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10 Best Live-Action Shows Based on Comic Books
Can SHIELD Compete?
By Michael Henley
September 19, 2013
It seems such a natural fit. Comic books are well-known for their ensemble of colorful characters, long-form storytelling, soapy twists, cool visuals and sometimes endless continuity. In other words, comic books feel like they could easily be adapted for television, especially within the new television model where every show is serialized and lends itself to obsessive detail-tracking and binge-watching. As Joss Whedon and co. are about to embark on an exciting journey called Agents of SHIELD, we wish them luck…and also remember some of the better live-action TV shows that were born out of the funny pages.
The Adventures of Superman (Syndicated. 1952-1958)
The Adventures of Superman hasn’t aged completely well. The flying scenes wouldn’t wow anyone these days, and the series shuns most of Supe’s rogues gallery in favor of boilerplate bank robbers, burglars, and so on. And some may have zero interest in a Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates, then replaced by Noel Neill) who is spunky and brassy in a very quaint, 1950’s-style way. But beneath it all is a genuine attempt to capture the essence of the world’s most sincere and square-jawed superhero, anchored by a phenomenal performance by George Reeves.
Batman (NBC. 1966-1968)
There are two types of Batman fans: those who can appreciate the campy swagger of the 60’s TV series, and those who can’t. To be sure, the televised exploits of the dynamic duo Batman and Robin (Adam West, Burt Ward) couldn’t be more different than the gritty tales of the Dark Knight that have now become preferred. But history has taught us there is room for multiple interpretations of Batman, and if you can get into the spirit of it all, the classic TV series is a hoot, brimming with satire and comedy (plus some light innuendo for the adults), and providing memorable turns for much of Batman’s colorful, expansive rogues gallery.
The Incredible Hulk (CBS. 1977-1982)
The Incredible Hulk was a series that permeated the pop culture consciousness, and with good reason. Blending the story of Bruce Banner and his green counterpart with the structure of the classic series The Fugitive (wanted man goes from town to town and helps out, while being pursued), Incredible Hulk was family-friendly entertainment that was bolstered by two great performances: Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner, and wrestler Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk himself. Plus, Incredible Hulk once even featured a guest appearance by the Asgardian Thor, giving us a taste of a true superhero team-up. At the time, that was as good as we thought we would get.
Tales from the Crypt (HBO. 1989-1996)
An anthology series for the HBO era with heavy dollops of gore and nudity (based on the EC comics series printed in the 1950’s), Tales from the Crypt is like a grotesque mirror of the clean-cut Eisenhower-era Twilight Zone, where Rod Serling is replaced with a sneering, cackling rotting corpse (The Cryptkeeper), who tells us bizarre stories that channel the depths of human (and supernatural) perversion and indecency. Featuring a who’s-who of guest stars (either celebrities then or celebrities to be) and a roster of behind the scenes talent that included Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, John Frankenheimer and more, Tales from the Crypt was a cult sensation, and the Cryptkeeper became an icon, perhaps because beneath his horrific visage and groan-worthy pun dialogue, he best represented Tales from the Crypt’s deeply twisted—but still sincere—morality.
The Flash (CBS. 1990-1991)
Heavily indebted to the previous year’s triumphant release of Tim Burton’s Batman in theaters, The Flash had style, not-bad special effects, and a winning pair of leads in John Wesley Shipp and Amanda Pays (as the CSI-tech-turned-superhero and the scientist who monitors his changing biology). Plus, it wasn’t afraid to celebrate the goofier aspects of the character and get crazy villains in on the action, including Mark Hamill as the foppish psychopath magician known as The Trickster. Also, check out Shirley Walker’s terrific musical score, which builds upon a spectacular title theme by Danny Elfman. Currently, a new Flash series is in development, and while the original isn’t exactly hard to top, it’s far too much of a fascinating time capsule to even try to imitate.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (ABC. 1993-1997)
This romantic comedy-styled retelling of Superman began so well, taking a light approach to the Man of Steel and featuring spectacular chemistry between star Dean Cain and up-and-comer Teri Hatcher. And it also gave us John Shea’s deliciously slimy performance as corporate CEO Lex Luthor, and some neat superhero theatrics (the flying scenes, by the way…still not good). Then the series slowly dissolved into silly stuff, needlessly postponing Lois and Clark’s marriage and throwing in ludicrous twists just because. But at its best, it was frothy comic book entertainment of a high order.
Smallville (The WB/The CW 2001-2011)
And here’s another Superman series (boy, networks just never tire of Kal-El, do they?) The longest-living series on this list, Smallville borrowed the premise of the 1988 series Superboy, focusing on Clark Kent’s young life as he struggled to one day become Superman. But Smallville took this improbable starting point and did it right, expressing a grounded philosophy (“No tights, no flights” was the motto, which seems wise). The series ultimately explored Clark Kent’s human side without shirking his alien nature. And by the end of it all, practically an entire DC roll call visited Smallville, making it the bustling Tatooine of the Superman universe.
The Tick (FOX. 2001-2002)
A very funny live-action comedy (sister series to an animated version that ran from 1994-1996) based on the comic created by Ben Edlund, The Tick cast invaluable comic actor Patrick Warburton (best known as “Puddy” from Seinfeld) as the big blue superhero, a good-hearted doofus with an insane streak only made worse by his near-indestructability. This send-up of comic book heroes was too good to last more than one season, which left many loyal viewers royally tick-ed off.
The Walking Dead (AMC. 2010-present)
Certainly this one needs no introduction. Currently one of the biggest hits on TV and a boffo ratings smash for the AMC network, The Walking Dead tells the story of a zombie apocalypse told through the eyes of a ragtag group of survivors. And although the flesh-eating ghouls nipping at their heels are nothing to sneeze at, the real villainy comes from within the human ranks, as the end of the world causes values and mores to be tested to their breaking points. Human monsters like David Morrissey’s Governor vie for power while zombies plague the land and even heroic characters must make awful choices. The Walking Dead is the story of a society caught in mid-implosion, with every subsequent step shown in agonizing, soul-crushing slow motion.
Arrow (The CW. 2012-present)
The superhero genre has been sort of dormant on television for a long while, but not for lack of trying. Aquaman was produced as a WB pilot, to little success, and the WB series Birds of Prey was nothing to crow about. A few years ago, NBC produced a Wonder Woman reboot pilot with producer David E. Kelley involved, to absolutely dreadful results. This adaptation of The Green Arrow was greeted with perhaps inevitable skepticism, but it’s a clever, inventive and fun take on the hero’s mythology, telling the story of playboy Oliver Queen and his efforts to be an urban vigilante with a bow and arrow. Smart storylines make this one better than you might expect. To be sure it’s a small-budget superhero soap that never forgets it airs on the CW network, but since when have such limitations ever stopped true fans?