Dave’s Cultamania: Marvel Movies – the B-Movie years
With the current Marvel cinematic saga entering its self-proclaimed ‘Phase Three’ with the recent release of the fantastic Captain America: Civil War, and now subsequent movies planned right up until 2019 – it’s fair to say that Marvel Studios is currently on the crest of a wave; both critically and financially.
While movies of the DC properties continue to flounder post the Nolan ‘Dark Knight’ saga (Batman vs. Superman really was one of the most soul destroying exercises in cinematic monotony I’ve been subjected to in a long time), the vast majority of Marvel movies in Phases 1 and 2 – even those for the most obscure of characters (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Ant-Man) – have been excellently made, incredibly fun, highly profitable, and all while still appealing to a broad demographic.
Throw in the excellent recent Marvel TV adaptations (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agents of Shield), and Marvel are pretty untouchable at the moment (the diabolical Fan4stic being the only noticeable blot – although this was a Twentieth Century Fox release with little involvement from Marvel themselves, and it quickly disappeared without too much fuss). But that wasn’t always the case.
While Marvel is now synonymous with cinematic quality, from the late 1970s right up until the late 1990s the Marvel cinematic universe was a wasteland of horrible B-movie adaptions. While Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman blazed across the silver screen, scoring DC (and its’ owner, Warner Brothers) billions in the process – Marvel were firmly stuck in the low-budget, straight to home video market (in fact it’s only marketable success were the short-lived Spider-Man (see below) and the long-running Incredible Hulk TV shows). The plight of Marvel was made all the worse when a big-budget adaptation of one of its most obscure titles, Howard the Duck, became one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time. Marvel was considered toxic by the major movie studios, and it would be a long painful crawl until Blade, X-Men, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and later Iron-Man, would help the company achieve mainstream acceptance.
But let’s look at some examples of those years in which Marvel was stuck in the cinematic wilderness…
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79)
While it can be said that this section doesn’t relate to a movie specifically (The Amazing Spider-Man was actually a TV series that ran for 2 seasons, before being re-edited and re-released as a few feature length movies on home video) – the reason that I feel that it demands inclusion is because it was the first true attempt at adapting a Marvel property into a live-action show…and initially a highly lucrative one.
Spider-Man has always been the most commercially successful and recognisable character in the Marvel universe. The company mascot for many years, he is consistently adored by fans of all ages – leading to various animated and live-action adaptations over the years. The first was the 1967-1970 animated series, which drew record ratings in the US on its first run, and went on to be syndicated repeatedly during the rest of the 1970s. Stan Lee was convinced that a live action version was the next logical step, and so began shopping the character around the major Hollywood studios seeking a deal which would lead to a big-budget prime-time show.
CBS quickly stepped into the fray and a feature length pilot subsequently produced. The pilot, simply titled Spider-Man, aired in September 1977 and generated the network’s highest viewing figures of the year. CBS were delighted, and swiftly requested 5 more episodes.
But behind the scenes there was trouble. Stan Lee repeatedly clashed with the CBS appointed producers over the show’s tone (Lee felt that the show was far too juvenile – meaning that it would click with children, but not the core fans of the character), the budget (CBS reportedly scaled back their initial budget deal after seeing how expensive the pilot was to produce), and CBS’s insistence that Spider-Man be the only ‘super’ character in the show – meaning that none of Spidey’s arch-enemies could appear.
The series lasted 2 seasons in total before CBS decided to pull the plug – mainly because the budget was way beyond the amount spent on any other show produced the network, and also because it had already decided to pool its resource behind two lower-budget, but even more successful, ‘superhero’ shows – The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. While attempts to reboot the series on an alternative network failed, the show lived on in the re-edited video releases. But was the 70’s Spider-Man actually any good?
Like most shows/movies of the era, there is an unusual charm to the show – from the incredible 70s disco intro song, to the feel-good positiveness of the majority of the cast. But these can’t hide the basic inadequacies of a flawed and cheap production. It’s ‘star’ Nicholas Hammond is the epitome of blandness. A former child star (he was one of the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music), he lacks the natural charisma and boyish awkwardness that embodies the Peter Parker/Spider-Man character – instead coming off like a spoiled and whining child during the majority of his interactions with co-stars. As for the supporting cast, they match Hammond in their acting ineptitude – the show really lacked the gravitas of a major star – one could easily have been cast as Jonah Jameson or as a villain.
