Damn, this week has been rough, both on a personal level and more general nonsense being afoot (hi, Senate Republicans, go f—k yourselves). Another disappointment is the news about the CW’s Powerpuff.
While the initial concept was mocked and leaked set photos featuring the leads in facsimiles of the original costumes resulted in further derision, there were still people asking us to hold judgment until we got more info. That was before the alleged script leak happened, and all hell broke loose. Minds were thoroughly boggled by what was revealed, and the leak was seemingly given credibility when viral tweets featuring screen-caps of the aforementioned script then got deleted, one confirmed due to a copyright notice against it.
Shortly after, the CW announced the pilot was being retooled because, in the words of chairman Mark Pedowitz, it “may have felt a little too campy and not rooted in reality.”
*sad trombone sound*
This is a somewhat doleful time for me because if there is one thing I enjoy, it’s excavating the failed or canceled pilots for genre TV shows. Whether they fell into “actually pretty fun but didn’t land right” or “oh, Godtopus, what the hell they were thinking,” it’s always entertaining to see what could have been. If the leaked script is legit (and evidence points toward that being the case) and was filmed, I hold out hope that we will get to see it in some form, so Powerpuff could join the greats in bad superhero TV show pilots, like the ones I discuss below.
Based On: The Powerpuff Girls, created by Craig McCracken
Who’s Involved: Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), Heather Regnier (Veronica Mars, Sleepy Hollow, SMILF) as writers/showrunners/exec producers; Greg Berlanti (the CW DC shows, Riverdale) as exec producer; Chloe Bennett (Agents of SHIELD) as Blossom, Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie) as Bubbles, Yana Perrault (Jagged Little Pill the Musical) as Buttercup, and Donald Faison (Scrubs, Clueless) as Professor Drake Utonium.
Apparent Elevator Pitch: What if we ignored the entire basis of the original show to make the Powerpuff Girls into “troubled child star” stereotypes whose father was a mix between Michael Lohan and Victor Frankenstein?
What Went Wrong?: It was clear that the premise was already questionable, mainly for one key reason: it required ignoring nearly everything about the source material except the names (aka The Riverdale Formula). In the cartoon, the Powerpuff Girls were little girls experiencing childhood as normal (including bedtimes) who just so happened to also have powers and fight crime. That juxtaposition was the entire point of the show. To set up this “adult” take on it by reframing them as unwitting child soldiers serving an abusive and exploitative father is to throw all that out. It would be like if someone took a famous villain specifically known for the monstrous and near unforgivable act they want to commit and have said act stem from a nonsensical traumatic event that breaks any connection to the original character while still insisting they’re the same person for name recognition. Who would do that?
But that’s just the premise. When we look at the script excepts, it is clear that the writers really wanted to connect with Today’s Teens (TM) in the most painful ways.
The script leaks for this Powerpuff Girls reboot are the worst thing I've read this month pic.twitter.com/I7CrPewGc4— Xavier's Online (@xaviersonline) May 25, 2021
It reads almost like a parody. Internet buzzwords and memes are peppered throughout with little indication they even know what they mean (I admit that I never got the Harambe meme, so “post-Harambe” sounds doubly dumb). Sex and sexuality have a heavy focus, even when non-consensual (the now-infamous “leak your nudes” line) or leaning into uncomfortable stereotypes (Buttercup’s apparent queerness and promiscuity being framed as rebellion). It just comes off as half-baked at best, and even if one argues that the script probably changed before filming, the general direction was going where few people wanted to follow.
Wonder Woman (2011)
Based On: Wonder Woman, created by William Moulton Marsden
Who Was Involved: David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, Boston Cream Pie, Michelle Pfeiffer’s husband) as writer/exec-producer; Adrianne Palicki* (Friday Night Lights, Agents of SHIELD, The Orville) as Wonder Woman / Diana Themyscira / Diana Prince, Elizabeth Hurley (Runaways, Austin Powers) as Veronica Cale, Tracie Thoms (Rent, Cold Case, Death Proof, my dreams on occasion) as Etta Candy, Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride, Saw, unlike some Robin Hoods he can speak in a British accent) as Henry Detmer, and some guy named… Pedro Pascal (some stuff?) as Ed Indelicato.
Apparent Elevator Pitch: Let’s turn the most well-known female superhero on the planet into a remorseless murderer while presenting great lessons like “it’s okay if you took a super-steroid to win a scholarship if it nearly kills you” and “civil liberties are for cowards”.
