It’s been a long road to Avengers: Endgame. Despite being over a decade in the making, it still feels like yesterday that we first saw Robert Downey Jr’s enigmatic turn as Iron Man, like the cracking of champagne on the hull of the ship called The Marvel Cinematic Universe, sailing into film history.
And while the ride has been both bumpy (Thor: The Dark World) and smooth (Thor: Ragnarok), we can still always expect a certain level of quality from our modern brand of superhero movie. It’s that Marvel Feeling we all know so well now.
But Marvel Films didn’t always have that Marvel Feeling. From the unproduced projects of The Cannon Group to the unspectacular attempts by Roger Corman and Charles Band, these early films would sometimes drastically re-envision the characters and their powers, have creative casting choices, or just make the films flat-out kooky. Not like that was always a bad thing!
You just have to look at the first thirty years of Marvel films to see how much has changed over the decades for us to finally get to Avengers: Endgame. So on the eve of this event film, let’s take a look back at that long road to see how far the MCU — and our Avengers — have come!
If you were a child of the ‘80s and loved video stores almost as much as you loved the look and feel of a full-color Marvel comic, then 1990’s Captain America could be considered something of a fever dream. It’s a movie that just seemingly appeared out of the blue — after sitting on studio shelves for almost two years — but it enticed fans with a VHS box featuring a Cap that looked far more like the comics than his motorcycle helmet wearing late ‘70s counterpart.
This movie is a barrage of what made the early 90s Direct-To-Video films, both delightful and dull, with the sweeping landscapes of Slavic Countries providing low-cost production value while the scripts were mired in tedium that just missed the spark that made the comic come to life. In this pre-internet age you wouldn’t have known that while Steve Rogers does fight Red Skull in this film, the Skull man would call himself Tadzio de Santis (rather than Johann Schmidt, confidant to Adolph Hitler), sport a cliched Italian accent, and wear makeup to hide his crimson skin. But despite all of these changes, the film retains an ‘Aw shucks!’ quality befitting of Cap and his iconic American Flag costume that swings Albert Pyun’s vision from merely irritating to simply featherbrained.
For a character that conceptually should be the hardest to bring to life in the early days of superheroes and special effects, it’s still quite shocking to me that The Incredible Hulk TV series was such a massive hit for CBS in the late 1970s. A man-on-the-run style show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as the titular green guy, Hulk found David Banner (the name infamously changed for a myriad of rumored reasons) looking for a cure to his affliction in whatever wayward town he wandered in to, helping others in need the only way he can: by hulkin’ out!
While the series creator, Ken Johnson, specifically stated that he wanted to make the show as unlike the comic as possible (potentially even changing The Hulk’s skin from green to red), Stan Lee admired the needed changes for the late 70s TV audience, possibly enhanced by Johnson layering in elements of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, like the pursuant reporter Jack Higgins as the Javert proxy. This iteration of The Hulk also nearly gave us our one-and-only live-action appearance of She-Hulk, who was initially attached to the series’ third made-for-TV film. This gave way in the early 1990s to an unproduced, Larry Cohen helmed, She-Hulk film starring Brigitte Nielsen, with promotional stills to prove it! Let’s hope She-Hulk finally gets her day in the sun soon!
Director Sam Raimi told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, on the news of Stan Lee’s death, that he was originally approached to work with Lee in the early 90s, wanting to create a Thor film after the surprise hit of his brooding superhero flick Darkman. Nothing is known about where Raimi and Lee would have taken the film storywise, but we do know one thing: early 90’s executive, like parents, just didn’t understand. Sam Raimi told Variety, “It was thrilling to be with Stan Lee and hysterical the way that we had to explain who Thor was to executives…walking out of there going, ‘We didn’t get it! They think it’s gonna be some Hercules movie or something!”
Which isn’t much of a stretch considering the only live-action version of Thor we had seen by that point was the hokey Herculian look of the God of Thunder (portrayed by Eric Allan Kramer) in The Return of the Incredible Hulk. The TV movie, like many other Incredible Hulk TV movies, was meant to be a backdoor pilot for Thor’s own television show, but perhaps thanks to the feathery shoulder pads, this iteration of the legendary Asgardian just couldn’t be taken all that seriously. Again, not like that’s a bad thing!
It’s hard, and humorous, to imagine what Iron Man would have been before we had modern effects to bring him to life. But movies like RoboCop and The Guyver did give us a glimpse at what a late 80s Iron Man suit may have looked like, and frankly: it could have been awesome. Especially if cult impresario Stuart Gordon and RoboCop writer Ed Neumeier had been kept on board as The Cannon Group had originally conscripted them for. This early take would have seen a Howard Hughes-esque Tony Stark, later in life, donning the suit once more to face off against an unmentioned foe. Gordon eventually left the project, leaving the door open for everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Joss Whedon to be attached for a time. Hell, even Nicolas Cage was once up for the titular role!
But while we never got a live-action Iron Man until Robert Downey Jr rightfully made the character his own, we do have the curio that is Exo-Man from 1977. Does it look remarkably like yet another backdoor pilot from The Incredible Hulk TV show for an unproduced Iron Man series? Absolutely, and that’s part of its charm!