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'Avengers' Aside, Other Comic-Book Adaptations to TV and Film Are Less Marvel-ous
May 4, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 8 comments

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon behind the wheel of the new Avengers movie? For TV fantasy fans, it’s a fantasy come true. But until this recent run of cinematic superhero triumphs, TV shows and movies based on Marvel Comics characters have flopped a lot more than they’ve soared…

The X-Men and Iron Man movie franchises, launched respectively in 2000 and 2008, showed how to do things right, with an entertaining mixture of action, character, spectacle, wit, drama, sex appeal and playful wonder. The new, just-released Avengers movie continues that trend, another 21st-century hit.

But in the previous century, Marvel Comics superheroes weren’t so super in their TV and movie incarnations. While heroes from rival DC Comics launched one hit after another – from TV’s campy Batman, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and Adventures of Superman to the big-screen Superman, Batman and others – Marvel Comics rarely registered, much less stuck the landing.

I say this as a Marvel fan from childhood – one who snubbed DC’s heros and heroines in favor of Marvel’s more brooding, sarcastic crew. At one point in the mid-1960s, I had every edition of every Marvel Comics published up to that time, including the original appearance by Spider-Man and the first issues of The Amazing X-Men, The Fantastic Four and others.

I sold that collection, as a young teen, to a classmate named Randy Silverman for $75. I haven’t heard from him in more than 40 years, but I imagine him sleeping on some yacht, paid for and fueled by the resale of just a few of those original Marvel comics. Damn you, Randy Silverman.

But I digress.

Until X-Men showed up in 2000 to do things right, Team Marvel basically had two claims to fame, and both were more cheesy than inspiring. There was, of course, the original Spider-Man cartoon series from 1967-70. It was awful, but it had a theme song that somehow burrowed its way into your brain and stayed there.

Perhaps because it’s one of the all-time worst rhyming couplets in popular music:
“Is he strong? Listen, bud – He’s got radioactive blood!”

And if you think I’m making it up, just watch – and listen:

There’s also The Incredible Hulk, the 1978-82 series starring Bill Bixby as the mild-mannered guy who, when angered, turns into Lou Ferrigno’s menacing Hulk.

Yes, Bixby tried to make it as serious and meaningful as he could, but sorry. All you have to do is watch a few minutes to realize how un-super this Marvel series really was, despite its successful run. Again, I offer an exhibit to the court, this time an early transformation from bullied David Bruce Banner (his name in the series) into the angry Hulk. If you’re honest, you won’t like him when he’s angry:

But wait, there’s more…

How about a made-for-TV Captain America in 1990, starring Matt Salinger as the genetically modified action hero? This telemovie is really, really bad, but has one other distinction: It co-stars Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, half of the ill-fated canoe vacationers in 1972’s Deliverance. Here’s a taste – but it’s hardly a palate cleanser.

Another world-class clunker, this time from 1998, was a telemovie called Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. In the new 2012 version of The Avengers, Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson, reprising cameo roles from earlier films in this rebooted Marvel franchise.

But in 1998, the cigar-chomping Nick Fury was played by – honest – David Hasselhoff. And Lisa Rinna was his co-star. I know, you think I’m making this up. But here, as a taste, is Exhibit D.

Mark it D for Dumbfounded.

Nothing could be worse, right? Wrong.

In 1994, Roger Corman made a version of The Fantasic Four so bad, it was never released. Never. Legend has it the movie wasn’t ever intended for release, just to secure and extend a copyright in a backstage legal battle over cinematic rights to characters (pictured in the photo above) and titles. I suspect that may just be an after-the-fact alibi, and one that doesn’t quite wash.

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Also, that theme in the "Fantastic Four" trailer sounded familiar. As well it should - it's James Horner's main title music from Roger Corman's 1980 "Seven Samurai" adaptation "Battle Beyond The Stars." Corman is Hollywood's greatest recycler; that's probably why, in his words, he's "never lost a dime."
May 12, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Wow! Extra points for that one. Good catch - and good ears.
May 15, 2012
You forgot one series, that was a contemporary of the "Hulk." Nicholas Hammond starred in a "Spider-Man" series for CBS in 1978. It didn't last long (14 episodes, according to IMDB); there was no M.J., and Stan Lee supposedly hated it. What few episodes I've seen, I did enjoy. I don't remember if they used the "Spider-Man" cartoon theme, though.
May 12, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
They didn't. That theme as for the cartoon series alone -- and of the two, the cartoon series was better overall. Which says a lot. And explains why I forgot it.
May 15, 2012
Jedi Master
The Incredible Hulk, the 1978-82 series was super. That is why it had a successful run. I have all 5 seasons on DVD and they are great.
May 8, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
We may agree to disagree -- but it's tough for me to take a stance on the fantasy genre when I'm arguing with someone whose email address includes both jedi and star wars. More credentialed you may be.
May 9, 2012
Mike Bindler
Still waiting for the cinematic majesty of a Dr. Strange movie.
May 7, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
There IS one! So horrible, I should have included it. It was made in 1978 -- a telemovie, I recall -- starring Peter Hooten as the titular mystic, and -- get this, "Arrested Development" fans -- Jessica Walter as Morgan LeFay. Is it available on DVD? No. But have faith... As the Lovin' Spoonful asked, Do You Believe in Magic?
May 9, 2012
I would like to add Fox's 1996 TV movie/backdoor pilot for "Generation X" starring Finola Hughes as Emma Frost/White Queen to the list. Also, the Hulk clip reminds me of an infamously bad scene from Hulk Magazine (not the regular comic) where Bruce was attacked by two men in the showers of a YMCA. It was as bad as it sounds.
May 6, 2012   |  Reply
Jonathan Cox
I think the original of The Blade series starring Wesley Snipes was the beginning of the "modern" comic book adaptation, and most certainly was the beginning of Marvel productions being in the 'cutting edge' of comic-book movies.
May 6, 2012   |  Reply
Robert Spicer
This is great except for one thing. That Spiderman theme is a classic!

Wealth and fame he's ignored/Action is his reward

Maybe the Ramones can change your mind:

May 6, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Classic? Yes, it's unforgettable -- but not in a good way. Those lyrics make the "Gilligan's Island" theme seem like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
May 6, 2012
Keith Hood
Ben Affleck's Daredevil has to be included. I found this really sad because Daredevil was one of my favorite comic book characters and I hated seeing the translation to the screen be so, so bad.
May 5, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
So many of them are, I try not to take it personally.
May 6, 2012
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