Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Best of Marvel, Pre-Blade

            God help us all...

            Before the release of Blade in 1998, Marvel Comics couldn’t catch a break. DC had their prestige Batman and Superman films helmed by the likes of Tim Burton and Richard Donner, while the best Marvel had done were a handful of forgettable TV/direct-to-video clunkers and Howard the Duck. Of course, things have changed slightly since then… Blade was the opening salvo in what would become our modern comic book era, followed quickly by the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies that represented a sea change in how these properties were presented on the big screen, and led Marvel to being the top dog in profitable IP throughout the world.

            But it wasn’t always so, and some brave, poor soul must go through this waste bin of history and rank - once and for all - the best of the Marvel movies before Blade’s historic release (more on that tomorrow, when we rank the post-Blade films). Any time you feel compelled to complain about this wealth of superhero movies we get nowadays (you know, all four of them per year), take a moment to look up clips of these relics and realize just how good we have it; on any other list, many of these would rank at the very bottom, but there are some little-known films worthy of rediscovery, or not deserving of the scorn they’ve received since their initial release. Of course, there are just as many that are unparalleled pieces of shit, and ranking them only denotes that some stink just a little bit less than others.

Why do I do this? Because I love you… and also might be touched in the head.    

12. Captain America/Captain America II: Death Too Soon

            In the first of many cheats throughout this list, I’m lumping these two together, because there’s not much here to differentiate the two. This pair of Reb Brown vehicles have pretty much nothing to do with the classic character, taking more inspiration from Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, siphoned through the filter of Evel Knieval and The Six Million Dollar Man for the ultimate in seventies cheese. Brown isn’t Steve Rogers, but rather his son, a van-driving vagabond who would much rather paint portraits of elderly ladies than fight crime. This could have been enjoyable, had the films shown the least amount of goofy charm, but when the climax of your first film features your hero standing by idly while someone else gives CPR to the main villain… well, that pretty much speaks for itself. The second one fares a little better, as it features Christopher Lee to class up the joint as the heavy, but it’s still so, so stupid. It all might have worked had the films found the right actor for the lead, a la Adam West in Batman, but Reb Brown is as blank as the tiny, clear shield he tosses around like a Frisbee. I suppose it deserves a certain amount of pop culture credit for giving us a humorous bevy of Youtube clips, but that’s about all I’m willing to give it.   

11. Spider-Man

            A trademark “funky” soundtrack and endlessly-wide lapels instantly date this one, the pilot movie for the eventual series in which everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood hero is pulled up the side of a building by a wire in an attempt to make it look like he’s climbing. Nicolas Hammond has the right sort of “Aw, shucks!” charm needed for Peter Parker, but more often than not gives off a Norman Bates, “I’m much more interested in dissecting you than carrying on a conversation” vibe. He dons a pair of unflattering tights to do battle with the Guru, a self-help sleeze-ball who utilizes mind-control to get his one would assume wealthy constituents to rob banks and the like for him, instead of, you know, just handing over their stock options or something simple like that. I don’t know why these movies didn’t draw from the comics for their villains, but I guess that would just be too silly, huh? Better to have Nick Hammond in a one-piece do battle with money launderers and racketeers. Arbitrary changes from the source material abound in these early movies, but what they replace them with adds a whole lot of nothing to the proceedings; resulting in projects so removed from their source you wonder why the filmmakers were even bothered to make it in the first place.

10. Fantastic Four (1994)

            Here’s the thing about Corman’s Fantastic Four (a movie made for the sole purpose of holding on to the film rights so another, better film could be put together at a later date): had it featured a better cast of actors and bit more money, it wouldn’t be half-bad. The costumes and the script are comic-accurate, and the film strikes the right tone needed for these space-age, Kennedy-era heroes. But as it stands, with the cast and the budget we got, Corman’s Fantastic Four is a pretty dreadful piece of entertainment - one so bad it has yet to still see an official release. It’s hard to imagine the level of disappointment comic convention-goers of the nineties must have felt after paying top dollar for a bootleg VHS of this debacle, with its turd-shaped Thing and Reed waving at the sunset towards the end with a plastic hand on a stick, but it remains a fascinating footnote in the history of Marvel’s big-screen outings.

