The Original Marvel Cinematic Universe

For kids growing up over the last 20 years, Marvel superheroes have always been big screen icons, beloved by children and adults alike for their extravagant silver screen adventures. But those of us who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s remember a time when films based on Marvel Comics were embarrassments relegated to forgotten TV movie events or direct to video disgraces. 

We might have been shy about declaring our love for these low budget superhero flicks publicly, but secretly we watched them over and over again, hoping that the live action version of the character previously available to us only in two dimensional newsprint, would somehow match the awesome action created through the filter of our imaginations. I was definitely one of these kids.

So let’s jump on Doctor Doom’s time platform and go back to see what the original Marvel Cinematic Universe looked like, as we explore some of the earliest Marvel Comics movies.

Spider-Man (1977)

One of the rare successes of adapting comic books to live action was The Incredible Hulk on CBS starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in 1977. Less known is the fact that the network also produced a Spider-Man TV movie in 1977 starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker and a funky disco musical score. The 90 minute film did get a theatrical release in foreign markets, so technically it was on the big screen at some point. This pilot movie was popular enough in the ratings that a TV series followed for 2 sporadic seasons titled The Amazing Spider-Man.

Being born in 1982, I didn’t know about any of this. I was seeing these episodes run as Sunday afternoon TV movie broadcasts on my local station KTLA-5 in 1988, but you better believe I was pressing record on the family VCR so I could watch them over and over again. Sure, I had seen a live action Spider-Man on The Electric Company on PBS, but now he was actually fighting bad guys, shooting webs and climbing buildings in New York City. It was awesome…to a 6 year old.

The series was basically the same as any private detective procedural show from the 70’s, so I fast forwarded to the action scenes most of the time. Spider-Man didn’t fight any super-powered villains, but he did have a seizure-inducing spider-sense to warn him of danger, spider-tracers, rope-like webs that shot out of giant metal bracelets on his wrists and the ability to climb up any wall around him. I thought Nicholas Hammond was a great Peter Parker in terms of sincerity, even if he was never given any quips or humorous insults to fling at the bad guys like in the comics. I liked it then and this version of the Wall-Crawler still has a special place in my heart. Truth be told, I could just do a whole article on this incarnation of the Web-Head, but let’s move on to…

Doctor Strange (1978)

As I kid, I only knew about Doctor Strange from the Marvel Universe trading cards, since this mustachioed, cape-wearing sorcerer was not cool to my generation. I later learned that the trippy art of his comics was mostly popular with college kids in the 70’s who read the books while experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. As a result, his brief foray into live action was lost to time for decades. In fact, I only learned about the TV movie from a book I found at Barnes & Noble in 1991 about live action comic book adaptations, which did not inspire me to try and track this version of Doctor Strange down.

Truth be told, this movie is DARK. Not only does it have that greasy, muddy look of all 70’s entertainment, but it features actual demons on screen and sludgy synth music. In the comics, Doctor Strange is a tale of redemption as a self-serving surgeon that loses the use of his hands and in seeking a cure becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. In this TV movie version however, it’s more of a hero’s journey where Doctor Stephen Strange discovers his secret destiny to become master of the mystic arts while battling the ancient sorceress, Morgan LeFay in modern day.

The film is a fine magical adventure story, but the real issue is the lead, Peter Hooten as Doctor Strange. He looks like a scuzzy, alcoholic uncle who comes around asking your parents for money every couple of months, pulling up to the house in an outdated sports car and smelling like Aqua Velva cologne. You gotta give them points for outfitting him in fairly comics accurate garb by the end, but the general vibe of this dude is creepier than the dark creatures he battles.

Captain America/Captain America II: Death too Soon (1979) 

No doubt the name Captain America had been boosted to a higher profile by the motorcycle mounted hippie from Easy Rider a decade earlier and the nation’s bi-centennial celebration in 1976, but this pair of TV movies broadcast on CBS were barely based on the comics at all. This version of the origin found sensitive beefcake and fine artist, Steve Rogers receiving the FLAG formula to save his life after an accident which gave him advanced strength and reflexes. It’s stated that his father was the original Captain America, so he’s reluctantly recruited by the government as a super-powered secret agent. 

