Welcome back to Part 2 of the History of Marvel cross-over event between ComicUI and Pickled Comics. Don’t forget to read Part 1 to catch up on the journey of Marvel Studios and also check out the sweet graphics on Pickled Comics if you haven’t already. Now let’s continue with the show!
Please click on ANY image below to be taken to the Visual History of Marvel Studios illustrated by Mike Royer of Pickled Comics fame.
PS: We promise this isn’t an April fool’s article!
History of Marvel Studios – Part 2 (1979-2007)
Captain America was revitalized and reintroduced to mainstream audiences not once, but twice in 1979 in his self-titled movie and its better (but still negatively) received sequel, Death Too Soon. Picking up with Steve Rogers traveling the country in his van and chasing his artistic dream, he soon finds himself face-to-face with General Miguel, played by the fantastic Christopher Lee (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings). This time, the city of Portland was host to the chaos that ensued over a super weapon that ages people to death. Thankfully, at least Steve Rogers still found Oregon relevant and saved the day. However, his victory on screen wasn’t enough to garner a third film in the series, and Marvel retreated back into its shell for another eight years.
In 1986, Marvel decided to actually step back into the game and release a movie into theaters, a first since 1944’s Captain America serial. Howard the Duck was brought to life from a collaboration between Lucasfilm and Universal Studios. Little did they know, their effort would be one of the most distasteful attempts against Marvel’s reputation and in cinematic history.
Howard the Duck is unanimously viewed as an insult to the comic book character, as well as filmmaking as a whole. That year, the film was nominated for seven Razzies (The Raspberry Awards are the Oscars of bad films; the worst win) and took home four of those awards. All six actors who portrayed the animatronic Howard received Razzie nominations for their work on the film. The film was so bad, it caused the Universal heads of production to engage in a fist fight over the movie’s critical and financial failure. Even the writers of Howard the Duck left for Hawaii during its release and refused to read any reviews.
Despite this massive flop that was heard around the world, Marvel wasn’t afraid to dust off its shoulders and get back into the game. It came back in 1989 with a live-action film based on the hyper-violent Punisher. The film was able to cast the increasingly popular Dolph Lundgren as the titular anti-hero, but managed to avoid one major point of the character: his skull-laden costume. Without the skull insignia, many felt the movie wasn’t directly related to the character and hurt its appeal to broader audiences. In the end, the film ended up being a straight-to-home release and a forgotten relic of the ‘80s Marvel cinematic era.
The next year, the third attempt at a Captain America feature film became another straight-to-home release. This time, the movie focused on a WWII Captain America who was pitted against the Red Skull. 1990’s Captain America film is more akin to the 2010 version that we all know and love. This would be the last try for 20 years to bring Captain America to the mainstream audience, which fans couldn’t be more thankful for.
The ‘90s were an awkward decade for Marvel. In that time frame, several live-action television films were produced, one movie was made that has never been publicly released, and Marvel Comics as a company entered bankruptcy.
Starting in 1991, Marvel licensed several series to Fox. The group known as Power Pack was intended to become a TV show but never got past the filmed pilot. Fox, however, did show plenty of reruns of Power Pack’s pilot over the years, especially on Saturday mornings to coincide with their other successful Marvel animated properties, Spider-Man and X-Men. Due to the X-Men’s growing popularity, Fox attempted a live-action film of Generation X in 1996, a spin-off of the X-Men. This featured established mutants Jubilee, Emma Frost, and Banshee; the latter two characters would also appear in X-Men: First Class (2011). Lastly, the most infamous Fox production was Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, which cast hot item David Hasselhoff as Fury himself. Although this version is a drastic change from the Samuel L. Jackson character that is dominating Marvel’s Cinematic Universe today, Hasselhoff’s Fury is the original Nick Fury from the comics.
But what about that unreleased film, you ask? In the early ‘90s, Roger Corman’s studio licensed the rights to the Fantastic Four. Their license agreement was running out, and they needed to act on it or the film rights would revert back to Marvel. In 1994, Corman Studios began production of a Fantastic Four film, using practical effects and some C-list actors. The kicker was the studio never intended to release the movie, only extend its grip on the license. This was never relayed to any actors or crew, resulting in some bitter feelings when production wrapped. Shortly after, Avi Arad (big Marvel movie producer in the early 2000s) bought the film and ordered all prints destroyed. Ouch. You could say the film was Dr. Doomed from the beginning. (Modern Reference: The newest season of Arrested Development parodies the film and its destiny with Fantastic Four: The Musical).
In the midst of all these made-for-TV and unreleased movies, Marvel Entertainment underwent a bankruptcy crisis. In late 1996, the studio filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was in various legal entanglements until a merger with ToyBiz in 1998 brought it back to life.
