McGinnis: A brief history of early Marvel Comics moviesWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
With a take of more than $200 million at the box office in its opening weekend, “The Avengers” has reasserted Marvel’s dominance in the comic book movie genre — a trend that has lasted since the phenomenal success of “X-Men” in 2000. (One can argue that “Blade” was the first Marvel hit, but “X-Men” was the first that was based on material that was recognizably comic-based, at least to the general public.)
But with Marvel’s recent accomplishments, it’s easy to forget that before the recent renaissance, the company’s characters had an astounding lack of luck in film adaptations. Here’s a brief look at the history of Marvel characters on the big screen before “X-Men” changed everything:
“Captain America” serial (1944). Oddly enough, the first “Marvel Movie” came before there even was an official “Marvel Comics” brand. Prior to its evolution into the name that fans throughout the world know and revere today, the company began as Timely Comics in the late 1930s (its flagship title was a book called “Marvel Comics”). One of its most popular heroes was the WWII-sired Captain America, who inspired this popular movie serial.
The films bear only a passing resemblance to the comic, however — Cap is not a soldier, but an undercover district attorney, and instead of his iconic shield, he wields a pistol. Cap is played by not-quite-physical-Adonis Dick Purcell, who tragically passed away shortly after filming. Still, the serial was a decent success, which makes it all the stranger that no Marvel character made it to the big screen for 40 years afterward. And then, when one did, it was …
“Howard the Duck” (1986). Yes. Not Spidey, not Hulk, not Cap — but Howard the Duck. Oh, plenty of live-action entertainment was made based on Marvel heroes (the company became Marvel in the 1960s), but they were all for television — “The Incredible Hulk” series, a “Doctor Strange” TV movie, and a couple more adaptations of “Captain America.”
But no Marvel character made it to theaters in the United States until producer George Lucas and director Willard Hyuck adapted the bizarre comedic adventures of Howard. The result is universally derided as one of the worst movies of all time — a film that “Star Wars” fans should really watch again to remind themselves that Episodes I-III could have been much worse.
“The Punisher” (1989). I’m not talking about the 2004 version starring Thomas Jane and John Travolta — wait, really? John Travolta? No, this is an uber-low-budget version made in the late 1980s with comic badass Frank Castle played by Dolph Lundgren — wait. Dolph Lundgren? Now you’re just messing with me.
But no, this is a real flick. It also starred Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., and had almost nothing to do with the comic it was based on. Oh, sure, the Punisher is an ex-cop, he was almost killed by the Mafia and now he is a mad vigilante who kills evildoers without remorse, but he (gasp) doesn’t wear a skull on his shirt! For comic fans, that’s the most egregious omission of all.
“Captain America.” (1990). It’s fascinating that of all the heroes in the Marvel canon, it was Cap who would see the most live-action adaptations in the years before the craze really began
in 2000 — and then afterward, it took more than a decade for “The First Avenger” to get made. This time, it was a fairly low budget version starring Matt Salinger (yes, J.D.’s son) as the bearer of the stars and stripes.
At least the origin is kept pretty much intact, as Steve Rogers becomes the legendary hero via a dose of super serum, though on a quality level the movie is still a pretty big failure. Even though it was intended as a theatrical release (posters were produced, etc.), it never made it to screens in the United States — it debuted on home video, but did get released in theaters internationally.
“The Fantastic Four” (1994). Perhaps the most infamous of all Marvel movies is this little-remembered-and-less-seen opus. Though I’ve referred to previous films on this list as low-budget, the budget for this one seems to have been absent. And there’s a good reason for that — it was never released, nor was it ever intended to be released.
Constantin Films, the company that held the rights to make a movie based on the Four, stood to lose them unless they actually, you know, made a movie. So, with the help of schlock-master Roger Corman, this laughably cheap flick was produced, supposedly without ever telling the cast and crew that it was never meant to be seen. The result has remained concealed from the public eye ever since, though bootleg copies have circulated for years (and may — mind you I said may — be found if one looks on a website that rhymes with “Do Lube”).
Email Toledo Free Press Star Pop Culture Editor Jeff McGinnis at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.