Superhero TV shows that never took off

With successful superhero shows like Supergirl and The Flash on the air, it's difficult to envision a time when a recognizable comic book property wouldn't be snatched up and adapted for television—but it happens more often than you might think. From mainstream Marvel and DC titles to indie favorites, here are some examples of pilots for superhero shows that never took off, along with one that didn't even make it that far. As you'll see, there's often a good reason you never saw subsequent episodes.

Ultra (2007)

Ultra: Seven Days made a splash when Image Comics published its eight installments from 2004-2005. The series tells the tale of superhero Ultra, a.k.a. Pearl Penalosa, who's trying to balance her crimefighting and personal lives in the big city—a story that attracted the attention of producer Barbara Hall (Homeland, Madam Secretary), who optioned the property for a pilot starring future Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey in the title role.

The 2006 pilot was met with indifference from the networks, and the series never went anywhere. It's not difficult to see why they chose to pass on it. The pilot is like a solemn Sex and the City meets a superhero origin tale, but this mixture of genres just doesn't work on the small screen: never has being a superhero seemed so boring. The pilot is filled with talky scenes and a copious amount of introspective voiceover, and the eye-rolling, on-the-nose music like "You Get What You Give" by the New Radicals (She's "got the dreamer's disease," get it?) and "Learning to Fly" by Tom Petty doesn't help either. Perhaps the biggest problem is that Headey is miscast as a socially awkward superhero. That sort of role just doesn't play to her strengths as an actress. Fun footnote: Headey's future Game of Thrones co-star Peter Dinklage pops up in one scene as a scientist to rattle off some expository dialogue and eat an apple.

Justice League of America (1997)

Aside from being kidnapped and subjected to a weird form of bad television torture, there are few reasons to watch the 1997 pilot for Justice League of America. The most notable members of the Justice League are Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, right? Apparently not. For whatever reason—possibly a debilitating fear of success—CBS didn't include any of these iconic characters in the pilot. Instead we get the B team: Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, the Atom, Fire, and Ice. If an incomplete JLA isn't a big enough letdown, the costumes look less convincing than something you'd see at Comic-Con.

The plot involves the Weatherman (the late Miguel Ferrer, looking embarrassed to be in this mess) holding the city hostage with his tornados, tidal waves, et cetera. But the real schlock comes from the narrative's execution—the pilot takes most of its stylistic cues from NBC's Friends. The JLA spend a disproportionate amount of time hanging around an apartment that some of them share, engaging in what can charitably be called witty banter and bemoaning their personal problems. We get to hear about Flash's inability to hold a job, Green Lantern's girlfriend problems, and Fire's experience as a struggling actress. Ken Johnston, who plays Flash, seems to be the group's Joey (and is doing his best Matt LeBlanc impression). Oh yeah, and we're also subjected to an seemingly endless number of interviews with the JLA that are reminiscent of The Office, only with less flair.

Perhaps the lowest point, no pun intended, is when the Atom shrinks himself to get under some laser tripwires. Instead of crawling under them, the diminutive superhero does the limbo. That scene alone will cause anyone who watches this debacle to die a little inside. Not only did CBS never make this misfire into a series, the pilot was never even shown in the United States.

Wonder Woman (2011)

Remember when Wonder Woman threw a pipe into a security guard's neck and killed him? If not, then you clearly haven't seen the failed 2011 pilot for a new Wonder Woman series written by famed producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice). NBC rejected the pilot, but it eventually ended up online. (Since the pilot never made it to broadcast, you'll notice unfinished special effects such as clearly visible wires pulling the actors during fight scenes.)

As you might expect given Kelley's track record, the pilot is like someone injected Ally McBeal into The Dark Knight. The public knows Wonder Woman/Diana Themyscira (Adrianne Palicki) is a crimefighter and the head of a corporation. Her company, appropriately called Themyscira Industries, exists to finance her crimefighting ventures through action figure sales. In the meantime, she has a secret identity, Diana Prince, which she presumably takes on so she can live a quasi-normal life: hanging around her Los Angeles apartment, watching The Notebook with her cat, and creating a Facebook profile (yes, all of that happens). Are you confused yet? Then just wait for the plot, in which Wonder Woman investigates an evil pharmaceutical tycoon, Veronica Cale (Elizabeth Hurley), who's using underprivileged youths as test subjects for her company's new performance-enhancing drugs.

