Most nerds would agree that in the current state of comic book movies, Marvel is outshining DC. Since Blade in 1998, a surprisingly decent film, Marvel has slowly but surely overtaken and far surpassed DC in terms of overall quality and scope with their properties on the silver screen. This is all culminating in one of the largest, most grandiose film experiments ever--The Avengers.
But before 1998, Marvel was a laughing stock. Especially because every other month, Stan Lee was bragging about how some character was going to be appearing in a movie soon. These announcements were hard to believe because they rarely happened. And when they did happen, they were less than stellar. Many of the characters that we have slowly met again for the first time during the last five years appeared in live action form before. Captain America Serial (1944)
I have to admit that I have not seen this in its entirety. While I like old serials, this one is not high on my list to check out due to the changes it made from the comic series. Cap is not Steve Rogers, a soldier but rather Grant Gardner, a DA, who fights mob crime instead of Nazis. The costume is moderately faithful to the comic, but he does not use his shield. There is a sequence in 2011's Captain America film that is a throwback to old serials, but beyond that scene, this 1944 production cannot have inspired much of what is being produced today.
Incredible Hulk TV Series (1978)
Kenneth Johnson was fairly irreverent when it came to the comic books and producing this show. He admitted to wanting to change the color of the Hulk in the show to red, he changed the name of the main character to David (from Bruce), and dropped the idea of having the Hulk ever talk. These departures from the comic worked in the context of the show, but it is ironic is that the 2008 (Ed Norton) and 2012 (Mark Ruffalo) versions of the character both admit to using Bill Bixby's interpretation as an inspiration. In fact, Ruffalo has even said that the show was a huge inspiration to himself and director Joss Whedon with Banner being more of a hero and focusing less on the cure. The show's theme shows up in 2008's Incredible Hulk. There are also little homages to the show such as seeing a Bill Bixby show on a television, a Lou Ferrigno cameo, and a letter addressed to "David B." intended for Bruce Banner. It is clear that this show makes up the DNA of the modern-day Avengers movie.
Captain America (1979) and Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Oh boy. Of everything on the list, this may be some of the most unwatchable material ever produced. Starring the second worst actor in the history of Hollywood, Reb Brown, this movie was yet again a departure from the comics. Steve Rogers was a soldier, but he was done fighting and wanted to travel the country painting pictures of nature. Then he gets involved with a scientist friend of his late father who revealed that Steve had a unique body chemistry that could benefit from a super steroid. Steve rejects it until he has an accident and it saves his life. The reluctant hero, Steve dons a Captain America costume and has to stop terrorists with a bomb. This had some of the worst dialogue and acting ever. Cap's first outfit in the movies was a departure from his comic outfit but he eventually changed to one that was closer. He did have his shield, but it was large, clunky, and obviously plastic. Hopefully the Avengers folks stayed away from this one in their research.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
Of all on this list, this is the closest we come to a live action Avengers in that it is the only time we have two Avengers team up in live action form before 2012. In a made-for-TV reunion movie of the original series, David Banner is found by Donald Blake who was a medical doctor on a Norse expedition. He found Thor's hammer and is able yell "ODIN" and Thor appears. Thor and Hulk team up to fight bad guys and save David's girlfriend. There are a couple of nice bits in the movie, but it mostly plays as mediocre episode of the TV series combined with being a pilot for a proposed Thor TV series. In a setting that was largely intended on not being "comic bookish," this was a bit of a stretch. Thor was little like his comic counterpart although there are a few moments from the 2011 Thor movie that I felt like were throwbacks to this. Both have scenes in bars, and in both, Thor is a bit of a destructive fish out of water. I doubt they did those things on purpose, but it is worth noting.
Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
The final reunion movie for the Bill Bixby Hulk series did not feature a comic book team up like the previous two (Daredevil in the second one), but did feature a Russian spy that many have thought was derivative of Black Widow. She does have some similarities, but I don't buy it. I only bring this movie up due to those comparisons and her character's appearance in the upcoming Avengers movie.
Captain America (1990)
Maybe the third time's a charm? Nah... This movie was only released in the theater internationally and went direct-to-video in the US. It gets closer to being comic book accurate, but still misses many of the details. Cap is Steve Rogers, is a weak guy who is chosen to receive the super soldier serum, and just after receiving those abilities a spy kills the scientists involved meaning it can never be replicated. There is an added bit that the scientist responsible for Cap was also responsible for the Red Skull which was a piece used in the 2011 film. The origin is knocked out in 20 minutes but much of the movie takes place after he wakes up in 1990 rather than in WWII. He hardly spends any of the movie in his native time at all. There are a couple of okay bits, but again, this is a miss.
Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998)
It has been a while since I watched this so my recollection of it is hazy. The important points worth mentioning are that David Hasselhoff plays Nick Fury (this is before the Ultimate Universe made Nick a black guy that looks like Sam Jackson) and Hydra is the main opponent. A reasonable attempt at telling a Nick Fury story. The Hoff does a surprisingly decent job in the role, though he's still the Hoff playing Nick Fury. There are a lot of pieces that are faithful to the comic, but it's just a big spy/action story. Not a whole lot to use as inspiration here for the modern-day Nick Fury character who has, thus far, been less hands on.
The Hulk (2003)
An odd movie, this Hulk film is more artistic in nature and has a narrative that is all over the place. More faithful to the comics than the TV show, this movie brings in Betty Ross, Thunderbolt Ross, and gives us a "Hulk versus the Army" chase scene that is quite epic in scale. Ultimately, Eric Bana's portrayal of Banner lacks heroism and isn't as a sympathetic character as he is maybe intended to be. The worst part of the movie is the weird final fight in which Hulk fights his dad who is now essentially the Absorbing Man. There is a giant gamma cloud thing and then the Hulk disappears only to reappear in another part of the world. In 2008, many thought it was too soon for a reboot, but I welcomed it as this movie was a mess. I did like the supporting cast, but William Hurt and Liv Tyler did fine jobs in their roles as the replacements.
With this, we begin a blog crossover with To the Escape Hatch that is counting down to the Avengers film in May. Over the next few months, we'll revisit the five films leading up to the Avengers, look at some extra stuff, speculate about where it is all going, and eventually end with a giant review of the film.