PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Television

The Reluctant Superhero: Marvel TV in the '70s

Thomas Lalli Foster
Nicholas Hammond's reluctant Spider-Man

Before the rise of the MCU, Marvel attempted to bring some of its most famous superheroes to television.

The splendor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was long preceded by a tentative TV courtship. Creative failures by today's standards, the Marvel-based television of the '70s lingers in the forgiving memories of a generation, while also speaking to the limitations of capitalism in exploiting changing tastes. In addition to CGI, today's Hollywood finally has a savvy confidence in superheroes as mass entertainment.

Despite their association with childhood, the superhero narrative is a strong stew: violent vigilantism, obsession and psychological arrest, kinky costumes, and rampant sublimation. It's clear that 20th-century Hollywood was leery: DC's superheroes came to television laced with camp (especially Batman), a quality skirted by the Tim Burton films, which trailed a decade behind Christopher Reeve’s turn as Superman, film that themselves were produced by the non-Hollywood Salkind family.

Still, the sci-fi boom and high-profile approach of Superman (1978) stirred the market, and Universal bought the rights to various Marvel characters, ultimately producing live-action Spider-Man and Hulk series, as well as pilots for Captain America and Dr. Strange (all for CBS). Today, these films and series are considered camp, and provide mainly nostalgia, but even at the time, fans complained of dull plots, altered costumes, and other infidelities. On The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner's first name became David, and the Hulk doesn't talk (not even a "Hulk Smash"). The known supervillains of the comic books were replaced by TV's usual crooks and terrorists, even if they happened to be armed with futuristic tools, such as dis-inhibiting gas or cloning technology.

The harshest reviews land on a pair of 1979 Captain America TV movies (both on DVD), with beefy Reb Brown as the titular hero. Captain America, a poor fit for the post-Vietnam era, has his origin story changed; he's now a present-day artist and wears a motorcycle helmet (maybe to discourage kids from getting ideas about the fast-healing promised by the narrative's super-steroid). Contracts called for eight Marvel-based TV-movies, so there's a sequel, with the self-mocking title Captain America: Death Too Soon, and boasting Christopher Lee as a guest star. Lee would've made a great Red Skull, but alas, he's not playing Red Skull; instead, in questionable casting decision, Lee plays a revolutionary named Miguel.

Producers also sniffed around The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner; the latter may have sunk with The Man From Atlantis, NBC's lawyer-bait rip of the oceanic exemplar (starring a pre-Dallas Patrick Duffy). Instead, viewers got Dr. Strange (1978, on DVD), a pilot-movie by Phil DeGuere, who'd later shepherd the rebooted Twilight Zone of the '80s, as well as creating the more commercial series Simon and Simon. With its horror and fantasy roots, Dr. Strange was closer to TV's wheelhouse; it was also the sort of series that drew complaints from the Bible Belt, but low ratings apparently made that moot. The solid cast strikes a balance of awe vs. camp: Peter Hooten, Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development), and Anne-Marie Martin (later Dori Doreau of the cult spoof-com Sledge Hammer!).

While I'm focusing on live-action series, it’s worth noting that in terms of pre-MCU adaptations, comic buffs favor animation, especially a cycle of cartoon series from the '90s. Reaching back to 1967, close to the originators, ABC debuted the well-remembered Fantastic Four and Spider-Man cartoons, of which the latter can claim the immortally catchy Spider-Man theme song. This theme is missing from the 1977 to 1979 live-action show, which is unfortunate: the score for The Amazing Spider-Man is more criminal than any of its villains.

In retrospect, adapting Spider-Man is nearly impossible in pre-CGI live-action. The 1977 pilot movie does a surprisingly adequate job, but thereafter, the show makes much of Spidey walking treacherous heights (eg, construction beams) and soft-landing on a ceiling or wall. Nicholas Hammond makes an adequate Peter Parker, even if he's clearly older than his ingenious character. Unfortunately, '70s TV was so skittish it deletes Uncle Ben entirely, thus missing one of the main points of Parker's characterization. The entire production is tentative and stiff, built on bland, vaguely reactionary storylines.

Nevertheless, in Epi-log Journal #14 (Spring 1994), a before-its-time publication consisting mostly of episode guides, Craig W. Frey, Jr. recalled the childhood excitement of seeing Spider-Man in primetime, however hamstrung were the plots and production. Frey prefers the sleek costume of the pilot (gauntlets and a belt were added later), but gives highest marks to "The Chinese Web" (a two-part episode) and "The Captive Tower".

