The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film Part 1: Origins and Eternities

Marvel Comics rules the box office today (three films based on Marvel Comics occupied the top 10 in May 2014 alone), but getting there was a long, hard, slow road.

Above: Matt Salinger as Captain America (1990)

Marvel Comics rules the box office today (three films based on Marvel Comics occupied the top 10 in May 2014 alone), but getting there was a long, hard, slow road.

In May of 2014, three of the top ten movies at the American box office were based on characters created for Marvel Comics. For three of any top ten movies to share much of anything besides genre (if that) is extraordinary, however, Marvel Comics managed this feat with X-Men: Days of Future Past (which bowed in May), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (both having debuted in April of 2014).

Even more striking is that in spite of these films’ origins, each comes from its own continuity, its own studio and its own distributor without any crossover between the three. The X-Men films are made by Fox, the Spider-Man films by Sony and the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (represented here by Captain America 2) are made by Marvel Studios, a division of Disney. In fact, much like James Bond once battled against himself, Marvel is directly competing with itself at the movies.

Just how and why this happened and the path to which audiences were gifted with such a movie slate is the very subject of this column. The easiest answer is that there is just about nothing bigger than comic book movies in general right now, and each of these franchises is raking in the money (much of which, regardless of studio and distributor, rolls right back to “The House of Ideas”, which is now part of “The House of Mouse”).

Marvel’s biggest slice of this super-pie is, of course, its own Cinematic Universe, which was given its own jet-propelled boot-up by 2008’s Iron Man. This was a bold move for two reasons. First, with its announcement of a unified filmic universe, Marvel was taking the risk that all of these high budgeted films would have to be a success to keep the multi-franchise afloat. Second, the press initially mocked the decision to launch this new universe with what it considered (at the time) to be B-List characters. Iron Man may have been big in the comics, but few outside of comics fans truly recognized him.

The second film in the Cinematic Universe was released less than one and a half months later in The Incredible Hulk, before the box office receipts for Iron Man had even been finalized. That character’s last foray to the big screen proved to be a critical and box-office disappointment (although it was ultimately a financial success, its 60 percent drop off in the second weekend cancelled plans for a direct sequel).

The gamble paid off to great success and over the next seven years, these two first films were followed by two more Iron Man films, two Thor films two Captain America films (including the aforementioned Winter Soldier) and one big film to rule them all, The Avengers (2012) in which all of these heroes teamed up for the first time. B-List heroes? Considering the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has raked in literally billions (Billions with a “B”) of dollars at the box office alone, I think this is the sort of “B-List” that anyone would want on their side. So confident in its Universe is Marvel that upcoming films include Guardians of the Galaxy (based on a great comic that most comics fans are unfamiliar with) and Ant-Man (whose name says it all).

The question of why create a singular cinematic universe has been easily supplanted by the question of “Why would you do anything else?” In response, Sony (which controls Marvel’s Spider-Man films) has recently announced its own cinematic universe based on Spidey and his rogues gallery with upcoming films to include both Venom and The Sinister Six in addition to The Amazing Spider-Man 3. Warner Bros., which controls all of subsidiary DC Comics’ films, recently announced that it was launching its own unified continuity on the springboard of 2013’s Man of Steel with a follow-up film (tentatively titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) intending to expand that film’s universe to include the Avengers-like Justice League in the future.

As for 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, technically a cinematic universe has already been crafted, featuring Marvel’s own Mutant Characters not only within the X-Men team, but also including two Wolverine-centric spinoff films (to date). So protective of the X-Men properties is Fox that it recently entered into a legally negotiated standoff with Marvel Studios so that both companies can use the character of Quicksilver in the studios’ respective films X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron (set for a 2015 release). That is, as long as the Disney film doesn’t identify Quicksilver as a “Mutant”, which Fox claims it owns all cinematic rights to (at least in the “Marvel Comics” sense of the word). Fox is also rebooting the Fantastic Four franchise it controls.

So what of the Marvel Films at large, the Cinematic Universe of which most recently gave us the enormous splash of Captain America: The Winter Soldier? (Those who have seen the film will understand what a big “splash” it was.). How exactly did Marvel become such a box office powerhouse? Or have comic book movies always been the Juggernauts (no fan-boy pun intended) that they are today?

The origin of Marvel Comics in theatrical release reaches all the way back to a serial with quite a familiar title for those who are watching the current box office numbers. That serial was called… Captain America. Yes the saga of Marvel Comics on film started (and almost ended) in 1944 in a black-and-white serial film loosely based on the character Captain America from Marvel Comics (then known as “Timely Publications”).