The pilot was filmed and nearly completed, but NBC ultimately passed on it. A leaked version missing the final score and special effects eventually made the rounds and was (rightfully) lambasted. This depiction of Wonder Woman seemingly faded away from collective memory after the much more successful reveal of the DCEU Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In a twist of irony, not only did Palicki and guest star BJ Britt end up on Agents of SHIELD afterward but Pascal was cast as Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984.
What Went Wrong?: Maybe it was having Wonder Woman have three different and needlessly complicated identities, two of which made her Batman If Everyone Knew He Was Bruce Wayne (Also Boobs), and the third was just her cosplaying as “Stereotypical Lonely Modern Woman” complete with glasses, a pint of ice cream, and literally watching The Notebook. It’s like someone took the Superman speech from Kill Bill seriously and made it about Wonder Woman pretending to be a SNL parody of a rom-com protagonist. Maybe it was the nonsensical attempts as “#girlboss” moments that just didn’t land, like her speech about her doll being too sexualized.
Or maybe, and I am going out on a limb here, it was Wonder Woman’s penchant for violence and torture, and how the show both lampshades it and bends over backward to excuse it. As much guff as the DCEU and Snyder gets for violence and grittiness, at least that Diana didn’t yank a dude fifteen feet by throwing the Lasso of Truth around his neck and proceed to break his arm. Or impale a mook like Bennett in Commando. Or knowingly break into a building so the cops can treat it as a crime scene and circumvent getting a warrant. Or being compared in-show to Abu Ghraib… as a good thing. This was like the most blatant copaganda, but just for this one character. Wonderganda. By this point, having Dr. Phil and Nancy Grace star as themselves was the least of the show’s problems.
Although considering a good chunk of reactions to WW84 and its more problematic aspects, maybe the answer is simpler: don’t cast Pedro Pascal in a Wonder Woman project.
*Slight tangent: while researching this piece, it struck me how similar Palicki’s career trajectory was to Karl Urban. Both had gotten their biggest profile boosts from ensemble cast projects (Friday Night Lights, Lord of the Rings), both are self-described geeks, both played roles that were popular with those who actually bothered to watch, but didn’t last long (Marvel’s Most Wanted, Almost Human/Dredd). Both even managed to be cast in antagonist roles in action movies starring over-50 leads playing retired assassins forced back into the game (John Wick, RED). And both ended up finding more success on shows either deconstructing or reconstructing particular genre media (The Orville, The Boys). Just thought that was interesting. Tangent over.
Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998)
Based On: the character Nick Fury, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Who Was Involved: Rob Hardy (E Street, Thirst (1979)) as director; David Goyer (Blade trilogy, The Dark Knight trilogy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) as writer; David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider, Baywatch, The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie) as Nick Fury, Lisa Rinna (Days of Our Lives, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) as Contessa Valentina “Val” Fontaine, Sandra Hess (Encino Man, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) as Andrea von Strucker.
Apparent Elevator Pitch: We have this script from Goyer that’s been sitting around for years, and Hasselhoff wants to do anything that doesn’t involve lifeguards right now.
Ah yes. The first attempt at bringing Nick Fury and SHIELD to the non-comic reading public. It may seem weird for some in a post-MCU world, but yes, Nick Fury was once portrayed by David Hasselhoff. Not much I could dig up on the production or behind-the-scenes info in such a short amount of time, besides both Lee and Goyer praising Hasselhoff’s performance (even with the latter not liking the film overall).
What Went Wrong?: Despite what some may think at first glance, Hasselhoff is not the problem here, and in fact, was the strongest part of the movie. Chomping on his cigar while spouting dialogue like “I’ll get that vampire’s blood if I have to suck it from her neck” in his best gravelly voice, it’s clear how much he reveled in the role. Everyone seemed to know what kind of film they were in (although Sandra Hess thought the scenery needed some extra bite marks). Even with my general antipathy toward Goyer, I can recognize that this wasn’t intended to be serious work for him (especially since he was also writing Blade and Dark City at this time). It was a goofy half-serious attempt at bringing this old soldier turned spy to the small screen to lead into yet another schlocky ’90s TV show.
