Top 5 Most Improved Superhero Franchises

Grumpy Fanboy
Yahoo! Special Projects

Can you imagine David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury? Yes, it really happened. Be happy Samuel L. Jackson replaced him for the Marvel movie franchises.

Super hero franchises don’t always get it right the first time. A number of comic book franchises today flopped miserably in their first forays into television and film. Through some trial and error (Captain America with a plastic shield? A Batman suit with nipples?) , various comic-book movies and television shows have gotten their acts together and delivered incarnations that audiences have finally come to embrace.

Captain America
The Early Attempts: Cap’s first live action adaptation was through a series of made-for-TV movies starring Reb Brown in the title role.  Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon both aired on US TV in 1979, featuring a modern-day Cap in a motorcycle helmet. I can’t understand why the producers made so many poor creative decisions, from moving the origin story away from World War II to the use of a see-thru plastic shield. Today, this adaptation is good for a midday Youtube chuckle at best. In 1990, there was a second attempt at a live action adaptation of Cap starring Matt Salinger (yes, son of “The Catcher In The Rye” JD). Both the origin story and costume were more loyal to the Cap of the comic books but bad acting, low production values and a terrible script sent this production into straight-to-video-Hell.

The Improved Version: Following the success of Iron Man and Thor, we got to see Cap in Captain America: the First Avenger (2011). This latest incarnation, played by Chris Evans, is by far the most likable of all, with just the right balance of wholesomeness and battle-hardened cred. Cap is arguably the hardest character to adapt for today’s cynical and demanding movie audiences but Marvel succeeds remarkably.  He is, of course, one of the lead characters in Marvel’s Avengers movie.

The Early Attempts: Easily the most famous of the early Superman adaptations was the Adventures of Superman TV series (1954) starring George Reeves. Even with the special effects limitations of the time, the series managed to capture the imaginations of the television audience. But Supes would then be absent from TV screens apart from Saturday morning cartoons. Superman would not truly become mainstream to wider audiences until …

The Improved Version:  Superman (1979) directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve is the first major commercial success for a comic book-based movie. In my opinion. Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent is still the best live action performance of an iconic superhero character of all time. While this Superman series suffered in quality with succeeding sequels, bottoming out with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), it was resurrected with Superman Returns (2006) directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh. This sequel was a commercial disappointment and, being mainly an homage to the original series by Donner and Reeve, was not widely embraced by today’s audiences. Superman will return in Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder and starring Henry Cavill in 2013. It remains to be seen whether or not this version will improve on the beloved hero.
Note: I haven’t forgotten about the TV series Lois Clark: the New Adventures of Superman (1993) and Smallville (2001). I just don’t consider those versions of Superman “improved”.

The Early Attempts: The Batman came to life with the Batman TV series (1966) starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the “Dynamic Duo”, culminating in a full length feature film Batman: the Movie with the same cast. While the series was a farce for the most part, this was the character’s major breakthrough into mainstream pop culture. The Batman then saw a credible renaissance with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. The franchise then went into a tailspin when Joel Schumacher took over the creative reins with Batman Forever (1995) and the even more dreadful Batman & Robin (1997).

The Improved Version: 
Where previous adaptations depicted a more campy “Caped Crusader”, director Christopher Nolan introduced us to the more grim “Dark Knight” version of the Batman with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Returns (2007), starring Christian Bale. Both movies are by every definition the best adaptation of the Batman in film. The series will conclude with The Dark Knight Rises, due out later this year.
Also: I can’t discuss the modern Batman without mentioning video games Arkham Asylum (2009) and Arkham City (2011), developed by Rocksteady Studios and featuring the voice talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, both fan favorites from the Batman (1992) animated series. These games are, to me, every bit as credible an adaptation of the Dark Knight as the Nolan films.  

The Justice League
The Early Attempts: Many may recall the members of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc) featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends (1973). Few may know that the League was introduced in a live action television pilot Justice League of America (1994). Loosely based on the Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis comic book of the late 1980s, this production was a misguided attempt to bring characters like Guy Gardner, the Atom and J’onn J’onnz to the screen. Plagued by awful acting, costumes, effects and writing, there’s little wonder the only way to view this putrid pile of turd today is on Youtube

The Improved Version:
Fortunately for DC Comics, its beloved characters were successfully resurrected in Justice League (2001) – not in live action but in animation. A continuation of the success from both the Superman and Batman animated series, Justice League remains among the most satisfying comic book adaptations of any medium, thanks to the creative influence of veteran comic book creators like Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and the late Dwayne McDuffie. Following live action disasters like Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011), the animation medium is proving to be the most consistently successful for DC Comics outside the comic books, led by animated features Justice League: New Frontier (2008), Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009) and Justice League: Doom (2012).

Nick Fury
The Early Version:  Some may be surprised to know that the original Nick Fury (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and published Marvel Comics in 1968) bears little resemblance to the Nick Fury of the last few Marvel Entertainment films. (He was Caucasian and had a full head of hair.) Many will be even more surprised to learn that Marvel first attempted to bring the character to television in Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998), starring none other than David Hasselhoff. And yes, “The Hoff” as Nick Fury is every bit as bad as it sounds. Hard to believe and yet there he is in all his eyepatch-wearing, helicarrier-dwelling, HYDRA-battling glory.

The Improved Version:
Thankfully, Marvel decided to leave Hasselhoff behind and instead opt for a version that more closely resembles the Nick Fury of Marvel’s Ultimates comic book series, whose appearance was actually based on Samuel Jackson. Jackson’s Fury is the glue that holds the previous Marvel films together, leading up to his assembling the ultimate superhero team-up of all time in Marvel’s the Avengers.

Grumpy Fanboy is still looking for the alien power battery, magic word or radioactive spider that will give him super powers. In the meantime, he writes about superheroes at and @grumpyfanboy.