Speaking of villains, Stan Lee was entirely correct in bemoaning the studio’s reluctance to add any of the usual super-villains to the show. I’d go as far as saying that it damages the show – a superhero always needs a viable threat, and the rogues’ gallery (Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Lizard, et all) were a major part in the popularity of the property. Would the Spidey of the comics be as effective if he fought the same monotonous gangsters, petty criminals and thieves every time? No, of course not – and that’s why the show suffered. In the first season alone the villains consisted of a gang of bank robbers, an extortionist using mind control (the Derrin Brown of 70s New York), a religious cult, and a gang of students who steal a bomb for a laugh – hardly the types of people that would give the literary Spider-Man a sleepless night!
The second season tried to rectify this by having Spidey fight a gang of triad martial artists in the climactic ‘The Chinese Web’/Dragon’s Challenge’. While this episode (and movie) is by far the best of the series’ run, and an excellent way to sign off with the character – I’m not sure whether this was the studio’s admission that they had dropped the ball with the previous series by not providing a proper antagonist, or simply a cynical attempt to cash in on the burgeoning 70s kung-fu boom. It does have some excellent action scenes for those who love Hong Kong action cinema from the era – even if Spider-Man spends almost the entire time getting kicked half to death by various goons.
I can’t talk about the 70s Spider-Man without mentioning the “special” effects. In the days before CGI most special effects needed to be created as extremely expensive optical effects (which in the main looked great), or as cheap camera trickery. Have a wild guess which were employed here?! Spidey’s wall crawling antics were either close-up shots of Hammond crawling along the ground and the camera turned on its side (the same technique as the iconic rope-climbing scenes from the 60s Batman TV show), or wide shots of a guy in an ill-fitting jumpsuit being pulled up a wall on a wire, while he waves his arms and legs pretending to climb. His webbing was simply lines of rope being pulled over his arms and backwards photography being used. All relatively cheesy when watched nowadays, but I’m sure very effective back in the late 70s.
In closing I’d say that after subjecting myself to both seasons of this show, I find myself coming away with an unexpected appreciation. Yes the show is incredibly dated and childish; yes it lacks truly interesting plot, an effective lead/supporting cast, and the extra excitement and tension that a range of super villains would have brought. But for the first proper attempt at a live-action adaption, Stan Lee and CBS should be commended. They created a fun, colourful show and I’m sure the execution would have matched the scope if a proper budget had been agreed.
The entire series is on YouTube – give it a watch, you might be pleasantly surprised by how much fun you’ll have laughing at it.
The Punisher (1989)
The character of Frank Castle/Punisher is one of the most complicated characters within the Marvel universe. Beloved in the same way as a Judge Dredd, Deadpool, Venom or Spawn would be, he is a ‘hero’ in the loosest sense of the word. Like Batman he has no superpowers, relying only on his skills/training in his mission to fight injustice and evil. However, unlike Batman (or the vast majority of typical superheroes), there is no moral code with Castle – he is a mass killer of criminals, handing out retribution from on-high – plus he isn’t afraid to target anyone else who gets in the way of that mission (this can include colleagues, law enforcement, members of the public and even the odd meddling superhero).
People are always drawn to an anti-hero. A protagonist with a complicated psyche and/or an internal conflict regarding their actions, is always going to be more interesting than some bland goodie-two-shoes. For me personally, I’ll always be more invested in a character who struggles to keep on the straight and narrow while butchering criminal gangs to plicate his need for revenge, than a patriotic square-jawed ‘champion’ who spends their days saving cats from trees and warning kids about the dangers of smoking (I’m looking at you, Kal-el!).
In the action-movie heyday of the late 1980s, a character like the Punisher would be an ideal basis for a movie adaption – and so it proved when the movie was greenlit by New World Pictures (one of the most successful cult/exploitation movie studios in Hollywood). New World quickly recruited Dolph Lundgren to star, trying to capitalise on his star-making role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. His impressive physique meant for a pretty imposing Punisher – especially during the more action orientated parts of the movie. However, he was definitely exposed when it came to the movie’s more reflective/emotional scenes.
The character of Castle is a man whose personal loss has destroyed him to the very core. All hope for himself is gone and sees his only remaining purpose in life as dealing out retribution to evil doers. There is a conflict, with the last traces of his former life struggling to stay alive in the abyss of his despair. The movie attempts to portrait this struggle – but in those scenes, Lundgren’s dead-behind-the-eyes acting style brings to mind someone attempting to hold in a particularly toxic fart, rather than someone trying to keep their urge for revenge in check.
On the other hand, pre-Batman the idea of any major acting star wanting to appear in a low-budget sci-fi/fantasy movie (which comic book adaptations were still unfortunately considered to be) wasn’t a likely proposition. So Lundgren was probably best of a bad bunch. And at least his performance was an improvement over his ludicrous turn in the disastrous Masters of the Universe movie (which is still a big guilty pleasure of mine – more about this to come in a future article).
