Every Failed Marvel Movie Before the MCU (& Why They Didn’t Work)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most dominant forces in Hollywood at the moment, but before 2008’s Iron Man kicked the game-changing experiment off, there was a slew of notable adaptations of Marvel properties that were utter failures. From Howard the Duck to Rise of the Silver Surfer, filmmakers struggled to find a compelling way to translate the two-dimensional fun of comic books to the screen.

Marvel was started in 1939 but really rose to the brand fans know and love in 1961, when writers like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee launched The Fantastic Four who are set to end the MCU’s Phase 4. Since then, these writers and more have given life to some of the most iconic comic book characters ever imagined, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and many others. A multitude of these characters have found their way to the screen in definitive film versions, from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers.


However, the MCU was not an overnight success. It took the failures of many filmmakers to figure out what the right tone of a superhero film is, and how to marry a comic book sensibility with a compellingly human story. Whilst there is an argument that there is not a bad MCU movie, here is every critically and/or commercially failed Marvel movie before the MCU, and why it didn’t work.

Howard the Duck (1986)

Howard the Duck was the first feature-length theatrically-released film to be adapted from a Marvel character, and the results make for one of the most notorious flops in cinema history. Produced by George Lucas, the film follows the titular Howard, who is beamed to Earth from the planet Duckworld. Once there, he befriends (and almost sleeps with) Beverly, played by Back to the Future‘s Lea Thompson, and fights the forces of evil. While the comics that inspired the film walked a surreal stylistic tightrope well, the film is essentially a collection of muddled storylines, ugly visual effects, and duck puns. It was a critical and commercial failure that soured comic book movies for years after, and, despite its lead character being later embraced by the studio in a Guardians of the Galaxy cameo, regularly features on “Worst Movies of All Time” lists to this day.

The Punisher (1989)

One of Marvel’s most violent characters, Frank Castle (a.k.a. the Punisher) has made screen appearances time and time again since his inception, from 2004’s Thomas Jane-led film to 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, to 2017’s Netflix series. Before any of those hit the screen, however, there was this 1989 action flick starring Rocky IV‘s Dolph Lundgren in the lead role. Scrubbed of the character’s iconic skull insignia, Castle becomes a fairly typical 1980’s one-man-army character, taking on the mafia and the Japanese Yakuza. While the film opened mostly worldwide, studio finances nixed the possibility of a United States theatrical run, and the film was buried under a tidal wave of negative reviews. While the film does embrace the character’s serial killer roots, and while it’s not as cartoony as Howard the Duck, The Punisher still failed to show audiences that a comic book film could be more than two-dimensional.

Captain America (1990)

Before Chris Evans nabbed the iconic shield, Matt Salinger donned a cheap-looking Captain America costume in this atrocious American-Yugoslavian production. Directed by Albert Pyun, the film is likely to incur the wrath of superhero fanatics with its underwritten take on Steve Rogers and its underwhelmingly reimagined (and Italian) depiction of Red Skull. Even putting all that aside, this is a low-budget travesty that barely even earned its direct-to-video release. It was meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the iconic Marvel character, but fans would have to wait more than a decade for the definitive screen adaptation.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

While the MCU attempts to get Marvel’s First Family right, in 2005 Stan Lee admitted that this unreleased independent film directed by master of schlock Roger Corman was never meant to be seen by audiences, but instead produced and shelved in an effort to keep the film rights to the source material from expiring. While this claim has been disputed by others involved in the production, the fact remains that the cast was blindsided when the release was canceled, and Marvel executive Avi Arad is on record as having bought the film for a couple of million dollars and ordering all prints to be destroyed. Thus began the tortured journey of Marvel trying to get its first family right onscreen. While this incarnation never saw the light of day, fans can still seek out bootlegs. However, viewers should be warned: this is a B-movie through and through.

