DISCOVER--the pre-CGI Marvel Super Heroesby jonabbott56 | created - 29 Dec 2012 | updated - 28 Jan 2016 | Public
Before the current and ongoing Marvel Comics movies of the 21st century, there were several other attempts to recreate the Marvel super-heroes for films and TV in simpler times, both in animated and live-action formats. This list runs through them in chronological order. It does not include TV movies or foreign releases made from television episodes, or non-super-hero productions, but it does include unsold pilots and one- offs.
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1. Captain America (1944)
Approved | 244 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Superhero Captain America battles the evil forces of the archvillain called The Scarab, who poisons his enemies and steals a secret device capable of destroying buildings by sound vibrations.
This serial was made by Republic at the height of their powers and is great fun as usual, but has little to do with the Captain America comic other than swiping the costume...
2. Captain America (1966– )
TV-G | Animation, Action, Adventure
The patriotic sole recipient of a revolutionary body enhancement project battles evil as the star spangled defender of America.
Very limited animation series which takes its stories and artwork from the Captain America strips then running in Tales of Suspense. Fun nostalgia with lots of Jack Kirby art.
3. Iron Man (1966– )
Animation, Action, Sci-Fi
An inventive munitions industrialist fights the forces of evil using a revolutionary suit of power armor.
Colourful recreations of Iron Man's adventures from Tales of Suspense, although the switching back and forth between the disparate artistic styles of illustrators Don Heck and Gene Colan can be distracting. Fun.
4. Hulk (1966– )
TV-G | Animation, Action, Sci-Fi
The adventures of a nuclear scientist cursed with the tendency to turning into a huge green brute under stress.
Stories from the original short run of Hulk comics and his early exploits in Tales to Astonish make up this nostalgic but very primitive cartoon production. Episodes are extremely variable, with a version of Avengers vs. the Space Phantom (issue 2 if I recall?) being virtually untransmittable and the worst effort in all five series, but the Metal Master story being a rare example of animated Steve Ditko art. The voices are particularly bad on this series, with the Hulk and General Ross very poor, although John Vernon (also Iron Man and Sub Mariner) voices Major Talbot, and the younger version of Tyrannus is surely George Takei, who was doing voice work at this time. The theme song is a riot.
5. The Sub-Mariner (1966– )
Animation, Action, Fantasy
The prince of the sunken city of Atlantis protects his home from all enemies both above and below the surface of the sea.
Interesting animation of the Sub-Mariner strips from Tales to Astonish. Highlight is a bizarre re-hash of Fantastic Four annual no. 3 (the wedding partially recreated in the Fantastic Four/Silver Surfer film) but without the Fantastic Four, who were licensed to Hanna-Barbera at the time! Features the first animated appearance of the X-Men.
6. Mighty Thor (1966– )
Animation, Fantasy, Action
The contemporary adventures of the Norse god of thunder and lightning.
Perhaps the best-looking of the five mid-'60's animated Marvel Super-Heroes productions, this utilises superb Jack Kirby art from some splendid Lee-Kirby yarns from the Thor strips in Journey into Mystery.
7. Spider-Man (1967–1970)
TV-Y7 | Animation, Adventure, Family
Original cartoon series based on the web-slinging Marvel comic book character, Peter Parker, who, after being bit by a radioactive spider, assumes extraordinary powers.
Initially attractive animated adventures featuring original non-comic stories, some with stylish Marvel villains like Mysterio and the Rhino, others with the usual cartoon cliche losers, with clear colourful art and the legendary theme song. The second season is less impressive, and the third season by Ralph 'Fritz the Cat' Bakshi is absolutely appalling.
8. Fantastic Four (1967– )
30 min | Animation, Action, Family
Four costumed superheroes battle the world's most terrifying villains.
While they obviously pale in comparison to the Lee-Kirby originals, by TV cartoon standards these are very well done simplified reworkings of the classic and legendary Fantastic Four comics of the 1960s (including Galactus and the first animated appearance of the Silver Surfer). Far superior to the 1970s FF cartoons, we anxiously await a legitimate DVD release.
9. The Amazing Spider-Man (1977–1979)
TV-PG | 60 min | Action, Adventure, Crime
With the powers given by the bite of a radioactive spider, a young man fights crime as a wall-crawling superhero.
One of the great mysteries of American television is why networks shell out for the rights to a proven success, and then change or discard everything that makes it work. It's all there for the taking, but instead they take it away. The strongest aspect of the Spider-man comics are the characters and the villains, so they replaced most of the former and didn't use the latter. Instead, we got standard TV plots and set-ups, with bland TV-style bad guys. The result was a watchable but very mediocre short run, the highlight being "The Hostage Tower". A lost opportunity, but an official DVD release anyway, please...