I remember renting the first Captain America film on VHS from Blockbuster Video in 1995 and immediately falling asleep. While the character did have a period as a commercial artist in the comics, seeing Steve Rogers painting, then riding off in a custom conversion van was not getting my blood pumping. When he finally did get a costume at the end, it had striped suspenders and a big, goofy helmet! It was super disappointing that we only saw a closer approximation of comic book costume in the last seconds of the film with a wobbly, translucent shield. The only saving grace was the occasional cool motorcycle stunt.

Though the classic costume appears throughout the sequel, the movie isn’t much better than the first. Most of it comes down to Reb Brown as Steve Rogers, who just looks like a giant, pouty baby with no charisma. Plus, he starts out hugely buff before taking on his superhero persona, which is in direct opposition to the appeal of Steve Rogers in the comics. The comics origin presents us with a brave man in a scrawny body, that was given the ability to fight for freedom with a physical power that matched his will. In these movies the FLAG serum seemed totally unnecessary for Reb Brown to bash some heads. 

Howard The Duck (1986)

Though not recognized by the general populous as such, Howard The Duck was the first big budget, live action adaptation of a Marvel comic book to be released in theaters. With the power of George Lucas producing the film in the wake of the insanely successful Star Wars trilogy, it was sure to be a hit, right? Unfortunately audiences cried fowl. Which is probably the 50th time that joke has been used since the film laid an egg at the box office. (I can’t stop!)

The comic itself was the off-beat creation of writer, Steve Gerber and artist, Val Mayerik that acted as a social satire more than a standard comic book adventure series and the character has shown up as a guest star in other Marvel comics and productions as a joke for decades. Howard was definitely not a high-profile character to base a movie around, but the wacky sensibilities of the film fit very well the ideas contained on the printed page. Plus, Lea Thompson is just great presence in the movie.

I was personally confused, but fascinated by Howard The Duck when I rented it as a 7 year old. The only thing that stuck with me were the awesome original songs by 80’s pop star, Thomas Dolby. It wasn’t until decades later after seeing it at a Midnight screening, that I realized what a unique and creative film Howard The Duck truly is. The action is wild, the jokes are acerbic and dark, the animatronics are actually pretty impressive for their time. It’s a very re-watchable film, where you’ll catch a different nuance with every viewing.

The Incredible Hulk Returns/Trial of The Incredible Hulk/Death of The Incredible Hulk (1988-1990)

After The Incredible Hulk TV series ended in the early 80’s, Bill Bixby became a producer, as well as the star of 3 NBC TV movies featuring himself and Lou Ferrigno back in their iconic roles. The best part though, was that Bixby was trying to build an actual Marvel Television Universe! An MTU if you will. Having been too young to watch the original TV series these Hulk movies were my introduction to this live acton version of the character and the best part was, I was getting two heroes for the price of one!

In The Incredible Hulk Returns, David Banner is visited by an old student, Don Blake, who just happened to find the hammer of Thor on an expedition and could summon the Norse God of Thunder by shouting, “Ooooodiiiiin!” Of course Hulk and Thor tussle and eventually team up to battle bad guys. It was a dream come true for me as a 6 year old. Funny enough, I’m pretty sure I only knew who Thor was because of Vincent Dinofrio’s cameo in Adventures In Babysitting, where the young girl was obsessed with Thor from Marvel Comics and thought his mechanic character resembled the hero. Dinofrio would eventually get a proper Marvel role as the Kingpin on Netflix’s Daredevil series. Speaking of which…

Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989 teamed up the green goliath with Daredevil to fight John Rhys-Davies as Wilson Fisk. While I have to admit to being disappointed that Daredevil was dressed in black nylons instead of red spandex, I thought it was so cool that yet another Marvel hero had been adapted to live action in a decent story. Speaking of black costumes, Bill Bixby was actually planning to bring back Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man in the character’s black costume for one of these TV movies, but the project fell through. If that had happened, I would have lost my young mind.

Death of the Incredible Hulk was the third and final Hulk TV movie, which featured a Black Widow type spy as a love interest for Bixby, but aside from giving the David Banner character an exit from his tortured life as the Hulk, it wasn’t my favorite of this run. That being said, you can hear a review of that final film on a bonus episode of the WIZARDS podcast here.

