The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the face of blockbuster movies as we know them today. But Marvel's own history with film started long before the first Iron Man film in 2008. Here's the history of Marvel movies on the big and small screen, from the 1940s to the dawn of the Avengers Initiative.
The Timely Cinematic Universe: Captain America (1944)
Marvel's movie efforts aren't just a recent thing — they're almost as old as the comics company itself. Made by Republic, Captain America was a 15-part serial film (an episodic film that usually accompanied a longer motion picture, a popular format during the earliest decades of the film industry) that holds the honor of being the last ever serial made by Republic to star a superhero as well as the first live-action Marvel adaptation, and the more dubious honor of putting Marvel off movie-making for 40 years.
I keep saying Marvel, but to be more accurate, I should be saying Timely Comics — Timely wouldn't transition to the Marvel name we know today until 1961 — but either way, the company was apparently furious with the great liberties Republic took with the character. Timely only sent a handful of comics pages as references for Republic to base the film on, so the Captain America seen in the serial is vastly different to what you'd expect: He's not U.S. Army Private Steve Rogers but District Attorney Grant Gardner, no super-soldier serum was involved in him becoming a masked hero, and instead of using a shield as his primary weapon, Gardner simply shot people with a revolver (this was something that Timely particularly took umbrage with, despite the fact that Captain America would go on to use firearms on a regular basis in the comics). There were multiple rumors that Republic had originally planned to adapt other heroes, but when deals fell through they changed the script they had to include Captain America — hence many of the changes.
But even with all the liberties, the serial was well received by audiences and critics at the time, and Marvel's own history for Steve Rogers has alluded to the character of Captain America starring in movie serials in his early days several times since in reference — most notably in a montage sequence from Captain America: The First Avenger.
Marvel Takes TV: Spider-Man (1977), Doctor Strange (1978), And The Captain America Duology (1979)
It would be a very long time until Marvel returned to live-action adaptations of its characters, but before they headed back to the big screen they actually brought several of their characters to television in a series of made-for-TV movies, mostly designed as backdoor pilots for TV series in a deal between the company and CBS.
Spider-Man's long history of live-action adaptations began in the late '70s with Spider-Man, which starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker (he would go on to reprise the role for the TV show the following year). Although not as fast and loose with Spider-Man's character as the Captain America serial was with Steve Rogers, Marvel — and particularly Stan Lee, who advised on the series as a script consultant — were not pleased with the kidsy tone of the TV movie, but CBS saw enough promise to commission a short series for the following year. Marvel, displeased with the project, decided to take Spider-Man elsewhere, licensing him out to Toei as part of a crossover deal that gave birth to Supaidaman (and in a roundabout way, the birth of the Super Sentai genre!).
Doctor Strange was a similar endeavor in 1978, planned as a backdoor pilot for a TV series that would ultimately never materialize, despite a warm reception by both audiences and Marvel themselves (Stan Lee once again consulted, and has often repeated that out of the CBS movies, Doctor Strange was the one with most of his input). Despite being the third Marvel live-action project at the time, Doctor Strange actually marked a first in the company's cinematic history: The first live-action on-screen representation of one of the comics' villains. While Captain America fought the maniacal Scarab and Spider-Man did battle with a sinister hypnotist named Guru, Peter Hooten's sorcerer supreme went up against Morgan Le Fay, the evil sorceress based on Arthurian legend.
Marvel's deal with CBS would eventually come to a close the following year with not one, but two Captain America movies — Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon. It seems that Marvel had not learned the perils of creative control from their first time adapting Cap; although the character was much closer to the comics than the Republic serial, this time Steve Rogers was an artist who is injected with a steroid called FLAG following an accident, transforming him into Captain America. Reb Brown's Cap carried a shield (translucent in parts), but was also given a decked-out motorcycle, which he could attach his shield to as a guard/windscreen as well. Yes, this is that Captain America with the hilariously oversized motorcycle helmet you've probably seen on the internet a few times.
