As has been repeated ad nauseam at this point, the release of The Avengers this Friday marks the first time that a batch of individual superheroes who aren't already part of an ensemble (like, say, the X-Men) have teamed up on the big screen in a live-action feature. It's a momentous occasion and all, but it's worth pointing out that television has already beaten them to the punch. Within the past few decades, both DC and Marvel have staged small screen crossover events that united some of their biggest heroes. So why aren't these special one-shots as celebrated as The Avengers? Easy... they're all pretty terrible. For the completest and the curious, though, here are the TV team-ups that pre-date Joss Whedon's new blockbuster. (Note: this list covers live-action TV shows only; these crossovers are a far more common event on the many, many Marvel and DC-related animated series out there, which are a revolving door for special guest stars.)
Legend of the Superheroes (1979)
Who Was In It: Pretty much the entire Justice League -- minus the otherwise occupied Superman and Wonder Woman -- including Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles from the TV series), Captain Marvel, Black Canary, Huntress, Green Lantern, the Flash and Hawkman.
What It Was: A pair of hour-long specials produced by Hanna-Barbera that were meant to function as live-action complements of the company's popular Super Friends animated series. The first installment, entitled "The Challenge," pitted the JLA against the Legion of Doom, who cruelly crashed the League's birthday festivities for the retired adventurer Scarlet Cyclone. (Those monsters! Aren't birthday parties supposed to be neutral ground?) The second, "The Roast," found the heroes showing their lighter side by participating in a comedy roast emceed by none other than Ed McMahon.
Why It Stunk: Take your pick: the terrible costumes, the cheesy writing and the terrible late '70s variety show production values. But personally, we'll go with this jaw-dropping moment from "The Roast" when a hero calling himself Ghetto Man takes the stage for a two-minute comedy routine. Believe it or not, they actually showed this crap on television.
One Redeeming Feature: The existence of these specials means that Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin isn't the single worst live-action incarnation of the Dynamic Duo.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
Who Was In It: The Incredible Hulk and the Mighty Thor
What It Was: The first of three made-for-TV movies reuniting Bill Bixby as David (not Bruce) Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his green-skinned alter ego after the original Incredible Hulk series went off the air. The plot finds Banner attempting to rid himself of the Hulk once and for all, with problematic consequences. Along the way, he encounters scientist Dr. Donald Blake who has a mystical hammer than can summon the Norse god known as Thor, who understandably regards the big green guy as a sizeable threat, leading to a slugfest that's not exactly for the ages.
Why It Stunk: The changes made to Thor's character (Blake doesn't turn into Thor -- he just teleports him in when he's needed) are pretty silly and the actor that plays the God of Thunder (Eric Kramer, who is currently on the Disney Channel series Good Luck Charlie) is no Bill Bixby. Hell, he isn't even Lou Ferrigno.
One Redeeming Feature: Ferrigno is still a more intimidating Hulk than any of the CGI versions.
The Trial of The Incredible Hulk (1989)
Who Was In It: The Incredible Hulk and Daredevil
What It Was: The second chapter in the Hulk TV movie trilogy that ended in 1990 with The Death of the Incredible Hulk. This time around, Banner-as-Hulk rescues a woman that's being assaulted by henchmen of the town kingpin Wilson Fisk. When he reverts to human form, he's arrested and charged with committing the crime himself. His defense lawyer? None other than blind attorney Matt Murdock a.k.a. the Man Without Fear.
Why It Stunk: Well, there's Daredevil's outfit for starters; we weren't wild about the red leather ensemble that Ben Affleck sported in Hornhead's big-screen outing, but it's much better than the ninja pajamas he wears here. And despite the title, the Hulk never actually gets put on trial outside of a dream sequence. Talk about false advertising.
One Redeeming Feature: Vancouver -- where the movie was shot -- apparently got to premiere its new mass-transit system the SkyTrain onscreen. As the star of the film might say, "Hulk support public transportation!"
Smallville: Justice (2007) and Smallville: Absolute Justice (2009)
Who Was In It: Justice featured future-Superman Clark Kent, as well as Bart Allen (Impulse), Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Victor Stone (Cyborg) and Oliver Queen (Green Arrow). Absolute Justice kept Green Arrow and brought in Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Stargirl and the Star-Spangled Kid.
What It Was: Several DC heroes passed through Smallville during the course of the show's ten-season run, but these two stunt episodes were the only time they all shared the screen together with the soon-to-be Man of Steel. "Justice" assembled the young version of the Justice League to uncover one of Lex's top-secret projects, while "Absolute Justice" puts Clark in contact with a group of classic heroes from the long vanished past of... the 1970s.
Why It Stunk: Chalk it up mainly to miscasting (though Justin Hartley eventually did grow into a solid Green Arrow) and the fact that the late seasons of Smallville were just pretty terrible in general.
One Redeeming Feature: We actually kinda liked Stargate SG-1 veteran Michael Shanks' interpretation of Hawkman. Do we smell a spin-off TV movie?
The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk are both available on DVD as a two-disc set; "Justice" is included on Smallville: The Complete Sixth Season and "Absolute Justice" is included on Smallville: The Complete Ninth Season. Legend of the Superheroes is also on available on DVD for superhero masochists.
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