Palicki certainly looks the part of an Amazonian warrior, but the final product fails on almost every other level. The story doesn't make sense, and Kelly wrote Wonder Woman to be so impulsive and ruthless that she's unlikable. She tackles a man in the streets of Hollywood, jabs a needle into his neck, and complains to the cops that if she releases the suspect into their custody he'll "lawyer up." Thanks for violating my civil rights, Wonder Woman! Later, she tortures the same man in a hospital to find the location of Cale's secret facility—and kills several guards once she gets there. The pilot spends an inordinate amount of time on scenes in which characters debate Wonder Woman's vigilante, "the ends justify the means" style. When it's not pondering law enforcement ethics, the pilot focuses on Wonder Woman's loneliness and her rejection of sex object status. It's enough to make you miss the quaint days of Lynda Carter blocking bullets with her bracelets. Superhero shows are supposed to be fun, right?

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD

Before Samuel L. Jackson popularized Nick Fury for mainstream audiences in the MCU, the character first appeared in the 1998 made-for-television movie Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and starring David "the Hoff" Hasselhoff as the cycloptic, titular hero. Aside from Hasselhoff as the lead, the most notable thing about this failed pilot is that screenwriter David Goyer—future writer of Blade, Batman Begins, and Man of Steel—had screenwriting duty. The story involves Fury coming out of retirement to stop Hydra—led by Viper (Sandra Hess, giving a ridiculously over the top performance)—from setting off a deadly virus in New York City.

Surprisingly, it's not bad. Don't get us wrong, it's decidedly low-budget, full of cheesy lines, awkward action scenes, stock characters, and risible leather outfits. Nevertheless, it's still entertaining to watch. Goyer himself even admitted that the script was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and that the Hoff was the only one who got the joke. Hasselhoff still seems to have a good sense of humor about the role; as he quipped in a 2012 interview, "I had a blast playing Nick Fury. And if it ever came back and Nick Fury has a brother — Dick Fury? — I'd be there." The movie occasionally shows up on cable, so it's worth checking out if you're at home with the flu and want something on in the background that doesn't require your full mental faculties to enjoy.

Aquaman (2007)

Given the success of Smallville in the mid-2000s, it only made sense for the CW to look at developing other series based on DC characters. Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar did just that when they produced an Aquaman pilot in 2006. Its story centers on Aquaman/Arthur Curry, a twentysomething slacker environmentalist who runs a dive shop. He's drawn to investigate the strange disappearance of his mother on the ten-year anniversary of her plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle, and discovers he and his mother are originally from Atlantis—and he's actually a prince of the undersea kingdom.

It's a little hard to understand why the CW passed on Aquaman. It's at least as good as Smallville. The pilot is well-acted and its easy to envision more storylines with the characters it establishes. It represents probably the best you can do with a—let's be honest—lame character like Aquaman. That's not to say it's all perfect; there are definitely some illogical components to the story. The pilot shows Arthur swimming at extraordinary speeds, yet he reacts in disbelief when another character reveals he's from Atlantis. Keep in mind that this reveal happens after a killer mermaid (played by Adrianne Palicki, future star of the failed Wonder Woman pilot from 2011) attacks and wounds him. Maybe Aquaman has short-term memory loss, a la Memento? Given the success of Supergirl, The Flash, and Arrow, we could see Aquaman becoming a full series if Gough and Miller had produced it today. Its lack of success is probably just due to bad timing.

Wonder Woman (1974)

Most people remember the Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter that ran from 1975-1979 on ABC and CBS. Less well-known is that ABC attempted to launch a Wonder Woman series in 1974, with a 75-minute pilot. This version starred professional tennis player turned actress Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. In the pilot, Diana is the secretary/muscle of a government agent who's tasked tracking down the villainous Abner Smith (Ricardo Montalban…you know, Khaaaan!) and retrieve stolen, classified documents.

The story is a fairly generic, James Bond-esque secret agent affair, but that isn't to say it doesn't have its head-scratching moments. A donkey, for example, plays an integral role. Maybe donkeys were "in" around 1974? Aside from featuring a blonde Diana Prince, there are many differences between this pilot and the Carter series. For one, Wonder Woman doesn't have any superpowers aside from using martial arts to beat up goons. Second, she doesn't have a secret identity. Everyone knows she's Wonder Woman. Finally, her costume, which ABC must have spent tens of dollars putting together, looks like someone picked it up at a Halloween store. All in all, the pilot is fairly dull. It lacks the action and sense of energy that the later series featured, and more importantly, Crosby doesn't bring the same level of charisma to the role.

