Marvel's first five decades in Hollywood were mostly spent on poverty row, so it seems fitting that the very first movie of their flagship superhero would be made at Republic Pictures, home of cheapie cliffhangers. This 15-chapter black & white serial featured super soldier Steve Rogers… er, make that District Attorney Grant Gardner trying to stop a master villain from chemically inducing suicides so he can get his hands on something called the "Dynamic Vibrator." No we did not make this up, nor did we fabricate the fact that the actor playing Cap, Dick Purcell, was so out of shape he died shortly after making this. The cheesy costume and heroic propaganda were paid homage to in Captain America: The First Avenger.
If you like your Dracula movies animated, dull and slathered with disco music, then we have the mild diversion for you! This Japanese adaptation of Marvel's "Tomb of Dracula" is exactly the type of cookie cutter product that gives anime a bad name, with ol' Count Drac taking on vampire hunters and Satan himself after his son Janus is murdered right in front of him. You'll get to see a neutered Dracula deliver lines you never wanted to hear, like this: "What a beautiful boy! What a beautiful, brave and cheerful son I have! Such a good boy, my son. And now you must go to bed and get your sleep so you'll grow up big and strong, hmm?" Or scorchingly awkward moments like this.
Although ostensibly inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard, the character of Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) was created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith in the pages of Marvel's "Conan the Barbarian" #23. Despite being set in Howard's Hyborian Age, the character Arnold Schwarzenegger plays is named Kalidor due to the Conan rights not being secured for the film. The actor assumed his role of Conan-lite was a cameo, but was disgusted to learn padded footage had elevated him to co-star status. The story of Sonja seeking vengeance for her rape and family's murder against an evil lesbian Queen (Sandahl Bergman) is, like director Richard Fleischer's previous Conan the Destroyer, a watered-down slog that never captures the ferocity of John Milius's 1982 Conan film. Fleischer's old-fashioned sensibilities set big budget adult fantasy films back so much they would not recover until "Game of Thrones."
George Lucas became obsessed with adapting Steve Gerber's surreal counter culture anti-hero Howard the Duck in the early '70s while making American Graffiti. Originally intended as an animated film, Lucas ultimately used the live-action production to fulfill a longtime contractual obligation to Universal. Unfortunately the animatronic suit technology used to create Howard did not live up to the rest of the film's big budget trappings. Much of the blame for this movie's infamous failure can also rest at the (non-webbed) feet of writer/director/producers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who abandoned most of the comic's subversive attitude for lavish special effects which remain, nevertheless, impressive for the time.
What's the difference between realizing "The Punisher" and a standard, by-the-numbers vigilante movie? A skull on a T-shirt, apparently. If you don't believe that then check out this adaptation of the character that actually skews pretty close to the grim tone and monomaniacal nature of Frank Castle, played by monosyllabic Dolph Lundgren. Stripped of his Vietnam background and signature insignia, Castle is another in a long line of gritty ex-cops who lost their family and sought bloody revenge, in this case against the mafia and the Yakuza, most of whom wind up in several hundred body bags. Bigtime action movie editor Mark Goldblatt (Armageddon, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) makes the maximum out of a minimal budget provided by New World Pictures, which owned Marvel at the time, but can't overcome the curse of The Punisher which has gone on to haunt two subsequent reboots.
We know what you're thinking, "Hey, Cyborg is a DC character!" Well guess what, this is not a version of that, or technically any comic book character. What happened was the infamously schlocky Cannon Films had planned to make a Spider-Man movie despite co-prez Menahem Golan knowing nothing about the character. Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was assigned to pen a script that –SURPRISE!- was more of a horror movie. Joseph Zito (Invasion USA) was tapped to direct a more faithful $20 million version starring stunt man Scott Leva, who appeared on several Spider-Man comic covers, but Cannon's financial problems ended this Doctor Octopus-centric story. Strapped for cash, they hired B-grade filmmaker Albert Pyun to use leftover Spider-Man (and Masters of the Universe 2) sets to make the quickie Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Cyborg. As far as we can tell, said sets only encompass one fake NYC street redressed to post-apocalyptic "perfection."
Don't shed any tears for low-budget workhorse Albert Pyun, though, because the Cyborg director got to take a legitimate crack at a Marvel property with his version of Captain America, now known simply (and accurately) as "the bad Captain America." It was originally budgeted at a not-great-even-for-then $6 million dollars, but like most of Menahem Golan's productions soon found itself cash poor. "It's pretty difficult to make a film when there were times we actually had no money in the bank," Pyun said. "Miraculously," he managed to hold things together enough to squeeze out a film featuring embarrassing costumes, ugly photography and a miscast Matt Salinger (J.D.'s son!) as everyone's favorite frozen superhero battling a Red Skull that looks like a sun-dried tomato with a body. Oh, and did we mention the tacked-on environmentalist subtext?
Legend goes that this low-budget clunker from director/writer Charles Band's B-movie studio Full Moon was supposed to be a Doctor Strange movie until certain rights were lost before production. The truth is Band was a huge Marvel Comics fan and even hired Jack "King" Kirby to provide early design work, but Mordrid was always nothing more than an enthusiastic rip-off. Band tinkered with the plot and cosmetics (goodbye mustache!), but at its core this is still a Doctor Strange flick in all-but-name. Jeffrey Combs of Re-Animator fame plays the title master of the mystic arts, or rather "Master of the Unknown," who must duel with an equally powerful wizard named Kabal (Brian Thompson) that involves some charming stop-motion animated dinosaur skeletons in a museum. If the entire film was as imaginative as that sequence this could have been a real gem, but instead it stands as harmless-if-hokey direct-to-video '90s fare.
The late producer Bernd Eichinger of Resident Evil fame purchased the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie in the '80s, but when he was refused the chance to renew those rights he hatched a plan to make a low-budget quickie in order to retain them. Enter B-movie kingpin Roger Corman, whose New Horizons shingle made this $1 million-dollar 1994 version that, though announced for theatrical release, actually served its purpose as an elaborate bluff, with Avi Arad taking the bait and buying the finished film back from Eichinger, ordering all prints destroyed. The savvy German producer went on to make two big budget Tim Story films, and while this one was never officially released bootlegs have circulated in fan circles for decades and reveal what is, for all it's low low low low-budget seams showing, a film that may prove far more true to the spirit of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's comics than Josh Trank's upcoming reboot. A documentary titled "Doomed" about this lost film is currently in post-production.
At last, we can go out on a high note. While no Citizen Kane, the inaugural Blade ushered in the mighty modern Marvel movie era by simply being the first movie based on one of their heroes not to bomb. Wesley Snipes plays the half-bloodsucker/half-human vampire hunter who first appeared in the pages of "The Tomb of Dracula," and director Stephen Norrington slathers the proceedings in thrilling style despite some effects shots not aging too well. While the series wouldn't reach its apex until Guillermo del Toro's Blade 2 in 2002, this movie along with X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) is usually seen as the catalyst for today's superhero movie renaissance.