As successful as comic book entertainment is right now, it’s easy to forget superhero shows and movies are still a big risk. They’re very expensive to produce and don’t always have the built in audience everyone thinks they have. Comic book fans are known for their epic levels of devotion, but they can turn on a show when it doesn’t develop the characters properly. For every Arrow that spawns a whole universe of shows, there’s an Adventures of Superboy that no one remembers. The success of the '90s Batman movies and ABC’s Lois & Clark, coupled with the creation of more TV networks led to a boom in superhero TV shows. However, the studios wanted to save the major characters for the big screen, so that left TV producers with adapting lesser known heroes and villains.
Sci-Fi Channel was also branching out from Star Trek and The Twilight Zone reruns into original programming, which meant the natural choice was to create new superhero shows. There were also a few shows that popped up as a continuation of surprise hit movies. Remember when there was a Blade series? A curious byproduct happened with The WB finding popularity with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville. There was an explosion of young, good looking heroes, who were just learning how to use their powers and of course were trapped in some sort of romantic drama -- basically they wanted to make Dawson’s Creek with superpowers. The thing is, this story doesn’t work for every character. That being said, it’s time to take a walk down memory lane with superhero TV shows we forgot existed.
20 HEROES REBORN - NBC (2015)
When it first premiered in 2006, Heroes was a bona fide phenomenon. Fans were obsessed with the characters and mythology surrounding the show. Remember when “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” was everywhere? Unfortunately, the ratings declined fast and by the end of the fourth season it was a shell of its former self.
The renewed interest in superheroes prompted NBC to bring it back in 2015, with old favorites and new characters. Sadly, it beared little resemblance to the original’s peak first season and mild curiosity didn't lead to ratings. Frankly, this is a reboot we could have done without.
19 THE MIDDLEMAN - ABC FAMILY (2008)
While dark, brooding heroes are the norm on TV lately, there was a time when ABC Family went in a different direction with its adaptation of The Middleman. The show revolved around artist Wendy Watson, who is recruited to join a mysterious agency that fights weird stuff. She is partnered with The Middleman, a straight laced hero, who takes his responsibilities seriously.
Natalie Morales and Matt Letscher had an easy chemistry that made their friendship authentic and charming. Its uniqueness was endlessly fun. The craziness of the cases made the show a breath of fresh air in the comic book genre, and it still has a loyal cult following.
18 IRON MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES - G4 (2010)
Following the success of Iron Man, Marvel wasted no time getting everything they could out of the character. One of their first attempts to branch out was Iron Man: The Animated Series, an anime version of the character’s adventures. It lacked the charm of the feature film, and didn’t catch on with viewers.
It wasn’t marketed very well and was hard for fans to find. You could argue that without this failure, the studio wouldn’t have figured out the right path for animation. Now that Marvel has several cartoons airing regularly on Disney XD, this first crack at the medium has been erased from history.
17 THE CAPE - NBC (2011)
“Six seasons and a movie” is a popular phrase among fans of the comedy Community, but it actually started when Abed was obsessed with the new NBC show The Cape. The series followed honest cop Vince Faraday as he tried to clear his name after being framed for a crime. To fight the bad guys, he takes on the mantle of his son’s favorite hero, The Cape.
The show was actually a straightforward comic book show, but it just never caught on and was hampered by low ratings. It premiered a year before Arrow, so maybe The Cape had to suffer so the Arrowverse could live.
16 POWERS - PLAYSTATION NETWORK (2015)
Before it jumped on Legion, FX developed Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers. It takes place in a world where superheroes are more like famous celebrities or athletes and follows a detective who used to have superpowers and now works as a police detective hunting powered criminals.
Bendis was directly involved and the show featured a strong cast including lead Sharlto Copley, Michelle Forbes, Michael Madsen and Eddie Izzard. However, once FX passed, Powers ended up on the PlayStation Network. Despite strong fan anticipation, the show was all but invisible to mainstream TV viewers. It was a niche show that was hard to find, eventually silently being cancelled.
