The X-Men franchise may have laid the groundwork for Marvel Comics properties translating well onto the screen, but it took 2008's Iron Man to really turn that all into the idea of a cinematic universe. A big part of that long wait had to do with the mess of Marvel movies, undeveloped projects, and other movie rights shenanigans.
But before X-Men, before Iron Man, even before Blade, there were several appearances of live action Marvel heroes on the big and small screen. Some were more successful than others — indeed, a few are still the butt of several movie fan jokes — but they all represented efforts, in some ways, to get Marvel heroes on the screen.
Here are those movies, spanning (roughly) from 1944 to 1998, with a few diversions in between.
Captain America (1944)
Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty (1979)
Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Captain America (1992)
The early MCU was, of course, a bit of a gambit. After all, they were trying to do a second Hulk big screen adaptation after the lackluster reception of the first. (It went over less well than some of the other films in the end.) But perhaps the riskiest proposition was the first Captain America movie with Chris Evans, because the Cap and his patriotic splendor had been filmed more than a few times, all to varying degrees of minimal success.
Captain America was the first Marvel hero to make it on screen, starring in a series of movie serials in 1944. There was no Steve Rogers — it was district attorney Grant Gardner, who acted a lot more like Batman (another popular serial of the time). There's no shield; instead, Cap carries a gun. Oh, and instead of Bucky, Cap works alone, and fights a boilerplate mad villain instead of Nazis, essentially slapping somebody else's adventures into a Captain America suit.
In the book Republic Studios: Beyond Poverty Row and the Majors, author Richard Hurst even suggests that Republic did just use another script and insert Captain America into it. (Hurst also remarked that the serial had inadvertent fascist overtones that would have given a real Steve Rogers pause.)
Captain America was the only "Marvel" film of the Timely Comics era, which is the original name for the company that became Marvel (after briefly also being called Atlas.)
The next time a live-action Captain America would appear on screens was in 1979, when CBS produced two Captain America movies for television. Steve Rogers had a shield this time around… and a motorcycle, which was used in some of the comics in the 1970s. There's a rough approximation of the super soldier serum that gave him his powers called "Full Latent Ability Gain." But there still wasn't a real supervillain in sight, and Rogers was said to be the son of a soldier who'd been nicknamed Captain America in World War II. Oh, and also, he wore a motorcycle helmet instead of the traditional mask. (Of course, the more successful MCU movie did something similar.)
As we'll get to momentarily, the 1970s were a busy time for Marvel, so it's possible that CBS was hoping to get some of the magic that had happened to The Incredible Hulk. But alas, neither movie was well received. Like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man TV shows, the movie was unwilling to delve too far into the comic book origins of its hero, meaning supervillains were few and far in between, and the heroes mostly fought crooks.
1990's Captain America is a different affair entirely. The lead villain is the Red Skull! Captain America has his shield! But the film had started out as a Cannon Film Group production — a notoriously cheap purveyor of films of questionable quality, such as the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe. JD Salinger's son Matt was cast as Steve Rogers, and his acting skills were… questionable. As was the entire cheap production. While the barebones fundamentals of Captain America were in place (super soldier serum, Nazi-fighting, being frozen for several decades), the film itself didn't have a lot to write home about and went straight to video in the U.S., the fate of most Marvel movies of the era.
3 Dev Adam (1973)
3 Dev Adam was in no way Marvel-sanctioned, but it is too bonkers to not include somewhere on this list. Captain America and Spider-Man sharing the screen together! Except a few things are off. For instance… Captain America is fighting Spider-Man because ol' webhead is now a Patrick Bateman-level sadist and criminal. But Captain America isn't alone; he has the might of Mexican luchador hero El Santo to bring down the evil Spider-Man! Except there are several Spider-Men. It's like an unauthorized, bootleg Clone Saga!
The film is one in a long line of Turkish rip-off movies. Some, like Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (aka Turkish Star Wars) are more famous than others. Like Badi, the Turkish ET-ripoff who pees poisonous gas. For those looking for a grand cinematic adaptation true to the source material in any real sense, look elsewhere. For those who like to say "it's 4:20 somewhere!" at 11:45 a.m., this may be the movie for you.