Unlike the other pilots mentioned, there isn’t a fundamental flaw or crucial misreading in Nick Fury that hobbled it out of the gate. If there was a singular problem, it was most likely that it was so goofy and didn’t take itself too seriously. There was no reason to get invested in any of the characters because the movie didn’t. It was just caught in that liminal period between Batman and Robin and Blade when superhero movies began to shy away from campiness previously inherent in the genre (to varying degrees of effect). It’s probably the most watchable out of all these on the list, and it’s a good reminder of what we had to accept in the Before Feige Times.
While Samuel L. Jackson is still the Superior Fury in my book, Hasselhoff is a close second.
Justice League of America (1997)
Based On: Justice League created by Gardner Fox; specifically by Justice League International by Keith Giffen and J. M. Dematteis
Who Was Involved: Félix Enríquez Alcalá (Fire Down Below, episodes on multiple TV shows like Lois & Clark, Space: Above and Beyond, Brimstone, Suits, BrainDead, and more) as credited director; Starring Kimberly Oja (Son of the Beach, The OC) as Ice, John Kassir (Tales From The Crypt, tons of VA work) as The Atom, Michelle Hurd (Law and Order: SVU, Daredevil, Star Trek: Picard) as Fire, Matthew Settle (Band of Brothers, Gossip Girl) as Green Lantern, Kenny Johnston (Signal Lost, The Meanest Man in Texas) as The Flash, and David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H, Regular Show) as Martian Manhunter.
Apparent Elevator Pitch: It’s the Justice League!…without any of the Big Three, but it’s also The Real World.
Similar to how CW’s Arrow (and subsequently the whole Arrowverse) was inspired by Smallville, Justice League of America was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It morphed into a pseudo-mockumentary about the titular team, with the heroes having to deal with real-life issues such as unemployment, romantic relationships, and so on while giving confessionals to the camera. Produced by CBS for a possible series, it aired once in the US on December 28, 1997, with sporadic international broadcasts later on, and now mainly exists through bootlegs. It’s believed that Batman (who was a core member of the team this show was based on) wasn’t allowed to show up due to the Bat-Embargo and, of all things, Batman and Robin. Also, Miguel Ferrer, who played the villain Weather Man in this, later voiced the Weather Wizard (the actual character the former was based on) in Superman: The Animated Series.
What Went Wrong?: In the words of MST3K: they just didn’t care. The special effects were bad even for the time, the story was weak and full of plot holes, and the villains were barely threatening. The worst part was that they went out of their way to make the heroes the most pathetic bunch of dorks on the planet. It’s not like a comedy about loser superheroes can’t work. Hell, the very comic they pulled this from, Justice League International, did that very well, wringing similar comedy out of lesser-known heroes. And while the constant joke of being unemployed disasters should be relatable to my Millennial sensibilities, this was just sad in execution.
They also ended up massively altering the characters (e.g. their Green Lantern is named Guy Gardner, but has Hal Jordan’s personality and Kyle Rayner’s personal life) and de-powering them to make the budget script work, to the point where Martian Manhunter only leaves the headquarters to shapeshift once, and his other powers are never touched upon. Another great sign was that director Lewis Teague was brought in to try and fix the film, and afterward requested his credit be removed. So lots, of confidence there. The Austin Chronicle review for the pilot said it “wants desperately to be Friends with superpowers. Instead, sadly, it comes off as Mystery Men without the jokes.” I can’t think of a better summation than that.
Honorable Mention: Generation X (1996)
Based On: Generation X, created by Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo
The other big attempt by Fox to bring Marvel to TV, this time using the popular X-Men spinoff. It’s been a while since I saw it and couldn’t remember too much beyond Finola Hughes being Emma Frost, Matt Frewer being the villain and the whitewashing of the Chinese American Jubilee. I vaguely recall it was even more painfully ’90s than Nick Fury was, with a villain and plot weirdly similar to Riddler’s in Batman Forever?
Honorable Mention: Dr. Strange (1978)
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention this pilot movie, mainly due to the late great Jessica Walter playing the villain Morgan Le Fay. However, since I have not seen more than a few clips to judge it fairly, it must remain an honorable mention.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of all or even the worst superhero TV pilots; I’m sure I am missing a few. These are just the ones that I have watched and come to mind for this article. Feel free to add your examples.
Image sources (in order of posting): The CW, Warner Bros/NBC, Marvel/20th Century Television, Warner Bros/CBS