9. Howard the Duck

            Contrary to popular belief, Howard the Duck is not the worst movie ever made. It is, however, still quite bad, taking a revolutionary series of satirical comics from the seventies and turning them into some sort of sub-music video showcase for ILM. And it is quite a showcase, as HTD features impressive visuals like the Dark Overlord, but the film’s dismal attempts at being a comedy hold it back at nearly every turn. Gone is the sublime, existential nature of the comics, instead replaced by cheap humor and boring chase scenes. Audiences everywhere agreed, making Howard the Duck one of the most notorious bombs in box office history, and the first real financial failure for George Lucas since American Grafitti

8. Captain America (1990)

            Just about the only interesting thing this movie does is cast JD Salinger’s son as Captain America. It’s the second in the failed New World series of Marvel theatrical releases (none of which saw release in an American theatre), and took several years before it was even made available to the public. At least following the outline of the comics by having Steve Rogers be the WWII superhero man-out-of-time, the film is markedly better than the Reb Brown efforts from the decade previous, but still cheapness plagues the film. It does have acting bonafides in Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, and director Albert Pyun was a master at turning out cheap B-movies, but Captain America is a chore to sit through at times. The Red Skull goes from being the quintessential Nazi fascist supervillain into some kind of Italian whiny-boy, and no one involved here seems to think they have a serious contender for the next superhero blockbuster. It’s moderately entertaining in fits and starts, but the 1990 Captain America is still a total snooze.  

7. Generation X

            It didn’t get much hotter than the X-Men in the 90’s, and considering the title’s long-ingrained soap operatics, it seemed a perfect fit to bring that universe to life on the small screen every week. Thus Generation X was born, an also-ran of the X-Men line that brought back the core concept of super-powered outsider teens for the Gen-X crowd. Considering what was on at the time, this pilot movie is perfectly passable, and I could even see it working as a proposed series, but everyone in this movie is trying way too hard. The actors never met a line they couldn’t shout in dramatically drawn out syllables, and the director never saw a close-up he couldn’t zoom in on whilst turning the camera ninety degrees in the process. Even the usually reliable Matt Frewer goes too far, starting the modulation of his performance at Gorshin Riddler levels and turning it up so far he pushes past the Paul Reubens Pee Wee setting. As such, it makes for an exhausting viewing experience, and not in a good way. I feel like the X-Men franchise is one far more suited for television, but this wasn’t it.   

6. The Incredible Hulk Returns/The Trial of the Incredible Hulk/The Death of the Incredible Hulk

            The Bill Bixby show had been off the air for some time when these TV movies finally rolled around, all of which acted as both an attempt to revive interest in a new Hulk show while also providing a springboard for other Marvel characters to get their own continuing adventures. The original show creator Kenneth Johnson had nothing to do with these further attempts, and with him went the show’s adamant grounded, “realistic” take that saw no other supernatural or outlandish concepts invade the reality of a guy who turns into a green-skinned Lou Ferrigno in a bad wig when he gets angry. Thus, we have the very first live-action Marvel Team-Up, as the Hulk joins forces with Thor and Daredevil - in Returns and Trial, respectively. But as exciting as it is to see the budgeted-for-TV versions of these characters share the screen, that’s about all that’s remarkable that happens therein, as the rest of the movies are nothing more than forgettable TV fluff. 

            Bixby remains a defining presence throughout (even going so far as to step behind the camera to act as director for roughly two-and-a-half of them), but with attentions split between the guest stars and an ever-dwindling budget, there’s not much that even Bixby can do to hold the audience’s wandering attentions. They follow the series’ general outline of David Banner wandering from town to town, learning lessons and righting wrongs, but since Banner essentially drifts into these people’s lives with which he has no attachment to whatsoever, the audience never has a chance to become attached, either. It’s a fine format for a television series, but for standalone movies, it’s generally a good idea to have the main character actively involved in the story. This is fixed somewhat by the time Death rolls around, but considering the only thing to truly happen to Banner in the film is that he dies, it’s not much of an improvement.

5. The Incredible Hulk/Return of the Incredible Hulk

            When Marvel approached Kenneth Johnson to develop the Hulk for TV, the producer felt the concept was far too silly, and thus removed nearly everything that may have remotely seemed too comic book-y… except for, you know, the giant green rage monster, which is really just a six-foot-tall Italian in green body paint. I’m of the general opinion that the more “serious” you try to make something as inherently (and wondrously) silly as superheroes, the more you generally tend to make things even more silly. Thus, the melodrama is laid on nice and thick here in this pilot movie, but one thing that makes the old show bearable is Bixby himself, who manages to get us invested in his David Banner, even though he frequently does nutty, questionable things. And I may give him a hard time, but Ferrigno cuts an impressive figure as the Hulk, with that first transformation in the rain being especially iconic. 

The first movie plays out like a horror film, with allusions to the classic Universal Frankenstein series, and is interesting to see just how little happens over the course of its run-time. The film tries to set up an antagonist in Jack McGee, but he’s little more than a nuisance than a true threat. It ends with Banner believed dead and hitting the road, and it’s with Return where we see the direction the eventual series would go in: Banner wanders into some nameless town, gets involved with other troubled souls and Hulks out to help. It’s another rather eventless affair as Banner takes a job working for the ranch of a wealthy family and uncovers a plot to kill the young heiress to the fortune. It proved to be a formula for success, however, as that’s exactly what David Banner did for five seasons and a handful of TV movies. They weren’t always great, but with the capable Bixby steering the ship week in and week out, it’s easy to see why the show became a hit.

