One of the great corporate rivalries is the one between the comic book giants Marvel Comics and DC Comics. It’s a competition that has spilled over to other media. When it comes to films, Marvel has won the war on that front due to the monumental successes of their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. However, take a quick glance at the current TV schedule. From looking at that and television history, it’s obvious that DC has won the TV War…for now.
In reality, DC had the war won for decades now. This goes way back to the 1950s with the success of the first TV show based on Superman. That would be, of course, the landmark series Adventures of Superman, which starred George Reeves. It’s well known that the series was very popular and helped cement Superman’s legendary status in pop culture. Marvel at that time period didn’t even exist, nor did their most popular heroes because the company was concentrating on non-superhero comic books.
Following the cancellation of Adventures of Superman, the next DC superhero to bask in the television spotlight was Batman. Beginning in 1966, Batman was an instant hit and a genuine pop culture phenomenon. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, the show was a decidedly goofy sendup of comic books and introduced characters like the Joker and Catwoman to non-comic book readers. Although, it was and is still popular, many decried the way Batman belittled the Caped Crusader and comic books in general.
In the 1970s, there were a few TV shows and specials based on DC Comics superheroes. The best known was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter and it aired from 1975 to 1979. The show wasn’t as cheesy as Batman, nor as popular, but it was noted for its pro-feminist stance since the title character was a superhuman woman. The women’s lib messages obviously went over the heads of most younger viewers, who were enamored with Lynda Carter and her skimpy outfit.
Other TV shows airing in the 1970s were strictly aimed at children like Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis. In fact, these half-hour programs only aired on Saturday mornings and had limited appeal.
Around this time period, Marvel got into the act with the premieres of TV shows and TV films based on their characters. The first superhero to make a live-action appearance was Spider-Man, who made non-speaking appearances on The Electric Company. Some of the Marvel TV films and shows were truly awful like Captain America and The Amazing Spider-Man, which thankfully did not last long as a series. But a couple were actually decent like Doctor Strange and Marvel’s biggest hit on TV The Incredible Hulk. Airing in November 1977 and starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, the TV film was a big hit and led to a successful TV series the following year.
The decade that followed, the 1980s, was slow for comic book properties on TV. After The Incredible Hulk was cancelled in 1982 there wouldn’t be another superhero TV show until the syndicated program Superboy debuted in 1988. Coming after the film disaster Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superboy was a welcome respite for fans who just wanted to see good, old-fashioned superheroics and teenage angst. Plus, Superboy was a competent place holder until DC and its parent company Warner Bros. could bring out another Superman TV series or film.
On a side note, there were a trio of TV films that continued the Hulk’s adventures and the first two introduced live-action versions of Thor and Daredevil. The Hulk and his alter ego David Banner actually died at the end of the third film, but there were plans to do more TV films. However, those ended after Bixby’s untimely death in 1993.
The humongous success of the film Batman in 1989 helped jumpstart new DC-based TV shows in the 1990s. Not wanting to rest with the success of Superboy, Swamp Thing: The Series premiered on the basic cable channel USA Network in 1990, while a show based on the comic book Human Target aired briefly on ABC in 1992.
There were two shows that made the largest impact in that decade. They were The Flash and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The Flash, starring John Wesley Shipp, premiered in the fall of 1990 fresh off the success of Batman and seemed to copy the stylistic direction of the Tim Burton film. Even though it only lasted one season, the show is revered by fans because of its fun stories, dazzling effects, and character work. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which aired on ABC, was targeted more towards women since it concentrated more on the relationship between Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) and Clark Kent (Dean Cain). The superhero aspects of Superman took a back seat to the romantic shenanigans and it was laden with light humor. Of course, this displeased some fans, but it was still a successful program.
As for Marvel, the 1990s was a decade best left forgotten. There were DOA pilots based on Power Pack, Generation X and Nick Fury. As for the syndicated show Night Man, the less said about it the better.
As DC dominated the television medium, there was another TV venue that it conquered. That was with their animated TV shows. Since the 1960s, there have been numerous TV shows that aired on Saturday mornings and on syndication based on DC’s superheroes. DC enjoyed early successes like Superfriends in the 1970s, but their animated shows weren’t acclaimed until Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992. Boasting memorable characters, villains and plots, the show was a huge hit and led to other superior animated gems like Batman Beyond, Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League. DC’s animated renaissance probably culminated with the recent Young Justice. It just lasted two seasons, but its smartly written scripts, mature themes, and complex character development won wide appraisals from fans and critics.
In this venue, Marvel actually presented itself as a viable counterpart to DC since the 1960s with series based on Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers and other stalwarts. The results were quite admirable in many instances, but DC on the whole produced more noteworthy animated TV shows.
New Century, New Renaissance
As DC celebrated their animated successes in the 1990s, the live-action field was stagnant after the cancellation of Lois & Clark in 1997. There was an infamous pilot made for the Justice League that thankfully never made it into a series. It can be found on Youtube for anyone that is curious.
The live-action drought ended a few years later in 2001 with Smallville. This long-running show starred Tom Welling as Clark Kent in his teenage years and early twenties. It ran on The WB and later The CW networks and explored many aspects of the Superman mythos while concentrating on Clark’s emotional development and how he came to be Superman. It had its faults like the producers’ insistence of “no tights, no flights”, which meant Clark never put on his iconic Superman suit. (The final episode doesn’t count since he was never fully shown wearing it.) This was strange because many other superheroes featured on Smallville like Green Arrow, the Justice Society and Supergirl were allowed to fully embrace their comic-book roots. The Warner Bros. network tried to capitalize on the success of Smallville with other programs, but weren’t successful. Efforts included the short-lived Birds of Prey in 2002 and a pilot for Aquaman.
Around the time that Smallville came to an end, the superhero genre exploded in theaters. Super hits like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Avengers cemented the permanence of superhero films. As it goes, whenever there is a mammoth box office hit, TV executives take notice and follow suit. Warner Bros. and DC took advantage of the heightened interest in superheroes and produced many TV shows. Not all of them bore fruit like pilots for Aquaman and Wonder Woman, or another iteration of Human Target, but others blossomed and are now hit shows. These include Arrow, The Flash, Gotham and to a lesser extent Constantine. And that is just the beginning.
José Soto and Lewis T. Grove
To Be Continued