The Incredible Hulk (1977)
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
In 1977, CBS brought The Incredible Hulk to the small screen in a TV pilot-turned-series. "David" Banner, as he was called in the series (vs. Bruce Banner in the comics), was played by Bill Bixby, while the big green guy was played by Lou Ferrigno. The initial pilot was a success, as was the subsequent series, which ran for five years. In fact, this was probably the biggest on-screen success for Marvel until Blade in 1998.
In the series, Banner is a physician studying people who have great feats of strength in times of danger, wracked with guilt over being unable to save his wife. He subjects himself to a dose of gamma radiation meant to artificially trigger such an event, accidentally overdosing. You know what happens next… he gets angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
The subsequent series rarely dealt in the cape-and-cowl superheroics, instead portraying Banner/Hulk as a sort of street-level vigilante working in aide for the common person while roving the country. (A super-powered villain popped up once in an evil Hulk episode with Dick Durock, who would later play DC Comics' Swamp Thing in two movies and a TV series.) If you want a good, nerdy deep dive, here's everything that made Banner angry and caused him to Hulk-out.
The series ended in 1982 but was brought back for a trilogy of TV movies. They were notable for being more comic book-y adaptations of the hero. The first, The Incredible Hulk Returns, featured Thor, who was played by Eric Kramer. They both face off against the mob in it. This paves the way for The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which brings in Wilson Fisk, the villain known as the Kingpin, into the fold, played by John "Gimli" Rhys-Davies. Of course, where there's a Kingpin and a trial, Daredevil isn't far behind. Indeed, Rex Smith plays the blind attorney-turned-vigilante, Matt Murdock. (Both series were to be backdoor pilots for their respective guest stars.)
Death of the Incredible Hulk nearly brought She-Hulk to the screen as well, as there were rumblings of Banner's cousin getting her own television series, though they never materialized after initially being announced for ABC. That eventually transformed into a She-Hulk theatrical movie that never saw the light of day (but there's a production shot of actress Brigette "Red Sonya" Neilsen here.) A 1990 issue of Comics Scene reported that an Iron Man/Hulk TV movie was also in the works at one point, though Bixby's death in 1993 dashed all hopes for a small screen MCU.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)
Uhh, a lot — people like Spider-Man.
As it developed The Incredible Hulk, CBS was busy at work bringing Spider-Man to the small screen, first in a television movie and then in a series that subsequently ran for two seasons. Nicholas Hammond played Peter Parker, who was not a teenager in this version. Aunt May was there and so was J. Jonah Jameson, but the series took an overall more muted approach to its heroics. It also ultimately only aired 13 episodes, being used as a sort of Sweeps Week filler.
But some of these episodes were packaged together, two at a time, and released in theaters overseas as Spider-Man, Spider-Man Strikes Back, and Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge. The series ultimately isn't much to write home about. Like The Incredible Hulk, it was uncomfortable delving into traditional superheroics, but didn't have the same kind of tragic anti-hero loner motif that kept viewers coming back for more. It was instead another sort of American superhero TV show about one hero with powers being plunged into a world of several people without.
But Supaidāman was different. Very different.
In 1978, Toei television in Japan launched its own Spider-Man series. Marvel and Toei had entered into an agreement to use each other's characters. The young motorcyclist Takuya Yamashiro investigates a UFO crash and is granted powers by a dying alien. He gains a bevy of superpowers and a giant robot named Leopardon. That means that, yes, this was a Spider-Man kaiju series!
Most of his villains were the kind of creatures you'd see in subsequent similar series: deformed aliens, giant monsters, and other ghouls that are part of the Iron Cross Army in the series. There was briefly a series called Battle Fever J spun off of the show and tangentially related to Captain America. Toei began developing Super Sentai shortly after Supaidāman ended, a series which we know stateside as Power Rangers, meaning that there's a strange connection between the Rangers and Spidey.