4. The Punisher (1989)

            “The guilty… must be pah-nished.” So says Dolph Lundgren in this okay effort - perhaps on the higher side of the Lundgren spectrum of quality, but still not much to write home about, otherwise. The character of The Punisher seemed tailor-made for the Reagan-era, “Just Say No” gun-porn of the day, and the spinning wheel of heavily-accented, muscle-bound meatheads must have landed on ol’ Dolph when it came time to bring the skull-chested avatar of bullet-ridden vengeance to the big screen. Of course, one of the major sticking points with fans on the movie is that Dolph never actually wears the skull, but other than that, the film is pretty faithful to the Punisher comics of the day. Lundgren himself isn’t too bad in the title role, his square jaw and general build making him look like a real-life superhero, and the film tells a light, fun (if not completely stupid) story of Yakuza gangsters, kidnapped mob children and Frank leading his drunk thespian sidekick on a breadcrumb trail with booze via a remote-controlled car. Also worthy of note: it was written by future Hollywood big-time director Boaz Yakin.   

3. Captain America (1944)

            I’m cheating a bit by including this one, a thirteen-chapter serial, but the majority of this list is so dire, it needs a little boost. Not that the original Captain America serial is a hidden gem worthy of rediscovery, but there is a lot to like here, if you approach it with the right mindset. Sure, much has been made of its arbitrary changes to the character - the Captain America here is not the ninety-eight-pound-weakling-turned-super-soldier Steve Rogers, but rather the portly DA Grant Gardner, who wears a mostly-accurate costume, aside from trading his trademark shield in for a pistol. It’s pretty standard as far as the old-time serials go, but it has a few things working in its favor. One, it was produced by Republic Pictures, who churned out the very best of the old cliffhangers, relying on a worthy stable of directors like William Witney, Spencer Bennett and John English (who co-directs here) to achieve heightened levels of excitement despite the limitations of budget and time. These filmmakers turned out weekly entertainments with the precision of a fine-tuned clock, basically inventing what would become the backbone of the motion picture fistfight, and Captain America is a solid example of the form. Of course, silliness abounds throughout (one of the threats Cap must face off against is dubbed - I shit you not - the  “Dynamic Vibrator”), so if you’re not predisposed to like these older forms of entertainment, then there’s probably not much in these 228 minutes that’ll sway your opinion otherwise. But it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest, and it gets points for being the very first Marvel property adapted into another medium.

2. Dr. Strange

            Now, this was a pleasant surprise. Intended to set up Stephen Strange for a continuing series, this pilot movie stands head and shoulders above the rest of Marvel’s live-action outings of the day by delivering something stylish, creepy and downright weird. It’s still cheap and riotously hokey, but also kind of awesome; the filmmakers take the character into the realm of horror and exploitation movies, with a dizzying array of demons, monsters and other dimensions (via some rather trippy, shameless steals of 2001’s “Beyond the Infinite” scenes) to result in a movie that was quite unlike anything else on TV at the time. Peter Wooten plays the titular hero, about whom the only remarkable thing is his impressive perm and moustache combo, until the very end, where he gets a swanky purple jumpsuit and the ability to make his hands glow and shoot cartoon beams at the villainous Jessica Walter’s cleavage. Throw in the synth-heavy soundtrack that sounds like the bastard love-child of The Exorcist and Suspiria, and you have a movie just begging for a Shout/Scream Factory Bluray release.

1. Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD

            Long before Samuel L. worked his one-eyed way into our hearts, none other than David Hasselhoff brought Nick Fury to cigar-chomping life. Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD may not be much to look at when compared to our current crop of Marvel entertainment, but for a made-for-TV effort, it’s hard to ask for anything more fun than this. David Goyer penned this one the same year he helped to revolutionize comic book movies with Blade, and peppers the project with all the SHIELD favorites: Dugan, the Contessa, Alexander Pierce, Gabe Jones and the rest, all here to do battle with HYDRA, (led by a sultry Sandra Hess, doing her best to outdo Famke Jansen in Goldeneye) in a spy-fi battle of Life Model Decoys, psychic agents and the very first on-screen Helicarrier. The bulk of the cast hopelessly overacts while the ‘Hoff mugs for the camera, but with some surprisingly-good effects and solid production design (for TV), the film is a goofball bit of camp fun from beginning to end. Truth be told: I would have been totally down for a Hasselhoff-led Nick Fury series. 

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