Capitalising on the runaway success of 2012’s unstoppable super-powered spandex smorgasbord Avengers Assemble, Marvel Studios have recently wrapped filming on the Joss Whedon developed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television pilot. Notable, not just for resurrecting fan’s favourite character Agent Coulson, but also for being Marvel’s first attempt at crafting a live action TV show since the folly that was 2006’s Blade: The Series, S.H.I.E.L.D. sees the comics giant dipping its toe back into waters that have not always been kind to them. Though the last decade has seen Marvel reap massive financial rewards on the big screen, for decades Stan Lee’s House of Ideas have attempted to crack the formula for a successful television series, with decidedly mixed results. Though the triumphant 1970s Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno starring Incredible Hulk really helped put Marvel on the map, there have been plenty of aborted attempts at bringing cosmically powered heroes to the small screen that some true believers would rather were never spoken of again.
Come with me now on a journey into mystery as we unearth the top 5 forgotten Marvel TV pilots!
5. GENERATION X
In 1996, after the silver screen failures of Howard the Duck, Captain America and Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher, Fox TV decided that perhaps the safe money lay in putting larger-than-life comic book heroes back on TV, where the Hulk and Spider-Man shows had always been reliable ratings-spinners. Fox acquired the rights to Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo’s hip, trendy ‘Junior X-Men’ title, Generation X, that they attempted to package as a sort of grungy Beverly Hills 90210 with super powers
Though built on the neat concept of a school training teen misfit mutants to use their powers for good, a full decade before X-Men: First Class, the show’s extended TV movie pilot is sadly hampered by lacklustre scripting and a shoestring budget. Some of the casting choices, such as TV veteran Jeremy Ratchford’s affable turn as diddly-dee, most-Irish-man-alive Banshee, and General Hospital’s Finola Hughes as a sultry British psychic mega-bitch, lingerie enthusiast Emma Frost, are suitably heroic. Sweet Valley High’s Amaralis also gives a delightfully sassy turn as ‘near-perfect’ mutant babe M, who owns every scene she’s in, particularly during a fairground set-piece where her skills on the Hammer Game leave the local jocks in a sweat, unsure whether to be jealous or utterly smitten. It’s a scene that perfectly captures the spirit of the classic comic book series and highlights the potential of a seriously beguiling character. However, cooler characters from the comic, like shape-shifter Husk and the horribly disfigured Chamber are jettisoned, no doubt due to there being no earthly way the show’s clearly modest effects budget could possibly do them justice.
Fan favourites like Jubilee and Skin remain, though characterisation is scant, and the special effects for their mutant powers are risible. Whenever he is called upon to use his epidermis-extending abilities, poor Agustin Rodriguez’ Skin bears hilarious similarities to a contorted, shiny plastic Stretch Armstrong doll. Also, it’s painfully obvious that Suzanne Davis’ Buff (a new, super-strong character created just for the show), who wears baggy sweaters to hide her unnatural muscle mass, is clearly replaced by a beefcake body double whenever she’s required to show off her guns.
The shoddy effects are, of course, forgivable. Fans could always suspend their disbelief whenever poor Bill Bixby stubbed his toe and morphed, unconvincingly, into Ferrigno’s jingoistic jade giant, because they were taken in by the work of solid, absorbing writing. Generation X is cheap, cheerful fun but, despite having a feature-length runtime, doesn’t spend sufficient time letting us get a feel for these kids. For a pilot to lead to more adventures, it’s essential for a show to lay foundations, but Generation X leaves too many of its characters, such as the intriguing, matter-absorbing Mondo, as relative blank slates, preferring to afford way too much screen-time to its decidedly shonky villain, portrayed by Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer.
Frewer, calling to mind a manic, early career Jim Carrey, is hypnotically OTT as wildly gesticulating, two-hobnobs-short-of-a-biscuit-barrel dream-manipulator Russell Tresh, but his fast-talking, scenery-gnawing theatrics quickly become tiresome. It takes an age for Tresh to actually cross paths with our heroes, and when he does, the encounter is muddled, bewildering and contrived. Tresh, who just happens to have previous beef with Frost, has the technology to invade dreams and he needs mutant brain juice (or something) to make his machine work properly. In a succession of hideous ‘dream sequences,’ filled with dismal CGI and awful neon lighting reminiscent of an 80s softcore porn flick, Tresh unlocks the power of the mind, giving him the power to – I shit you not – make his enemies fart in unison. It must be difficult to craft a superhero epic with no money, but this is just mental.
After a whole lot of befuddling exposition, teen growing pains drama (“Home sucks! Freedom rocks!”), and many, many scenes of Frewer doing silly accents, finally there is an infuriatingly brief final battle where each of our Gen Xers gets to use their powers for about two seconds each. The whole thing reeks of a fantastic opportunity missed, completely ballsed up at the script stage. Factor in some completely unnecessary swearing, sex references and the decision to change Jubilee’s character from Chinese to white American, and you’re left with a curious, uninvolving little oddity that doesn’t seem to know who its audience is.
As evidenced by the Avengers’ astonishing success at the box office, it seems clear that superhero properties require a solid investment, not just of cash, but of thought, care and a little respect for the parent title, in order for them to work. Joss Whedon’s sterling work with Marvel’s Greatest Heroes has highlighted the importance of affording these extraordinary characters the love and respect they deserve and one can only hope that his S.H.I.E.L.D. show will follow suit. Sadly, the makers of this mediocre mutant mess didn’t seem to know what they were doing from the get-go, leaving us with a largely forgotten pilot that will leave many to ponder what amazing adventures might have been…