The Punisher (1989)

Tough guys with machine guns ruled the box office in the 80’s, so it only makes sense that The Punisher would get his own movie. Especially when you consider that he had been blowing bad guys away in a hail of bullets on Marvel Comics pages for decades. After playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and a barely recognizable He-Man in the live action Masters of the Universe movie, Dolph Lundgren would not have been anybody’s first choice to play Frank Castle, but with short, dyed black hair, he basically fit the part from a visual perspective. Luckily he had Lou Gosset Jr. at his side to provide actual acting ability.

Of course the biggest sin of The Punisher is that the character never appears with the iconic skull on his chest during the running time of the film or even in the promotional materials. This was a huge mistake since that iconography is 90% of the character’s appeal. One major mistake aside, I really like The Punisher as an 80’s action movie. I remember catching this direct to video movie on TV in the mid-90’s and finally getting my hands on both VHS and DVD copies years later.

The Punisher has a lot of cool set pieces, like a huge gun fight in a carnival fun house and a neat sequence with killer ninjas in a dojo lair setting. Overall, The Punisher vs the Yakuza is a pretty solid premise and the gritty action in the film is worthy of the character’s violent, vengeful origins.

Captain America (1990)

I remember seeing a teaser poster for Captain America at my local movie theater in 1989, with just his shield on a black background and being so excited to buy my ticket to see it a few months later. Unfortunately, the movie never showed up on the marquee and I had to wait until it arrived for rental at Blockbuster Video. I rented it, liked and and then bought the VHS copy when it was offered for sale as a Previously Viewed tape. Was this the most accurate depiction of a Marvel Comics character on screen? My answer is YES!

Looking past the semi-boring performance of the star, Matt Salinger as Steve Rogers, this movie hits all the key points of the Captain America origin story. It begins in the 1940’s where a polio-stricken man is given a super soldier serum and becomes Captain America. He battles the deformed Red Skull and is frozen in arctic ice while stopping a rocket from blowing up The White House. He then reawakens in the modern day as a man out of time and has to stop The Red Skull again. All this takes place while dressed in the most literal translation of comic book costume to live action outfit ever. Even the shield looks like it jumped off the cover of a comic book.

Some purists gripe about the Red Skull being changed from German to Italian and much mockery is made of the bizarre rubber ears attached to the costume, but this is a solid story with some great action sequences and Ronny Cox from RoboCop as a butt-kicking President of the United States! Director Albert Pyun makes the most of his modest budget, to pull off a convincing adventure. Some modern MCU movies may be better produced, but they still take liberties with the source material, while this film is 100% faithful to Marvel’s Sentinel of Liberty.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

This infamous Roger Corman Fantastic Four movie had a ton of misinformation surrounding it for years after it failed to see release, but luckily an entire documentary called DOOMED managed to clear up the long held belief that “the film was so bad, it was shelved”. In reality it was part of a ploy by the producer to not lose the rights to make a larger budget version at some point and was never intended to be released. Despite that devious plan, the director managed to get a copy into circulation and it made the rounds as a bootleg video available at comic book conventions for decades.

So how is the final product? It’s a very sincere film with a few wonky effects based on the budget (and misrepresentation by the computer effects studio), but you will never see a more comics-accurate Doctor Doom on screen. Even with the voice being muffled by the mask, it’s still a Shakespearean level performance that is lit beautifully for all of the villain’s time on screen. Praise also deserves to be given to The Thing costume, which is beautifully crafted animatronic suit. 

I remember seeing promo photos from the movie while flipping through Film Threat and Comic Scene magazine’s at the grocery store magazine rack in 1994 and being so excited for the film to come out. When I finally saw the movie 20 years later, I wasn’t thrilled, but I wasn’t disappointed either. It wonderfully captures the spirit of the original 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comic book, as well as a low budget movie of the time could manage. We had a 4-part conversation with Roger Corman Fantastic Four superfan, Steven Tsapelas on the WIZARDS podcast, which you can listen to here.

