10 Best Comic Book Live-Action TV Series of All Time1 of 12It’s rare that classic TV shows – especially ones that have been off their air nearly 40 years – get a second lease on life with the original cast intact, but that’s exactly what’s happening to the 1960s Batman series when Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar return to their classic roles of Batman, Robin, and Catwoman as the voice cast of the animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders.
On top of that, the new TV season is right around the corner, bringing back perennial favorites such as Flash and Arrow, and launching new series like Netflix’s Luke Cage. With so much superhero TV on the horizon, we started thinking about the greatest superhero TV shows of all time.
In an environment where new comic book TV shows are hitting the air nearly every month – many of them to much acclaim – it can be hard to pick the top contenders, but we’re confident we’ve truly narrowed it down.
THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN2 of 12Superman has become one of the most filmed comic book characters of all time, but one of his earliest appearances the 1950s-era Adventures of Superman continues to leap and bound over its counterparts.
Despite its first two seasons being filmed in black and white, the George Reeves-led show brought a feature-budget feel to television and gave the mainstream public the best portrayal of DC's flagship character it had seen at that point.
Looking back on the series now, it has a lot in common with Grant Morrison's take on the character in the 2011 relaunch of Action Comics - gone are the cartoonish array of supervillains like Brainiac, in favor of the more classic villains like evil scientists, maligned businessmen, gangsters, thugs and spies. The closest thing to a superhuman you'll see facing Superman in this is a midget Martian similar to Mr. Mxyzptlk named "Mr. Zero."
THE MIDDLEMAN3 of 12The Middleman is the most unknown of our entries, but that doesn't mean it wasn't great. The short-lived ABC Family show took the indie comic book series and made one of the truest comic book to small-screen adaptations thanks in part to series co-creator/writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, Medium) being an accomplished television writer/producer that stayed on to helm the show.
It received high marks from TV Guide and other industry magazines, but Variety's review of the pilot gave what would become fateful praise by calling it "almost too smart" for the network.
Borrowing some of its tongue-in-cheek tone from earlier genre success story Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Middleman featured guns, spy action and witty banter on par with recent critical darlings like 30 Rock and Community. Ultimately the show was done in after one 2008 season by the oversized budget compared to its audience, especially among ABC Family's comedies and low-budget high school dramedies.
SMALLVILLE4 of 12The only entry in our list not specifically tied to one comic book title, the long-running Smallville series borrowed liberally from the entire breadth of the Superman and DCU catalog to become the hit it is known as now.
Over the course of 10 years and two networks, the show covered the early years of the man who would one day become Superman in a bare bones approach. As the series went on, it became a showcase of the diversity of the DCU with guest stars ranging from future Justice League members to the time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes.
On its debut in 2001, Smallville became the highest rated show in the WB's history and landed on the cover of TV Guide. The endorsement by former Superman Christopher Reeve (who guest starred on the series) gave the then-budding show a burst of enthusiasm amongst hardcore comics fans, paving the way for the show and its unique dynamic of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor being childhood friends who are slowly torn apart.
As the series went on it explored the early life of Superman in more detail than any of its comic adventures, leading Geoff Johns to fold in some of the show's elements in his later revision of Superman's origin in the comic book series Superman: Secret Origin.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK5 of 12Although DC has proved more successful in adapting its characters to live-action TV in sheer number, Marvel's late '70s The Incredible Hulk showed just how different a superhero show could be. The long-running series featured TV veteran Bill Bixby sharing screen time with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as they played Bruce Banner and alter-ego the Hulk, turning them both into massive stars on the small screen. Although created 15 years before, it was this seminal series that brought Marvel's Green Goliath into the minds of the mainstream public and went on to influence the comic books for years to come.
The journeyman nature of the show allowed for an ever-rotating cast of guest stars to play opposite Bixby and Ferrigno, including cameo appearances by the character's creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, at one point. The series ultimately ended in 1981, but found new life with a series of made for TV movies that continued for several years before Bixby's death in 1993.
The Incredible Hulk show became an integral part of the Hulk mythos, influencing the character's comic book development for years. The 2008 film The Incredible Hulk was heavily influenced by the TV series, with lead actor Edward Norton basing much of his performance on Bixby's original portrayal.
