If you thought superheroes were only dominating movie screens at the moment, you clearly haven’t been paying attention to television. Even in a comic-book-movie-heavy year like this one, with seven superhero pics hitting theaters (“Deadpool,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2,” “Suicide Squad” and “Doctor Strange”), the sheer output is dwarfed by close to a hundred hours of programming featuring small-screen costume crimefighters that will hit TV this year.
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Tomorrow sees the arrival of the second season of Marvel’s “Daredevil” on Netflix. The first run was an acclaimed take on a key character, but it’s also one of at least ten superhero-related shows to air in 2016 (there's also “Arrow,” “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D,” “The Flash,” “Gotham,” “Agent Carter,” “Powers,” “Supergirl,” “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and “Legends Of Tomorrow”). And that’s not even including the countless animated shows.
This is despite the budgetary limitations that often comes with television, which can’t capture the same kind of city-smashing spectacle that their big-screen cousins can. But then, there’s a long tradition of comic-book heroes overcoming low budgets and production values to reach millions of viewers, and the form arguably captures the episodic, soapy story lines of the page better than any movie could. So, with “Daredevil” hitting Netflix tomorrow morning, here’s our brief guide to the history of live-action superhero TV shows.
The 1950s: Faster Than A Speeding Bullet
Long story short: comic books were popularized and got massive in the 1930s and reached a peak during WWII, where characters like Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman sold millions of copies at a time. Even before then, prototypical superheroes were already popular on radio serials, where The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and Doc Savage were among those who enthralled listeners all over the U.S. Soon, characters were crossing mediums: “The Green Hornet” became a comic in 1940, while a “Superman” radio serial began in 1942.
Some of these characters ventured to the big screen, with movie serials featuring Zorro, The Shadow, Captain Marvel/Shazam, and Captain America hitting screens before the war ended. Two of what are now the biggest hitters, Batman and Superman, got their own serials too, with Kirk Alyn playing the latter in fifteen hugely successful chapters for Columbia. But the serials were soon to die away, as, in the late 1940s, television took off.
One of the first true hit television dramas in the Golden Age of Television was a superhero show of a sort, in the shape of ABC’s “The Lone Ranger,” which translated a popular radio serial character, the masked Western hero, onto screens with Clayton Moore in the saddle. It helped put the network on the map, and broke into the top ten rated shows at a time when almost everything was a drama anthology like “Texaco Star Theatre” or “Fireside Theatre.”
Superhero comic sales had plummeted after WWII, with Western, horror, sci-fi, and romance comics often taking their place, but the heaviest hitters remained in print. Perhaps with the intention of cashing in on the success of “The Lone Ranger,” B-movie producer and theater owner Robert L. Lippert bought the rights to Superman, hiring key DC Comics writer Whitney Ellsworth and Robert Maxwell, who’d produced the Superman radio serial, to make an hourlong glorified pilot called “Superman and the Mole Men” in 1951, with the rest of the series, titled “The Adventures Of Superman,” being shot that year (though not airing until nearly a year later).
Shot quickly and cheaply (the cast was paid just $2000 an episode), with our hero battling gangsters and thugs rather than his traditional rogue’s gallery of villains, it would shift in tone over time, from its noir-ish early days to more campy, comedic later seasons. It proved a success in syndication across six seasons, and is still shown in repeats today. After the sixth season, there were hopes that at least a further two would be made, with writing getting underway on a seventh season in 1959.
Then, shockingly (and yet perhaps what the 1950s “Adventures Of Superman” is best remembered for today), George Reeves, the star of the show, was found dead in his L.A home of a gunshot wound to the head. Reeves had long had a difficult relationship with the character that made him famous, reportedly had money troubles, and his death was officially called a suicide.
But Hollywood conspiracy theorists have long suggested that he could have been murdered, with Reeves’ former lover, Toni Mannix (who was married to MGM fixer Eddie Mannix, the basis for Josh Brolin’s character in “Hail, Caesar!”), among the suspects. The final days of Reeves’ life were dramatized in the 2006 film “Hollywoodland,” ironically with future Batman Ben Affleck playing the actor. However he died, Reeves’ death ensured that “The Adventures Of Superman” died with him, and television mostly stayed away from superheroes for the next decade or so.