10. The Fantastic Four (1978– )
The super-elastic Mr. Fantastic, the force field-wielding Invisible Girl, the orange rock-covered Thing and the data-crammed robot Herbie make up a team of superheroes dedicated to thwarting would-be world-dominating villains.
Despite the presence of Jack Kirby himself, this is inferior to the earlier Hanna-Barbera version, with feeble delineation and hampered by the absence of the Human Torch and his substitution by a comedy robot. Yuk.
11. The Incredible Hulk (1978–1982)
TV-PG | 60 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
A fugitive scientist has the curse of becoming a powerful green monster under extreme emotional stress.
This popular and long-running combination of Marvel's Hulk with TV's man-on-the-run format pioneered by The Fugitive was enormously successful on its own terms, but had very little to do with the comic-book incarnation of the character, hamstrung by the lead actor's and producer's strong animosity toward the medium. Both said that they "didn't want to do a comic-book show", which is a bit like signing on for a cop show and saying 'no guns or criminals'. Despite this, it was an okay if perhaps inadvertently appropriately schizophrenic show, a serious drama interspersed with interruptions from a big green musclebound monster. One might think that this would make it neither fish nor fowl, irritating the adults, and boring impatient kids, but the show ran for five years. By the time the 21st century Hulk movies were being made, it had become a strong enough part of the character's cultural baggage to have earned several coy verbal and visual references in these more faithful adaptations of the strip.
Of the original series, the pilot and the two-parters "The First" and "Prometheus" most closely capture the spirit of the source material. At least Lou Ferrigno, who portrayed the Hulk, was a fan of the comics...
12. Dr. Strange (1978 TV Movie)
TV-PG | 93 min | Action, Fantasy
A psychiatrist becomes the new Sorcerer Supreme of the Earth in order to battle an evil Sorceress from the past.
Disappointingly flat and mis-cast attempt to bring Marvel's "master of the mystic arts" to the small screen. Strange has no gravitas at all, and comes across like the assistant manager of a disco. Doomed from the outset, perhaps, when attempted with a 1970s TV network budget and sensibilities. Ironically, a shameless straight-to-video rip-off called Doctor Mordrid from Charles Band's comics-inspired Full Moon operation did a much better job! However, given the series' content and pedigree, this is surely the most difficult Marvel character to get right.
14. Spider-Woman (1979–1980)
21 min | Animation, Family, Fantasy
The adventures of a female superhero with spider-like abilities.
I can't explain why I like this badly-made rubbish, but I do. At least it wasn't as poor as the actual comic.
15. Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979 TV Movie)
TV-PG | 83 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
The star spangled hero must battle a villain's plan to poison America with a chemical that horrifically accelerates the aging process.
16. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981–1986)
TV-Y7 | 22 min | Animation, Action, Comedy
Spider-Man battles crime in New York City with the help of Iceman and Firestar.
When this animated cartoon series premiered during the dog days of TV cartoons between the first season of Scooby-doo in 1969 and the arrival of The Simpsons in 1989, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. For a start, characters moved three-dimensionally around the screen rather than just from left to right, and despite the usual TV cartoon failings (ridiculous additions like the completely redundant hidden headquarters, the comic relief dog, and the occasional cackling nitwit villain) it was a lively and enjoyable half hour enhanced by guest appearances from other Marvel super-heroes, narration by dear old Stan Lee himself, and one of the best background scores ever used. The amazing friends were Iceman from the X-Men and original creation Firestar, a likeable and workable supporting cast.
17. Spider-Man (1981–1987)
30 min | Animation, Adventure, Fantasy
The web slinging superhero battles crime in New York City.
One simply missed the amazing friends...
18. The Incredible Hulk (1982–1983)
TV-Y7 | 24 min | Action, Animation, Adventure
A research scientist is cursed with the tendency to turn into a giant green brute under stress.
After the prime time live-action reboot, it was back to basics for these new animated adventures.
19. The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988 TV Movie)
Not Rated | 100 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
Hopefully on the verge of curing his Hulk condition, Banner meets his colleague, Don Blake, who is mystically linked to a Viking warrior, Thor.
This is the first of three TV movie revivals of the 1970s TV series by New World, marred by a truly abysmal attempt to co-feature Thor.
20. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989 TV Movie)
Not Rated | 100 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
When Banner is held as a witness to a violent crime linked to the Kingpin, the fugitive is helped by lawyer Matt Murdock who is also the superhero, Daredevil.
This is the second of three TV movie revivals by New World. Trial features the first live action appearance of Daredevil, portrayed by Streethawk's Rex Smith.
