Since the release of Iron Man ten years ago, Marvel Studios has changed the face of the film industry, flooding blockbuster season with superhero movies and making comic book properties the hottest cinematic commodity this side of the Human Torch.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, in the years leading up to the invention of the MCU, Marvel was in some seriously dire financial straits, leading the company to sell most of their high profile character rights to film studios like Sony and Fox.
While everyone has seen the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies or the Bryan Singer helmed X-Men movies, there’s a whole realm of radically strange licensed Marvel movies that made their way to the small screens before Tony Stark donned the suit in 2008. From bootleg Doctor Strange to the unreleased Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie that was only made to secure the character rights to a Thor and Hulk team-up that predates Ragnarok by 29 years, we’ve got all of your strange Marvel movie needs covered. So grab your rubber ears, your Spider-Man jammies, and your Marvel’s Giant-Sized Man-Thing t-shirt and get ready to get really, really weird.
The ’70s were a bad time for Marvel Comics. Stan Lee stepped down as Editor-in-Chief, and the company cycled through replacements as sales flagged. So it was with much fanfare that the company joined forces with CBS to create a live-action Spider-Man show, premiering in 1977 with this feature-length episode. Featuring a terrifying costume and some truly strange story about a guru who threatens to make New Yorkers kill themselves, this is an unmissable oddity for Marvel fans.
Dr. Strange (1978)
Ever wanted to watch a disco Doctor Strange movie? Well thanks to this feature length pilot from CBS, you can! After the success of their Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk TV series, CBS commissioned this unwatchable Doctor Strange adaptation based on Steve Ditko’s Sorcerer Supreme. It’s hard to really describe what this film is about, but it includes Strange wearing a lot of gold chains battling an evil entity whilst also tricking street magicians with his magic skills.
Captain America / Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
These very loose adaptations of Captain America reimagine Steve Rogers as the son of an uber patriot who creates the so-called “FLAG” serum from his own glands before being murdered. Steve is a marine who makes his money as a traveling illustrator because, you know, that’s a viable career. In the sequel, Christopher Lee stars as a young revolutionary armed with an aging accelerant, which inevitably kills him in a final act battle with Cap in picturesque Portland.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
Almost 30 years before Taika Waititi reinvigorated the MCU with Thor: Ragnarok, Hulk and Thor teamed up for this classic TV movie which saw Bruce Banner baffled by the arrival of the God of Thunder. This truly ridiculous sequel to the Incredible Hulk TV series opens with Banner at peace and no longer transforming until Donald Blake brings back a Scandinavian hammer with the soul of Thor inside. Inevitably, Thor and Hulk team up to take down the mob… because why not?
Captain America (1990)
If you grew up in the ’90s, it’s likely that you saw this incredibly odd and lo-fi Captain America movie. Because the creative team wanted a holiday in Italy, they made the Red Skull a young prodigy kidnapped by his country’s fascist government and turned into an evil monster. Steve (played by J.D. Salinger’s son) is from Southern California and has rubber ears, and the biggest set piece is a charming bike chase! A true B-movie classic.
Doctor Mordrid (1992)
Full Moon is known for their low budget horror movies, but few are as strange as this sort-of-licensed Marvel adaptation. Charles Band once held the rights to Doctor Strange, but by the time they made this movie in the ’90s the rights had expired, leading to this rewritten oddity starring Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs as the very bootleg Stephen Strange knock-off Doctor Mordrid.
Fantastic Four (1994)
Roger Corman’s now infamous unreleased ’94 movie was made in 21 days as an attempt by German producer Bernd Eichinger to retain the rights to the first family of Marvel. Despite a premiere planned at the Mall of America, the film was never officially released. But it’s since become a stalwart of bootleg DVD stands at comic conventions everywhere. The best thing about the movie is the rubber suit worn by The Thing, and that’s not a compliment.
Generation X (1996)
This feature length Fox pilot is honestly one of the most ’90s things of all time, and it’s all the better for it. The story follows Jubilation Lee as she sets off fireworks in an arcade and gets saved by Emma Frost and Banshee, the heads of Xavier’s Weirdly faithful whilst changing enough important stuff to be very bad, this is also the first place you see Hatley Castle, which is used for Xavier’s school in all X-movies going forward.
Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998)
Ten years before Samuel L. Jackson donned the eye patch, there was another Nick Fury, one who also liked to watch the bay. Yes, David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury is a real thing, and they made an entire film about it. Not much to write home about, this Fox pilot is probably most notable because of the Hoff and the inclusion of the Von Strucker kids, a version of whom now lead the Fox show The Gifted.
When is a Man-Thing movie not a Man-Thing movie? Well this ’05 Lionsgate horror effort definitely pushes the boundaries of what really counts as an adaptation. This movie had an unbelievable $30 million budget, but you’d never know from watching it. One of the last of the uncurated Marvel movies, it’s almost unfathomable to believe this monstrous mess came out in the same year as Batman Begins.
Have you seen any of these magical non MCU movies? Do you miss the days when character rights got thrown around like candy? Just wanna watch the Hoff as Nick Fury? Let us know below!
Images: Lionsgate, Fox, Full Moon, Marvel, CBS, Constantin Film Production