Prior to either Supaidāman or The Amazing Spider-Man, a live-action Spider-Man had starred in segments of The Electric Company starting in 1974. Morgan Freeman narrated several of these educational stories, which saw Spider-Man face off against some goofy children's show villains. Danny Seagren played Spider-Man, who never spoke on screen.
There was talk of a revival of the series as a TV movie in the mid-1980s, which would have seen Hammond's Spider-Man crossover with Bixby/Ferrigno's Hulk. According to an interview with Hammond, Spider-Man would have been given the black suit seen in Secret Wars (that of course later became a living being known as Venom in the comics). But Ferrigno's schedule didn't allow for the production of the movie, scuttling the project entirely.
There was an attempt to bring Spider-Man to movie theaters in 1985, which… thank god never happened. Like the aforementioned Captain America, it was to have been produced by Cannon Pictures. Joseph Zito, who directed Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and Missing In Action was slated to direct. The first draft involved Peter Parker becoming an actual spider because the producers at Cannon were unfamiliar with the character. Eventually, it became a Doc Ock/Spider-Man story to be directed by Albert Pyun (also director of Captain America), but never went into production. That's because Cannon bounced their licensing check to Marvel before the filming of film around 1989-1990. The trailer seen below was probably produced on the fly by Cannon, who would often promote their pictures before a single scene had been committed to film.
All this eventually gave way to James Cameron's take on Spider-Man as dark, gritty, aggressive… and unproduced. After a few more filming rights flips the project eventually became Sam Raimi's classic take on the character seen in 2002.
Dr. Strange (1978)
After Hulk and Spider-Man — but before Captain America — CBS tried to bring one of Marvel's more occult characters to the small screen: Doctor Strange. Played by Peter Hooten, Strange is still a "sorcerer supreme," though the origins are jumbled and condensed into a sort of passing-the-baton from a dying sorcerer to Stephen Strange.
Unlike Hulk or Spider-Man, the Dr. Strange TV movie went ahead and introduced a villainess right from the get-go… Jessica "Lucille Bluth" Walter as Morgan le Fay! Given that the movie dealt with occult themes, it was much easier to foist in "another magic user, but evil" than try to explain Green Goblin to '70s prime-time audiences, I suppose.
The film was not a success, and the character largely disappeared from live action until 2016's movie with Benedict Cumberbatch. There a few projects with the good doctor that could have been great, including an unproduced script by Alex Cox of Repo Man fame. Wes Craven was also signed on to write and direct a Doctor Strange film at one point.
But one Doctor Strange movie did make it onscreen, albeit unofficially in the guise of the 1992 film Doctor Mordrid. Producer/co-director Charles Band (whose credits include Trancers, Gingerdead Man, and Evil Bong) at one point held the option for an adaptation of the Marvel character, and b-film scribe C. Courtney Joyner (Class of 1999, more than one Puppet Master sequel) had a script written up. The option expired before the film could go into production… so they just switched a few names around, stuck Re-Animator star Jeffrey Combs in the role of "Mordrid," and made some fun and very forgettable b-movie schlock.
Howard the Duck (1986)
This film needs little introduction, perhaps because it's so legendarily bad. George Lucas served as executive producer of the film, which started out as an animated feature before Lucas suggested it move into live action. Lucas collaborator Willard Huyck was tapped to direct the feature, having worked on American Graffiti, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for Lucas.
The surrealist/absurdist comic became a crass, bizarre, unlikeable film, with Broadway actor Chip Zien voicing Howard and Lea Thompson as the love interest Beverly Switzler. The film was the first stateside movie based on a Marvel Comic since the Captain America serial, and it would ultimately be the last until 1998's Blade — perhaps owing to its notoriously rotten reputation. (A few other Marvel movies meant for the big screen instead went straight to video.)
The Punisher (1989)
The Punisher (2004)
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Before Netflix brought us the story of traumatized soldier Frank Castle to Daredevil and an upcoming solo outing, we had Dolph Lundgren's Punisher chewing the scenery and dropping straight to video. It stripped out some of the elements that really connected it to the comic—including the iconic skull logo—and left behind a standard issue overly violent, underly entertaining vigilante-fights-mob story.