When I say “loosely based”, I mean it.

Comics Fans and film fans alike surely know the story of Steve Rogers, the puny Army recruit who underwent a super-soldier treatment to become the Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America, right? Well, let me introduce you to Republic Pictures’ reimagining of Captain America for this serial. Instead of Steve Rogers, the frail recruit, who becomes a super-soldier and one day punches Hitler in the jaw (most recently played by the believably physically fit Chris Evans), we get District Attorney Grant Gardner, whose patriotic costume was seemingly chosen at random to fight urban crime. This version of Captain America was portrayed by Dick Purcell, an out-of-shape and overweight actor who, to be kind, wasn’t anyone you would mistake for a superhero.

Dick Purcell as Captain America

How out-of-shape was Purcell? Before the final episode of Captain America graced theater screens, Purcell actually keeled over dead in a locker room after playing a round of golf, due to a heart attack brought on by the rigors of playing this toned-down version of Captain America.

To be fair to Purcell, this was not the kind of golf that features a windmill on the course.

When I say Marvel’s foray onto the big screen almost ended with 1944’s Captain America, I mean that, too. Although Marvel’s Distinguished Competition had great successes with both Batman and Superman on the big and small screen, Marvel didn’t have another big screen bow of any kind until 42 years later in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Howard the Duck

To illustrate the “success” of Howard the Duck based on Marvel’s surrealistic comic book, created by Steve Gerber, its producer actually advised audiences not to watch the movie based on the film he had worked so hard to have made. This labor-of-love to have Howard the Duck transcend to the big screen actually stretched back to at least 1974, before its producer achieved mega-stardom with Star Wars. Yes… that producer was George Lucas. The man who gleefully brought Jar-Jar Binks to the big screen wasn’t proud enough of Howard the Duck to advise audiences to fork over their hard-earned dough to see it.

That is, of course, only taking into account the big screen. Marvel had already made great leaps into the world of the small screen by the year of 1986 starting 20 years prior in the animated anthology The Marvel Super Heroes (1966). Following this show were some major peaks and valleys. On the high side was The Fantastic Four (1967 – 1968) and Spider-Man (1967 – 1970). While both were poorly animated, even for the time, Spider-Man’s theme song is still celebrated as one of the most enduring Superhero themes of all time.

On the low side was the 1978 The Fantastic Four TV show which replaced the Human Torch with the much-reviled H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot. While rumors still abound that this replacement was done so as to keep little boys from emulating the Torch (and setting themselves on fire), the truth is much more mundane. H.E.R.B.I.E. was created as a place-holder while the Human Torch was being groomed for his own TV series (which never happened).

The Fantastic Four’s rock-and-muscle bound The Thing, however, did get his own solo adventure the following year in the ill-advised Fred and Barney Meet the Thing (don’t worry, the Fantastic Four and Flintstones Universes only crossed over in bumper segments, though both had their reasons to pun on the word “Rock”). This was followed up by one Spider-Woman cartoon and two (overlapping) Spidey cartoons including both Spider-Man (1981 – 1982) and Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (1981 – 1983), the latter of which created the female mutant Firestar because of the same rights issues that denied the Human Torch to the previous Fantastic Four show. The latter Spidey Show was also paired with The Incredible Hulk (1982 – 1983) which, like Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends was also narrated by character creator Stan Lee.

Marvel wasn’t yet the king of the small screen adaptations, but it also wasn’t relegated to animation. Much as DC had found success with Batman (1966) and Wonder Woman (1975), Marvel first hit the live action airwaves with Spider-Man in the Children’s Television Workshop series The Electric Company (in their “Spidey Super Stories” segments where he was portrayed by dancer Danny Seagren) and then the 1977 TV show The Amazing Spider-Man (where he was played by Nicholas Hammond). The “Backdoor Pilot” episode, entitled Spider-Man was also released overseas into theaters, marking the wall crawler’s first appearance on the big screen. The Amazing Spider-Man lasted two short seasons (totaling only 13 episodes) before cancellation.

More successful was the heavily reworked The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1977 through 1982. Instead of the alliteratively named “Bruce Banner”, nuclear scientist, producer Kenneth Johnson created medical researcher David Banner (likeable actor Bill Bixby), who was similarly infected with the gamma radiation that created The Hulk (Lou Ferrigno). Although the changes to the characterization and presentation of the Hulk were significant, even creator Stan Lee approved of these differences, indicating that every change was intelligent and plausible.

