Marvel’s Early Movie History - 1944 to 1990

Marvel has found their movie groove, and they are kicking ass with one film after another. But it didn’t start out that way. There was a lot of trial and error that these movies had to go through. Before Jon Favreau’s Iron Man blew up in theaters and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there were a lot of theatrical films and TV movies that were made to cash in on the brand. Some of them were really good, while others really sucked. It had to start somewhere though, and the first Marvel movie ever made was an adaptation of Captain America back in 1944.

I thought it would be fun to put together a list of films that take us through the history of the Marvel Comics based movie. This first list starts in 1944 with Captain America, and ends with The Death of the Incredible Hulk in 1990. 

There are two other lists that will follow this one, so stay tuned!

1944 - CAPTAIN AMERICA - Republic Pictures 

This was the last Republic serial made about a superhero. It’s also the most expensive serial that they ever made. It starred Dick Purcell as Captain America. What is interesting about this is that the real name of Cap in the series was Grant Gardner, not Steve Rogers. The series also rejected the original backstory of Rogers being injected with a Super-Soldier Serum. Apparently it would have required costly retakes.

Superhero Captain America battles the evil forces of the archvillain called The Scarab, who poisons his enemies and steals a secret device capable of destroying buildings by sound vibrations.

1977 - SPIDER-MAN - Danchuck Productions

This made for TV movie was made to launch the TV series that followed. This is one of the few Marvel productions that Stan Lee was not happy with. Apparently he felt the series was "too juvenile."

Peter Parker has a laboratory accident that changes his life. He finds himself with greatly increased strength, the ability to stick to walls to climb them without needing hand and footholds and a "spider-sense" (presented in this series as clairvoyance) that allows him to sense danger. Designing a costume and a webshooter that allows him to fire a strong artificial web, he fights crimes as Spider-Man.

1978 - DOCTOR STRANGE - Universal Television

The TV movie originally aired on CBS, and starred Peter Hooten as Dr. Stephen Strange and Sir John Mills as Lindmer "The Ancient One." Morgan Le Fay was the first Marvel Comics villain to be adapted for live action. She is the half-faerie half-sister of the mythic Arthur. She had the gift of immortality thanks to her elven heritage, and she used this time to master the mystic arts.

Thomas Lindmer, a world-weary sorcerer, foresees the return to Earth of his ancient adversary Morgan LeFey, who has been granted dominance over men's souls by The Nameless One. In order to combat her evil magic, Lindmer must pass the Guardianship of the Light onto a young psychiatry-resident, Dr. Stephen Strange, who has no inkling of his destiny.

1979 - CAPTAIN AMERICA - Universal Television

Reb Brown played Captain America a.k.a. Steve Rogers in this TV movie. This was the first Marvel movie I ever recall watching, and I loved it!

When a commercial artist is almost murdered by spies looking for his late father's secrets, he is saved in surgery when the FLAG formula is injected into him. This serum not only healed him but also gave him tremendous strength and lightening reflexes. To help him retaliate for his attack, a government agency equipments him with a special motorcycle loaded with gadgets and a detachable shield is not only bulletproof, but can be thrown as a offensive returning weapon. Thus armed, he battles against the nation's enemies as the Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America.

1979 - CAPTAIN AMERICA II - DEATH TOO SOON - Universal Television

The first movie must have hit well with audiences if Universal moved forward with this sequel. It actually ended up getting a theatrical release in France for some reason. Christopher Lee had a villainous role in the film as a character named Miguel who was a freelance revolutionary terrorist.

The star spangled hero must battle a villain's plan to poison America with a chemical that horrifically accelerates the aging process.

1986 - HOWARD THE DUCK - Universal Studios

How crazy is it that Howard the Duck was the first feature-length film based on a Marvel character? The movie starred Lea Thomspson, and I’m surprised that she ever worked in Hollywood again after the movie was released. This film was so awful on so many levels. 

A sarcastic humanoid duck is pulled from his homeworld to Earth where he must stop an alien invader.

1988 - THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS - New World Television

The TV movie was a continuation of the classic TV series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. I loved that they introduced Thor into the series! This was the first time we would see two heroic Marvel characters like this fight each other.

It's been two years since the Hulk has surfaced, and Dr. David Bruce Banner is on the verge of curing himself of the Hulk. A device he helped create, the Gamma Transponder, will rid him of his own Gamma radiation, among other uses. Enter Don Blake, a former colleague of Banner's, who is now in possession of a mystic hammer which can summon Thor, an ancient Viking warrior. When the Gamma Transponder is nearly stolen and Banner's girlfriend is kidnapped, Banner must abandon the hope of being cured and rely on the Hulk and Thor to save the day.

1989 - THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK - New World Television

This was another fun made-for-TV Hulk movie, and it was the first Marvel film ever to include a cameo by Stan Lee. It also included the first live-action appearances by The Kingpin, played by John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings), and Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil.

When David Banner is held for questioning about a mob crime, his only chance lies with his lawyer who is also the superhero, Daredevil.

1989 - THE PUNISHER - Artisan Entertainment

Dolph Lundgren was awesomely cast as Frank Castle. He performed most of his own stunts, and even co-wrote the Punisher’s monologues at the beginning and end of the film. Marvel only granted the production certain rights to the character, and they weren’t allowed to use the signature defining traits of him, like the skull shirt.

When Frank Castle's family is murdered by criminals, he wages war on crime as a vigilante assassin known only as the Punisher.

1990 - CAPTAIN AMERICA - 21st Century Film Corporation 

Val Kilmer was actually offered the lead role in this movie, but turned it down to star in The Doors. That was a very wise decision. The movie never got a theatrical release in the United States, probably because it would have been too embarrassing. Like a lot of early Marvel films, having no money proved difficult to make a decent movie.

Frozen in the ice for decades, Captain America is freed to battle against arch-criminal, The Red Skull.

1990 - THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK - New World Television

The previous Hulk TV movies included characters like Thor and Daredevil, this one was supposed to feature Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man, but they never went through with it. it would have been really interesting to see how Iron Man would have looked in this thing! There were two other films planned after this, "Rebirth of the Incredible Hulk" and "Revenge of the Incredible Hulk" but actor Bill Bixby passed away and they never happened.

During the critical experiment that would rid David Banner of the Hulk, a spy sabotages the laboratory. Banner falls in love with the spy, Jasmin, who performs missions only because her sister is being held hostage by Jasmin's superiors. Banner and Jasmin try to escape from the enemy agents to rebuild their lives together, but the Hulk is never far from them.
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