Generation X (1996)

4 years before Hugh Jackman popped his claws as Wolverine in the big budget X-Men film, Marvel mutants made their first live action appearance in the Generation X TV movie on the FOX network. Written by 21 Jump Street creator, Eric Blakenly, helmed by the director of A Nightmare On Elm Street 2 and based on the new Marvel Comic series of the same name, this colorful, angsty movie did not ultimately act as the intended launch of a long-running television series, but it definitely left an impression on me.

Our family VCR had broken just before the movie was set to air, so I had to ask a friend to record this movie for me and I still have that VHS tape to this day, after watching it countless times in my youth. What was it that appealed to me about the film as a Freshman in high school? The dialogue was snappy, the fashion was trendy and the camera angles were tilted at the wildest possible angles. Plus, there were super powers on display every couple of minutes to keep the fanboy in me happy. It should be noted that the movie did eventually get an R-rated video release in the U.K. featuring racy deleted scenes and dialogue.

Heather McComb as Jubilee and Bumper Robinson as Mondo were the standouts among the students in terms of attitude, but the playful banter between their mentors, Sean “Banshee” Cassidy and Emma “White Queen” Frost was worthy of Moonlighting’s first season. It’s a film that embodies the 90’s pop culture aesthetic so well, that to watch it now is a total timewarp. At the very least you will get some laughs out of this one, intentional or otherwise. Just as with the Corman Fantastic Four, Steven Tsapelas and I talked at length about our love of Generation X on a bonus episode of WIZARDS here.

Nick Fury, Agent of Shield (1998)

FOX was in the Marvel TV movie business at this time and though Generation X wasn’t a hit, they were already moving forward with David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in all his black leather glory. For those who don’t know, the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury was a creation of Marvel’s Ultimates universe in the 2000’s, prior to that the character was a grizzeld, white, ex-army sergeant turned super spy who was always on the periphery of Marvel universe events, but rarely the star of his own adventures at this time.

As a result, even in press interviews at the time, Hasselhoff explained that the biggest hurdle in getting the multiple TV movies that were planned into production, was to make kids aware of how cool their grandparents thought Nick Fury was. It didn’t work. He wasn’t a mutant, he didn’t have super powers or a mask, he was just a dude with a gun and an eye patch. Plus, it was very hard to take the guy who had traded his leather jacket and talking car from the 80’s for a pair of red swim trunks in the 90’s seriously as an action hero.

Though Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was written by David S. Goyer, who would go on to pen the Christopher Nolan Batman films, all 3 Blade films and many more, the movie just played too campy and outdated for the audience of the late 90’s that wanted their entertainment to be EXTREME and star anti-heroes with a chip on their shoulders. Speaking of Goyer…

Blade (1998)

Credited by some as the first successful “Marvel Movie”, Blade was hardly a household name, even to comic book fans. Having appeared in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series in the 70’s and with several unsuccessful attempts to market the character as a solo adventurer to his name, it’s definitely the charisma of Wesley Snipes and the edgy atmosphere created by director, Stephen Norrington that made this “Daywalker” a box office sensation.

Pre-dating the black leather trench coat and martial arts aesthetic of The Matrix by a little under a year, the vampire butt-kicking in the film was insanely awesome and definitely the start of a trend in Hollywood. Snipes made the fangs look cool and the fight choreography was something audiences had never seen before, but there’s no major evidence in the years following the film’s release that the popularity of Blade did anything to raise the bankability of a movie based on a Marvel comic book.

The film did launch an entire trilogy of films and TV series, but all were a case of diminishing returns. Even in the Marvel comic book universe, Blade never did gain the popularity that his on-screen counterpart achieved for that moment in time. I saw it in theaters based on the hype, but it never fit the bill of a “comic book movie” in my mind.

So there you have it, several films in the hypothetical “original” Marvel Cinematic Universe released before such a concept could ever have been imagined. I made my opinions known, now I’d love to hear what you think about these comic books turned live action adventures.

About Adam Pope 215 Articles
Living in the past and loving it. A child of the 80s/90s who enjoys collecting old VHS tapes, action figures, video games and remembering the fun of being a kid. Co-Host of WIZARDS The Podcast Guide To Comics who loves talking 90's comics.

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