Tom Jane gave the character another outing in 2004 to relatively lukewarm reception, but it was successful enough to spawn a sequel in 2008, with Ray Stevenson taking over for Jane. That film, Punisher: War Zone brought in the villain Jigsaw and amped up the cartoonish violence. Critics didn't care for War Zone but it has since become something of a cult movie. Tom Jane did, eventually, unofficially reprise the role in the short film Dirty Laundry.
Power Pack (1991)
Power Pack has never been an A-list Marvel property, but the idea of four pre-adolescents imbued with superpowers going on adventures was perfect fodder for Saturday morning children's programming. NBC commissioned a pilot based on the comic book, but it was never ordered to series. The pilot that did come out was rough, and definitely created as kiddie fair. There have been rumors that the MCU will pick up a Power Pack movie, but those haven't been officially confirmed — like most of the future of the MCU.
Fantastic Four (1994)
The Silver Surfer (1994)
Fantastic Four (2005)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Fantastic Four (2015)
If and when the Disney/21st Century Fox merger goes through, no franchise may benefit more than Fantastic Four, which has had an astounding four flops under its name… and could have committed so many more.
While CBS could have had an MCU-lite undertaking with its live-action properties in the 1970s, Marvel had never thought that big with its cinematic offerings, often optioning out film-after-film, and not always with the same studio. Originally, the Human Torch — though not the rest of the Fantastic Four — was to get a television pilot in the 1970s from Universal, which would have added Spider-Man/Hulk/Dr. Strange/Captain America crossover potential. But big-screen rights were different and Fantastic Four rights ended up under producer Bernd Eichinger. He, in turn, took his film option — which he hoped to hold onto — to cheapie film producer Roger Corman with the hopes of cranking out a low budget movie to keep the rights to the film.
Corman was given $1 million to produce the film. He tapped Oley Sassone to direct. What happened next is up for debate. The film was shot, and its tiny budget showed, with cheap special effects, bad costumes, and a Human Torch that barely used his powers. A planned theatrical release was shelved, but some involved with the production — including Stan Lee — maintain that it was never meant to be released at all, and was instead shot to retain the rights to the film. This would explain why it's never had an official release, though it has ended up on the bootleg market.
Eichinger's gambit succeeded with about a decade worth of stumbled productions, and he eventually produced the 2005 version of the film on a bigger budget. It came with a lukewarm reception but was big enough to squeeze out a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. But that film's poor reception doomed a Silver Surfer solo film, something that had long been under production.
The only semi-official Silver Surfer adaptation is a short film made in 1994. A group of USC students put together a short film as a way to test out some computer-generated imagery ideas. The film was made with Marvels' blessing, which is easier to get when you're not releasing something commercially. The impressive-for-the-time effects fueled a drive for a real, full-length feature. Andrew Kevin Walker — who also wrote a 1994 X-Men script — had a completed, but never produced, script in hand. Quentin Tarantino also wanted to make a Silver Surfer movie and had approached Eichinger's company Constantin about it, only to be turned down.
Also, there's the Josh Trank film from a few years ago, which should probably be mentioned now — and then never again.
Generation X (1996)
Mutant X (2001)
The entire X-Men franchise
Some producer or other had been trying to get an X-Men movie made since the 1980s. In 1984, comic scribes Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, the latter of whom wrote the X-Men comics in the mid-1960s after Stan Lee left the book, turned in a draft of the movie to Orion Pictures. It would have seen the X-Men take on Proteus and Krakoa. The rights went to Carolco — the company that had the rights to Spider-Man post-Cannon — sometime in the 1990s. A few drafts came out during this period, which you can read about here. Some are… better than others.
But a bonafide X-Men movie didn't really make it to movie screens until 2000. Before that we had Generation X. It was not good.
Generation X was a comic that was an update on the old New Mutants formula in which a group of young teenage mutants is assembled and trained to someday be X-Men. It featured a few characters intact — mentors Banshee and Emma Frost, stretchy mutant Skin, overt perfectionist M, matter absorbing Mondo, divisive X-Men protege Jubilee — along with two replacement heroes, Buff and Refrax, who replace more expensive characters like Husk, who could remove her skin, and Chamber, whose chest was blown off when his powers kicked in and is replaced with a caldera of energy. But notably, Jubilee is changed from a Chinese-American character into a white woman played by Heather McComb of Party of Five. Matt Frewer of Max Headroom fame also plays a made-for-the-movie villain called Russel Tresh, more or less a mad scientist.