Daredevil (2003)

After the massive back-to-back successes of X-Men and Spider-Man re-legitimized the comic book movie, 20th Century Fox was quick to bring another Marvel headliner to the big screen. Featuring Ben Affleck as the blind attorney-turned-vigilante, and backed by an all-star cast including Jennifer Garner as Elektra, Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin, and Colin Farrell as Bullseye, the film was a financial success, earning over double its $78 million budget. However, it was met with criticism that it was both a rote rehashing of the typical screen superhero origin story and a tonal mess whose goofy aesthetic marred its dark and gritty ambitions. Stan Lee called it a failure, saying that the character was misunderstood and made too tragic.

Hulk (2003)

Ang Lee’s polarizing Hulk wasn’t as much an overwhelming critical or commercial failure as many others on this list. Its box office was solid, its reviews middling. However, its moody character study approach, which delved more into the psychology and origins of Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner and eschewed an over-reliance on action setpieces, rubbed some fans the wrong way. Particularly coming on the heels of X-Men, Spider-Man, and Daredevil, this was a more muted affair. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe would reboot the character, first with Edward Norton and then Mark Ruffalo, Ang Lee’s film remains an interesting entry in the superhero genre, one that perhaps didn’t get its due upon its original release and is certainly worth another look.

The Punisher (2004)

This 2004 take on the character finds its inspiration with The Punisher: Year One, telling the story of Frank Castle’s ascension to Punisher status after the murder of his entire family at a tropical getaway. Thomas Jane plays the title role, John Travolta gangster Howard Saint, and the character’s iconic skull logo is thankfully restored. However, while the film performed better financially than its 1989 predecessor, its reviews weren’t much better. Some critics praised its throwback vibe to the gritty revenge movies of the 1970s and 80s, but many found it a bizarre mix of joylessly grim and hokey. While it’s not as realistically violent as the 2017 Netflix series, this is a far cry from the kid-friendly MCU offerings. A sequel was scheduled, but negotiations broke down and the character was rebooted yet again in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone.

Elektra (2005)

Jennifer Garner reportedly only participated in this film due to contractual obligations from Daredevil. Filmed while on hiatus from her hit show Alias, Elektra was rushed into production and the results were one of the studio’s most decisive flops. A box office failure that ranked as the lowest since Howard the Duck, the film also sports an 11% aggregate ranking on Rotten Tomatoes. It destroyed any hope of a Daredevil sequel, and despite the blame resting solely on bad writing and shoddy filmmaking, it seemed to discourage Marvel from any other female-led superhero films until 2019’s Captain Marvel.

Fantastic Four (2005)

The first official big-screen adaptation of Marvel’s oldest hero team features a heavy-hitter cast, including Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, and superhero and comic book veteran Chris Evans in one of his many comic book roles. It’s obviously a night-and-day difference from the unreleased 1994 version, but while it was a considerable box office hit for 20th Century Fox, it was not met with overwhelming critical praise. Even comic book fans found fault with its goofy, light-hearted tone and its treatment of the villain, Doctor Doom. There’s been a bit of fan reappraisal in the wake of the disastrous 2015 film, but this is far from the definitive Fantastic Four movie for which fans are clamoring.

Ghost Rider (2007)

It should have been a sure thing. A film starring Nicholas Cage as a biker named Johnny Blaze who makes a deal with the devil that transforms him into the Spirit of Vengeance and pits him against Wes Bentley as a villain named Blackheart should be a wild, rebelliously good time. However, the film was almost universally panned by critics, who found its hackneyed combination of darkly plodding mythology and hammy jokiness grating. Financially, the film did well enough to spawn a sequel, but when that film failed, Nicolas Cage parted ways with the character, cementing Ghost Rider‘s legacy as fairly nonexistent.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

The final film before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began in earnest, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer sees director Tim Story returning with the same cast and doubling down on the goofy, kiddie spirit of the original. Comic book fans are sure to know this film mostly as the one that attempted and failed to bring Galactus, cosmic devourer of worlds, to the big screen. While this sequel boasts a slightly better critical reception, it didn’t bring in enough money to warrant a sequel, thus killing the franchise. After the failed 2015 reboot, all fan hope rests with the characters’ introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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About The Author

Kyle Wilson (56 Articles Published)

Kyle Wilson is a writer for Screen Rant. Originally from Pennsylvania, he graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 2014 and since then has been based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a big fan of Paddington and Joe Pesci’s performance in “The Irishman.”

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