The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film Part 2: The Road Out of Development Hell

The story is far from over for The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, but what of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What of the incredible saga of all of those also-ran comic book films?

In the last exciting entry into PopMatters’ uncanny film column The Next Reel, we explored Marvel’s present dominance of the Box Office for comic book films and the beginnings of the long, hard road it took to bring these super characters to the silver screen out of relative anonymity. (See: “The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film Part 1: Origins and Eternities”)

Marvel’s contributions to the big screen by this time were comparatively few, having released only two theatrical films between 1944 and 1986 (in Captain America and Howard the Duck, respectively) and two more by the time 1990 rolled around (The Punisher and the second filmic version of Captain America). None of the recent films proved to be money-makers or critical successes (with Captain America proving to be one of the worst superhero films made to date). That said, Marvel was already ruling the television with its cartoon adaptations of many of its characters, perhaps most notably Spider-Man.

Was it time for Spider-Man to make the swing to the big screen? High time! But this tangled web wouldn’t be at all easy to sort out.

Episodes of the 1977 The Amazing Spider-Man TV show were released in theaters as the self-titled 1977 film, followed by the 1979 episode re-edits Spider-Man Strikes Back and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge. While B-Movie Maestro Roger Corman (the genius behind New World Pictures, who did create the Incredible Hulk TV movies, the Power Pack pilot, the Punisher flick and the Generation X attempt) was itching to make his own version of Spider-Man, his option to the character expired in 1985, thus allowing Marvel to sell the rights to Cannon Films, a division of Golan-Globus, the gang of idiots who reached for Oscar Gold, but came back looking like fools.

Am I being unfair to Cannon? Let its filmography speak for itself. During its less-than-20-years as a “thing”, Cannon produced such fare as Operation Thunderbolt, Cheerleaders Beach Party (both 1978), New Year’s Evil (1980), Death Wish II (1982), Hercules (1983), Revenge of the Ninja (also 1983), Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984), Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985), The Delta Force (1986) and Masters of the Universe (1987) to name a few.

So what if it had its mandibles set on Spidey? What could Cannon have done with an ambitious Superhero film? Does the title Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) mean anything to you? Yes, that, too, was a Cannon production, meant to “save” the Superman franchise from the debacle that was Superman III (1983). By comparison to Superman IV, Superman III was practically Richard III!


Why? Cannon had already found itself in financial trouble due to its horrible business practices (if you want to read more on Cannon, don’t miss my articles “From the Zombie Hordes to the Successfully Bankrupt: The First Year of ‘The Next Reel’” and “Out of Sequence: The Saga of Hollywood’s Hidden Sequels”). What do I mean? The aforementioned Superman IV found its budget halved to help pay for the aforementioned Masters of the Universe with Cannon absolutely sure that both would be enormous hits. Neither were, and Cannon hit the skids in a big way, thus preventing the making of its proposed Spider-Man.

How bad could Spider-Man have possibly been under the watchful eyes of experienced producers Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus? Well, it would only have been the worst “superhero” movie ever made, bar none, considering the fact that neither of these slow-pokes had a clue one about what the character was all about. This could be forgivable, if the two stooges hadn’t filled in their self-chosen blanks with their own ideas. You see, Golan and Globus believed, for all the world, that Spider-Man was something like… the Wolf Man. I wish I was joking, but I am not.

Thus, they hired The Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens to write a screen story concerning Peter Parker, a hairy, suicidal monster with eight arms who exists as something of a human tarantula thanks to his bombardment with radiation.

Yes, folks, that was the Spider-Man movie that almost got made in the ’80s. Further treatments (pushed for by Stan Lee himself) related to both Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus being mutated by the same experiment (with both characters claiming to be “Spider-Man” and neither opting for the name “Doc Ock”). During this incarnation, Tom Cruise was considered for the role of the web slinger with Bob Hoskins under consideration for the villain.

Along the way the budget was slashed from $20 million to $10 (in the wake of Superman’s grounding and his quest falling to pieces). Ultimately Cannon sunk like the stone that it was and Golan (who should never have had his tentacles on the property) took Spider-Man with him to 21st Century Film Corporation and finally Carolco Pictures, where the already world-shaking James Cameron was brought on to write and direct.

