In another life, I wrote the first theoretical approaches to comic book movie adaptations. When I began the project, I thought I’d seen every comic book adaptation available. Mind you, this was years ago; well before Iron Man would unleash the modern age of comic book adaptations onto the silver screen. Jon Favreau’s masterpiece notwithstanding, there are plenty of other comic book films that came before Iron Man and, unless you’ve been living under a rock, I don’t need to convince you that we’re in the middle of a comic book movie renaissance. But at the time, I thought that I’d seen it all. Then I started digging and found a few that I hadn’t seen. Then a few I’d never heard of. Then several that I hadn’t realized were comic books to begin with. Finally, I found a hidden history of comic book movies that have taken me years to get through–in fact, I’m still not finished.
And I’m not sure I ever will be.
When I was asked to write something for this week, I knew two things: one, I’d have plenty to write about. As a longtime comic book fan and movie nut, writing a column this week would be easy. And two–I’d be in good company. That said, because I’m in good company, I tried to find an angle that wouldn’t be covered by my cohorts. What follows isn’t a rundown of comic book movies that played in multiplexes in the last decade. It’s not a list of straight to video animated releases. You won’t be reminded of the cinematography of Sin City or the character development of A History of Violence. I’m not going to write about The Crow, Conan the Barbarian, or Men In Black. Our timeline is, roughly, BBB: Before Burton’s Batman. There are exceptions, however.
Why Burton’s Batman? Simple: while Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was a monumental achievement, Superman, I would argue, was and is more of a cultural icon even in 1978. But in 1989, you couldn’t escape Batfever. Batman made comic book movies something important–something to aspire to. It was a sensation, not just a hit. Although it would take a while, Burton’s Batman (for all its faults) kept comic book movies alive for another decade when comic book films reached a tipping point with fare like X-Men and Spider-Man. Other properties cropped up during the interim (most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, and Blade as well as other Batman films), but nothing would compare to the deluge of comic book properties post-Y2K.
It also allows me to avoid writing about the David Hasselhoff-fueled cinematic catastrophe that is 1998’s Nick Fury: Agent of Shield.
What follows is a short list of comic book movies you might have missed. In some cases, that’s a good thing. Remember when I wrote that I hadn’t seen them all? That’s because some of them have been lost to time. Others are still available, but only if you can find a bootleg (and if that’s the case, you totally should because it’s gonna be a bumpy and hilarious ride). The following films are those that you may not be aware of and are, at best, pretty hard to find.
The Fantastic Four (1994). Directed by Roger Corman
Corman’s Fantastic Four is probably the most well-known on this list. It’s the elephant in the room, so let’s get it out of the way first. The story goes like this: Neue Constantin, a production company, stood on the brink of losing their rights to a Fantastic Four movie and in order to retain it, they have to make a movie–and fast. Enter B-Movie emperor Roger Corman. While comic book movies today get well over a hundred million dollars to create something spectacular, Corman got a million bucks and was told to figure it out. The rest is the stuff of legend.
The sad part is that the cast and crew were devoted to making the film and had no idea that it was, at heart, a scam. Reportedly, most of the cast thought it would be a big break for them. That said, it’s really, really awful. The film was shelved before being released but it’s long been a favorite bootleg for comic conventions. It pops up on the internet from time to time and if you can watch it before it’s taken down, do so. And if you want to know more, watch for the release of Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four out later this year.
Captain America (1978, 1979, 1990). Directed by Rod Holcomb, Ivan Nagy, and Albert Pyun, respectively).
The 1990 Captain America film was one of the first comic book movies I ever watched. In fact, I still have it a VHS copy that I keep as a point of pride. In the grand tradition of movies made on the cheap, it was shot in Italy. The premise is not unlike the Marvel film that would debut almost two decades later: Steve Rogers is injected with a super soldier serum and fights the Red Skull. But this time the role of Cap wouldn’t be played by the Human Torch; this time it’s JD Salinger’s son, Matt. I’m not saying that’s why JD Salinger became a recluse, but the movie was pretty bad.
Captain America and Captain America: Death Too Soon were TV movies in the every sense of the word: the directors, writers, and actors were all staunchly based in TV (the one exception being the director of Death Too Soon, who started in TV and then worked steadily into a career in adult entertainment). I found a VHS copy of the first movie at a video store during a going-out-of-business sale. I still paid too much.
Doctor Strange (1978). Directed by Philip DeGuere.
