Let’s begin with a disclaimer – it would be patently unfair and downright boring to simply rank the Top 5 films featuring a credit with the word ‘Marvel’ but not the word ‘Studios’ . Primarily because such a list would be dominated by X-Men and Spider-Man films – James Mangold’s Logan sitting proudly atop, separated by a country mile between it and the #2 choice (possibly X2: X-Men United, probably Spider-Man 2). Additionally, while those films aren’t strictly in-house productions like Iron Man et al, puppet master Kevin Feige’s influence (however minor) has been a factor in Marvel-centric films since the first X-Men film all the way back in 2000.
Rather more interesting is a look at the state of play prior to the emergence of Big Kevin. Marvel films existed for quite a while prior to the first X-Men film and many of them have been lost to the annals of time. But not tonight.
5. The Fantastic Four
Long before Michael Chiklis wore a big yellow rock suit and Chris Evans ensured he would forevermore be the answer to pub quizzes everywhere, legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman agreed to churn out a film based on Marvel’s first family. Operating on one of his trademark shoestring budgets, Corman assembled a half-decent cast made up of relative unknowns resulting in what can charitably described as a cheerfully crap cheese sandwich. Despite a surprisingly faithful origin story for the quality quartet (readers at home will remember that the Fantastic Four’s early issues sees them travelling to outer space and being bombarded by cosmic rays), the film is unspeakably cheap-looking.
Mr Fantastic stretches his arm using what appears to be a rubber gloves on a flimsy wooden pole. The Thing transforms back into human form by way of the camera cutting rapidly between shots of man and monster, like some sort of depraved discotheque. The Human Torch is a blatant cartoon. That being said, somehow the film features THREE separate actors playing Victor Von Doom (one for when he’s unmasked, one for when he’s lurking in the shadows and another for when he’s in his full Doctor Doom gear).
It nonetheless garners a place on this list purely because of how ambitious it is, regardless of its lack of resources. The film’s great legacy is that it remains unreleased to this day – apparently its very existence was merely a ploy by Constantin Films to retain the rights; they never intended to release it. A bootleg darling of comic cons in the days before Internet piracy, the film has a cult following and inspired a documentary that chronicled its ill-fated rise to infamy.
4. Captain America
During the 1980s when Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus ruled Hollywood with Cannon Film’s decidedly dubious moviemaking ethic (make a cool poster, secure funding for a film and use that to beef up the budget of another film already in production, rinse, repeat) they somehow secured the rights to a number of Marvel characters, including Spider-Man and Captain America.
Clearly oblivious to what actually appealed to people about the characters (at one stage, a Cannon executive believed that Spider-Man was a horror story a la The Fly where a man turns into a giant spider), they nonetheless soldiered on with various attempts, coming tantalisingly close to a Spider-Man film (can you imagine) until the company finally died a death – the sets and costumes built for Spider-Man ended up being used in Albert Pyun’s ultra-low-budget Jean Claude Van Damme actioner Cyborg, which is actually fairly good.
Picking up the dregs of Cannon’s library of intellectual property, Golan recruited Pyun to direct Captain America for 21st Century Films. What resulted was an aggravatingly silly-looking film with a daft lead performance (by the actual son of JD Sallinger no less) and utterly unconvincing special effects wherein the most memorable hero line in the film is “Could you pull the car over please? I think I’m going to be sick.” Sensationally, this line is uttered not once, not twice, but three times. The film is so bad it’s good however, with just enough cheese to prevent boredom from setting in. It finds its home on this list due to its choice of end credits song, which also happens to be the greatest bad song of all time – ‘Home of the Brave’ by Ivan Neville.
3. Trial of the Incredible Hulk/The Incredible Hulk Returns
Tied at third place are the two made-for-TV reunion movies based on ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV show, both of which unsuccessfully attempted to launch shows based on other Marvel characters. Long before Mr. Hemsworth shaved his locks and fought the Hulk for Jeff Goldblum’s amusement, Eric Allen Kramer played the bodacious blonde (in a Thor costume that looks like something you’d see on the Viking Splash Tour) in a story where Dr David Banner (the unparalleled Bill Bixby) is within arm’s reach of a cure for his Lou Ferrigno-shaped anger problem.
After much playful shoving (the Hulk never really smashed anything on the beloved series, he sort of just shoved things), the Hulk and Thor team up to stop some criminals or something. It’s a lot of fun, even if Thor’s origin is very different – no longer the literal God of Thunder, the series shows him merely as a random reincarnated Viking trying to perform good deeds so he can get into Valhalla. The best scene sees Thor drink his human friend under a table (a scene not at all dissimilar to a similar scene in the 2011 film).
‘Trial’ on the other hand, while not as efficiently paced (or as fun), is an altogether more impressive piece of superhero drama. While Banner and the Hulk are tertiary characters at best (Ferrigno’s appearances are regrettably few and the titular Trial is reduced to a dream sequence), the film is predominantly a backdoor pilot for a Daredevil series (featuring a Man Without Fear who looks strikingly similar to how he would eventually appear in the late, great Netflix series).
Rex Smith is a very sturdy Matt Murdock and while nothing in the telemovie is quite as powerful as the eventual Netflix show, it nonetheless captures the feel of the Frank Miller comics of the time and you can’t help but feel like it would have made for a great series of its own. The film also features Stan Lee’s very first cameo – as a juror in the titular trial. Still counts even if it was a dream, true believers.
2. The Punisher
Three years after he failed to break Rocky, Dolph Lundgren reappears in this vigilante epic; his butt cheeks freshly oiled, his hair freshly Bovrilled. Thus began Frank Castle’s troubled relationship with the silver screen – while the subsequent films (and the soon-to-be-cancelled Netflix series) were debatably higher in quality and drew more inspiration from the comics, the Lundgren film is the most unmistakably watchable.
It’s the only incarnation of the character that successfully straddles the comic book line between po-faced seriousness (there’s a wonderfully hammy scene where Frank suggests that God’s silence implies that he approves of the Punisher’s methods) and all out farce (the climax sees the Punisher exit an elevator to be greeted by a room full of ninjas). This is a Punisher who drives a Harley Davidson through a sewer and I’m here for it.
1. Blade 2
Was there ever any doubt? In a room full of haphazard Spider-Man reboots, Ang Lee’s gamma-irradiated interesting-failure, Nicholas Cage drinking from a martini glass filled with jelly beans and the previous films on this list, it should come as no surprise that #1 is a legitimately brilliant superhero action extravaganza.
It’s strange how seldom the Blade films are celebrated – perhaps due to their adult nature, they don’t have the same nostalgia cred that other superhero fare from the same era (namely Spider-Man and X-Men) have in spades. They’re absolute bangers however and Wesley Snipes (for all the behind the scenes trouble he caused on the third one) should be canonized for his efforts. As ambitious as Infinity War was, to date there has been one Marvel film to include a substance that can only be described as ‘Blood Cocaine’. That film is Blade 2.