Cameron produced a scriptment (which was largely the work of the previous writers with a new name and date on the story) but Golan balked at Cameron’s unprecedented creative control, complained and sued (with 20th Century Fox joining the fray, claiming the Terminator creator owed the studio a follow-up to True Lies). The litigation continued until 21st Century, Carolco and, yes, even Marvel Comics all went bankrupt. Marvel was rescued by a merger with toy manufacturer Toy Biz, the remains of Carolco reemerged as part of C2 Pictures and Golan and Globus (whose name certainly sounds like it should be that of a Spider-Man villain) continued to produce movies that you don’t want to see.

At the time of this writing both Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan are still alive and at large. If you see them armed with a camera of any kind, for heaven’s sake, take the damned thing away from these men before they turn you into a giant tarantula.

In the meantime, MGM/ UA acquired all of 21st Century’s film library and assets (including the drafts and screenplays for Spider-Man) thanks to a quitclaim by Carolco. However, Marvel was still gold-hungry as it emerged from bankruptcy and the courts ruled that Golan and Globus’ licensing agreement for Spider-Man on film had expired (the original contract stipulated that the film must be at least started by April of 1990 or the rights returned to Marvel). Thus, the comic book company quickly sold the web slinger’s rights to Columbia Pictures (which had released the 1977 episode re-edit), a division of Sony, as of 1999.

As a side-note, I did establish how bad a Spider-Man under Cannon might have been, by comparing it to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Could the possible Spider-Man under the 21st Century Film Corporation been any better? Probably not. Remember the aforementioned 1990 version of Captain America? It was produced by Menahem Golan for 21st Century Film Corporation. In short, thank goodness for the rights being granted to Sony.

Still, MGM/UA claimed possession of the scripts that had been written up to that point and, thus, thought it had some claim on a Spider-Man film. At the time, that studio’s only guaranteed cash cow was the James Bond series, and it was hungry for the wall-crawler to line its wallets with green webbing. However, Sony, via Columbia, had something that MGM/UA also feared, and it wasn’t the Green Goblin.

Two major James Bond films had been made outside of the umbrella of the James Bond series we all know and love. The first was Columbia’s Casino Royale (a spoof of the franchise) and the second was Warner Bros.’ Never Say Never Again, a remake (or, at least, second version) of Thunderball, which was controlled by its co-creator Kevin McClory. McClory had approached Columbia with the possibility of a second remake of Thunderball, while Quentin Tarantino approached the same studio with his ideas for a Casino Royale remake.

Either possibility promised to be detrimental (or, at least, damaging) to MGM/UA’s own Bond saga. So to the courts both studios went. Finally, Sony got Spider-Man and MGM got the rights to the only James Bond property it hadn’t yet touched, Casino Royale (Tarantino had already moved on to make Jackie Brown in 1997). And while webbing Spider-Man was a big boon for Sony, MGM didn’t just get the rights to make Casino Royale, it got the rights to both existing versions of Casino Royale too, as well as the rights to Never Say Never Again and any possible competitive properties that the now-late McClory once controlled.

In a comeback scheme worthy of a Spidey villain, Sony followed up its settlement with MGM by heading a consortium known as MGM Holdings, Inc. to purchase MGM. Sony not only immediately regained the rights to Casino Royale, but also control over all of the Bond films contracted by MGM. (For the full story, don’t miss “The Non-Bonds: James Bond’s Bitter, Decades-Long Battle… with James Bond“.)

Thus, the tangled web woven for Spider-Man finally unspooled on the big screen in 2002’s appropriately titled Spider-Man as directed by The Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi (who most assuredly “gets” both the action and wise-cracking comedy of the character) and starring Tobey Maguire as old web-head himself. While the film did retain a few of the elements of the previous drafts of the screenplay, the closest thing to a grotesque mutation that Peter Parker went through was the development of natural web glands (as opposed to the comics’ web shooters). No eight legs here.

Spider-Man was followed by the excellent Spider-Man 2 in 2004, which did introduce Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and proved to be another enormous hit for Sony Pictures. It was followed by Spider-Man 3 in 2007 which was both the biggest financial success of the trilogy and the worst reviewed film out of the three. Luckily, they did lay the groundwork for the upcoming sequel Spider-Man 4 by introducing the character who would one day morph into The Lizard.

