A History of Old Marvel Live-Action TV Shows

Long before Agents of SHIELD, Cloak and Dagger, or Daredevil, Marvel tried to make its mark on TV...with mixed results.

Marvel TV shows, from the sorely missed Daredevil and Jessica Jones to Agents of SHIELD get themselves considerable critical acclaim on these days. But things didn’t always go so smoothly for Marvel superheroes on the small screen. There have been plenty of attempts to capture Marvel’s unique brand of superheroics on live action TV, and some worked better than others.

So here they are, from the iconic to the bizarre, the fairly and unfairly maligned…we present seven other attempts to bring Marvel superheroes to live-action via the small screen!

The Incredible Hulk

CBS: 1977-1982

It might be easy to forget that The Incredible Hulk, despite (or perhaps because of) the liberties it took with the source material, was one of the most successful superhero television shows of all time. Spanning five seasons plus an additional three TV movies (we’ll get to those in a minute), the show scaled down the Hulk’s powers and science fiction elements in favor of human drama that owed as much to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and TV’s The Fugitive as it did to the works of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Herb Trimpe, and others.

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Why did it work? Primarily because of Bill Bixby’s warm and sympathetic portrayal of Dr. David Banner (see? We told you they took liberties…but his middle name is Bruce!), and the spectacle that is bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno in green body paint as The Hulk. Say what you will about the simplicity of this technique, but Ferrigno’s physique and screen presence, coupled with the more “believable” power levels that the Hulk displayed (and the fact that he was the only fantastic element on screen…there’s nary a supervillain in sight) gave the show a certain gravitas.

read more: Hulk Movies Marvel Should Make

Modern audiences raised on CGI spectacle and slavish devotion to the conventions of superhero storytelling may find The Incredible Hulk a little quaint, even repetitive, but it’s a nearly perfect example of how a tremendously powerful character could work within the confines of TV.

Watch The Incredible Hulk on Amazon

The Amazing Spider-Man

CBS: 1978-1979

Only 13 episodes were made of The Amazing Spider-Man, which aired on CBS between 1978-1979. While Spidey suffers from many of the same problems as the Hulk (a limited TV budget, a lack of costumed villains) the short-lived series is still worth a look. Why? While many of the show’s effects were disappointingly low-budget, there are a few truly inspired bits of stunt and wire work, courtesy of the stuntman in the Spider-Man suit, Fred Waugh. Visible cables or not, this Spidey actually scaled skyscrapers, swung between buildings, and dangled from helicopters…sometimes with a head-mounted camera providing dizzying Spidey POV shots!

Need more? The clunky, homemade feel of the Spider-Man costume feels more faithful to the spirit of the comics than those seen in any of his mega-budget cinematic adventures, even if you can excuse the bulky belt and bizarre (if realistic) external webshooters. Nicholas Hammond makes a terrific Peter Parker, who looks and sounds like he stepped right out of the pages of any number of Spidey’s Bronze Age comic book adventures. While the show falls flat in several areas, it still deserves an official home video release. Doesn’t anything Spidey sell like crazy?

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read more: Why Isn’t The Amazing Spider-Man TV Series Available Anywhere?

Doctor Strange

CBS: 1978

The rarely seen Doctor Strange pilot didn’t quite make it as a TV series, and is one of the more obscure live-action Marvel properties. Despite this, of all these entries, Doctor Strange might be the most faithful to the comics. You want a supporting cast from the comics? Here’s Clea! And Wong! And…The Ancient One (sorta)! You want a proper supervillain (because there’s no way Doctor Strange is gonna be stopping embezzlers or corrupt garment factory owners)? Here’s Morgan Le Fey! And if you squint just hard enough, the creepy demon that she answers to might just be Dormammu. Maybe. Kinda.

Buy Dr. Strange on DVD 

Should you watch it? Sure! Let’s get real. Doctor Strange is a pretty kinky character, and the semi-porno trappings of his wardrobe, hairstyle, and mustache make this one feel pretty authentic, while Hooten makes for a convincing and charismatic Stephen Strange. Some terrific bits of atmosphere make this one worth seeking out if you’ve had a few drinks (or something else) and are looking for a late night time-killer.

read more: The Wonderful Weirdness of the Doctor Strange TV Movie

Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon

CBS: 1979

The First Avenger was the star of two genuinely dreadful TV movies, both of which were intended to launch a live-action Captain America TV series. Sit down with either of these and it will become clear why that never happened. Reb Brown (you may remember him from Yor, The Hunter From the Future…or maybe not) certainly has the build to play Cap, but sadly, little going for him in the acting department. The bizarre Captain America costume in the first one doesn’t help, although by the sequel that was corrected with a remarkably accurate (aside from the ridiculous motorcycle helmet) version.

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I won’t even mention the clear, semi-flexible shield that doubles as a windshield for Cap’s red, white, and blue motorcyle. Oh, wait…I just did.

Is there a reason to watch either of these? Well, Christopher Lee shows up as the villain (a terrorist named…Miguel!) in Captain America II: Death Too Soon, there’s a few cool stunts, and Reb Brown’s muscles fill out the spandex outfit in impressive fashion. Otherwise, these two Cap flicks have more in common with The Six Million Dollar Man than the comics, and there’s barely enough costumed action in them to hold the attention of even the most ardent curiosity seeker.