The film is actual pretty faithful to the source material, albeit at a very low-budget level. There is plenty of action, giving Lundgren the chance to show off his impressive martial arts skills while combatting the same bloody anonymous mafia and ninja goons that were the staple of 80s action cinema. But I feel that, just like the 70s Spider-Man movies, the film was missing a ‘super-villain’ antagonist to prove a real threat to our hero – a Kingpin or a Jigsaw would’ve been perfect.
One point of note is that this movie went on to have an actual impact on the comic – with the Punisher’s classic outfit of black spandex/white gloves and boots being replaced by the more realistic street/combat gear worn by Lundgren – a look which is still featured today. However, the decision not to include the white skull logo on Lundgren’s outfit was just plain wrong – as well as being iconic to the character, it would’ve been useful to help clearly identify him during action set-pieces.
On release, the film was neither a hit with the critics or the audience – too violent for the young comic-book fan, too cartoony and tame for fans of 80s action movies. While it did find a niche on home video a little later, it was never going to be enough to warrant a sequel – and so it was well into the resurgent comic-book movie boom of the early 2000s before a new adaption of the Punisher was attempted.
Overall, I find the Lundgren Punisher movie a bland and silly exercise in action cinema, but one which still has some enjoyable points. Certainly not one to avoid, but don’t be expecting too much from it.
Captain America (1990)
While it can be said that the jewel in the Marvel crown has always been Spider-Man, it’s most consistent character is arguably good ol’ Captain America. Like Marvel’s own alternative to Superman, Cap has been stoically defeating wrongdoers and promoting ‘truth, justice and the American way’ since the early 40s (actually predating the formation of Marvel comics itself!). Whether it’s his Second World War anti-Nazi storylines or his post-defrost fish-out-of-water adventures, Cap has always been accused of being one of the blandest of superheroes (tbh justifiably so in most cases). There were hardly any shades of grey with Cap – just red, white and blue. And while some writers/artists have attempted to inject some freshness into the character in the past few decades, it has struggled to compete with its contemporaries.
But the character’s reputation alone was enough to warrant a movie adaption. The first was a 1979 TV movie that re-imaged Cap as an Evil Knievel-like stuntman turned crime fighter – the movie’s actual tag-line of “Fighting terror on a motorcycle. Go USA!” perfectly encapsulates how bad the film was. After that debacle, it took a decade until another attempt was made.
Produced by Menahem Golan (one half of the B-movie powerhouse studio Canon Films) and directed by Albert Pyun (responsible for such low-budget, so-bad-they’re-good ‘classics’ as The Sword And The Sorcerer and the Jean Claude Van Damme actioner Cyborg), this adaption was never going to rival Donner’s Superman or Burton’s Batman for scale and budget – but at least it had the potential to be fun and colourful. Unfortunately it failed miserably. It wouldn’t be until Marvel themselves released the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 that the character received a movie adaption that was truly worthy of its status.
But what made the 1990 adaptation so bad? Whereas The First Avenger goes to great lengths to dramatize the transformation between the puny Steve Rogers into the super-buffed Cap, this movie features Rogers supposedly suffering from polio – which the only symptom seems to be a slight limp in one leg, which miraculously seems to switch between legs depending on the scene. He’s just as muscular before taking the serum as he is after, which defeats the purpose of bloody taking the serum!
The movie’s pro-environment/anti-pollution message is clumsy, overpowering and out of place with the Captain America character – in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking the scriptwriters had mistakenly been writing the story for another fictional Captain: Captain Planet. This fit in with the early 90s superhero movies needing to have a ‘message’ – for example Superman 4: The Quest For Peace being pro nuclear disarmament, Batman Forever being pro cod-piece, etc…
As for villains: What the hell have you done with Red Skull? Why is he Italian and not German? Why does his prosthetic make-up end up making him look like the Ronald Reagan doll from Spitting Image? Why have you replaced the incredibly threatening Hydra Nazis with a bunch of terrible Italian goomba stereotypes? (Oily hair, drive old Fiat 500s, accents that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Super Mario game – they’re all there).
The biggest crime of this movie is its actual portrayal of Cap himself. If you’re hoping the see the bland yet heroic super-soldier of the comics, or the charismatic all-out-action ultimate fighter a-la Chris Evans, you’re in for a massive disappointment. This Rogers is essentially a chicken-shit – constantly running away and hiding from the danger that he stupidly gets himself into. Plus, is there any need for him to commit car theft every two bloody minutes? And don’t get me started on his fake rubber ears (just cut some fucking holes in his mask for his actual ears!!!).
