Not every comic-to-screen leap was a blockbuster success.
The comic book movie gold rush is in full swing. This summer no less than four of the studios’ tentpole releases draw inspiration from comics, and speculation and surveillance of upcoming projects including Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers routinely fuel top-of-the update online news. Meanwhile Nolan and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, The Man of Steel, continues to announce unexpected and enviable casting decisions.
Hollywood has gone to the comics well time and time again since the genre first gained notoriety in the early 1940s, most often for low- or mid-budget fare aimed at children and teens. And for every attempt that hit its box office or audience reception target, there are probably three adaptations that tanked, fell victim to restrictive budgets, or just couldn’t garner enough public interest to build a devoted cult fan base.
We’re sure a few of the following are sentimental favorites to forgiving fans of their respective inspirations. (We like The Flash TV series.) Some aren’t bad, considering their limited resources, and some had unrealized potential. And one or two are terrible. But they’re all from comic books, for better or worse.
Sable (TV series) Premiered November 1987; lasted seven episodes. Based on the First Comics series by longtime Green Arrow writer-artist Mike Grell, Sable followed the exploits of freelance mercenary Jon Sable (Lewis Van Bergen) who worked days as an author of children’s books. Rene Russo, very early in her career, played his girlfriend Eden Kendall.
The clip below shows its noirish promise, even if the show’s “alpha dog adventurer helps client of the week” conceit seems kinda passe now.
Steel (Movie) Released August 15, 1997; total U.S. box office: $1.7 million. In his own DC Comics series and in the Justice League comics and cartoon, Steel is a brilliant engineer and inventor who dedicates himself to defending good after Superman saves his life. So what better “actor” to convey such intellectual and moral strength than human marketing platform Shaquille O’Neal? Judd Nelson played the bad guy, while Richard Roundtree (Shaft) appeared as Uncle Joe.
Though admittedly the film carried a modest $16 million budget, “Shaq Steel” still looks as if he swallowed an electromagnet and walked through a junkyard:
Dr. Strange (TV movie) Premiered September 6, 1978. Clad in a snaredrum-tight Disco perm and piles of gold jewelry, New York psychiatrist Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) trains to be Earth’s new “Sorcerer Supreme” and rescue a young woman from the evil sorceress Morgan LeFay (Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter).
Intended as the pilot to a television series that never happened, the telefilm featured Marvel Comics’ honcho Stan Lee as a consultant.
Supergirl (Movie) Released November 21, 1984; total U.S. Box Office: $15 million. For years the poster child for misbegotten comic adaptations, Supergirl was rushed into production after the success of the first two Superman films but struggled for distribution after Superman III flopped. Nevertheless, expanded versions released on DVD have clarified its choppily-edited story and somewhat repaired its reputation.
Peter O’Toole, Mia Farrow, and Faye Dunaway make the supporting cast pretty top-heavy, while underused 80s actress Helen Slater (Ruthless People) makes her debut as super-cousin Kara Zor-El.
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (TV Movie) Premiered May 26, 1998. A decade before Samuel L. Jackson’s turns in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, David Haselhoff starred in this low-budget TV movie about Marvel Comics’ Man from U.N.C.L.E. riff Nick Fury. The superspy and his former love Valentine Fontaine (Lisa Rinna) take on rival organization HYDRA for possession of a deadly virus. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight scribe David Goyer wrote the script.
The Hoff plays the hyper-macho Fury as… The Hoff with an eyepatch. Watch how S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying headquarters looks like a basement steam room somewhere. (actual video begins about 23 seconds into clip.)
The Flash (TV Series) Premiered September 20, 1990; lasted 21 episodes. CBS brought the Scarlet Speedster to the small screen apparently motivated by the runaway success of Batman the year before. A TV movie pilot got the family friendly series off and running, but constant schedule shifts and pre-emptions for Gulf War news coverage kept it from building an audience.
Still, The Flash’s (John Wesley Shipp) costume has aged well, as have the special effects. The script quality suffered as the season wore on, however, though fan favorite guests stars like Mark Hamill, Tim Thomerson and Jeffrey Combs frequently livened things up. The series is even collected in a no-frills DVD package.
Captain America (TV movie) Premiered January 19, 1979. An attempt to update the character for the Evil Kenievel/motorcycle years of the 70s, this adaptation featured the original Captain America’s son trying to stop terrorists from detonating a hydrogen bomb on Phoenix, Arizona.
There’s almost nothing about the clip below that doesn’t feel dated, especially the ersatz Cap’s costume and the long, loving takes of motorcycle stunts. A sequel TV movie, released just eleven months later, offered a comparatively more comics-accurate uniform and included Christopher Lee as its villain.
Marvel Studios’ Thor opens nationwide this Friday.
- Michael Kabel