15 THE TOMORROW PEOPLE - THE CW (2013)
The Tomorrow People is yet another series revolving around characters who develop superpowers due to human evolution. Yeah, the plot has become overused, so blame the X-Men. As usual there is a group of evil people with powers, this time called Ultra, and they are locked in a constant battle for control with The Tomorrow People.
Since it aired on The CW, the cast including an array of good looking young actors like Robbie Amell, Luke Mitchell, Peyton List and Serinda Swan. It also starred the always charismatic Mark Pellegrino. Ultimately, it couldn’t break out amongst the network’s overflowing schedule of supernatural/fantasy series starring beautiful people.
14 THE CROW: STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN - SYNDICATED (1998)
The Crow is one of those movies that no one was expecting to be as popular as it was. That popularity led to three sequels and the TV series Stairway to Heaven. The show is basically the same plot of the movie, with Eric Draven coming back to avenge the demise of his girlfriend.
As he tracks down the perpetrators with the help of his detective friend, he uses his supernatural abilities to help people. Martial arts action star Mark Dacascos took over the role of Eric and the show only lasted one season, presumably because viewers had already seen the same story in theaters.
13 WITCHBLADE - TNT (2001)
TNT has long been known as one of the cable channels willing to take a risk on unique stories. This was highlighted with the 2001 series Witchblade. Based on the comic book, the show follows Detective Sara Pezzini after she bonds with the mysterious Witchblade, gains superpowers and fights evil.
The series followed a TV movie, which means the network really had an interest in the material. It turns out, Witchblade was actually well received and very popular, but fell victim to behind the scenes drama causing its cancellation. To this day, fans are still clamoring for the show to return, though at this point it would probably be a completely new project.
12 YOUNG HERCULES - FOX (1998)
Why yes that is a fresh out of the Mickey Mouse Club Ryan Gosling as teenage Hercules. This spinoff of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys followed the demi God, his best friend Iolaus and future king Jason as they attended an academy for warriors. Viewers got to watch them learn many of the lessons they would use later in life.
Fox aired it as part of its afternoon kids block, with each episode following the same formula as Hercules but the show didn't catch on like the original and was eventually canceled. Perhaps it’s the real reason Gosling has stayed away from superhero roles.
11 PAINKILLER JANE - SCI-FI (2007)
Sometimes producers will decide to disguise a comic book show as a police procedural. The bad guys have powers and it’s up to a team of good guys with their own abilities to stop them, and this was the case with Painkiller Jane. A secret team of government agents are tasked with stopping criminals who have superhuman mental abilities. DEA agent Jane Vasco ends up joining the team and of course discovers that she also has superpowers.
Over the years Sci-Fi or Syfy has gone through several programming and branding changes. After lasting one season, Painkiller Jane was caught in one of these transitions and was canceled.
10 TARZAN - THE WB (2003)
Once it found success with Smallville, The WB thought it could recreate it with another famous story -- enter Tarzan. Only this time the character was set in present day New York City. After escaping the clutches of his evil uncle, Tarzan becomes enamored with Detective Jane Porter. He followed her around and used the skills he learned in the jungle to help her solve crimes.
Despite having Sarah Wayne Callies as Jane, the show didn't have much else going for it and wasn't long for the TV world. This was a common occurrence for early '00s WB. Yet another reason why Tarzan should take a hiatus for awhile.
9 FLASH GORDON - SCI-FI (2007)
Flash Gordon is a property that people either love or hate. The over the top craziness of the premise and setting has made some adaptations hilariously bad. In 2007, Sci-Fi decided to give it another try with a new TV series.
The story still focused on Flash and his motley group of friends trying to save Mongo from the dictator Ming. The network was smart enough to change all the out of date aspects of the story, though it didn’t really help. The show was just as cheesy as expected and never took off. It was canceled after one forgettable season and hopefully we’ve put Flash Gordon to rest for awhile.
8 CONTINUUM - SYFY (2012)
The hero who travels through time to stop a horrible future has been a popular story since The Terminator. In the case of Continuum, the plot focused on future police officer Kiera Cameron being accidentally transported when she tries to stop terrorists who are trying to prevent the rise of a corporation controlled dictatorship.