"The Captive Tower" actually anticipates both Die Hard and The Rock in story terms, with an office tower seized by a gang of a bitter Vietnam veterans. David Sheiner as Forster is a tough villain, but the show is too bright and safe to work, and there's wince-inducing comic relief about a nebbish crook in love with the building's security computer. In fact, IMDb voters prefer "The Wolfpack", the story of citizens brainwashed into crime, and it tracks a little better, benefiting from the presence of TV veteran Allan Arbus.

Even Stan Lee, the famously positive Marvel patriarch, has no use for this series: "Terrible. They lost all of the personality … no dimension to it, no depth" (Television Chronicles #10, July 1997). The Amazing Spider-Man is passively suppressed, with bad prints viewable on YouTube as of this writing. A bolder strategy would be to repurpose this content inside a postmodern frame, as the sanitized version of the hero's exploits. Hammond, after all, is still acting, although he'd likely want plane fare from his adopted home of Australia.

If the '70s-era Amazing Spider-Man never found an identity, it's partly because CBS took almost two years to air the 14 episodes as occasional filler. As the network committed to The Incredible Hulk, Spidey's fate was sealed, since it was unlikely, at least back then, that a major network would've hosted multiple comic book/superhero shows. (Currently, the CW network runs five: Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and iZombie.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, The Incredible Hulk (1978-82, available streaming or on DVD, as are the three follow-up TV movies) hit the right formula for superheroes on TV: lush, seductive visuals (easier on CBS, then known as the Tiffany network), and a protagonist who's almost as amazed by his powers as the viewers. It's the nature of the Hulk that he may never graduate from apprentice superhero, so despite two Hulk-outs per episode, the CBS series is spiritual forerunner to coming-of-age prequels such as the CW's Smallville.

The Incredible Hulk was classified a hit, but it's complicated: its 82 hour-long episodes (over five seasons) are only three more than Star Trek, the latter a famously a first-run flop. Aired on CBS, The Incredible Hulk's five seasons are really three-and-a-half, plus delays. Still, it ran on a dominant network and on the notoriously difficult Friday night. While Fridays can be a haven for kid-appeal shows, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and ABC's '90s-era TGIF sitcoms, it often spells death for drama; just ask Joss Whedon.

As with ABC's bionic heroes, parents trusted the Hulk to babysit. The format fits all ages: the Hulk is green, childlike, and protective of Banner's friends, whereas Banner's an otherwise normal, intelligent man (the show implies that unlike some versions of the character, David Banner can have sex). The casting was also age-inclusive: Bill Bixby was 44 when the series began, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno was 26, and child actors made frequent appearances.


Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.


The Incredible Hulk followed the lead of The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78) in starting as multiple TV movies, and in using restraint with fantasy elements: this Hulk can't make the vast leaps or "thunderclap" of the comic book Hulk, and the series avoids Marvel crossovers, although the follow-up TV movies use Thor [Eric Kramer] and Daredevil [Rex Smith]). Even given limited special effects this seems a missed opportunity, as the era's TV was so much like comic books to begin with, in its populism and dependence on oversized personae (Fonzie [Henry Winkler] on Happy Days, bald detective Kojak [Telly Savalas]).

Having created The Bionic Woman, showrunner Kenneth Johnson surrendered to typecasting by taking the helm on The Incredible Hulk. Versed in the classics (he attended what’s now Carnegie-Mellon University), Johnson cultivated the story's echoes of Jekyll and Hyde, and took pages from Les Miserables via The Fugitive by giving Banner an obsessed pursuer, tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). Banner's arc turns gothic when his wife dies in a car accident; guilt drives him to obsessive research into super-strength and, one accidental mega-dose of gamma rays later, he Hulks for the very first time.

Whether bionic or Marvel-based, the reluctant-superhero shows rarely surpass the low expectations of the era (add a half-star if you're a comic book fan, unlike this reviewer, and/or need family viewing). The Incredible Hulk sticks to simple, clichéd plots: the heiress being slowly poisoned, the greedy developer victimizing farmers, the mad scientist experimenting on unwilling subjects. The writers didn't lack talent: Johnson later produced the solid Alien Nation series (1989-90); Richard Matheson (who wrote three episodes) was a respected prose author, and wrote for both the Serling-era Twilight Zone and Masters of Horror; and both Andrew Schneider (nine episodes) and Diane Frolov (two episodes) later wrote for Northern Exposure, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.