5 Failed Marvel Movies: From 1978's Doctor Strange to 1979's Captain America - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, August 9, 2021

5 Failed Marvel Movies: From 1978's Doctor Strange to 1979's Captain America

After being teased multiple times, the Multiverse will be fully introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by What If..?, an animated Disney+ series that shows what happens with our favorite heroes in parallel dimensions. The concept is quite simple but highly entertaining. The show highlights how a single change in the timeline can snowball in crazy scenarios, such as Spider-Man using Doctor’s Strange Cloak of Levitation to fight Zombie Captain America. But what about our very real timeline? How could things be different if, instead of the MCU, we had other successful Marvel projects?

In order to explore Marvel’s real-life What If...?, we’ll take a trip down memory lane and investigate five of the biggest failures in the history of superhero adaptations. While each of these projects was developed to birth a new franchise, their collective failure leads us to the MCU as we know it today. But what if these projects were actually successful? Which versions of some of our favorite heroes would be internationally celebrated? Well, the answer might surprise you, as Marvel tried to adapt their comic books in a lot of bizarre ways over the last few decades.

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Doctor Strange - 1978

While we are now used to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as the Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange was once brought to life by Peter Hooten. The Doctor Strange TV film released in 1978 was only the latest of many CBS attempts to start a successful series featuring one of Marvel’s superheroes. In 1977, CBS had already been successful with the release of two TV films that would become the pilot episodes of The Incredible Hulk show, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, andThe Amazing Spider-Man show, starring Nicholas Hammond. So why couldn’t a Doctor Strange project also be well-received by the public?

Well, for starters, Doctor Strange didn’t have the budget needed to showcase the Sorcerer Supreme’s powers. The Incredible Hulk painted Ferrigno green to bring the Emerald Giant to the screen, and it was easy to make Hammond climb walls as Spider-Man by turning the camera 90 degrees. But how do you translate the bright and colorful powers of Steve Strange with limited resources? Writer and director Philip DeGuere Jr. decided he wouldn’t even try and made the Sorcerer Supreme’s biggest superpower his irresistible charm.

While Doctor Strange’s script is overall a disaster, its biggest sin is reducing Stephen Strange’s entire personality to a womanizer, as the good doctor seduces every woman in the movie, including the main villain Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter). During their final confrontation, Morgan literally refuses to kill Dr. Strange because he’s too hot. For her failure, her master — an evil entity credited as The Unnameable — punishes Morgan by making her old and barren. Because we all know every woman’s worst fear is not to have children (eyeroll). The TV movie aired to low ratings and negative reviews. Looking back, it’s a good thing this project never gained steam.

Captain America - 1979

After Doctor Strange’s failure, CBS released two Captain America movies in 1979, with the same intentions of birthing a new superhero TV show. In Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, Reb Brown’s Steve Rogers didn't fight in World War II, doesn't have the Red Skull as an enemy, doesn't want to be a soldier. Instead, he dreams about spending his days drawing and traveling around the world. It might be hard to imagine, but in 1979 this was the most faithful adaptation of the Captain ever made — 1944’s version didn’t even have a shield.

Brown’s version of Captain America reflected the times, as the anti-war movement was at its peak just four years after the end of the Vietnam War. CBS thought it wouldn’t be possible to connect with younger viewers if their Captain America was a military man, so they created a funny and relaxed Steve Rogers who rode a bike and used a safety helmet as part of his uniform. Honestly, this is an excellent concept for a Captain America Variant, and the series could have been picked up if both movies weren’t so uneventful.

Since CBS planned to make a TV show where Captain Rogers would fight the “villain of the week”, both movies are incredibly similar, with armed goons as the main menace. Take the uniform and the shield away, and Captain America becomes a generic action film. The TV movie didn’t have enough comic-book elements to please fans, but it also didn’t bring anything new to the action-film public. And so, another Marvel project was lost to a different timeline, where Hippie Captain America is still a success.

The Incredible Hulk Returns - 1988

The Incredible Hulk series ran from 1978 to 1982, with old episodes rerunning for decades after that. Thanks to the series’ success, Bixby and Ferrigno are still the definitive Banner/Hulk in the memory of older generations. So, when NBC bought the rights to the show, they decided to bring the Emerald Giant back in style with a trilogy of TV movies that also featured other Marvel characters. The idea of this proto-MCU was to use Hulk’s fame to introduce other heroes who could get their own TV shows. The first hero to join forces with the Hulk was Thor, the God of Thunder, played by Eric Kramer in 1988’s The Incredible Hulk Returns.

