If there's one thing that this week's premieres of Heroes and Smallville collectively proved, it's that television really shouldn't try and tackle superheroes. Here's even more proof why - as well as some rare examples of when it does work.
With one word, Billy Batson becomes the World's Mightiest Mortal... but that's about the most believable thing in this series, which creepily featured the underage Billy traveling around the country in an RV accompanied by his "mentor" and occasionally talking to the gods who gave him his powers, who all happened to be badly-animated cartoons. Add in Billy or Captain Marvel helpfully telling you the moral of the episode at the end each week, and you've got a recipe for a dull show enlivened only by the size of Billy's hair.
Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl (1976)
I'm not really sure this one needs any explanation as to why it's on the list, once you've watched the video.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)
In which television revealed the truth about Marvel's favorite superhero: He looked kind of ridiculous. This short-lived series also missed the point of the comic book altogether by not using any of the character's famous supervillains, instead giving him ninjas and terrorists to fight. What was the point of that?
Legends Of The Superheroes (1978)
No expense was spared on bringing DC's biggest name superheroes to the small screen in this live action version of Super Friends - well, unless you count the money that would've been spent on a good script. Again, proving that bad writing and poor special effects can overcome even the best intentions, this two-part series (The second episode of which was a celebrity roast of the heroes led by Ed McMahon. No, really) also featured a villain more diabolical than Lex Luthor: A laugh track.
Those Terrible Captain America TV Movies (1979)
We can just imagine the pitch meeting for these two TV movies: "So, we have the rights to Captain America - You know, the guy who embodies the American Dream and fought in World War II against Hitler? I've got a great take on him: We turn him into Evel Kinivel. And let's get rid of that mask, too. Make it into a motorcycle helmet - That's much more hep." It could've been worse, we guess... We're just not sure how.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
The original Hulk series was, if you ask us, one of the few superhero shows that worked - and that's because they didn't really treat it as a superhero show at all. When they revived the series a decade later and started pairing him with guest stars from the Marvel Universe, though...? Not a good idea:
(The Daredevil appearance in the next special, Trial of The Incredible Hulk, may be even worse; especially because they seem to have gotten the character mixed up with a generic ninja who happened to be blind.)
An attempt to spin the Superman movies into a weekly format, the Superboy series had sincerity going for it - Sincerity and the seeming inability to not try and drastically rework the series between seasons every year (Including recasting the lead role after the original Superboy asked for a raise around the same time as getting arrested for drunk driving), leading to a schizophrenic, uneven show let down by shoddy special effects.
The Flash (1990)
The Flash comic book may be populated with colorful villains, but the television show didn't have the same luck (Mark Hamill's Trickster, in the clip below, aside), presumably for budgetary reasons. Add in a leading man as stiff as his ridiculously over-sculpted costume, and it's no surprise that this show only lasted one season.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993)
Secret identities, colorful outfits, super powers, fighting crime... These guys count as superheroes, right? Maybe it's our age, maybe our dedication to things like plot, dialogue and nuance, or perhaps it's just our aversion to cheap monsters in anything that doesn't actually involve Godzilla, but the long-running (and multiple-show-spanning: It's on its fifteenth different title right now) series always seemed... well, almost unwatchably bad to us.
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)
It's a judgment call as to whether this show really deserves to be here. On the one hand, the Moonlighting-esque relationship between its leads was cute, and John Shea's Lex Luthor was a lot of fun... But on the other, it was a show that struggled to come up with good ideas each week and often failed, leading to an episode where Clark married a clone of Lois, who needed to eat frogs in order to survive. Or something. And what was with essentially writing Lex out after one season, anyway?
Generation X (1996)
A pilot adapting Marvel's X-Men spin-off, Generation X made it to air but never to full-series, meaning that the world was spared the low-budget high-concept struggle of teens having to live with their mutant abilities in a world that hated and feared them... because they couldn't act.
Justice League of America (1997)
Possibly the ultimate proof that TV and superheroes don't mix, this is another unsuccessful pilot that aired nonetheless, and features bad writing, bad acting, bad special effects, and some of the most literal - and most embarrassing - superhero costumes ever seen on screen. It's like a landmark of fail.
Mutant X (2001)
Marvel's short-lived television series about mutants that isn't related to the X-Men at all oh no please don't sue us Fox (They did, nonetheless) tried to swerve away from comparisons to the publisher's successful mutant franchise by underplaying everything to the point of boredom. Even Generation X would've been better than this.
Birds of Prey (2002)
It had so much potential - Batman and Catwoman's daughter teaming up with the former Batgirl to fight crime? Hello, high concept - but the execution let it down badly with shoddy writing, lack of direction and the mistaken idea that camp was better than character development. When something makes Smallville look subtle and nuanced, you know you're in trouble.
The Ones That Didn't Suck
Almost everything about it is wrong - The cheap jokes! The ill-fitting costumes! Replacing Julie Newmar with Eartha Kitt! - but it all works nonetheless; Batman's 1960s incarnation may not be the best translation from page to screen, but as a weird totem of the era, it remains a classic.
Wonder Woman (1975)
We love Wonder Woman as a character, and this show may be a lot to do with that. While the comic version was having identity issues at the time this series was being made, the TV show took her back to her heyday, added the "let me twirl into my costume" and fittingly made Lynda Carter the star she should've been all along.
The Incredible Hulk (1978)
As we said above, the Hulk show worked despite its title character - Riffing on The Fugitive with an occasional need for a giant silent strongman, the show offered a completely different take on the character from the comics, and one that was arguably better.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1996)
When it comes to television series about people with magical powers, we don't think we're alone in thinking that Joss Whedon did everything right. Mixing just the right amounts of humor and tragedy into the supernatural and superpowered stories, Buffy is everything that superhero shows like Smallville and Heroes should be trying to emulate... if only they could drag themselves away from the superficial special effects and overcooked dialogue.
The Obvious Exceptions
Yes, all of the above shows were live-action, and yes, we know that superhero cartoons have a long and proud history on television as well; we're partial to some Justice League Unlimited, especially if Darkseid is the bad guy. But as much as adding animated series in here may have ruined the grade curve, let's not forget things like this:
I think you know what I'm saying.