Essays · Movies

From Cannon To Corman: The Early Marvel Movies

Be they unproduced or unspectacular, here’s what our Marvel movies looked like before Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios came along.
21st Century Film
By  · Published on April 24th, 2019



It’s difficult to succinctly summarize the dramatic highs and epic lows that is the history of Spider-Man on film (though this CBR video does a damn fine job), but while we all have a soft fondness for the cornball 1970s Spider-Man TV series, my sights are set on the insane Cannon Group vision that we were so close to having.

Imagine a world where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper directed Tom Cruise, Lauren Bacall, Bob Hoskins, and Stan Lee in a live-action, late 80’s Spider-Man. They even cut together a short teaser trailer for it! Sure, Menahem Golan’s Spidey was going to have eight legs before a tiny legal tussle involving missed payments and reneged character rights shifted everything around to include appearances by The Lizard and/or a Morbius-like vampire, all to be directed by The Prowler’s Joseph Zito before potentially James Cameron, but hey! Tom Cruise would have been an – ahem — amazing Spider-Man. There’s even an excellent fan-made trailer to prove it!

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

All that truly needs to be said to understand the 1970s Doctor Strange film is that it was a 1970s made for TV movie. Expect cardboard sets, dull and hammy acting (despite Jessica Walters role as Morgan Le Fay), and visuals as interesting as an episode of Quincey M.E. This aired on CBS after all, giving Doctor Strange the same warm brown hues of The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man series.

If you want a much more interesting look at the character free from this prime-time oddity, then look no further than Doctor Mordrid. Brought to colorful life by father-son duo Albert and Charles Band and their company Full Moon Entertainment, Mordrid follows the titular Doctor who is beckoned to earth to stop the opening of the gates of hell by the hands of a powerful wizard named Kabal. Seems par for the course for a Doctor Strange-lite tale, especially considering this was originally supposed to be a Doctor Strange film! But before shooting was set to begin, Full Moon lost the rights to the character and the Band Boys decided to rework the entire film by drawing from a shelved script called Doctor Mortalis. Despite whatever you feel about this version of Stephen Strange, it’s hard to argue that Jeffrey Combs wasn’t a pitch-perfect choice to portray the supernatural-tinged Doctor after portraying another famed physician: Herbert West in the Re-Animator films.

Nick Fury: Agent of Shield

Nick Fury

For complete transparency, I actually really like David Hasselhoff, whose appearance in this Made For TV film (fresh off of Baywatch Nights!) is also really all you need to know about this take on Nick Fury and the Agents of Shield. Like the man himself, there’s a heartwarming layer of cheese on this film unbecoming of Fury’s actual character, but perfectly in line with a man who wore a light up jacket to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This version of Fury, written by David Goyer, is perfect for the comic book fan who also grew up loving TV shows like Thunder in Paradise and Renegade, a fun-for-fun’s-sake actioner intended for parents and children to bond over on a Sunday afternoon. Far-flung from what Samuel L. Jackson would bring to the central role, Hasselhoff chews the scenery as much as he does his iconic cigar with the right amount of wholesome bravado to remind you why he was such a likable star in the 1990s.

Howard the Duck

Howard The Duck

But if anything perfectly encapsulates the chaotic, raucous, and wild pre-MCU Marvel film, then it’s Howard The Duck. Originally envisioned as an animated movie until Executive Producer George Lucas was contractually obligated to produce a live-action film, Howard could have been Fritz The Cat for a whole new generation. Instead, we land in the strange, uncanny valley populated by The Garbage Pail Kids and Mac & Me where anthropomorphized creatures are intended to be cutesy, family-friendly entertainment when in actuality they give the viewer a profoundly unsettling feeling of “Will I be cursed if I watch this?” Once more, not like that’s a bad thing!

Howard is deeply strange in a love-it-or-hate-it way with an incredibly catchy score by Thomas Dolby, just spectacular production design by Peter Jamison, with quality performances from Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins, who may be the only cast member that fully comprehends what movie he’s in. But between the cult popularity, the film has attained, burgeoned by the characters appearances in the MCU canon so far, Howard’s second life is bound to be much better than his tumultuous first.

Bonus: The Fox Franchises


While I intentionally decided to exclude mention of the MCU’s television characters from this list — like Daredevil who appeared in the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and of course Dolph Lundgren’s infamous The Punisher film — I’d be remiss not to mention this handful of Marvel characters who’ve been rumored to appear in the Cinematic Universe for years now.

With the ink still drying on the Disney and Fox merger, it’s much too soon to begin theorizing if their most prominent titles, namely X-Men and The Fantastic Four, will finally make their way into the MCU. Will their inclusion be the engine behind what happens post-Endgame, culminating in an adaptation of the ever-popular Secret Wars story arc? Again, too soon to tell, but if Secret Wars had occurred with the slate of these other aforementioned early Marvel films, it would have been a delight.

More than likely you’ve heard of the disastrous Roger Corman Fantastic Four film which was the holy grail of quality B-Movies in the pre-Internet age. The film, never released to the public and mired in he-said-she-said studio bickering, has a DIY charm all its own, especially considering the rubber-suited The Thing and less-than-menacing Doctor Doom.

But that charm is only matched by the unproduced Silver Surfer film from the early 1990s. Despite Quentin Tarantino attempting to get a movie for the character off the ground (not to mention an unproduced Luke Cage script with Samuel L. Jackson attached to star), it gained the most momentum thanks to a group of USC students who shot a proof-of-concept short based on new special effects they had developed. These dreams were unfortunately dashed by the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day which featured the T-1000, a metallic skinned humanoid that resembled the famed Surfer. Luckily though the short that was produced in the early ‘90s can still be found online, including a sly shot at James Cameron’s Terminator.

But perhaps the most significant unproduced Marvel project of all would have been Wolverine and The X-Men. Picture this: a James Cameron produced film, being directed by a fresh off of Point Break Kathryn Bigelow, starring Bob Hoskins as Wolverine and Angela Bassett as Storm. I don’t even need a plot synopsis to get excited about that. And while almost a decade later we would get an incredible turn by Hugh Jackman, we can’t help but theorize what Hoskins would have brought to the gruff mutant outside of his pitch-perfect stature. And while we may not have gotten an early ‘90s live-action X-Men, we always have Generation X to look back on fondly!

So how would The Avengers have looked with this rag-tag bunch of superheroes? Well, incredibly different than what Joss Whedon and The Russo’s would deliver years later. But while the MCU embraces its uniformity, having created a benchmark for what a superhero film looks and feels like today, this “Alternate Avengers” would have been built on each characters unique individuality. And looking at the directors and writers that were tasked with almost bringing these comic book visions to life, they would have had an abundance of creative energy on their side even if that energy didn’t always look like the one’s birthed from the original comics. For the last time, not like that’s always a bad thing!

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)