Screen adaptations first find success in the 1990s
Even though Marvel Comics-related film properties have been around for 60 years, there is no doubt that this very moment represents the Golden Age of Marvel in the media.
“We have a whole generation of talented people — writers, directors, cinematographers, studio execs, videogame designers, toy designers — who grew up on comics and were inspired by them,” says Avi Arad, chairman-CEO of Marvel Studios.
Arad’s dealmaking and producing savvy, combined with advanced digital visual effects, have helped make Marvel the film and TV darling it has long wanted to be.
Marvel’s first foray into film, back when the company was known as Timely Comics, was the 1944 Republic serial “Captain America,” which cashed in on the name while jettisoning everything about the character creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had established three years earlier.
A more accurate Cap, reflecting his mid-1960s renaissance at the hands of Stan Lee and Kirby, returned in 1966 with the mighty Thor, the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk and Iron Man in a low-budget animated series called “The Marvel Super Heroes,” which drew heavily from the comics.
“They were basically taking panels from the comicbooks and moving mouths with very little animation,” says comicbook writer and historian Peter Sanderson. “You were actually seeing artwork by Jack Kirby and some of the other great artists, and they were Stan’s stories.”
Even more popular was 1967’s slightly more animated “Spider-Man,” the theme song for which can still be sung by every baby boomer alive.
In the 1970s, Universal Television produced a series of live-action TV movies-cum-pilots, “Doctor Strange,” “Captain America,” “Spider-Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” did spawn series, though only the latter, with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, came close to pleasing fans of the comics.
“As far as our characters were concerned, ‘The Hulk’ was the first time that somebody had really gotten it right on film,” says Lee. “The ‘Spider-Man’ TV show was a very shallow representation of Spider-Man. They left out the humor and his personal life, and we had no say about it at the time.”
The Hulk returned for a second series of TV movies in the late 1980s, which served as failed pilots for Thor and Daredevil spinoffs.
It was animation that remained the most successful medium for the Marvel Universe through the 1980s and 1990s, offsetting a string of troubled, little-seen productions including 1989’s “The Punisher,” 1991’s “Captain America” and 1993’s unreleased “The Fantastic Four.”
Although those three misfires were an improvement on the filmic swan dive that was 1986’s high-profile “Howard the Duck,” an epic disaster that turned the name of Marvel’s most atypical hero into a Hollywood metaphor for megabomb.
The golden time for Marvel media really began with Fox TV’s faithful, animated series, starting with “X-Men” in 1992 and a CG-enhanced “Spider-Man” series in 1994. The company subsequently gained its theatrical footing with 1998’s “Blade,” based on a character from “Tomb of Dracula,” and 2000’s “X-Men,” which avoided the trap of trying to include too much of the comicbook saga. With the monumentally successful “Spider-Man” (2002), and now “Spider-Man 2,” the Marvel Universe’s annexation of Hollywood has been finalized.
With “Hulk” and “Daredevil” having already made their bigscreen appearances, many other Marvel superheroes are waiting in the bullpen, including Iron Man, Captain America and the “official” version of “The Fantastic Four” — the comic series that sparked the big bang of the Marvel Universe in 1961.
Sanderson says one of the things that has changed Marvel’s bigscreen fortunes for the better is that today’s filmmakers “are taking (the characters) more seriously than movie people used to.”
Obviously, not every character can be expected to achieve Spider-Man levels of success, but Arad is OK with that. “Different characters can achieve different levels, and still very good levels,” he says, noting: “Spider-Man is unique.”