I realize that M.O.D.O.K. probably would have been beyond the budget of late seventies network television, but for cryin’ out loud, you’ve got Christopher freakin’ Lee on the payroll! You couldn’t spend a few bucks on some Red Skull makeup?

Then again, I’ve actually owned these movies in various formats through the years, so I should probably keep my mouth shut.

Buy The Captain America TV Movies on Amazon


The Incredible Hulk Returns (NBC: 1988)

This sure ain’t Thor: Ragnarok. This is a rather different Thor than you might be used to. You see, Donald Blake (Steve Levitt) doesn’t BECOME Thor (Eric Allan Kramer), he simply summons him by holding Mjolnir and shouting…”Odin!” And the two of them don’t exactly get along, since Thor is, well, Thor, and Dr. Blake is kind of a weasel. Nevertheless, the first live-action incarnation of Marvel’s God of Thunder was still a treat for superhero starved viewers in 1988.

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No, really, it was. This was a year before we even had Tim Burton’s Batman, folks – cut me some slack. 

Is it worth a look? For curiosity’s sake, sure! Eric Kramer looks the part of Thor (even though that’s a less than colorful costume), and for the first time EVER we got to see Ferrigno’s Hulk square off with someone who he could actually fight with. And, ummm…there’s some cool blue lightning, I guess.

read more – Complete Guide to Marvel and MCU Easter Eggs in Thor: Ragnarok

Like most of these Marvel TV movies, the intent was to spin Thor off into his own series. Although, at the time, the persistent rumor was that it was going to be a sitcom. Oh, the hilarity! Methinks someone had gotten into the mead…

Watch The Incredible Hulk Returns on Amazon


The Trial of The Incredible Hulk (NBC: 1989)

More than any of its predecessors, Trial of the Incredible Hulk has a story that feels like it stepped right out of the pages of a Marvel comic from the era. This isn’t necessarily a compliment, but it certainly feels authentic. I mean, where else are you going to get Matt Murdock representing the Hulk in a court of law? Far more than the version of Thor introduced in The Incredible Hulk Returns, Rex Smith’s Daredevil feels like he would have worked just fine as a TV series.

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Is it worth checking out? Sure! Despite robbing the character of virtually every visual cue that identifies him as Daredevil (this was 25 years before The Man Without Fear comic introduced a black costume for Daredevil’s early crimefighting days…the costume that would then influence the Netflix series), there’s still a bunch of martial arts type stuntfighting and a kinda neat visual representation of his radar sense.

Plus, you get John Rhys-Davies as Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk, so score one for folks who waited over a decade to see an actual supervillain in an episode of The Incredible Hulk!

Watch The Trial of the Incredible Hulk on Amazon

Generation X 

FOX: 1996

Never forget: Jubilee, Mondo, and Skin made it to live-action before Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto or Jean Grey and far more popular X-Men. Oh, how far we’ve come.

In 1996, Scott Lobdell’s Generation X comic was all the rage, and with some merit…it was pretty good. And then there was this TV movie, which is…well…not as good. Between the painfully dated references to ’90s culture (really? A Hootie & The Blowfish joke?), some questionable production values, and the usually-pretty-cool Matt Frewer using Jim Carrey’s Riddler as the unfortunate template for his entire performance, Generation X can be a little tough to sit through all these years later. 

Then again, I just found nice things to say about the Captain America TV movies, so clearly, my credibility is shot.

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Should you bother? Think of Generation X as a time capsule, and a reminder of just how badly Marvel wanted to get their characters on the screen back when the X-Books were at the absolute height of their popularity. And, hey, Finola Hughes’ Emma Frost is quite a bit better than January Jones’ wooden performance in X-Men: First Class.

You don’t have to take my word for it…you can watch the whole thing right here.

read more: What Went Wrong With the Generation X TV Movie?

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

FOX: 1998

We’ll say this about The Hoff’s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD…it tried. It tried quite hard to capture the spirit of the comics. And you know what? It almost pulls it off.

David Hasselhoff was on the waning end of Baywatch‘s inexplicable popularity, but certainly looked the part of the grizzled, cigar-chomping, Nick Fury from the comics. In fact, this TV movie isn’t all that shy about its comic book roots, with a horde of (non-costumed) Hydra agents, a whole family of Von Struckers (sing it with me: “the hills are alive…with the sound of HYDRA”), and some comic-appropriate jumpsuits and weapons for the SHIELD agents.

Worth a shot? Well…yes and no. It’s written by David S. Goyer, who went on to considerable superhero success with little indie flicks like Batman Begins and Man of Steel, although this isn’t exactly his best work. Hasselhoff sinks his teeth into the role of Nick Fury, but he overplays it a bit, and the whole thing tends to come off like an episode of the 1960s Batman TV show…only not as self-aware or smart.

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Watch Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD on Amazon

To date, this marks the only live-action appearance of secondary agents like Clay Quartermain, and completists should take whatever they can get. Like many of these other Marvel TV projects, this one had potential, but the folks in charge weren’t quite ready to play it straight and give the source material (and the fans) much credit.

further reading: The Original Agents of SHIELD: The Story Behind the Nick Fury TV Movie

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.

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