Once Marvel was back out of bankruptcy, it licensed off one of its characters, Blade, for film production. This deal would snowball for the next 10 years, creating the Golden Era of Marvel movies. Blade was one of the first modern Marvel films, which replaced the iconic spandex of comic books with leather and real world materials. It was also the first foray to translate Marvel characters into R-rated films, which makes its success that much more impressive. Blade was also the first cinematic Marvel character to receive a sequel (Blade II, 2002) and also end in a trilogy (Blade Trinity, 2004). This would establish the idea that trilogies for superhero films could work, as well as the expectation that the third movie in a series would be lackluster at best.
After proving that comic book characters could help get more funding for Marvel, the studio began licensing characters left and right to help ensure bankruptcy would never happen again. This would spur a wave of superhero adaptations that would continue to grow, release, and create franchises still releasing into theaters today.
Next up after Blade, Fox returned to its X-Men roots and licensed the characters for a film. Fox took hints from its predecessor as well, replacing the brightly-colored unitards with real world (note: leather) takes on costumes for the characters, especially for fan favorite Wolverine. X-Men (2000) was such a financial and critical success, it preceded a nearly invulnerable franchise that has yet another movie releasing this year, containing some of the same actors 14 years later. X-Men was followed by X2 (2003), another great success in superhero films, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), a critically panned trilogy ender. X-Men: Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011) and The Wolverine (2013) will be covered in Part 3 later this week. However, you can see that Fox truly has been using this license to its advantage over the years.
The saying that “the third time’s a charm” held true for Marvel, as Spider-Man (2002) became their third licensed property and set the bar for superhero films to follow. Until recently, Spider-Man was the most successful (both financially and critically) franchise to come from Marvel. The first film was nominated for several Academy Awards, which was a first for superhero adaptations. However, it wouldn’t be until Spider-Man 2 (2004) until it brought home an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. This trilogy would end tragically with Spider-Man 3 (2007). This lead to Columbia Pictures and Sony willingly rebooting the entire character and series in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man.
The undeniable success of these three Marvel properties on the silver screen lead to the emergence of other superhero-based films into the wild, starting with Daredevil in 2003. This film placed up-and-comer Ben Affleck into the shoes of the blind lawyer. Since its release, Daredevil and its sequel, Elektra (2005), have been the laughing stock of the Golden Age movies. Although we may not be able to erase the sight of this film, the stench still lingers after all these years.
The same year, The Hulk looked to make a return to popularity after losing his TV show back in the ‘80s. The director of emotional films, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), was given a shot to transcribe the emotion-fueled rage creature for the public. This film was labeled a disaster in all aspects, also often being chalked up as a joke in the cinematic rounds. It would be enough to make Hulk angry. And we all know you won’t like him when he’s angry.
2004 saw the first semi-official “reboot” of a character when The Punisher was produced to be seen cinematically. Preceded by the 1990 version which was never released into theaters, this film was another attempt to translate a violent character into someone that the public would take seriously. Despite obtaining an R rating, the film did not gain critical traction and only served to water down the already increasing lot of superhero films taking over the market.
With three strikes in a row, studios still wanted to take a shot at the superhero genre and get a bit of that comic book money. Fantastic Four finally reached cinemas in 2005, and it included a bevy of A-list actors (Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans – the man who would be Captain America). Marketed as a family film, Fantastic Four didn’t dare to make any progress for the superhero genre, and only landed in the middle of the road. Two years later, it would receive a cosmically-charged sequel in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which would aim for the stars, but somehow never make it off the ground. The film did little to be outstanding and is now at the mercy of a reboot in 2015.
I know, I know. You’ve got to be thinking that this never-ending list of properties based on superheroes has got to be winding down. In some ways, it was losing traction, but mostly in quality. From the ground rose Man-Thing (2005), the first made-for-TV and home release Marvel movie of the millennium, produced by the Sci-Fi channel. The obvious doppelganger and shoo-in for Swamp Thing, we won’t hold it against you if you’ve never heard of this one either.
Finally, only one more newly-licensed property remains in the Golden Age of Marvel movies. Nicholas Cage wanted to get into the comic book movies, and he stepped up to play Johnny Blaze, the one and only Ghost Rider (2007). How a motorcycle stuntman who is possessed by a spirit of vengeance ever got green lighted is beyond us, but again it happened. Twice. This was also the same year that Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer landed in theaters, signaling the true end of an era.
At this point, many people felt uncertain about superhero films and Marvel properties in general. Quality was replaced by quantity, resulting in unnecessary sequels and properties being transformed to film. Truly the Golden Age of the Marvel films had come and gone. Will superheroes return and save the day once more, or have they been around long enough to see themselves become the villain? Is ComicUI going to have the stomach to write about it? Can Pickled Comics illustrate this cliffhanger? The History of Marvel Studios will conclude later this week with Part 3.