You Can’t Keep a Good Man Out of the Spandex

That fourth film, however, never materialized, as disagreements between Sony and Raimi continually delayed plans. With Raimi also being nearly as unhappy with the finished product of Spider-Man 3 as the critics were, he felt it was his duty to maintain creative control and make the best Spider-Man 4 possible. With the proposed May 2011 release date looming, Raimi began to believe this was less and less a possibility. After many reiterations of the screenplay by James Vanderbilt resulted in little more than a bad taste in Raimi’s mouth, the director balked and walked, followed by the series’ star Tobey MaGuire.

Sony wasn’t done with Spider-Man, however, and the studio took an interesting angle with Spider-Man 4. The studio kept the same writer and producers from that film (and much of the crew from the first trilogy), recast the entire shebang and hired Marc Webb as director and Andrew Garfield as the new version of Spider-Man and reshaped Spider-Man 4 into a new origin story for a teenaged Peter Parker (thus rebooting the series with no continuity with its predecessor). The Amazing Spider-Man hit theaters with a bang (and a Lizard) in 2012 to great box office receipts. And while the box office wasn’t quite that of Spider-Man 3, the critical acclaim was much greater.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) continues this success and has (after a month in theaters at the time of this writing) made almost as much as the first film in the series. Will it be enough to fuel not only the sequel in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and the proposed spinoffs of Venom and The Sinister Six? Keep watching the headlines in The Daily Bugle for more.

In comic books it took an entire super team to introduce Spider-Man. That team was also responsible for launching the Marvel Universe as we know it (before the likes of existing character Captain America were brought retroactively alongside new guys like The Human Torch) and making the team’s creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, two of the biggest names in comics, even to this day. That team was, of course, The Fantastic Four, who debuted in late 1961 (in their self-titled comic, subtly subtitled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”) and took the comic book world by storm.

Well, two storms… Johnny Storm (the aforementioned Human Torch) and Susan Storm (his sister, soon to be known as The Invisible Woman). The team was rounded out by Reed Richards (the stretchable Mister Fantastic, who would eventually marry Sue Storm) and Ben Grimm (the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing). The success of the Fantastic Four didn’t just lead to the debut of Spider-Man. Without this initial Silver Age success there may never have been a Hulk, Daredevil, Avengers, X-Men or a resurrected Captain America (who made his first appearance almost twenty full years before the “FF”).

While enjoying success on the small screen in various animated forms, the quartet’s launch to the big screen was as much (if not more) trouble wrought than Spider-Man’s own.

It’s a matter of comic book and Hollywood lore that before the $100 million blockbuster film Fantastic Four (2005) some other company made a totally different adaptation of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”… and it was almost as terrible as the blooper reel from an all Esperanto series of fully clothed Bahraini erotica with Swahili Subtitles. So terrible, in fact, was this 1994 film that the makers of the original never intended to release the damned thing. Instead, it was only made in order to keep the ridiculous film rights right where it liked them in a futile effort to keep control of the Fantastic Four.


The doomed cast of the 1994 Fantastic Four film

As with most stories, the truth is somewhere in between what the good guys proclaim and what the bad guys defend. And here it is. The Fantastic Four (1994) was not actually made by a separate company from 2005’s Fantastic Four. Though separated by a full 11 years, both films were made by a company called Constantin Film and produced by Bernd Eichinger. Meaning? The gamble worked and the same dudes managed to maintain the rights to The Fantastic Four, including remake and sequel rights. Meaning both the 2005 film and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer were made by the same people as the widely reported abomination from 1994.

The both dastardly and clever reality is that in 1986 German studio Neue Constantin Film GmbH (responsible for 1986’s The Name of the Rose and 1984’s The NeverEnding Story) purchased the rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics (for the bargain price of $250,000) but never actually acted on the option. That option was set to expire on 31 December 1992, and Constantin Film was about to lose the rights it had purchased from Marvel Comics if it didn’t start production on an FF flick (and would reportedly have to pay a $5 million fine back to Marvel). Thus Eichinger (who neither had the $40 million for a, then, big-budget Four Flick, nor even the $5 million for the fine) engaged the legendary low budget pioneer Roger Corman (sound familiar?) to executive-produce this adaptation with the best resources he could drum up. As rights were to revert to Marvel on 31 December if no film was started, production began on December 28th.