Wonder Woman Pre-Pilot (1967)

It seems that, for every successful Wonder Woman series, there are at least three failed attempts. The late William Dozier, the executive producer behind the spectacularly campy Batman television show of the late '60s, attempted to follow up his success with a Wonder Woman series. This adaptation never even got to the pilot stage. Instead, what we have is a four-minute pre-pilot featuring actress Ellie Wood Walker as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. If this footage is any indication, the series would have focused on Wonder Woman engaging in prolonged arguments with her mother about finding a man, followed by our heroine checking herself out in the mirror while in costume. The thrills never stop! Thankfully, we never got to see this version of the character fully realized. Perhaps miracles do exist.

Generation X (1996)

In 1996, four years before it brought the first X-Men movie to theaters, 20th Century Fox debuted the made-for-TV movie Generation X. For the uninitiated, Generation X was a spinoff of the X-Men comics in which Emma Frost and Banshee open up a school for mutants that's separate from Professor X's estate. The pilot begins with Emma Frost (Finola Hughes) and Banshee (Jeremy Ratchford) recruiting Jubilee (Heather McComb), and includes elements X-Men fans will immediately recognize. For one, it immediately establishes that mutants live in a world filled with humans that fear and openly discriminate against them.

Hughes as Emma Frost is definitely the standout performance—she's much better in the role than January Jones in 2011's X-Men: First Class. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. McComb is good as Jubilee, but the remainder of the students are mostly stock characters. The pilot spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with trite teen conflicts rather than focusing on the more interesting larger societal issues about mutants. To make matters worse, the teens' dialogue sounds like stuff a 50-year-old man would write for teenagers after watching a few episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210.

It's clear that the filmmakers didn't have much in the way of a budget, so it's a letdown that we don't get to see the mutants use their powers often or in spectacular ways. What really kills Generation X, however, is the bad guy, Russel Tresh (Matt Frewer)—a lame supervillain with weak motivation. To make matters worse, Frewer seems to be channeling Jim Carrey's Riddler from Batman Forever; he's actually more cartoonish and over-the-top as Tresh than he was in his famous portrayal of Max Headroom. Here's a piece of trivia to leave on: the mansion that serves as Xavier's school in Generation XHatley Castle in British Columbia—was reused in the first three X-Men movies. It seems that Generation X's greatest legacy might be its location scouting.

X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men (1989)

Remember Konami's early '90s X-Men arcade game? Did you know it was inspired by a failed television pilot?

That pilot is the roughly 22-minute 1989 cartoon X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men, which begins with Kitty Pryde arriving at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and joining the team. Shortly thereafter, Magneto and his henchmen arrive, steal Cerebro's power circuit, and use it to steer a world-destroying comet toward Earth. In response, the X-Men—Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Dazzler, Nightcrawler, and Kitty Pryde—launch their mission to thwart his evil plan.

The pilot aired a few times and was subsequently released on video, but you'd need to be quite young to get much enjoyment out of it. The story is rushed, and it lacks the depth of the X-Men movies or even the more famous X-Men cartoon series from the '90s. Kitty Pryde, ostensibly the main character and the audience's surrogate, is fairly annoying—and in a puzzling twist, the producers gave Wolverine an Australian accent, perhaps because Crocodile Dundee, and Australian culture in general, was popular at the time. Skip this relic and just download the arcade game on Xbox Live.

Powers (original pilot, 2011)

Comic book and genre television fans may recall that in 2016, the PlayStation Network canceled its superhero series Powers after two seasons. The series, and the comic it's based on, takes placed in a world in which superheroes are real, and the two protagonists, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, are cops whose job is to investigate superpowered crimes. It also wasn't the first attempt at bringing Brian Michael Bendis' comic series to the small screen.

The FX network commissioned a pilot in 2011 starring Jason Patric as Walker and Lucy Punch as Pilgrim. The news generated some buzz, and some suspected Powers may be the next Walking Dead (also based on an indie comic). After some fanfare, FX announced in 2012 that it wanted to reshoot the pilot. Ultimately, as we know, the series wound up appearing on the PlayStation Network with a totally new cast. So what happened? Was the original pilot that bad? Until someone leaks it online, or someone at FX starts talking, the reasons for its rejection are a mystery. The only glimpse we ever got of the original pilot was a screenshot of Patric as Walker, unloading his firearm.