All in all, an abysmal film filled with terrible acting (even the normally excellent Ronny Cox feels as though he phoned this one in), horribly staged and badly edited action set-pieces, an implausible plot, and worst of all a complete bastardisation of the Captain America character. An hour and a half of my life I’ll never get back.
Fantastic Four (1994):
While it’s true to say the abyss of bad comic-book movies is a deep one, there is one particular movie that become truly infamous. No, it’s not any of the previously mentioned ones, or Red Sonia, or Green Lantern, or even Howard the Duck…it’s the 1994 adaptation of Fantastic Four.
Always a big draw for Marvel throughout its print run and very successful 1980s animated series, FF is the story of a group of friends inadvertently given superpowers when exposed to cosmic rays, and who use these powers to protect the world (well, the New York area mostly) from evil-doers both human and extra-terrestrial. Attempts for a movie adaption had taken place during the 1980s to no prevail – and it wasn’t until the ill-fated 1994 movie that it became reality.
While Marvel has attempt to whitewash the movie from its cinematic history, it’s legend still remains as it regularly turned up on ‘worst movie’ lists throughout the years. Made for a budget of $1million, compared to the $104million spent on the successful but hollow 2005 adaption, and you can guess how cheap and nasty this version was likely to be.
But why were the film-makers given such a low budget to work with? Very simply, it was because the studio never had any intention to actually release the movie. The rights to the characters had been purchased by German producer Bernd Eichinger in the mid-1080s – the success of the original Superman had caused a rush to licence various comic-book franchises/characters – and like many of the licensing agreements of that time, there was a time-limit on how long a studio/producer had the movie rights had over a character.
The rights to the Fantastic Four characters were due to expire and return to Marvel in 1995 – Eichinger knew that if a movie of any budget/length was produced, then the licensing rights would automatically be extended (due to sequel and merchandising opportunities), and so he decided to rush a cheap adaption, register it publicly, then postpone the release at the last minute. The hope being, that it would allow him the time to source the necessary budget to complete a proper version in the years that followed (which ultimately never happened).
To aid him in this quest, Eichinger turned to veteran cult film director/producer Roger Corman. A master at making fantasy movies on a shoestring, Corman immediately spotted potential in a comic-book adaption – particularly one as ‘family friendly’ as Fantastic Four. A script was hurriedly pulled together, the budget sourced, and early 1994 set for release. As planned, Eichlinger pulled its release mere weeks before it was due, and the film quickly faded into obscurity – kept alive only by bootleg tape traders, until it eventually found an audience through being posted on YouTube (ranking up alongside the Star Wars Holiday Special and the Ewok movies as must-see so-bad-they’re-good classics).
But as bad as the movie is, it’s still a lot truer to the source material than any of the movies released since. Care has obviously been made to replicate the exact look of the comics, including the relevant costumes, props and sets. Yes, its budget limitations are plain to see – the practical make up effects for The Thing, Dr. Doom and Reed Richards look as though they’ve been made with papier-mâché rather than latex/rubber – but when you look past the cheapness, there’s an unexpected charm to the effects. One complaint is why didn’t they do anything to alter the actor portraying The Thing’s obviously diminutive size in this movie? In the comic the character is at least a few feet taller than Reed and Johnny, but in this he looks like the gang’s squat little buddy, ruining his mystique somewhat.
Acting, on the other hand, is where the movie falls short. You know that your movie is in trouble when the most memorable performance is a 5min cameo by a guest actor (George Gaynes – Commandant Lassard from the Police Academy movies – plays an excitable college professor at the start of the movie with his usual comedic gusto). The rest of the cast is frankly laughable – with the awkward romance between Reed and Sue, and the incredibly over-dramatic Dr. Doom (so campy you’d think you were watching the 1980s Flash Gordon) being moments of particular dramatic ineptitude.
Throw in an overly confused storyline involving Doom (here a typical Eastern European villain stereotype) planning to destroy New York for absolutely no reason other than just wanting a reason to laugh maniacally every 10secs, a pointless secondary villain named The Jeweller (surely they could have come up someone with a profession slightly more threatening!), and a terribly sappy ending – and the film could easily be confused for a slightly extended average episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
So does it deserve its position as the supposed worst comic-book movie adaption? In my opinion, no! It’s kitsch and incredibly cheesy, cheap-looking and childish – but look beneath the lack of budget and you find a film that is amazingly on-par with the cold and bland 2005 Fantastic Four and it’s unnecessary sequel (Rise Of The Silver Surfer), and ten times the movie of the abysmal Fan4stic. Honestly, give it a chance (it’s still on YouTube) – it’s terrible, but you’ll piss yourself watching it.