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The Ultimate Marvel Film Guide: 1944-1990

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The Ultimate Marvel Film Guide:
1944-1990 | 1998-2004 | 2005-2009 | 2010-2014 | 2015-2016 | 2017-2019

In the 21st Century, cinema has been dominated by an endless supply of superhero films made by the two superhero comic book companies, DC and Marvel, yet throughout the 20th Century characters created by major comic book company Marvel had no impact at all. Marvel, founded as Timely Comics in 1939, first branched into film in 1944 when it allowed Republic Pictures to make a 15-part Captain America serial. This was the one and only film made during the black & white era of cinema to be loosely based on a Marvel character and, while this review is written at a time when these films are being constantly released, it is hard to imagine that the original Captain America serial would be Marvel's only film release for 40 years.

Below are reviews of all the Marvel films made between 1944 and 1990. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not focus on men in general or specific male characters.

Captain America (1944)

Captain America (1944) was a film serial rather than a feature-length film:

DirectorsElmer Clifton & John English
StudioRepublic Pictures

Dr Cyrus Maldor, a resentful archaeologist who feels he has been overlooked all his life, is secretly the villain known as The Scarab. He has a fiendish plan for revenge; he has developed a poison gas called The Purple Death that makes people obey his every command, particularly if he orders them to commit suicide. He uses his control to steal superweapon The Dynamic Vibrator, which can shake a building to pieces and will allow him to steal superweapon The Atomic Electronic Firebolt, which will allow him to easily open any safe and steal various other things.

Can Captain America save Gail Richards from the Dynamic Vibrator? Will Captain America foil The Scarab's plans so often that they'll both be able to start an international business selling tin foil hats? Why isn't Captain America even remotely like how he is in the comic? How come Captain America definitely, definitely dies at the end of each episode, only to miraculously escape at the start of the next?

EpisodesThese were 15 minutes long except the first 25-minute episode
  1. The Purple Death
  2. Mechanical Executioner
  3. The Scarlet Shroud
  4. Preview of Murder
  5. Blade of Wrath
  6. Vault of Vengeance
  7. Wholesale Destruction
  8. Cremation in the Clouds
  9. Triple Tragedy
  10. The Avenging Corpse
  11. The Dead Man Returns
  12. Horror on the Highway
  13. Skyscraper Plunge
  14. The Scarab Strikes
  15. The Toll of Doom
Setting1940s America
  • Grant Gardner aka Captain America, crime fighting District Attorney (Dick Purcell)
  • Gail Richards, Grant Gardner's secretary and the only woman in the city (Lorna Gray)
  • Dr Cyrus Maldor aka The Scarab, villain with moustache and monocle (Lionel Atwill)
  • Police Commissioner Dryden (Charles Trowbridge)
  • Mayor Randolph (Russell Hicks)
  • Bart Matson, Gruber and Lyman, henchmen (George J Lewis, John Davidson & Frank Reicher)
Bechdel TestFail

A silly film serial made only two years after Captain America's creation. Marvel Comics – then still known as Timely Comics - allowed Republic Pictures to make it for free in the hope it would boost sales of their comic books. In common with the Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serials of the time, it shows the hero dying at the end of each episode, and then revealing how he survived at the start of the next. So for instance, Captain America enters a room full of henchmen, shouts 'Hands up or I shoot', is jumped on, the gun is dropped, they all fight for a bit until an evil henchman picks up the gun and shoots Captain America at point-blank range, with no possibility of missing: cue end titles. The next episode begins with Captain America unharmed, explaining, 'the first bullet in my gun is always a blank so I can fire a warning shot'1.

The character of Captain America is nothing like the comic character Steve Rogers, the shield-carrying super-soldier created by a secret serum. The serial Captain America works as a District Attorney during the day, has no shield, and carries a gun instead, which he clumsily drops in any fight with henchmen, and his helmet is missing the wings on the side. This is because Republic Pictures were given the rights to use the character free by Timely Comics in order to generate publicity for the character, yet still it was the most expensive serial that Republic Pictures ever made. They did not write a new serial from scratch and made numerous changes to the Captain America storyline. It is believed that the scripts had been intended to be an adaptation of Fawcett Comics' Mr Scarlet who by day was DA Brian Butler. This was hastily re-written to be Captain America when it became apparent that Mr Scarlet wasn't popular, and explains why one episode is called 'The Scarlet Shroud' despite not mentioning the word 'scarlet' or there being anything red of note.