Though that sounds simple, it sometimes got bogged down in mythology, making it occasionally hard to follow. The Canadian show ran for four seasons, airing on SyFy in America. The problem was the network would constantly move the series around the schedule, including long delays between seasons. This made it difficult for casual fans to find, and eventually it just faded away.
7 ALPHAS - SYFY (2011)
What to do when you want to make an X-Men show, but don’t have the actual rights to the X-Men? In the case of Alphas, you just rip off the story. The Syfy show follows a team of people with powers, who under the guidance of a doctor who understands their abilities, and uses them to stop other Alphas from committing crimes, and even going as far as fighting an evil group of Alphas who want to take them down.
With a charismatic team and interesting foes, the show was able to find a fanbase. It’s controversial cliffhanger ending caused an uproar for awhile, but over time the show has been pretty much forgotten.
6 THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW - SYNDICATED (1989)
In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s video games really started taking over and Super Mario Bros. was the biggest one around. Naturally this led to Mario and Luigi getting their own Saturday morning cartoon. The animated sections were framed with live action versions of the brothers hanging out with celebrity friends.
Mario was played by wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano and Luigi by Danny Wells. Unfortunately, the live action segments proved to be the show’s weak link and it was cancelled after one season. Of course, this didn’t hurt Mario, as the world’s most famous plumber has sold millions of games.
5 POWERLESS - NBC (2017)
The office workers affected by superhero work is side of comics we don't get to see often. Powerless started out as a show about the insurance agents who have to clean up after superheroes. During the development process the comedy switched its focus to a small R&D offshoot of Wayne Enterprises.
With its DC comic connection and a strong cast that included Alan Tudyk, Vanessa Hudgens, Ron Funches and Danny Pudi, it seemed like it could beat the odds. Unfortunately, it was lacking the comedy part of the equation and never quite found its footing. It came and went without anyone really noticing.
4 BIONIC WOMAN - NBC (2007)
One of TV’s most popular female heroes is The Bionic Woman’s Jaime Sommers. In 2007, NBC did a dark remake from the producer of Battlestar Galactica. The premise was the same, with Jaime getting in an accident and then receiving bionic implants so she could survive.
NBC was all in on the new series, promoting it nonstop during all its programming. Turns out the darker update stripped the show of some of its original appeal. It didn’t help matters that this version of Jaime didn’t have the depth of Lindsay Wagner’s. It barely lasted one season and is still considered one of NBC’s biggest failures.
3 WHO WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO? - SCI-FI (2006)
With the schedule packed full of reality shows, it’s no surprise that someone came up with a superhero focused one. Who Wants to be a Superhero? aired on Sci-Fi and was hosted by Stan Lee. The legend was tasked with choosing the next great superhero among the 12 contestants.
Like any other reality show there were sob stories and inter house drama. Challenges consisted of helping others and following superhero values like loyalty and truth. There was even one hero who was changed into a villain. The series ran for two seasons, but was cancelled when Sci-Fi went through one of its many branding transitions.
2 THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES - ABC (1992)
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade opens with a brilliant sequence of young Indy protecting an ancient artifact from thieves. There’s a horse chase, fights on top of a train and cool origin moments. The action was helped by the performance of River Phoenix as Indy.
The sequence was so well received, Steven Spielberg decided to make it into a full fledged series. Sean Patrick Flanery took over the role of young Indy as he traveled the world making new friends and saving priceless artifacts. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles never recaptured the magic of the movies, lasting only one season. However, fans of the franchise still have a special place in their hearts for the show.
1 BIRDS OF PREY - THE WB (2002)
The Birds of Prey books featuring Black Canary, The Huntress and Oracle are among DC’s most popular. Barbara’s transition from Batgirl to Oracle is considered groundbreaking and made her an even more important hero. So, it made sense that The WB would try to capitalize on the popularity of Smallville with a show featuring the trio.
Despite title recognition and familiar characters, the show took a lot of liberties with the source material. Helena became Batman and Catwoman’s daughter, while Black Canary’s origin was unrecognizable. It was particularly disappointing in how it handled Batman. The changes put off many die hard fans and the show was considered a big flop.