Before 'Batman v. Superman': Look Back at the DC Heroes' Many TV Incarnations

From George Reeves to Melissa Benoist, and Adam West to David Mazouz, the worlds of Superman and Batman have spent a long time on the small screen.
Courtesy of Photofest

While DC Entertainment's Batman and Superman are taking to the big screen to slug things out in this weekend's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, both superheroes have an extensive history when it comes to television, stretching back more than half a century and offering dramatically different takes on the characters than those currently available in the multiplex.

From George Reeves' 1950s Man of Steel all the way through Gotham's underage Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), there's been almost a new version of the classic characters for almost every generation over the last few decades, with some audiences being lucky enough — or not, depending on the point of view — to get multiple visions of the world's mightiest mortals.

For those who think that Clark Kent looks like Tom Welling or that Batman only sounds convincing when voiced by Kevin Conroy, here's a chance to expand your horizons and discover just what you've been missing. (I apologize in advance for Legends of the Superheroes.)

Adventures of Superman (1952)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Superman, as played by George Reeves.

What's the Pitch? The first Superman TV show, Adventures tried to make its audience believe a man could fly with some unconvincing special effects that fooled few, but helped spread the gospel of Kal-El nonetheless. The show made George Reeves famous, much to his discontent; the actor committed suicide in 1959, a move some put down to his regret over his "failed career."

Batman (1966-1968)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as played by Adam West.

What's the Pitch? Batman turned the character from a comic book favorite into a household name, sparking "Batmania" throughout the country and launching an industry of spinoff merchandise based around the concept of adding the word "Bat-" as a prefix. It also turned the superhero into a campy punchline, to the irritation of some comic book fans.

The New Adventures of Superman /The Adventures of Superboy (1966-1970)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Superman, as voiced by Bud Collyer, with Bob Hastings providing the voice of the teenaged Superboy.

What's the Pitch? Elements of a number of different TV shows — including The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure and the The Batman/Superman Hour — these two animated strands, set in different time periods of Clark Kent's crime-fighting career, brought together different elements of the character's history: designs and stories came from those working on the comic book, while actors including Bud Collyer himself, were drafted from the 1940s Superman radio show.

The Adventures of Batman (1968-1969)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as voiced by Olan Soule.

What's the Pitch? Even as Adam West's live-action show came to an end, the exploits of Gotham City's caped crusader continued in this animated spinoff that was more in keeping with the tone of the hero's comic book adventures, and introduced Casey Kasem to the franchise as an excitable Robin, the Boy Wonder. As with The New Adventures of Superman, the strand was packaged in a number of ways throughout its career, including The Batman/Superman Hour and Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder, and led to appearances on The New Scooby-Doo Movies years later.

Super Friends (1973-1986)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Both, with Superman voiced by Danny Dark throughout, while Batman was voiced by Olan Soule and Adam West sharing vocal duties as Batman depending on the season.

What's the Pitch? Super Friends — an animated version of DC's Justice League comic book series with a more kid-friendly title — was the series that would not die, continuing under a series of different names (including, but not limited to, The All-New Super Friends Hour, Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show and Galactic Guardians) for more than a decade. The reason behind its longevity? Perhaps sacrificing the younger members of the cast: In its run, the series cycled through sidekicks including Wendy and Marvin, Zan and Jayna the Wonder Twins and even teen heroes Firestorm and Cyborg.

The New Adventures of Batman (1977-1978)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as voiced by Adam West.

What's the Pitch? Running concurrently with Super Friends, The New Adventures of Batman only lasted one season — although re-runs were repacked in episodes of The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour and Batman and the Super 7 for years to follow — and altered relatively straight-ahead Bat-ventures with one twist: the inclusion of Bat-Mite, an obscure 1950s comic book character with magical powers who idolized the Caped Crusader.

Legends of the Superheroes (1979)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as played by Adam West.

What's the Pitch? There's no way to avoid this: The two one-hour live-action specials known collectively as Legends of the Superheroes are disasters. Produced by animation house Hanna Barbera, the first of the shows offered a comedic adventure featuring Batman and a number of other superheroes — including the Flash, Green Lantern and Black Canary — dealing with the Legion of Doom, while the second was a celebrity roast, hosted by Ed McMahon, that introduced "Ghetto Man," the black stand-up comedian superhero. Yes, you read that right. (Sadly.)

Superboy (1988-1992)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? A teenage Superman, as played by John Haymes Newton (season one) and Gerard Christopher (seasons two-four).

What's the Pitch? A spinoff of the Superman movies from the '70s and '80s, Superboy updated the fan-favorite comic book concept of "the adventures of Superman when he was a teen!" for modern audiences with varied levels of success, not helped by losing the original leading man after one season. From today's point of view, think of it as a proto-Smallville, only with added capes and flying sequences.

Superman (1988)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Superman, as voiced by Beau Weaver.

What's the Pitch? A short-lived animated series that launched to coincide with the hero's 50th anniversary, Superman is probably best remembered, if at all, for having Marv Wolfman — at that point, a well-known comic book writer and co-creator of the New Teen Titans series — serve as head writer.

Batman: The Animated Series/The New Batman Adventures (1992-1999)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as voiced by Kevin Conroy.

What's the Pitch? For many, Batman: The Animated Series remains the definitive version of Batman — buoyed by writing by the likes of Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and art-deco designs by Bruce Timm, the series streamlined decades' worth of stories and ideas into something deceptively simple and impressively complex. It's also where Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn originally appeared, for added impact.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Superman, as played by Dean Cain.

