Iron Man may have changed the game for Marvel movies, but Marvel already had a long history of movie-making before the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here's part two of our look back at the history of Marvel comic book movies, as we head into the 90's and come right up to 2008.
In part one of our look back at Marvel's movie catalogue before the MCU began in 2008, we saw the rise of the TV B-Movie and the company's first big-screen flop. A few brief successes were largely marred by disappointing ventures for the company, and in the case of Howard the Duck, a catastrophic first foray onto the big screen.
But the one thing that dogs Marvel in its early days, and will carry on well into the 90's and early 2000's, was a seeming incapability to capitalize on the strengths of their characters in live-action. It took near bankruptcy, and the terrible work of other studios, for the company to finally learn its lesson, culminating in the creation of the universe that is still dominating Hollywood today. Let's dig in, shall we?
An Inauspicious Start: Captain America (1990-1992) and Death Of The Incredible Hulk (1990)
Marvel entered the 90's with a bang, but not a particularly good one. For the first time since the late 70's, the company returned to Captain America. A new Cap movie had actually been in the works since the mid 80's from the Cannon Group, who bought the rights off Marvel and began working on a script with input from Stan Lee.
However, Menahem Golan left Cannon at the end of the 80's, taking the rights to Captain America with him as well as the script that was currently in the work. Golan's new company, 21st Century Film, originally planned to release the movie to coincide with the character's 50th anniversary in 1990, but delays and production issues eventually meant that the film went direct-to-video in 1992, and was universally panned for its poor production values and dodgy approach to the character.
Meanwhile on the actual TV movie front, the company didn't fare so well either. A third and ultimately final movie based on the classic Hulk TV series, Death of The Incredible Hulk, aired in 1990. Like the first two before it, the movie was planned to include another Marvel Hero — at first She-Hulk was announced, but then Iron Man was considered, before the idea was scrapped altogether in favor of a plot that saw the Hulk sacrifice himself at the movie's climax.
Although it was never planned as the real end for the Lou Ferringo/Bill Bixby take on the character (two further movies dealing with the resurrection of Banner were originally planned), a combination of poor ratings performance and the unfortunate passing of Bill Bixby meant that the series had come to an end for good.
The Movie That Never Was: The Fantastic Four (1994)
There's a repeating pattern with Marvel's attempts to get onto the big screen so far: they were all consummate messes. The first attempt at a Fantastic Four movie was certainly no exception.
The rights to make a movie based on Marvel's first family were brought by German producer Bernd Eichinger in the mid 80's, with an expiry date for the end of 1992 put in place. But as time passed and the expiration date came closer and closer, Eichinger and his Neue Constantin studio became increasingly anxious about losing them, so they began production on what was (kindly) described as a small-scale B-Movie for a planned budget of $1 million. Filming began under the helm of music video director Oley Sassone in 1992, with a planned release for late 1993 that was ultimately pushed back to early 1994 — but the movie never materialized.
To this day rumors still float about why the movie never made it to the big screen, despite promotion and plans for première. Stan Lee has repeatedly accused Eichinger of merely making the movie to extend ownership rights, never intending to release the film (something unbeknownst to the cast and crew, who actively went out and promoted it in the run up to 'release'), but Eichinger and Avi Arad, who was then an executive at Marvel, tell a different story. Worried that a deliberately B-Movie take on one of Marvel's most beloved properties could harm the company's attempts to expand further into live action, Arad contacted Eichinger and offered to pay off the budget spent on making the film in return for the film never being released, and all existing copies being handed over. Eichinger agreed, and without seeing the film, Arad ordered every copy destroyed.
Unlike Marvel's previous big screen flops, Fantastic Four was never released on home video or even internationally. However, despite the supposed destruction of every print, some survived as bootleg copies. In fact, here's a youtube version of it you can check out.