21. The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990 TV Movie)
Not Rated | 95 min | Action, Adventure, Drama
The finale of the television series about Dr. David Banner, a scientist who transforms into a mighty, larger-than-life creature called the Hulk when he gets angry. Desperately attempting to... See full summary »
22. Captain America (1990)
PG-13 | 97 min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Frozen in the ice for decades, Captain America is freed to battle against arch-criminal, The Red Skull.
Seriously underrated low budget adventure for Captain America. I don't understand why nobody but myself and a few mates like this movie. Matt Salinger is excellent, but spends too little time in the costume. There's a splendid Red Skull, Ronny Cox makes a good U.S. President, the supporting cast is excellent, and it's light and bright. Faithful to the source, and based loosely on the 1960s man-out-of-time Lee and Kirby stories in Tales of Suspense.
24. The Fantastic Four (1994)
PG | 90 min | Action, Adventure, Family
In this Marvel Comic adaption, four astronauts get bombarded with cosmic rays when an accident occurs. The four of them acquire special powers, and decide to form a superhero group called ... See full summary »
"Look at you--the Fantastic Four!"--and they are. Made on a shoestring budget to honour a time-sensitive business deal, this is a charming and faithful recreation of the early 1960s Fantastic Four comics with a great cast and a simple, straightforward and--for once--respectful approach to the material. Unlike the equally enjoyable big budget incarnation of the team, everyone looks like who they are supposed to be, and Doctor Doom and the Thing, the two most difficult to get right, are particularly well realised. Unfairly maligned by the sort of people who think Mystery Science Theatre is funny, it is in fact vastly superior to more costly disasters like Superman III etc. or some of the TV pilot travesties of the 1970s. It's quite thrilling to see everything happen as it should, and looking like it did in the comics, something that wasn't the case in the later version, where for all the 'rebooting' and 're-imagining', the best moments were the sequences faithfully recreating scenes or images from the Lee/Kirby original. There are flaws (the Jeweller is unnecessary, and some of the super power effects are understandably a bit ropey), but considering how easily the mega-budget movies screw up with millions at their disposal, I'm reminded of the interviewer who asked John Ford if he could have made a bad movie. "Sure", he replied. "It'll cost you more, but I could do it".
25. Fantastic Four (1994–1996)
22 min | Action, Animation, Sci-Fi
The adventures of Marvel Comic's greatest superhero team.
Opening with a lame rehash of the origin story, but improving with the appearance of the Puppet Master in part two, this is a slick two season series with good animation, but tries way too hard to be cute. Neither fish nor fowl, the stories are pointlessly altered rewrites of early stories, when they could have been presented as new, if derivative adventures rather than factually incorrect old ones. Featuring several multi-part storylines, first season adversaries include the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Doom, the Skrulls, and Galactus and the Silver Surfer. The show is greatly hampered by a dreadful dated and tacky disco theme and soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder.
29. Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998 TV Movie)
TV-14 | 120 min | Action, Sci-Fi
Marvel's hard-boiled hero is brought to TV. He is brought back to fight the menace of Hydra after exiling himself in the Yukon since the end of the Cold War. The children of the former ... See full summary »
If the casting of professional self-effacing joke David Hassellhoff as Marvel tough guy Nick Fury seems a little surprising (especially to those movie-goers who don't realise the character's not supposed to be black), it will come as even more of a surprise to discover that this Fox TV pilot almost works! Hassellhoff was surprisingly acceptable, if not most fans' first choice casting, as Fury, and all the usual trappings of Fury's universe were present and correct, including the Contessa, Baron Von Strucker, Hydra, and the LMDs. What wasn't right was the timing--the plot involves terrorists attacking New York, and the very stylish 1960s comic strip was Marvel's response to the Bond/UNCLE spy craze, so it was all a little late.
32. Avengers: United They Stand (1999–2000)
TV-Y7 | 30 min | Animation, Action, Adventure
The adventures of the Marvel Comics Universe's greatest general membership superhero team.
Jon is not on Facebook, but can reply to comments here, at the base of this list.
Obsessed with the popular culture of the 1960s and surrounding decades, Jon Abbott has been writing about film and TV for over thirty years in around two dozen different publications, trade, populist, and specialist. He is the author of several books, including
Irwin Allen Television Productions 1964-1970, Stephen J. Cannell Television Productions: A History of All Series and Pilots, The Elvis Films, Cool TV of the 1960s: Three Shows That Changed the World, and Strange New World: Sex Films of the 1970s.
See his Amazon author's page, and his other lists on the IMDB, all under the pre-fix DISCOVER.