It was meant to be the first in a line of X-Men adjacent TV movies. It didn't go anywhere.
While it may seem that X-Men live action TV series were off the air until Legion and The Gifted, there is one psuedo-exception. Mutant X, which debuted in 2001 in syndication, was developed by Marvel Studios and former Marvel CCO Avi Arad. Arad is somewhat responsible for the messy, fragmented rights battles between comic book movies today that place Venom outside of the Spider-Man: Homecoming lineage and mean that the X-Men won't be appearing in any Avengers movies until Fox fully merges with Disney. It was done, in part, to save the company from bankruptcy: sell the film and parts of the merchandising rights to the highest bidder and hope for the best.
But Mutant X ended up being a bit of an oddity. Because Fox was not involved, it couldn't really be an X-Men show, per se. There were mutants. They had powers. They had a cerebral leader trying to lead a group of New Mutants, as they were even called in the show. But, legally, none of them were X-Men. It was still close enough to the original that Fox sued. It created a messy, protracted battle that possibly drove Fireworks Entertainment out of business, resulting in the cancellation of the little-seen show. (It somehow still has a fan base.)
Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998)
None of the movies or television series mentioned thus far have one important quality that the Nick Fury TV movie has: David Hasselhoff. Before Samuel L. Jackson stepped into the eyepatch, the Hoff took a go at the character in a made-for-Fox movie that may or may not have been a pilot. Plenty of familiar characters are there, including Armin Zola, Viper, the Von Strucker family, Dum Dum Dugan, and more, but they remain underutilized throughout the film. Perhaps you can see it as a dry run for superhero movies to come — it was written by David S. Goyer, who also wrote Blade and The Dark Knight, and was less conservative in its approach to bringing superheroes into real life.
Oddly enough, Nick Fury — albeit in his soldier incarnation as the leader of the "Howling Commandos" — was one of the scripts Stan Lee used to try to sell studios, including Cannon, on the viability of Marvel property.
Odds and Ends
Nick Fury brings us roughly up to the release of Blade, which helped usher in the X-Men and Spider-Man films, which, in turn, made Marvel realize they could make viable superhero movies on their own if they could consolidate the film rights. A few projects from the 1990s fire sale never saw motion pictures. Universal still technically owns the rights to She-Hulk and Namor, as well as any subsequent Hulk movies.
There are a few folds in the story. For instance, Man-Thing debuted on SYFY in 2005 to middling reviews, a shame for an interesting character. It was part of a deal with Artisan Entertainment to produce 15 movies based on Marvel properties in 2000. Captain America and Thor were part of the deal, as were Ant-Man, Iron Fist, and Black Panther, all of whom got movies (or TV shows) eventually under the MCU banner. Also included were Longshot, Morbius, Deadpool, Power Pack, and Mort the Dead Teenager, none of which made it into production.
There's also a whole slate of live-action properties based on characters from Malibu Comics, a company Marvel bought in the 1990s, but whose rights were tied up with the original creators. The Men in Black movies were part of that deal. Hardcase and Firearm each got short, direct-to-video films in 1993, while Nightman premiered on television in 1997. None of these properties ever entered the proper Marvel Comics canon, though Nightman participated in the Black September comic crossover.
But all of these productions — save the Hulk series and Men in Black — never made much of a dent in pop culture, never really becoming a phenomenon or a blockbuster success. Marvel could never quite catch up with the success of DC's Superman and Batman franchises. Based on their track record, it was even — dare I say — unthinkable that we'd ever get something like the MCU in the 1990s. That's why Avengers: Infinity War is, in some ways, so mind-blowing a production. It would have been nearly unfathomable in the 1980s and 1990s. And given the quality of Marvel's output and false starts, perhaps desperately unwanted.