The cast and crew appeared at comic book conventions, gave interviews and expressed their excitement for the film itself and its upcoming release. A release that was decidedly slower than Christmas; a release that took longer than Red Dwarf season VII; a release longer delayed than Watchmen… a release that never came. This “Original Fantastic Four film” has still never been released

In a strange way, the gamble makes perfect sense. When given the option between spending $1 million on a real movie you never intend to release or $5 million on no movie at all and losing a potentially lucrative licensing deal to boot, what would you do? I, personally, would spend the $1 million and keep the rights and use the remaining $4 million to buy more comics (and a few trips to Argentina), my friends. As Eichinger later explained “They didn’t say I had to make a big movie.”

A “big movie”, this was not. In truth, it’s something of a stretch to call this a small movie. The Fantastic Four is a frustrating mess. The Thing’s mask is radio controlled for some emotion but he looks like a melted and discolored leftover suit from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Human Torch’s fire is poorly matted in at best and badly animated at worst, Mister Fantastic’s stretching is either a hydrolic jack or a rubbery fake appendage, depending on the seriousness of the scene and the Invisible Woman’s tricks are something you might see on stage at a mediocre magician’s review.

All of this surrounds the plasticized character of the villain, Doctor Doom. In any ambitious low-budget film something must suffer and Doom’s characterization is in more distress than anything heard in a Patsy Cline, Connie Francis or Cher song, or anything seen in a Cathy Guisewite comic! Look, I’m not dissing Joseph Culp (son of Robert, by the way) as an actor. He has gone on to respectful career, including a recurring role on the critically acclaimed Mad Men and when the mask is off in this film, he does a decent enough job with what he’s given. In costume and character as the Doomed Doom, however, the word “pathetic” springs to mind.

With no viable facial expressions (most prints are so dark you can’t see the guy’s eyes) Culp is forced to be much more expressive with his hands and body movements, to the point that every time he says something self-aggrandizing or important he actually seems like he’s vogueing. I half-expected Madonna to come out and dance with him a time or two. And that over-expression keeps going and going to the point that he seems less like the nefarious Latvirian Dictator than he does a robed Power Ranger! I have to guess about some of the things Culp was trying to say, because the budget was so poor that they couldn’t even fly the guy out for looping? Culp is on record saying he would do the looping for free.

They should have had him subtitled. Chewbacca is easier to understand.

Of course neither Culp nor the rest of the cast or even crew were told that the film wasn’t going to be released. Then again, even Eichinger claims that while he intended to make a B-Movie, he fully planned for it to be released.

Who really killed this (admittedly awful) movie? According to Los Angeles Magazine (March, 2005), the culprit (or savior) was Avi Arad. Arad became the chief creative officer of Marvel Comics upon Marvel’s merger with Toy Biz (of which, Arad was the CEO). Fearing that a bad movie version of The Fantastic Four would tarnish the property, he bought the film for $2 million and had all prints destroyed, sight unseen. While Arad went on to become CEO of Marvel Comics (and still serves as Executive Producer for many of the films), he was unable to keep this movie completely hidden. VHS copies were traded for years, and now the complete film is available on Eichinger won.

Eichinger won in more ways than this, also because his gamble for producing the low-budget (and never released) little movie paid off and he retained the rights for new productions, sequels and remakes. He almost created a new version in 1996 before actually working with Constantin Film on the 2004 hit Fantastic Four starring Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Chiklis. The budget was 90 times that of the $1 million 1994 film and the box office was over $330.5 million. The 1994 film had no official box office. The $130 million sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer fared a little better with critics but it suffered 63 percent attendance drop off (similar to 2003’s Hulk) and ultimately made $289 million. This wasn’t enough to warrant another sequel (or the proposed spinoff Silver Surfer film).

Meanwhile, Chris “The Human Torch” Evans was cast as… Steve “Captain America” Rogers in the official Marvel Cinematic Universe films. You can’t keep a good man out of the spandex, it seems.

A reboot to the Fantastic Four series is set for a 2015 release (and a sequel is already planned) without Eichinger or Constantin Film’s participation. Then again, Arad is neither involved, nor could he presumably buy this film back, considering the budget is planned for quite a bit more than $1 million.

Thus, the story is far from over for The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, but what of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What of the incredible saga of all of those also-ran comic book films? What of the future of Marvel Comics on television and what about the big comic book movie boom we are all still riding? Where did all of this come from?

Stay tuned, True Believers, as we will discuss this and much more in the next exciting issue of The Next Reel. I’ll see you there! Excelsior!