We all love to see our favorite super heroes – and other comic book characters – don spandex and burst on our small screens in weekly installments. Regardless of whether you share my spandex fetish or not, without TV we’d have to wait years between a super hero’s exploits, so it’s a joy to see so many shows based on popular comic books today. But which live-action TV shows based on comics are the best of all time?
1: Cultural relevance plays as much of a factor as overall quality. This could mean that the show inspired another show, directly led to another show or has even been parodied.
2: Some of these shows haven’t aged well, so the quality of the show’s effects will be graded on a scale.
3: Only one show from a franchise makes the list. Sorry, Superman. Lois and Clark, The Adventures of Superman, and Smallville can’t all make the cut.
4: Longevity plays a large role, too. A show doesn’t necessarily have to last a long time, but a series with only one season doesn’t cut the mustard.
5) The Walking Dead (2010-Present)
Who doesn’t like a good zombie apocalypse? Viewers of the AMC phenomenon sure do. When this show first aired, fans couldn’t get enough of the deep characters and the moral dilemmas they faced while trying to survive.
Despite not having many likeable characters – there was strong support for Rick’s wife Lori to die – this ragtag group struck a chord with viewers, and it remains a ratings giant that should continue for the foreseeable future. It will accomplish this feat, even though anachronisms abound:
a) How could a new model Kia exist in a world that stopped producing them ten years ago?
b) How many people died from zombie attacks while keeping every lawn manicured?
c) It’s nice to see that women still shave their arm pits, even though they don’t know where they’re getting their next meal.
d) Don’t get me started with the physics behind a helicopter landing on the roof of a building and there’s no strain on the roof, but you add 100 pounds of zombie and TIMBER.
But who cares about reality? The Walking Dead does a nice job of capturing the tenor of the Image comic on the small screen and deserves a spot on our list. It also spawned a talk show, The Talking Dead that airs afterward and raises awareness of its host Chris Hardwick (who also hosts Comedy Central’s @midnight). And that’s a great thing.
4) Arrow (2012-Present)
Arrow tells two stories at once. One is set in the present while the other ventures into the titular Ollie’s past. The two storylines converge in satisfying ways – for the most part – and ask questions about what it means to be human and a hero.
While these morality tales can be heavy-headed or preachy, they work for a comic book character that dispensed his philosophies to anyone who’d listen. Let’s face it. Green Arrow/Green Lantern got preachy at times, but it was one of the best comics of the silver age, and Arrow captures that magic.
The sledding hasn’t always been smooth. It took Arrow mid-way through its first season to find the right balance between the flashback story and the one told in real-time, and the third season has had some hiccups, too. But Arrow is the harbinger of a new and improved DC Comics TV Universe.
Despite being the most junior member on this list, Arrow has already had a spin-off show The Flash, and introduced cast members of the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. That’s not bad, considering that most comic fans viewed Green Arrow as a tertiary character.
3) The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)
The Incredible Hulk of the seventies, eighties, and nineties was the only successful live-action Marvel hero TV show or movie during its time. That’s odd to say when you consider that the two Hulk films of the new millennium tanked, and we’ve had three Hulks in nine years since. But Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno teamed up to be David Banner/The Hulk for the TV show, and then reprised their roles for multiple made-for-TV movies that stretched into the early nineties.
The effects were cheesy to downright horrific – Ferrigno’s makeup in particular was ghastly the first few episodes – but The Incredible Hulk absolutely nailed the characters like no other show on this list. When the theme song is “The Lonely Man,” you know you’re dealing with an isolated character, and the heart-wrenching music matched Banner’s feeble attempts at human contact. You felt his pain as the new-age Jekyll and Hyde.
This show has been parodied many times, and the movies of the 2000s borrowed somewhat from it. Banner’s father from the 2003 Hulk movie was named David as a tip of the hat to Bixby’s character, but the second movie made a stronger attempt to capture the tenor of the TV series. Unfortunately, neither film could ground the character like Bixby.
The Incredible Hulk gets our nod as the third best live-action TV show based on comics because of its acting performances and no other show on this list can hold a candle to its guest stars. Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (co-creators of most of the Marvel universe) made appearances.
2) Smallville (2001-2011)
When you ask the Superman of a generation Christopher Reeve to green light your Superman project, you stand a good chance of making the Man of Steel for a younger generation. Smallville did and in turn handled the Superman mythos with style and grace.
Smallville gave the then WB (CW today) its greatest debut for a series at 8.4 million viewers. It chronicled a young Clark Kent on his journey of becoming Superman and showed him struggle between personal desire and obligation. Something few live-action Superman stories have done. In fact, the character was so well-grounded; you’d believe a man could fly. Just not in this show. Smallville had a strict “No tights, no flight” policy.
But even though it didn’t show Superman flying about, Smallville weaved elements of the greater DC Comics Universe into its storylines, providing the blueprint for shows that came after it like The Flash and Arrow. And speaking of Arrow, it should come as no surprise that the CW chose the Green Arrow as their first main character for rebuilding the DC Comics TV Universe. Oliver Queen was in Smallville.
Smallville has garnered countless awards (including Emmys), but it almost didn’t happen. When the series was first pitched to the WB, the creators wanted to show what happened to Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered. The WB thought that was a terrible idea and chose Smallville over Gotham.
1) Batman (1966-1968)
Okay. This one’s graded on a sliding scale in terms of its special effects, make-up, and writing. The Batman TV show of the sixties was a product of its time. It didn’t even have that long of a lifespan, but it “biffed,” “bammed,” and “boomed” its way into viewers hearts at the same bat-time, same bat-channel.
Batman’s greatest charm is Adam West’s delivery. Halfway between earnest and sardonic, West’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader remains an E. Nigma wrapped up in a Riddler, and West has used this delivery to great effect in other shows: Family Guy, and The Boondocks to name a couple.
Every generation takes something different from Batman. You may suffer from nostalgia. The show can be considered surrealist pop art. It’s been accused of being art by means of camp. Or you could think of West as one sarcastic SOB and love it when he Batusis. The creators of Bob’s Burgers loved Batman’s puns so much that they use similar tortured puns for the show’s burger of the day.
It may sound like Batman hasn’t had that much of an impact on other comic-based TV shows, but there isn’t a live-action TV show or movie based on a comic book that doesn’t use the Batman scale to determine whether or not an idea is too silly. Too bad they went the other way with the Batman and Robin movie.
And Batman has affected change in comics. When the producer of Batman saw the comic that would inspire him to make the series, the issue in question was eight or nine year old and had The Riddler on the cover. That comic just happened to be the last appearance of The Riddler at the time before Batman reintroduced The Riddler as a major part of the Dark Knight’s Rogues Gallery.