Beginnings And Endings: Generation X (1996), Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998) and Blade (1998)
The Fantastic Four problems once again led to Marvel retreating back to television, but this time it would not be for long. A TV movie pilot for a series based on young mutants like Jubilee, Banshee and Emma frost appeared on Fox — but poor ratings lead to the show not being picked up. However Marvel would have one last huzzah on TV with Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.
The campy, David-Hasselhoff-starring production saw a retired Nick Fury (the original white Nick Fury, not the Ultimates incarnation that Samuel L. Jackson would bring to the big screen) fighting Hydra to stop the release of a viral attack on Manhattan. This received a mixed reception following its début — but it does hold the distinction of being Marvel's last live-action TV show for years, and the end of the era of TV movies for the company.
But as one era ended, another began with an unlikely hero: Vampire hunter Blade. Made by New Line and the first Marvel movie to make it to market since Howard The Duck, Blade ultimately laid the touch paper that later movies would ignite to create the superhero boom we're still seeing the ramifications of today. Blending comic book hints with bloody action, Blade was received well by critics and comic fans alike — and Blade also proved that superheroes about 'weird', vaguely obscure comic characters could work for a mainstream audience.
The Superhero Explosion: X-Men (2000), Blade II (2002), Spider-Man (2002)
The movie that would light Blade's touch paper would be Fox's X-Men. At this point many of Marvel's major heroes had been spread out across a variety of companies following Marvel's struggles financially, and while the X-Men's movie rights had first been floated in the early eighties, Fox picked them up in 1994, and set to work on adapting the series into a movie. Fox had several scripts in the works, until they went forward with a screenplay by David Hayter.
X-Men proved what Blade had done a few years earlier, but on an even bigger scale: by taking the comics seriously and being faithful in adapting the characters, the superhero film could be more than a B-movie genre.
New Line released Blade II two years later, marking the first sequel to a big screen Marvel movie, but it would be Sony that truly built on the revival kicked off by X-Men. Sam Raimi took the reins on Marvel's most popular character, and while X-Men had shown promise critically, Spider-Man was met with raucous praise not just for being a good movie, but in the way its tone and characters stayed faithful to the original comic material. Gone were the dark leather suits of the mutants, replaced by a hero unabashedly wearing spandex.
Spider-Man was the first movie to rake in $100 million in its opening weekend, and to this day is one of the highest-grossing superhero films of all time.
Highs And Lows: X2 (2003), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004) and Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The superhero boom was in full swing by the early 2000's, and reached new highs with the second wave of comic book movies to hit. X2 delivered on the promise critics had seen in the first movie, hailed as a rare successor that trumped its predecessor — only for the same to happen once again the year after with Spider-Man 2 delivering what is still considered to be one of the best superhero films ever made.
That's not to say there weren't some missteps in this period from Marvel's licensers. Lionsgate and Artisan tried to capitalize on the boom with a new reboot of The Punisher following their 1989 attempt — with a deal with Marvel that would make the company an equity owner. But a box office bomb and scathing reviews doomed the reboot, and ultimately would see Artisan close its doors for good.
A Daredevil movie had been in the works since Marvel's financial troubles in the late 90's, but a contract expiration with Fox and disagreements on a second deal with Sony ultimately led to New Line optioning the movie, with Fox distributing — but the movie's attempt to take a darker edge to what was then seen as the almost-exclusively light-hearted world of superheroes failed to resonate, with the film receiving mixed reviews and a rapid box office decline after its opening weekend.
2003 also saw the release of the first movie to take on the Hulk. Although now remembered as a failure, at the time Ang Lee's take on the character was incredibly polarising. Some critics lauded the film for trading CG spectacle for a focus on storytelling and character in comparison to other superhero films, while others decried Lee's discarding of many elements from the comic books. Despite a decent box office run though, Marvel were disappointed with the reaction to the movie and reacquired the rights to the character back.
The superhero boom could survive a few bumps. It would get a whole lot worse pretty soon though.
