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Before Marvel Comics Movies Were Cool

By Bert Ehrmann
June 20, 2008

Movies based on Marvel Comics characters/titles seem to be dominating the box office the last few years. Be it the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises that have earned more than $1.7 billion dollars combined worldwide, or the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk this summer that is sure to take that number well north of $2 billion by years end, things couldn’t be better for Marvel.

Howard the DuckBut things weren’t always that great for Marvel characters. Before the release of X-Men in 2000, not a single movie based on a Marvel Comics character had succeeded at the box office. In fact, the ONLY Marvel Comics character to reach the big screen before X-Men here in the U.S. was a movie based on a talking duck.

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s films based on Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Iron Man all were languishing in “development hell” while the few films that were based on Marvel characters either failed at the box office or skipped theaters entirely and instead went direct to video. (In fact, one of these films was never officially released.) 

The PunisherHoward the Duck was technically the first Marvel Comics character to find life on the big screen in 1986. The movie featured a talking duck in the title role that is zapped from his planet to Earth that teams up with a Cleveland punk rocker (Lea Thompson) to do battle with evil aliens bent on world domination. (And people say the 1980s were bad for film.)

Two Marvel movies that were never actually released here in the U.S. and instead went direct to video were The Punisher (1989) and Captain America (1990). It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of these two films, but Punisher starred then “it” action guy Dolph Lundgren as the title character who spent much of the film riding his motorcycle around the sewers of some large city to do battle with ninjas while delivering dialog such as “THE GUILTY WILL BE PUNISHED!!!” A Punisher relaunch movie was released in 2004 and has the distinction of not being all that much better than the 1990 version.

Captain AmericaI remember little about the 1990 Captain America movie other than it featured WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America waking up in present day 1990 to do battle with Euro-Trash Nazis bent on world domination. 

A movie based on the comic series Fantastic Four was filmed in the mid-1990s but was never released in any form. In the book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, author David Hughes suggests that the movie’s producers were contractually obligated to deliver a Fantastic Four movie by a certain date, or the property would revert back to Marvel. Realizing that a mega-budget version of Fantastic Four was on the horizon (and eyeing a piece of that film’s grosses) the producers hired schlock-producer Roger Corman to film a cheepy version of Fantastic Four for a reported $1.5 million. This fulfilled their contractual obligations and allowed them to retain the rights to Fantastic Four a little while longer. Apparently, there was nothing in the contract about the movie being released, only one getting made.

Fantastic FourThere were also a few attempts at launching two Marvel Comics titles to TV series in the late 1990s on Fox with Generation X (1996) and Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998). I seem to remember Generation X as having taken everything that made the comic series special and discarding it for the proposed series while all I need to say about Nick Fury is that it starred David Hasselhoff in the title role. Though both Generation X and Nick Fury aired as two-hour movies of the week, neither was ever turned into a series.  

Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at things) NONE of the Marvel movies profiled above from the 1980s or 1990s are currently available on any medium other than VHS. And I’m guessing it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. 

Expect a sequel to The Punisher (2004) later this year, a movie based on the X-Men character Wolverine in '09, a new Captain America and an Avengers film later this decade as well as a sequel to Iron Man in 2010.