with a dizzying rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee” as its famous theme song.
After the show’s cancellation, the adventures of the Green Hornet and Kato continued across various media, including ongoing comics published by Dynamite Entertainment. Seth Rogan starred as the title character in 2011’s “Green Hornet,” and Paramount announced plans for a darker reboot of the franchise last month. Although Williams’ death was publicly revealed earlier this week, he and Lee have left lasting legacies with their classic interpretations of the Green Hornet and Kato.
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