What's the Pitch? Reflecting the rewritten take on the comic book mythos, where Clark Kent was less of a loser and Lois was as attracted to him as she was the Man of Steel — leading to their marriage in both the comics and the show — Lois & Clark is nonetheless best remembered for being the show that brought Teri Hatcher to the attentions of the mainstream and made America fall in love with Lois Lane.

Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Superman, as voiced by Tim Daly.

What's the Pitch? An attempt by the Batman: The Animated Series team to work their magic on DC's other primary property, Superman didn't strike the same chord with audiences despite some stellar work reinventing allies and villains alike. The highlight of the series, however, is probably the multi-part "World's Finest" storyline that teams the hero with Batman.

Batman Beyond (1999-2001)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as voiced by Kevin Conroy, and a younger Batman (Terry McGinnis) voiced by Will Friedle.

What's the Pitch? The next generation of Batman: The Animated Series was, it turned out, the next generation of Batman. Batman Beyond took place in a future where Bruce Wayne trained his replacement to fight a new type of criminal. Sadly, what seemed cutting-edge futurism at the time has dated poorly, making this a strange curio when viewed today.

Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? As with Super Friends, this series featured both heroes. George Newbern voiced Superman, while Kevin Conroy voiced Batman.

What's the Pitch? The final installment (to date) of the Batman: The Animated Series continuity, Justice League saw the revival of the Super Friends concept taken even further. What started as a contained team of seven members became an army of almost every DC Entertainment character by the end of its run, joining together for an anthology series filled with affection for its (often obscure) source material.

Smallville (2001-2011)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Another teenaged Superman, as played by Tom Welling.

What's the Pitch? What started as a simple origin story for the Man of Steel — famous for the unofficial rule "No flights, no tights," which the series later broke — turned into the longest-running live-action superhero TV series to date. For 10 seasons, the WB, and later The CW, continued to find ways to delay Clark Kent from becoming Superman in the name of ratings.

Birds of Prey (2002)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as played by an unknown actor. (No, really.)

What's the Pitch? Technically a Batman spinoff — the comic book it adapted was led by Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl — the televisual Birds of Prey featured the daughter of the Dark Knight, the Huntress (Ashley Scott), keeping Gotham safe in the absence of her father. A Batman was shown in flashback, but no actor was ever identified as playing the role, oddly enough.

The Batman (2004-2008)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as played by Rino Romano.

What's the Pitch? Following a younger-than-usual Batman, this Saturday morning animated series gradually built up a world (and support system) around the Dark Knight, bringing in Batgirl, Robin and a number of other heroes — including in its final year, Superman, voiced by George Newbern — to help keep the streets safe while Batman learns to be the world's greatest crime fighter.

Krypto the Superdog (2005-2006)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Neither; the series centers around a character traditionally seen as Superman's dog, but in this series is just a Kryptonian pup voiced by Samuel Vincent.

What's the Pitch? Avoiding almost all pieces of Superman mythology, Krypto focused exclusively on the Pup of Steel, who in this telling lives with a 9-year-old called Kevin and pretends to be an ordinary dog when he's not saving the world. (Don't worry, Kevin knows the truth; he can also talk to Krypto thanks to being given an intergalactic communicator.)

Legion of Super-Heroes (2006-2008)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Yet another teenaged Superman, as voiced by Yuri Lowenthal.

What's the Pitch? Launched during a period where the legality of DC using the name "Superboy" was in doubt, this series brought the 1950s series Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes to animated life by simply allowing the teen of steel to call himself Superman and hoping that the 31st Century setting (Superboy/man time-traveled to be part of the team) would distract anyone from the faulty logic.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as voiced by Diedrich Bader.

What's the Pitch? An animated series that teamed a different superhero with the Dark Knight each week, The Brave and the Bold also featured the most lighthearted approach to Batman since the 1960s Adam West show, while remaining just this side of the line of camp (except where Aquaman was concerned; he, gloriously, was transformed into an operatic buffoon for unknown reasons).

Beware the Batman (2013)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Batman, as played by Anthony Ruivivar.

What's the Pitch? The most recent attempt to bring Batman to animated life on television — although a new Justice League series is in production — gave Gotham City and its inhabitants a glossy CGI makeover and also gifted the Dark Knight a new sidekick: Katana, who originated as a supporting character in the 1980s Batman and the Outsiders comic book and will soon be seen in the live-action Suicide Squad movie.

Gotham (2014-)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? Well … neither, although David Mazouz plays the kid version of Bruce Wayne.

What's the Pitch? A revisionist retelling of Batman's origin that focuses less on Bruce Wayne — although the death of his parents is what launches the series — and more on the rise of Jim Gordon through the ranks of the Gotham City Police Department, and the parallel rise of the many villains that Batman will one day have to face.

Supergirl (2015-)

Man of Steel or Dark Knight? While the audience has yet to see the grown Superman, Daniel DiMaggio plays the young Clark Kent in flashbacks.

What's the Pitch? In a post-Superman world, it's up to the Man of Steel's cousin — who debuted in comics some two decades after Clark Kent's alter-ego — to save the day. There have been brief glimpses of a Superman in flashback, but the absence of the hero is the entire point of the show … at least until the inevitable future ratings stunt. For now, let's just enjoy Melissa Benoist's charming substitute.

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