The Slump: Blade Trinity (2004), Elektra (2005), Man-Thing (2005) and Fantastic Four (2005)
The superhero movie boom was hurt by a string of stinkers over the course of a year. Blade Trinity, the first in the trilogy to bear Marvel's name at the beginning, was beset by production problems: Wesley Snipes, suffering from a mental breakdown, refused to co-operate with director David Goyer, accusing him of racism and eventually necessitating the use of stand ins and CGI to add Blade to scenes, and the movie was received poorly both critically and at the box office.
A baffling decision to spin off the character of Elektra following the failure of Daredevil two years prior was a box office bomb, the lowest earning Marvel movie since Howard The Duck, and Lionsgate's attempt to adapt Man-Thing fared even worse, with critics scathing it for its shoddy production values and its loose-at-best grasp of the source material. Man-Thing was even more of a bomb than Elektra, making less than $10 million dollars worldwide.
Then came an attempt to reboot the Fantastic Four. Fox had been developing the Fantastic Four script since the mid-90's, but the success of X-Men in 2000 led to them shelving plans for a while (and having to renegotiate a deal with Marvel to retain the rights), before the movie ultimately released in 2005. The movie was a commercial success, but was scathed by critics for its goofy tone and overt comic-book feel, especially in light of the more serious Batman Begins landing a month prior.
The End?: X-Men: Last Stand (2006), Ghost Rider (2007), Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
There's a saying that it is the darkest hour just before the dawn, and that certainly rings true for the Marvel. The slump hit hard in the mid-late 2000's, with too many movies coming out and all of them failing to capitalize on the opportunities laid down by the first two X-Men and Spider-Man movies.
Last Stand was so loathed upon release (despite being a major box office hit) that Fox would ultimately quasi-reboot the X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past less than a decade later. Spider-Man 3 was a colossal disappointment to fans and critics alike after the giddy highs of its predecessor, with many complaining about the movie's attempt to stuff in too many plotlines and characters at the expense of doing any one thing well. Fantastic Four's sequel, rushed into production, barely fared better critically than the original, but without the financial success of the first, Fox promptly announced a reboot of the franchise that hits screens later this year.
Amidst the sea of sequels stood Ghost Rider, an adaptation that had been in the works since the early 90's. Repeated attempts to draft a script by Marvel themselves ultimately led to a deal with Crystal Sky in 2000 to co-produce the movie, before the movie passed over to Columbia Pictures two years later — but once again script issues pushed the movie back further and further until it began shooting in 2005, with the infamous Nic Cage playing the role of Johnny Blaze. Upon release once more a Marvel property found itself being scathed by critics, but a meagre box office success lead to an equally derided sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, releasing in 2012.
It was a rough time for Marvel characters on the big screen. But that would all change a year later with a new movie, this time direct from Marvel themselves, about a then second-tier comic book hero called Iron Man.
A Universe Is Born: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Okay, so we're past the Iron Man point now, but there's a reason for that. With Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark charming the pants off of audiences and critics alike, the huge success of Iron Man had pulled superhero movies out of their slump and back into the limelight. Although Samuel L. Jackson's nerd-pleasing cameo at the end of the movie teased the Avengers Initiative and a future yet to come, it would be Marvel Studio's second foray that would really begin the process of creating a new universe — and giving his history of crossing over in TV movies, of course the honor would have to go to the Incredible Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk reboot is not the greatest movie Marvel have made — it was received with mixed reviews upon release but was considered much better than Ang Lee's original attempt back in 2003. The movie now holds an awkward place in the rapidly expanding MCU canon: it's largely forgotten or spoken about with hushed tones when it comes to gathering the timeline together, and although the events of the movie are still implied to have happened, the very public loss of Edward Norton's Bruce Banner ahead of The Avengers led to a new Hulk taking his place (fun factoid: Mark Ruffalo was originally considered to play Banner in The Incredible Hulk, but Marvel insisted on casting Norton.). But even then, it's important to acknowledge it for one short, but ultimately huge scene:
Robert Downey Jr.'s uncredited cameo as Tony Stark would be the first crossover of two different Marvel movie properties: The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, and the movie industry would never be the same.