By now, movies based on Marvel properties are a $12 billion enterprise, with several different studios and production companies involved churning out hit after hit. Largely, this trend began with 2000’s X-Men (though it could be argued that 1998’s Blade was the instigator), and since then, almost 30 films have been made from Marvel’s vast comic book catalog. However, Marvel’s on-screen outings did not begin in the late ’90s. No siree. In fact, for 20 years previous, characters from the comics had been seen in television or direct-to-video movies. While Marvel would probably just as soon forget about them, they are important in seeing how the comics innovator went from schlock to rock.
The Amazing Spider-Man TV movie – 1977
In 1977, there was a primetime Spider-Man television show. It featured Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) as he donned his red jumpsuit, swung around on webs, and kicked bad guys in the face. However, the bad guys were simply crime bosses and corrupt businessmen and not really anything that would need a radioactive webslinger. As you can see from this promo for the TV movie (which was the pilot), the effects and fighting were pretty weak even for late ’70s TV. Plus, they filmed in Los Angeles, so there are barely enough tall buildings for him to climb on anyway. Two more TV movies followed in 1978 and 1979, just episodes of the show edited together.
The Incredible Hulk TV Movie – 1977
Hot on the heels of Spider-Man came another TV-movie-turned-pilot, this time to a much higher degree of success. The conceit behind The Incredible Hulk show was that David Banner (name changed from Bruce for the show because the network thought the name Bruce was gay. True story) wanders from place to place, trying not to turn into a giant green rage monster while reporter Jack McGee tries to catch him. The genius of this concept, and what kept them making Incredible Hulk TV movies well into the ’90s is that Bill Bixby played Banner and Lou Ferrigno played the Hulk. The latter wore a bit of makeup, but there was really no special effect needed. Also, Thor showed up in the third movie, The Incredible Hulk Returns, in 1988.
Dr. Strange TV Movie – 1978
Possibly the most forgettable of these late-70s TV movies, this version of Dr. Strange was way more disco than it should have been, with Peter Hooten’s porn ‘stache in full view most of the time. Notable, perhaps, for having Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development) as Morgan Le Fay. Stan Lee actually had a lot of creative input into this film, but it suffered in the ratings due to it being shown opposite the behemoth that was Roots. Tough break there, Strange.
Captain America TV Movie – 1979
Yet a fourth attempt to jump-start a TV show with a movie. This one did not take, however; probably because, as the above promo shows, it’s incredibly boring. Starring Reb Brown (known in some circles as Slab Bulkhead, Dirk Thickneck, Rip Hardbody, or Big McLarge-Huge), this version took out almost the entire plot from the comics, making Steve Rogers just a guy whose dad developed a serum, not a WWII soldier at all. They tried again with a second TV movie with the same cast later that year, but neither of the motorcycle-helmet, clear-shielded outings of this Cap made much of an impact.
Howard the Duck Feature Film – 1986
I don’t think much explanation needs to be made about this one, other than to say that this was the very first Marvel comic made into a big-screen adventure. The brainchild of George Lucas, Howard the Duck was an irreverent, sex-crazed, ’80s fowl who came to our world through a thing with the thing. The 1980s were not the best time for comic books, and certainly not for movies based on them (until 1989’s Batman, of course), so it was a bit of a leap of faith to even try to adapt such a subversive cult book. The movie stands as one of the most famous bombs in Hollywood history.
The Punisher Direct-to-Video Film – 1989
Perhaps the most right-wing of all comic book characters, Frank Castle’s one-man war on corruption was the perfect choice to be made into an over-the-top action movie in the most right-wing of decades. Released direct-to-video by Roger Corman’s New World Productions, the movie (which many argue is actually better than the two subsequent films in the 2000s) had action icon Dolph Lundgren pretty much just shooting, stabbing, strangling, or otherwise dispatching anybody with a pulse to exact his revenge. Louis Gossett Jr. plays the cop searching for him, though he must not be very good if he can’t match all the shell-casings he finds to the store at which they were purchased. Who else is buying that much ammo? Paul Kersey’s in a different city.
Captain America Direct-to-Video Film – 1990
Certainly better than the 1979 attempt, this version of Captain America was done right in that weird post-’80s, camp-obsessed period which also gave us CBS’ The Flash and Fox’s M.A.N.T.I.S. (which are both pretty good). Here, they at least keep the basic storyline of a WWII soldier who gets turned into a superhero, frozen for 45 years, and thawed out to fight Red Skull, who looks more like Red Melty Face. The production values on this are sadly lacking, though, and at times you can even see that Cap’s ears are actually pieces of rubber built into the suit.
The Fantastic Four Unreleased Feature Film – 1994
This is a movie that simply was made for monetary purposes. German producer Bernd Eichinger obtained the rights to The Fantastic Four in 1986 and attempted to get a movie made at both Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, but things kept falling through. Finally, his option was going to run out if he didn’t begin production, and so he teamed with low-budget movie guru Roger Corman to make a $1 million movie, never intended for release, just to prove that Eichinger was doing something. You can watch the movie now on YouTube, but it isn’t very good, nor was it designed to be. The cast, apparently, all were very excited for it, but soon got wind of what was going on. Eichinger went on to produce both the 2005 Fantastic Four and its 2007 sequel before passing away in 2011.
Generation X TV Movie – 1996
I probably watched this movie, I want to say, about a billion times after I taped it off of Fox in ’96. I’m a huge fan of the X-Men cartoon series, and so anything having to do with mutants had me very excited. Upon retrospect, however, the Generation X backdoor pilot was a huge disappointment. Effects for mid-’90s TV just weren’t there and even though Matt Frewer gives a typically awesome performance as the bad guy, the other actors don’t seem cut out for superheroism. It did have Jubilee in it, which I thought was fantastic, but everybody else was a bit let down, even Emma Frost. Oh well. Also worth noting, this film aired only a few months before the Doctor Who TV movie, also resulting in no series.
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV Movie – 1998
Okay, so you know how Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury in the new movies because he was drawn as the character in Mark Millar’s Ultimates? Well, in THEORY, the actor who looked the most like the traditional Fury drawing at the time was David Hasselhoff. I GUESS. That was a pretty bad casting decision, though, and the movie is pretty terrible as a result. There’s nothing realistic about the Hoff’s portrayal in the least, and he’s always mugging for the camera and chomping on his cigar. Thankfully, this was the very last of Fox’s Marvel TV movies, because only 3 months after this monstrosity aired, Blade sunk his teeth into cinemas and a new chapter began.
Certainly there are some duffs in this bag of tricks, but without these, we likely wouldn’t have the Marvel movies we have today, with more on the way. Imagine if Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been the end of it… shudder.