The Hulk television show ended in 1982, but was far from forgotten. In fact, although DC Comics continued to shine with its Superman and ultimately Batman motion pictures, for a time, the television films that followed The Incredible Hulk were the only movies keeping Marvel afloat in live action throughout the ’80s. Jumping form the CBS network to NBC, New World Television and Bixby-Brandon productions created three TV movies in The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990). These three telefilms also mark the earliest rumblings of a unified filmed continuity with Thor, Daredevil and the Kingpin all appearing (albeit in drastically altered forms).

Of course, no incarnation of any Marvel saga could be complete without Captain America, who appeared in two television movies of his own in Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (both 1979) in which he was played by Reb Brown, future star of the unmitigated classic Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983). Brown’s character was a then-modern day descendant of the original Steve Rogers who rode a motorcycle and sported a translucent shield and a bike helmet with feathers painted on the side.

Other Marvel television films included Dr. Strange (1978), Power Pack (1991), Generation X (1996) and Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998), which featured Samuel L. Jackson in absolutely no capacity whatsoever (Fury was actually portrayed by Baywatch’s David Hasselhoff, if you can believe that).

By this time, of course, DC had already snagged the crown for comic book films with Tim Burton’s 1989 genre-winner Batman and had tragically lost it with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 debacle Batman & Robin, the stench of which still permeates Hollywood like a ruptured septic tank on a blistering day.

Marvel’s contributions to the big screen during this era were limited to only two movies. The first was The Punisher (1989), a low-budget and critically reviled action flick from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures loosely based on Marvel’s gun slinging vigilante of the same name (here played by Dolph Lundgren of all people). The second was 1990’s new version of Captain America.

For those of you keeping score, between 1944 and 1990 Marvel Comics’ characters had graced the big screen only four times (not counting the Spider-Man TV episodes released theatrically, which we will get to later). These films were Captain America, Howard the Duck (over 40 years later), The Punisher and then Captain America again.

Surely Captain America (1990) was to be Marvel’s long-awaited answer to DC’s successes with the Superman movies and the new hit Batman, right? Well, no. Captain America had some interesting canonical elements going for it (much more than the late ’70s TV movies had) and a costume and shield that matched the original character. On the other hand, it was a low-budget, boring mess with a silly looking Red Skull as the arch enemy and a Captain America who seemed lost for most of the movie (when he wasn’t being cartoonishly launched through the sky on an evil missile).

On the other hand, Captain America is notable as the only superhero movie to star J.D. Salinger’s son Matt. Yes, Captain America/ Steve Rogers was played by the son of the guy who wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Is anyone else picturing Holden with a patriotic shield? Just me?

Captain America was a joint American-Yugoslavian co-production that, ironically, considering its All-American hero, was only theatrically released outside of the United States. Thus Marvel’s big screen fortunes were looking slimmer and slimmer.

However, also by this time, Marvel had managed to gain control of the world of TV Animation. While DC had gained critical acclaim and excellent ratings with Batman: The Animated Series (starting in 1992), Marvel broke ground with the story-arc heavy X-Men (also starting in 1992), along with Fantastic Four (1994–1996), Iron Man (1994-1996), Ultraforce (1995), Spider-Man (1994-1998), The Incredible Hulk (1996-1997), Spider-Man: Unlimited (1999-2001), Silver Surfer (1998), The Avengers: United They Stand (1999–2000) along with two more Spider-Man shows, two more X-Men shows, one more Iron Man, Fantastic Four show and Avengers show and Black Panther show each, not to mention a program called The Super Hero Squad Show all debuting before 2010.

So why, exactly, was Marvel not yet winning Gold on the Silver Screen? Part of this had to do with the dire straits Marvel found itself in (which forced it to declare bankruptcy in 1996 and to merge with toymaker Toy Biz between 1996 and 1997). And part of this had to do with issues tied up in the licensing of its characters.

For those of you just itching to fill the comments section of this page with diatribes of what I’ve left out, no, I did not forget 1997’s live action Night Man, based on the Malibu Comics imprint, 2001’s Mutant X inverting the X-Men saga or 2006’s Blade: The Series which… well, just no!

Next time in the pages of The Next Reel, let us all take a look at the evolution of Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four on film, the saga of which rivals just about anything on the gridded page, not to mention the tangled licensing web that kept these high-flying heroes depressingly grounded. You won’t believe the Spidey and FF flicks they almost made. See you in the Next Reel and Excelsior!