Picture the scene: you're a marvel fan and it's 1977 (what a great year) and you what you want more than anything else is to experience the comic books you love in true cinematic style. Luckily for you that happened, in 1978. Many people know about the early Marvel movies like Blade, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and X-Men, but not so many people know about the movies that came before. This article is going to open your mind to the magical wonders of the Marvel movies of the 1970s and 80s. Most of these were specifically made for TV but they are all full length movies, and if you didn't appreciate the scale and quality of the current MCU you definitely will after this.
Doctor Strange (Universal 1978)
In 1978 the very first live action Marvel movie flew on to TV screens. That movie was Doctor Strange. This makes Peter Hooten (Dr Strange) and Jessica Walter (Morgan LeFay) the first two people to ever face off in a live action movie and sadly I don't think they'll ever get the credit they deserve for it. While it's overly long and a bit boring at times it's actually a fairly solid movie. And really surprisingly they fully commit to including a somewhat accurate suit, the sanctum sanctorum, and the astral plane which I never expected to see in a late 70s adaptation of the sorcerer supreme. There are a couple of flaws that I'll save talking about for this Friday's podcast. It left me wishing that Peter Hooten would have appeared in the multiverse of madness in what could have been a great throwback to a fun movie.
Captain America (Universal 1979)
Following Doctor Strange Universal and Marvel released another made for TV movie, Captain America. Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers who in this movie is an artist that comes close to death after being attacked by spies who are looking for his father's super soldier serum he then gets taken to hospital and injected with said serum to keep him alive and he becomes Captain America in the process. Captain America then hunts down the people that attacked him to take them down. As you can tell, it's not the most comic accurate movie there is but at least it tried. What I will say though is that the motorbike helmet mask and see-through shield combo is awful.
Captain America II: Death too soon (Universal 1979)
Captain America is back! In the same year as the first movie Captain America also got a sequel in which he returned in a swanky looking new suit (see above). The movie follows Steve Rogers as he tries to stop a terrorist played by the always brilliant Christopher Lee who is attempting to release a poison that will speed up the aging of everyone in America. The stakes have clearly been upped in the sequel and the appearance of Christopher Lee as the villain makes this movie worth watching for that alone. On the whole it's very similar to the first in many ways but it does have an arguably more compelling plot and antagonist.
Howard the Duck (Universal 1986)
With the first Star Wars trilogy having wrapped up three years ago George Lucas was looking for a major space themed project to produce, which on the face of it is an extremely exciting prospect, but in practice it left us with Howard the Duck. I'm a massive fan of the slightly whackier Marvel characters being given shows or movie, take Hit-Monkey for example, what I'm not a fan of is this movie. The commercial and critical failure of this film about a cigar smoking alien duck meant that director Willard Huyck never directed another movie again, that's how bad this is.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (New World Television 1988)
Bill Bixby returned as David Banner (renamed for the TV show) and Lou Ferrigno reprised his role as the Hulk in the movie adaptation of the TV show that they also starred in. Banner is close to finding a cure to get rid of the Hulk when he meets a new colleague called Donald Blake. Those who are familiar with the comic book version of Thor will know that he goes by the name Donald Blake when on earth, in the movie though they're two separate characters with Donald Blake being able to summon Thor using Mjolnir. The cure is stolen and his girlfriend is kidnapped so inevitable Thor and Hulk action follows. This movie was also intended to serve as a pilot for a Thor TV show that sadly never happened.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (New World Television 1989)
The trial of the Incredible Hulk featured the first ever Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie. It also featured the first live action appearance of Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Rex Smith) and Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (John Rhys Davies). The film sees David Banner being a witness in a case against Wilson Fisk after Matt Murdock offers to help him in Hulk related legal troubles if he can help him convict Wilson Fisk. This is the sort of film people have been looking for in the MCU since Matt Murdock made his debut on Netflix and it's crazy to think that it already happened 33 years ago.
The Death of the Incredible Hulk (New World Television 1990)
The culmination of the television show and three movies saw David Banner being closer than ever to curing himself of being the Hulk. It wasn't written as the end though, there were two to three more movies planned but the death of Bill Bixby and declining ratings meant that this one ended up being the last of them. It's a fitting ending for the character, David Banner manages to get his hands on a cure bringing the whole storyline full circle and killing off the Incredible Hulk. Interestingly the movie was intended to include Iron Man and Black Widow but budget limitations meant that the Hulk franchise couldn't add to it's already impressive roster of heroes this time round but I'd love to see how it would have turned out in an ideal world.
Fantastic Four (Bernd Eichinger 1994)
The only Fantastic Four movie not distributed by Fox came in 1994. Unbeknownst to the cast and crew the film was never intended to release at all and was only made so that Eichinger could keep the rights as they were set to lapse if a movie didn't get made. It had a budget of a million dollars, most of which went into the costume of The Thing and it made none back (officially anyway) due to its lack of official release. It's actually surprisingly comic accurate with the story drawing directly from the classic Fantastic Four Vs Dr Doom storyline in which the four get their powers from a storm in space and have to fight Victor Von Doom. The costumes are also really surprisingly accurate, especially Dr Doom's which is maybe the best part of the movie. This movie is one that I would highly recommend checking out just because of how the bizarre circumstances surrounding it, the film that was never meant to be seen. It's by no means a good movie but it is at least an interesting one.
This isn't a list of every lesser known live action Marvel property, there were a fair few TV shows, a 1990 Captain America reboot and 1990 Punisher movie with Dolph Lundgren, but this list features what I think are movies that deserve a lot more recognition for creating the very first MCU. If you liked this you'll definitely want to check out the Cloven Hoof Podcast where we discuss topics like this every two weeks. Doctor Strange is the focus this coming episode so be sure to check that one out.
And a big thanks to Oscar Bowskill for the topic