Gail is definitely the only woman in the city, without even dialogue-less female extras in the background being seen.

Following 40 Years

In the early 21st Century when it seems a new Marvel film is released in cinemas every week, it is difficult to believe that this was the one and only Marvel film release for 40 years. Things changed as television became increasingly popular, with animated series created featuring Marvel characters.

In the late 1970s, Marvel characters began appearing in campy television series: initially a short-lived series titled The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79) and a more successful series inspired by The Incredible Hulk (1977-82). Both enjoyed feature-length spin-offs. A Dr Strange pilot was also made, though this did not lead to a commissioned television series. There were also two TV Movies featuring Captain America.

The feature-length television specials made during this period were:

  • Spider-Man (1977)
  • The Incredible Hulk (1977)
  • Return of the Incredible Hulk (1977)
  • Dr Strange (1978)
  • Captain America (1979)
  • Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
  • The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
  • The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
  • The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)

One film based on a Marvel character, Howard the Duck (1986), had a big budget adaptation, yet after this became an expensive flop, the credibility of adapting Marvel's characters into film was seriously dented.

Howard the Duck (1986)

DirectorWilliam Huyck
StudioUniversal Studios & Lucasfilm


Howard the Duck is transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he saves musician Beverly Switzler from being attacked and mugged. In return Beverly lets him stay at her house and introduces him to a science lab janitor named Phil. A little later they learn that Dr Walter Jenning had been testing a laser spectroscope and inadvertently brought Howard to Earth, and could return him to his home. However, the scientist is possessed by the Dark Overlord of the Universe and Beverly is kidnapped.

Can Howard and Phil defeat the Dark Overlord of the Universe and save Beverly? Does anyone care either way? Why did anyone make a children's film about a duck having sex with women and smoking? Can a duck fly? Did more people play Howard the Duck than watch the film?

Length109 minutes
SettingDuckword and Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Earth
  • Howard the Duck, a duck named Howard (Suit: Ed Gale, Jordan Prentice. Puppeteers: Tim Rose, Steve Sleap, Peter Baird, Mary Wells, Lisa Sturz. Voice: Chip Zien)
  • Beverly Switzler, musician in band Cherry Bomb who sleeps with ducks (Lea Thompson)
  • Phil Blumburtt, janitor (Tim Robbins)
  • Dr Walter Jenning, scientist possessed (Jeffrey Jones)
Related FilmsThankfully none
Bechdel TestPass

There are two opposing opinions when it comes to Howard the Duck. One is that it is the worst film of all time ever, while others believe it is merely the second or third worst film of all time, after Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) and/or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Either way, it was nominated for seven Golden Raspberry Awards, winning four2, and was a box office bomb3. Some feel it may be so bad it is good, rather than so bad it is unbelievably bad. The version of Howard the Duck originally released was marketed as suitable for children, though since 2008 an uncut Director's Cut has become wildly available and is even more explicit.

The best thing about this film is that its financial failure forced George Lucas to sell off his computer animation company to Steve Jobs, which led to the creation of animation studio Pixar.

The Punisher (1989)

DirectorMark Goldblatt
StudioNew World Entertainment

In the five years following the death of his wife and daughters, Frank Castle has become a vigilante, swearing to punish the guilty, and killing 125 members of the mafia who had killed them. Now the Yakuza have decided to take over the city and have kidnapped the Mafia leaders' children. The Punisher, only wishing to punish the guilty and protect the innocent, takes on the forces of Lady Tanaka to rescue his enemies' children.

Length85 minutes
SettingNew York, USA
  • Frank Castle aka The Punisher, ex-cop turner vigilante (Dolph Lundgren)
  • Detective Jake Berkowitz, Castle's former police partner (Louis Gossett Jr)
  • Gianni Franco, head of the Mafia (Jeroen Krabbé)
  • Lady Tanaka, head of Yakuza Japanese crime syndicate (Kim Miyori)
  • Detective Sam Leary, Berkowitz's new partner (Nancy Everhard)
  • Shake, Castle's alcoholic actor friend (Barry Otto)
  • Tommy Franco, Gianni's young son (Brian Rooney)
  • Dino Moretti, former head of the Mafia (Bryan Marshall)
  • Tanaka's mute adopted assassin daughter (Zoska Aleece)
Bechdel TestFail4

