At the end of each episode of the TV show The Adventures of Superman, credit is given to the comics with the line, "Superman is based on the original character appearing in Superman magazine." By 1952, when the show premiered, villains such as Lex Luthor, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Prankster, and Ultra-Humanite had already appeared in the comics (along with many who were not well known).

Why did the series avoid using any of these villains and avoid any of the more colorful villains and stick with everyday threats, such as gangsters?

  • 5
    Can you imagine how expensive special-effects to render Mr. Mxyzptlyk would have been? Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 19:13
  • Yeah, @ErnestFriedman-Hill, but I can also imagine how many ways they would have found to do it cheaply or to dumb it down so they could do it.
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 19:19
  • Because the show wasn't being introduced to comic reading audiences, it was being written for NON-COMIC reading audiences who might not have related as well to the fantastic characters and colorful villains. (Not to mention the first episodes were in black and white.) Likely the ready availability of props from other genres helped dictate what stories were being told in this live-action version of the character. Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 22:59
  • @Thaddeus: That's a good point. If you have something that backs that up, wouldn't it be a good answer? (Warning: Someone else has told me they're researching it to give a good answer, too.)
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 0:38
  • 5
    I was alive then and watched the series. I remember people being of mixed opinions about Superman because he seemed like a good guy but it was hard to trust a man who couldn't be stopped by anything...The comic fans were tickled to see their hero in the flesh, so the fact there were few if any fantastic villains didn't bother them at all. We thrilled to watch Superman burst through walls and bounce bullets. We ignored the fact he would duck to dodge the thrown guns once they ran out of bullets... Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 0:58

2 Answers 2


The short answer is, because comic books and TV shows targeted towards children (Superman being sponsored by Kellogg's, to market their Frost Flakes and later plain Corn Flakes) there was public outcry about the content within them.

Robert Maxwell had already developed season one primarily off his radio program before he went looking for sponsors. When Kellogg's reviewed season one they insisted that the violence be toned down to make the show more kid friendly.

The most objectionable moments from 1951 had been removed in the re-editing of the series, and were not likely to be repeated no matter who sat in the producer's chair. Watchdog groups would ensure that macabre plots and sadistic villains would no longer be welcome. - ch 12.

When Ellsworth took over there was already outcry for season one. Writers such as Jackson Gillis tried to introduce more epic villains, but Ellsworth's editing veto prevented it.

Meldini is described int he teleplay as "a myopic European scientist" with an accent. Ellsworth's first change was to turn him into something out of a comic book. Gillis' scientist was far more grim and evil. - ch 12.

In April of 1953 there were Congressional Committee hearings on juvenile delinquency, with comic books and television programs being show cased and negative influences.

"Superman (with the big S on his uniform -- we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and 'foreign-looking' people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible." - Wertham's conclusion on comic book influences. - ch 13.

In September of that same year 24 publishers came together to create the Comics Code Authority, which used a template of DC's Code of Ethics originally created by Ellsworth and Liebowitz in 1940. It included the clause In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

Ellsworth may have thought he'd effectively toned down the violence after Maxwell, but now he even had to reign in his own taste. Banished forever were stories that might remotely be construed as horror or overly suspenseful, such as "Panic in the Sky", "A Ghost for Scotland Yard" and 'Lady in Black." Banished was any form of murder, both on- and off-screen, and if a character received a blow to the head, the scrip specified that it should happen "OUT OF FRAME,' with never so much as a lump afterward. Banished were criminal masterminds like the Wrecker, replaced for the most part with bumbling two-bit hoodlums. If one with a medium of intelligence happened to slip by, he was always paired with an imbecile. - emphasis added. ch 13.

That last quote is perhaps the most telling. Super criminals such as Lex Luthor were not allowed on the show.

Superman was now to be a children's show first, a family show second, with no risk of controversy. - ch 13.

Scifi villains such as Brainiac were somewhat out of character for the show. Other than the title Kryptonian, other aliens and out-world stories were at a bare minimum.

It wasn't until 1957 that would change.

By the summer of '57, comic book fantasy had replaced Davy Crockett heroism in the eyes of American youth. Shrinking men and hulking giants , prehistoric creatues and teenaged werewolves forced the singing cowboy from the B-picture scene. The logical solution was to let fast-paced action take a back seat to situations laced with science fiction overtones. For the first time, the producer would dispense with Mort Weisinger's services and simply co-write non of the scripts himself; - ch 14

That didn't change the general tone of the show and the insistence that Good must triumph over Evil. The show had also always featured Clark Kent and the Daily Planet with Superman coming in the end to save the day. To introduce regular super villains would have requirement more of the story to focus on Superman.

| All quotes are taken from Flights of Fantasy: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio & TV's Adventures of Superman

Superman Super Site has this to say:

Neither Lex Luthor, Brainiac nor any of the regular comic book villains were used in the TV scripts, although a midget Martian, "Mr. Zero" (Billy Curtis) bore a vague similarity (in relative size only) to the comics' magical imp and recurring Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk. Carrying over the precedents established in previous electronic media productions of Superman, the bad guys on the TV show were usually generic thugs, evil scientists, Russian agents, crooked businessmen, or spies of fictitious foreign countries.

The claim that it was a precedent of established electronic media to not include the likes of Lex Luthor is patently false. As the 1950 Atom Man vs Superman has Lex Luthor masquerading as Atom Man against Superman.

  • Excellent answer!
    – Tango
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 23:27

The answer is likely more simple than the violence aspect, and has been the same answer for almost every superhero TV show we've seen until recent history.

They cost money.

Until the Marvel shows, almost no live-action comic book based TV show has offered "super-villains" on par with what see in the comics. And the reason is simple - they're expensive. The expense of the hero already putting a strain on the budget - Hulk could transform no more than twice an episode, for example. So the cost of TWO effects-heavy characters would break the bank.

So Wonder Woman fought generic Nazis, Spider-Man fought industrial criminals, and a guy with mind-control gas, and even Lois and Clark's "Super" level enemies were few and far between.

The villains are less well known

Everybody knows who Superman is. Brainiac? Not so much. So save for the fan-service of using a character from the comics, the producers decided the average TV viewer would be just as entertained by Superman fighting gangsters than, say, The Trickster. Lois and Clark used Luthor as the main villain because by that point, he had become as well known to the public as Superman, thanks to the movies. It was only in later seasons did they start bringing in characters that only (mostly) the comics fans would know, like Mr, Mxyzptlk and Intergang.

Add to that the cost factor of the first point (plus they'd probably have to pay for the rights to use any such character if they didn't already come as part of the initial deal) and you can see why they'd decide it simply didn't pay.

This is even the case going backwards - we didn't see "super villains" in the Republic serial adventures either. The Joker never showed up in the Batman Serials, nor Sivana in Captain Marvel. They didn't even use any of the classic baddies in Dick Tracy.

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