BATMAN6 of 12If there's one show that defined comic books for the mainstream public, then the '60s-era Batman series starring Adam West is it. This campy send-up of DC's Dark Knight was anything but dark, but for its time period it worked, becoming an unprecedented success. Despite only being on air for two years, it was a massive hit, airing twice a week on ABC and producing more than 100 episodes.
Far removed from the dark crusader we've seen in movies, Adam West's Batman was a more jovial and lighthearted adventurer, starring alongside guest stars hamming it up for the camera. The series became so popular that it gave some of its stars short-lived careers in music, with West even recording a country song that he performed in costume at some live appearances.
The series was ultimately cut short when ABC attempted to slash the budget by eliminating a number of characters including Robin, bringing a close to the series. Until recently, it was also one of the most prominent television series never to be officially released on VHS or DVD due to complicated rights issues.
The surviving members of the classic cast, Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar, will reunite for the animated Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusader film.
ARROW7 of 12While they may have had a misstep with the scripting of the Green Lantern movie, writing duo Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim (along with Andrew Kreisberg) have been making up for it (and then some) with the CW series Arrow. They’ve taken DC’s archer hero the Green Arrow and made him a man with a purpose – and a bow & arrow – in the streets of Starling City.
Arrow proved that modern network TV heroes can strike the balance between drama and heroics, and that despite lukewarm reception to their movies, there is a live-action version of the DC Universe that doesn’t just appeal to fans, it consistently adds to its fanbase.
Along with cultivating its own cast of DC mainstays, Arrow also launched a whole DC TV universe, including DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Flash, Vixen, and now Supergirl, formerly on CBS.
DAREDEVIL8 of 12In 2015, fans planted themselves on their couches to binge watch the first of Marvel’s Netflix series, Daredevil - and they were not disappointed. Daredevil struck a darker, more realistic tone than Marvel’s network offerings Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, and featured a more well-developed villain than many recent Marvel films.
Daredevil set a high bar for Marvel’s partnership with Netflix, garnering huge praise and generating major fan excitement, and making characters like Daredevil, Kingpin, Foggy Nelson, and Karen Page household names.
Daredevil season 2 added fan favorite characters like Elektra and the Punisher, whose portrayal was so strong as to earn its own spin-off. Daredevil was just confirmed for a third season as well.
JESSICA JONES9 of 12Netflix kicked off its Defenders universe with Daredevil, but it was the second series, Jessica Jones, that proved the Netflix/Marvel partnership was not a one trick pony.
With a compelling mystery story bolstered by an unbeatable cast, Jessica Jones proved that female led superhero shows can be simultaneously deep and dark, providing a perfect blend of action, intrigue, comedy, and romance.
Jessica Jones also gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its most compelling - and vicious - villains in David Tenant's Killgrave.
THE FLASH10 of 12Justice in the blink of an eye! That's what CW's The Flash is all about. Spinning out of the acclaimed Arrow, The Flash takes Arrow's concept of updated versions of classic characters in a shared universe and, well, runs with it.
Owing its popularity not just to the winning personality of star Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, but also to its unabashed love for its source material, The Flash is the kind of show many fans dream about, bringing in even the weirdest elements of the comic books - Grodd, anyone? - and making them work like a charm.
And if that wasn't enough, the show also features previous TV Flash John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen's father, Henry Allen (and in a second, surprise role as the real Jay Garrick). With a fan pedigree like that, it's easy to imagine Flash rocketing up this chart as the series continues.
THE WALKING DEAD11 of 12AMC’s The Walking Dead has gone from being a pleasant surprise to a sure thing if you’re looking for riveting television. Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s zombie drama became a cult hit in comic book and bucked sales trends with ever-increasing sales, and once cable channel AMC put its adaptation on screen seven years later starting on Halloween 2010, the whole world got to see just how big the zombie phenomenon could be. And it only looks to getting bigger, with the each season surpassing the last in terms of viewers.
Despite some shaky staffing issues behind-the-scenes, The Walking Dead has had a steady upward climb with no signs of stopping under current showrunner Scott M. Gimple.
Although previous zombie films were often pigeon-holed as simply genre material, the critical acclaim for the Frank Darabont-led show went all the way to The Wall Street Journal and Salon.
There is little about this show that hasn't gone right, making it the hands-down best comic book live-action TV series of all-time.
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