The Incredible Hulk Returns is a must-watch for every Marvel fan because it anticipates by decades elements that would be part of the MCU. For starters, this was the first Hulk and Thor crossover on film — Thor: Ragnarok, eat your heart out. Secondly, Kramer was also used as a sex symbol in the movie, similar to Chris Hemsworth. Kramer is often filmed with his shirt off, and The Incredible Hulk Returns even has a scene where Thor wears nothing but a towel. But Tower Thor is not the only character introduced in the film, which also features Steve Levitt’s Donald Blake.

In this incarnation, Donald Blake is a cowardly human who finds the remains of a nordic warrior known as Thor. Thor can only enter Valhalla if he learns to be humble, which is why Odin binds his spirit to Donald’s. Donald can allow Thor to manifest physically by holding Mjolnir and screaming Odin’s name, so the will of a weak human binds the mighty warrior. This Thor Variant is not an Asgardian God, but instead a Viking who’s displaced in time. It’s the perfect concept for a weird buddy-adventure between Donald and Thor, while both learn humility and courage from each other. And Kramer is hilarious as Thor, especially in moments where he just enjoys life by dancing with beautiful women in a motorcycle club or happily running on the beach when the sun is coming up. If there’s one real-life What If..? we would love to explore, it’d be the return of Towel Thor.

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Generation X - 1996

During the 1980, Marvel sold the rights of almost all their comic book characters to avoid bankruptcy. Forty years later, Disney is still trying to unify the Marvel universe in the MCU — Sony still has all Spider-Man characters, and NBCUniversal owns the distribution rights to the Incredible Hulk solo films. And during the days of Marvel selling off its biggest characters, 20th Century Fox bought the X-Men universe in bulk.

Before Bryan Singer would make a billion-dollar franchise in movie theaters with the X-Men movies, Fox tried to repeat CBS and NBC’s steps by creating a TV show based on the Generation X comics, a spinoff of the X-Men comics. Thanks to their first animated series, which ran from 1992 to 1997, the X-Men were already a pop culture phenomenon. A live-action adaptation, then, was the next logical step. Fortunately for Fox, there’s no “X-Men” in Generation X’s title, so the public could quickly forget that this was an actual adaptation of the Mutants.

Bad special effects can be forgiven if a movie’s script is good enough. However, not only is Generation X’s story as shallow as a puddle, but all the characters are one-dimensional in the worst way possible. Every female hero of Generation X is oversexualized, and the villain Dr. Tresh (Matt Frewer) invades other people’s dreams to “mental rape” them — his words, not mine. Generation X is irredeemable in every aspect, so the timeline in which the film is a huge success must in fact be the darkest timeline. Even so, two elements of Generation X were salvaged by Singer: Hatley Castle would be reused as the location for the Xavier Institute for several X-Men films; and the introduction with a dictionary-like presentation of the word “mutation” would become a staple in the franchise. But the pilot was not picked up to series, and FOX ended up airing it as a TV movie instead.

Fantastic Four - 1994

No Marvel project is so obscure as 1994’s Fantastic Four, a movie supposedly so bad that all its (legal) copies were destroyed. The history of the lost film began in 1983 when producer Bernd Eichinger tried to acquire the rights to the most famous family in Marvel comics from Stan Lee. Eichinger would only be able to buy the rights for the Fantastic Four adaptation in 1986. It’s crucial to underline that the contract Eichinger signed with Marvel had a time clause: Eichinger should start production of a film adaptation before December 31, 1992, or he would lose the rights for the characters.

Years passed by, and the budget required to do a Fantastic Four movie right grew to a point where Eichinger had trouble finding investors. However, Eichinger didn’t want to lose the rights he fought so hard to buy. So the producer had a brilliant idea: he would make a trash Fantastic Four movie and release it in theaters. That’s how, in September 1992, B-movie genius Roger Corman was hired to create a Fantastic Four movie with a $1 million budget. The money wasn't nearly enough to pay for a screenwriter, director, cast, special effects, locations… He knew from the start the result would be rough.

Fantastic Four finished shooting in less than a month, and Eichinger started to invest in marketing, promising a theatrical release in the first half of 1993. The official release date ended up being January 1994, but the premiere would never happen. Marvel executive Avi Arad quickly bought the rights to the film, fearing that the poor quality of the material would affect the company's image, and went to court to stop the movie from ever being released. While orders from above demanded every copy of 1994’s Fantastic Four to be destroyed, the film leaked via clandestine VHS tapes and can now be found with poor quality and subtitles on YouTube.

The saddest thing about all of this is that 1994’s Fantastic Four is, arguably, a better adaptation than the tasteless production of 2005 or the awful reboot of 2015. Of course, the lost Fantastic Four is as trash as it can be — that’s what makes it so fun! It’s also impressive to see how Corman came up with creative solutions to fight against the complete lack of money — the overuse of static images to create different backgrounds is just genius. Hopefully there’s a universe out there where 1994’s Fantastic Four got a proper theatrical release and received all the praise it deserves.

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