If you never knew the Sorcerer Supreme had his own movie, well, that probably means you’ve lived a pretty normal life. One of the few Marvel films that Stan Lee has completely disavowed, this film has been all but forgotten. DVD copies of TV transfers still float around, however. For a TV movie/backdoor pilot (imagine a 70s TV series of Doctor Strange) in an era of Bill Bixby as David Banner, you could, in theory, do a lot worse. Doctor Strange is at his best when he’s taken seriously and set in serious situations. This is not that. The movie rides the line of dramatic flare and TV camp. If you’re a completionist, check it out. Mostly, it’s not much more than a piece of trivia.
The Punisher (1989). Directed by Mark Goldblatt.
Of all the movies on this list and of all the comic book movies ever made, you’d think they’d get the Punisher right. It’s a guy who shoots a lot of guns to avenge the deaths of his family. I mean, how hard is that? Get a guy, get a lot of guns, and get a lot of bad guys. Bonus points for a van to store said guns. To be fair, the two current iterations of the Punisher weren’t awful–they just suffered from a few key problems (John Travolta, for example). But those two films are like Shakespeare compared to the off-off-off Broadway experimental theater that is Dolph Lundgern.
There are a lot of guns. There’s a lot of bad guys getting shot (more than Commando, if you’re curious). There’s a big dude shooting a lot of guns.
There’s also Dolph.
Overall, the film isn’t that bad…once you get rid of the main character. The movie gets the tone pretty close to the comics, there’s a lot of action, the premise is spot on–but a constant reminder of Dolph Lungren playing something in between Judge Dredd and Ivan Drago (huge range, I know) just destroys this movie. There’s no Frank Castle; just a guy shooting a lot of guns. Swap out another name and there’s no difference.
Heavy Metal (1981). Directed by Gerald Potterton.
Heavy Metal holds a special place in my heart. It’s a movie I watched as part of my teenage rebellion (full disclosure: I was pretty terrible at rebellion). This animated film is a must see–for teens and adults. This isn’t exactly The Incredibles. It’s kind of the opposite, in fact. But for nerds in the age of video rental, Heavy Metal was a rite of passage. A glowing orb shows a young girl a series of stories–stories of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. The voice talent in this film is overwhelming: Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Rodger Bumpass, Don Francks, and Susan Roman.
With references to Star Trek, H.P. Lovecraft, Alien–amongst many others, this is the comic book film that is too often overlooked. It’s not for the faint of heart (read: kiddos), but it’s a masterpiece of animation and not to be missed.
The Spirit (1987). Directed by Michael Schultz.
As Gotham moves into full production, it’s a wonder that a similar series never took off. Case in point: The Spirit. Detective Denny Colt survives an assassination attempt by criminals, but he’s believed to be dead. He becomes the Spirit, a crime fighter working outside the law. No supernatural powers, just the skills of a detective and no authority to report to. Sound familiar?
Finding a copy is relatively easy and if you watch the TV movie, you’ll see a strange transitory movie–something in between the then-upcoming Burton’s Batman, The Flash TV series, and the 1966 Batman TV series. In other words: it’s confusing. It’s campy but dark, comedic at times but mostly action-oriented, and is obviously aiming squarely at being a backdoor pilot for a regular series. And that’s a shame–it could have been fodder for a procedural had it kept going. No matter what, though, it’s miles better than the 2008…”film.” I’m still recovering from that.
Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Directed by William Whitney.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel was the first comic book adaptation and remains the honorary grandfather of comic book cinema. Even after more than half a century later, the serial still entertains and thrills. Billy Batson (Captain Marvel) is a news reporter following American scientists into the cave of a volcano. The scientists have discovered a Siamese deity named “The Scorpion,” who allegedly possessed immeasurable power. Batson, in the caves, discovers Shazam, an old wizard who endows Batson with the powers of Captain Marvel in order to protect the world from The Scorpion’s powers. It’s easy to think that a film made seventy years ago would be dated and boring–but this is not the case. The Adventures of Captain Marvel, shot on a tiny budget in one of the smaller studios within the notorious cheap sector of Hollywood (serial films were considered the ghetto of film production), still contains believable special effects, a riveting story, and great acting. It’s a production credited with the invention of modern fight choreography and one that set the tone for decades of comic book action. I’ve spent many an hour in the archives digging up information on this film during my early graduate school work and it was all worth it. Thankfully, it’s available on DVD and the movie absolutely holds up over time.
This list is is no way the end. The history of comic book films is long and storied and I’ve only scratched the surface. Many others remain: the Justice League TV movie. The ill-conceived Power Pack film. The appearances of Thor and Daredevil in the two Hulk TV movies (both are awesome, by the way). Sheena. The Vault of Horror and the original Tales from the Crypt. Barbarella (although that last one might be best left for Nerds and Nomsense: After Dark edition). While it’s tempting to think about the genre of comic book films extending only to The Avengers and the Nolanverse, there are a number of surprises waiting with a little digging into those forgotten annals of film history.