Brown reprised the role later in the year against a villainous terrorist played by Christopher Lee, but negative views and poor ratings performance (CBS aired the movie in two parts) meant that Marvel and CBS's deal ended on a bit of a whimper.
The First Real Marvel Movie: Howard The Duck (1986)
Slightly burned by their TV ventures, Marvel took to the big screen once more for the first time in 42 years... and let's just say it probably didn't quite go as planned. George Lucas originally tried to adapt the comic shortly after American Graffiti (he went on to focus on a small, obscure passion project named Star Wars instead), but following the culmination of his adventures in a galaxy far, far away, Lucas stepped down as president of Lucasfilm to focus on movie production, and turned to Howard once again, striking up a deal to adapt Steve Gerber's surreal comic series.
The bizarre decision to make the movie live-action rather than animated, as was originally intended, was just one of the problems with Willard Hyuck's completely absurd movie, which is now regarded as one of the worst films ever made. The satirical elements that defined Steve Gerber's take on his character were largely played straight, and lavish special effects sequences were needlessly thrown in. Critics loathed the movie and it was a box office bomb — and the shadow it left on the reputation of comic book adaptations would linger even after the success of Marvel's MCU (many critics wary of Guardians of the Galaxy's announcement turned to the movie as a dire warning of the last time Marvel tried to "go weird"). Howard The Duck was a catastrophe.
The Incredible Crossover: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) And The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk (1989)
Shamed by the abject failure of Howard The Duck, Marvel fled back to television, leading to a series of TV movies that continued the adventures of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby's Incredible Hulk TV series, in an attempt to revive the show adaption of the Hulk following its cancellation seven years prior.
The first movie was considered a huge success for Marvel, which promptly led to the creation of a sequel — which, while warmly met, was not as much of a ratings winner. But the first two Hulk films are remembered for being the first to do two things that have come to define Marvel's movies today. Returns and Trial didn't just feature the Hulk, but crossed over with two other Marvel heroes: Thor in the first movie, and Daredevil in the second (Daredevil's appearance was intended to act as a pilot for a show featuring the character, but the relative disappointment of the second film's performance meant that the character was shelved), marking the first time ever that two of Marvel's characters had teamed up in live action. The other first is much smaller, but by no means unimportant to Marvel fans — after years of consulting on the projects, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk was the first comic book movie to feature a cameo appearance by Stan Lee, a practice that is still going on in Marvel adaptations even today.
The Movie America Forgot: The Punisher (1989)
The 1980s ended on a downer for Marvel's live-action ventures, culminating with this quasi-faithful adaptation of the gritty anti-hero Frank Castle.
Marvel only granted Artisan and Lionsgate limited parts of the character for the movie, so much of Frank Castle's background was changed (in the movie, he was a former cop seeking vengeance for the death of his family following a mob hit). Bizarrely enough, while the names were kept, Marvel wouldn't let Artisan use the character's comic appearance, meaning the Punisher's iconic black t-shirt with a skull printed on was absent — so the movie's Punisher just looked like a random guy with a penchant for black leather.
The movie went ahead regardless of Marvel's licensing hesitance though, starring Dolph Lundgren. However, it never actually made a theatrical release in the U.S, thanks to the money issues of distributor New World. After an international distribution in 1989, Punisher wouldn't hit American shores until the early '90s with a straight-to-video release. It was probably for the best, as once again the movie received lackluster reviews from critics who disapproved with the liberties taken with the character. While DC found themselves going into the '90s with a hit on their hands with Tim Burton's Batman, Marvel found themselves slipping away from live-action superheroics more and more.
Artisan and Lionsgate would later try to reboot The Punisher several times, in 2004's The Punisher (Artisan's last ever film) and 2008's Punisher: War Zone. Neither were met with much approval, and as of 2011, the rights to the character have returned to Marvel.
Part Two of our look at Marvel's Movie History will be published Tuesday, when we delve into the '90s and early 2000s, and the steps Marvel took to begin its own era of comic book movies.