A fairly violent film with incredibly predictable plot that is full of plot holes. For example, one instant Detective Berkowitz states categorically that he works alone and will never ever under any circumstances whatsoever work with a partner, the next he is happily partnering Sam Leary. New World Entertainment, the company that made this film, had bought Marvel Entertainment Group and the rights to Marvel characters between 1986 and 1989, before both Marvel and New World were sold on to different new owners, who were uninterested in the film made by the previous leadership. The film was made three years after the character was created, but the Punisher does not wear his famous skull logo shirt.

Captain America (1990)

DirectorAlbert Pyurn
Studio21st Century Film Corporation
PlotThe Nazis have created a supersoldier known as the Red Skull, but the procedure's creator has fled to the United States and worked for the allies, creating a supersoldier called Captain America. Red Skull plans to launch an intercontinental missile at the White House, which is knocked off course by Captain America, who was tied to it, forcing it to land in Alaska where he is frozen for over 40 years. He is later thawed at a time when the President of the United States wishes to introduce pro-environmental legislation, much to the anger of industrialists. They hire Red Skull and his daughter to kidnap and brainwash the President. Can Captain America save the day, with the help of his girlfriend Bernice's daughter Sharon?
Length94 minutes
SettingFascist Italy in 1936, United States 1940 & 1990
  • Steve Rogers aka Captain America, supersoldier (Matt Salinger)
  • President Thomas 'Tom' Kimball (Adult: Ronny Cox, Child: Garrette Ratliffe)
  • Tadzio de Santis aka Red Skull, Fascist supersoldier (Adult: Scot Paulin, Child: Massimilio Massimi)
  • Sam Kolawetz, reporter and Tom's childhood friend (Adult: Ned Beatty, Child: Thomas Beatty)
  • General Fleming (Adult: Darren McGavin, Child: Bill Mumy)
  • Valentina de Santis, Red Skull's assassin daughter (Francesca Neri)
  • Lt Colonel Louis (Michael Nouri)
  • Bernice Stewart/Sharon, mother and daughter (Kim Gillingham)
  • Dr Maria Vaselli, creator of supersoldier serum (Carla Cassola)
Bechdel TestPass

A film that was heavily criticised by critics and had a very limited cinema release that now is considered to be mainly a curiosity. It fails to do the story justice – not even as a miscarriage of justice. It had been made to cash in on the success of Batman (1989), however, the studio that made it had no funds to do the film justice and the film's tone is uneven, and surprisingly violent in places. Captain America was meant to be released in time for the character's 50th anniversary but languished for two years before a blink-and-you'll-miss-it very limited cinematic release and going straight-to-video.

Into the Future

By 1990 all the films made about Marvel characters had been lacklustre at best, certainly nowhere near as successful as the Superman or Batman films that had been made in the 1970s-1990s. In 1989 the Andrews Group purchased Marvel Entertainment Group and then went on to buy numerous other toy and entertainment companies. In 1995 the market for comic books collapsed, leading to Marvel declaring bankruptcy in 1996. At this stage Marvel were merely a comic book company, and did not become a film company as well until 2004. Urgently needing to raise enough money to keep going as a comic business, they sold off the film rights to as many of their characters as they could. These desperate deals were on extremely unfavourable terms and Marvel received little profit, regardless of how successful the films were. The film companies that purchased the rights were also able to indefinitely renew their rights provided they kept making films featuring the characters purchased within a certain timeframe - typically three or five years. So Marvel would retain the rights to their characters if no films were made in that period, but as long as a new film featuring characters a film company had purchased the rights to, such as the X-Men, was made every three years, the film company would retain the rights for another three years and be able to keep making films featuring those characters.

Marvel's box office fortune was due to change by the end of the decade with the release of Blade (1998).

1In other words, Captain America's entrance shout had actually meant, 'Hands up or I fire a warning shot!'2Worst New Star (the six guys and gals in the duck suit), Worst Visual Effects, Worst Screenplay, and joint-Worst Picture with Under the Cherry Moon (1986).3One definition is that a flop recoups its production budget but not its full marketing budget, whereas a box office bomb fails to even recoup its production budget.4Synchronised screaming does not count as conversation.

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