Guest Post Written by Jon Morris
Superheroes have enjoyed a long history on television, beginning with George Reeves on The Adventures of Superman and continuing to today’s spandex-packed primetime lineup. Viewers thrill to the battle staged between a modern-day parade of super-powered do-gooders and their sworn nemeses, dragged from the four-color world of the comics. But the villains, in particular, haven’t always made the transition from the printed page to the scintillating screen with grace and ease. In fact, some bad guys have found themselves distorted beyond recognition when it was finally time to make their debuts in front of the cameras. Here’s just a small selection of super-villains whose television appearances took a drastically different form than their comic book incarnations …
The Toyman (Lois and Clark, The New Adventures of Superman)
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was the first Superman-starring television series since the original Adventures of Superman had gone off the air in 1958. They had big shoes to fill and what better way to fill them than to bring many of Superman’s greatest foes to TV?
But the show had a distinct Nineties’ spin, which required a number of Supes’ longest-lasting foes to undergo big-shouldered (and occasionally mulleted) revamps. While the comical Prankster was reimagined as an obsessed killer by Perfect Strangers’ Bronson Pinchot, and Howie Mandel made for a full-sized (but nonetheless impish) Mister Mxyzptlk, one of the oddest re-castings was television icon Sherman Hemsley cast as The Toyman, a villain who used ingenious toys to commit crimes.
Divested of the source material’s striped suits and Little Lord Fauntleroy wigs, Hemsely was paired with one-time co-star Isabel Sanford as his assistant “Miss Duffy.” The overall effect was to make this episode of a Superman adventure feel more like a reunion special for The Jeffersons.
Arnim Zola and HYDRA (Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Baywatch star David Hasselhoff might have been an odd choice to play grizzled war vet and Marvel premiere super-spy, Nick Fury. Odder still, though, were the comic book looks of the villains which the eponymous espionage agent fought in assorted Marvel Comics.
Unfortunately, when it came to TV, some of the weirdest elements couldn’t be translated. Evil super-spy organization HYDRA – identified in the comics for their bold green uniforms – had its multitude of murderous members dressed-down in somber black suits. The more egregious simplification of form, though, was casting the “bio-fanatic” Arnim Zola as … a man with a head.
Arnim Zola is one of the comics’ most famously striking figures, an orange-cloaked figure with a camera for a head and his face replicated on a screen over his torso. The television version’s wheelchair and oxygen tank were poor replacements at best.
Anton Arcane (Swamp Thing)
The USA Network’s relatively low-budget (but surprisingly long-running) late-night Swamp Thing TV show allegedly continued the narrative established in the equally low-budget Swamp Thing films. This left former soap opera actor Mark Lindsay Chapman some big, Louis Jordan-sized shoes to fill when he stepped into the role of viciously amoral (but roguishly charming) genetic scientist Anton Arcane.
The comic book depiction of Arcane as a twisted, sewn-together combination of man and insect was easily beyond the show’s finances and probably would have limited the number of storylines in which the prodigiously-coiffed Chapman featured. Instead, Arcane was reimagined as a sleazy and morally bankrupt ladies’ man who effectively commanded the sleepy Louisiana hamlet of Houma. Not that some of the gross-out body horror of the Swamp Thing comic wasn’t maintained – Arcane kept a subterranean cave filled with the twisted results of his inhuman experiments on unwilling test subjects!
The Parasite (The New Adventures of Superman)
Fans of the Man of Steel know the Parasite as a power-leeching, purple-skinned bad guy with a major complexion problem. Debuting in 1966, he was almost immediately inducted into Superman’s top-tier Rogues gallery, along with heavy hitters like Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo and space cowboy Terra-Man (okay, they weren’t all heavy-hitters).
But that was in the comic books. Also in 1966, over on the Filmation-produced New Adventures of Superman cartoon, a different Parasite was also debuting. In the episode “The Pernicious Parasite,” Superman is confronted by “Icy Harris,” a hefty, mustachioed industrial burglar. Stumbling across an isotope which gives him the ability to leech raw power, this Parasite almost defeats the Man of Tomorrow, until Superman lets him take too much raw energy, causing the bad guy to burst into nothingness.
The Nameless One (Doctor Strange)
The 1978 movie version of the Sorcerer Supreme’s long-running series of adventures had no other choice than to make a few cuts. After all, Dr.Strange remains one of the most visually striking comics in the history of the medium, and replicating that on the small screen would have proven nearly impossible.
Some things nonetheless translated seamlessly. Morgan Le Fay, the evil sorceress whose origins reach back into Arthurian myth, was represented with panache by Jessica Walter. As the agent of a supernatural force of evil from another dimension, Le Fay gave Strange exactly as much trouble as she has in the comics.
And that supernatural force of evil wasn‘t half-bad, either, Swathed in smoke and mood-lighting, the plaster head and glowing eyes of The Nameless One was all right for 1978 television. Still, considering that his comic book incarnation was that of a giant, multiheaded, sinewy powerhouse of an eternal demon, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the TV version…
Grab your copy of Jon Morris’ The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains wherever books are sold to learn about more unfortunate supervillains!