Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Comfort TV Couldn’t Crack the Marvel Universe

Along with millions around the world, I mourned the recent passing of Stan Lee. 

Long before I cared enough about television to write books about it, I was a comic book fan – specifically a Marvel Comics fan. The first comic I ever bought, off a spinner rack at 7-11, was Defenders #23 – a team book featuring The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Valkyrie and Nighthawk. I was instantly hooked and quickly worked my way up to buying about 20 Marvel comics every month, a custom that continued for the next two decades. I also began buying back issues; at one point I had amassed full runs of X-Men, Daredevil, Iron Man and The Avengers.

I don’t have them anymore. Long story. Not a happy one.

As a fan I looked forward to the moments when Marvel characters would appear on television. But as much as I love the Comfort TV era and still prefer it to what’s on television today, I must concede that when it came to adapting the brilliant co-creations of Stan Lee, the medium failed miserably. 

Thankfully, we are now in a golden age of superhero films when these characters have been brought to life with respect for the source material, with writers and directors and actors that get why they were popular in the first place, and with the budget to convincingly portray super-heroics through sophisticated special effects.

Now that audiences have embraced Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man and many others the way they were meant to be seen, we can now look back on TV’s first attempts with less ire.

Affection? Not quite. Amusement? Absolutely.

As a Marvel fan I also celebrate how that company has now surpassed rival DC in its adaptations, something that was not true in the Comfort TV era. The Batman and Wonder Woman series were not perfect but they were successful – they added to the richness of the characters rather than detracting from them. And Superman: the Movie was as good as it gets, then or now. 

It was released in 1978, the same year television introduced Peter Hooten as Marvel’s Dr. Strange. That exemplifies how, back then, the two companies were playing at very different levels. 

Sadly, the Dr. Strange series pilot was one of Marvel’s less cringe-worthy attempts, compared to such disasters as the Captain America (1979) TV movie that ignores everything that makes the character iconic. What were viewers supposed to think when a hero revered as much for his ideology as his exploits hems and haws through the death of a friend, and several attempts on his own life, before finally coming to his country’s aid?

Reb Brown played the title role, having apparently wandered in from a bodybuilding contest at Venice Beach. He’s a bad actor who drifts in and out of a Southern accent and obliterates what little was left of the character’s dignity. 

And yet, incompetent as this effort was all around, it still inspired a sequel, the imaginatively titled Captain America II (1979). It’s slightly better, but only in the way that a fender-bender is better than a rollover accident. One is clearly preferable, but you’ll be happier avoiding them both.

I covered the first attempt at a live-action Spider-Man in my Terrible Shows I Like series. The costume and some of the wall-climbing effects were adequate, and Nicholas Hammond was amiable if a bit too hunky as ‘puny’ Peter Parker. But no Gwen or Mary Jane, no comic book rogues gallery, and no snappy patter while crime fighting renders this version something we settled for rather than fully embraced. 

Ah, but what about The Incredible Hulk (1978), you say? It was a popular series that lasted five seasons. Bill Bixby gave us a studied, moving performance as a mild-mannered intellectual tormented by the raging spirit within him. The Emmy-nominated music was wonderful, and everyone remembers Lou Ferrigno in his fright wig and green makeup. 

Yes, it was a good show. But it also wasn’t The Hulk: It was The Fugitive with a supernatural twist. Where Dr. Kimble searched for the one-armed man, David Banner (Bill Bixby) searched for a cure for his condition. And since the show would have ended as soon as he found one, there wasn’t much dramatic tension along the way.

I’m sure there are fans that still prefer Ferrigno’s Hulk to the CGI creation rampaging through the Avengers films. I’m just not one of them.

We also have TV’s Hulk to thank (?) for introducing two more Stan Lee creations to live-action TV; The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) features Eric Kramer as Thor. One picture says it all:

And The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) features Tiger Beat’s own Rex Smith as the blind hero Daredevil. He’s grittier than expected, but we’re still worlds away from the Netflix series starring Charlie Cox. 

Stan Lee was listed as a consultant on these projects. That they all failed to some extent should not be viewed as a blot on his resume or his memory. Back then even someone of his stature in the comic book medium did not have the juice to demand script approval or closer adherence to the stories fans knew and loved. I’m glad he lived long enough to see them done right. I wish Jack Kirby had as well. 


  1. New World Pictures acquired Marvel in the late '80s. Um, how would a "Santa Barbara" comic book have turned out?

    Mr. Hofstede, can you see the underrated Mary Louise Weller of "National Lampoon's Animal House" fame as a watered-down version of a Marvel Comics superheroine on Carter-era TV? (Carol "Ms. Marvel" Danvers? Sue "Invisible Girl" Richards?)

  2. Um, how would the Red Skull have turned out if he had appeared in Reb Brown's "Captain America" pilots?