We love Marvel movies and the whole MCU, no question. But… over the years, there have been so many superhero movies, so many superhero stories told, in so many ways. It stands to reason that now and then, there will be a stinker mixed in with the great ones that please fans and critics alike, like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Sometimes, the problems come from the story itself. What is engrossing and awesome on the pages of a comic book doesn’t necessarily translate into a great live action story on the big or small screen, especially without the budget or technology to make it right. Before the MCU began to take shape, with each movie building part of that universe into a whole, there were cheap budgets and missteps that produced less than fantastic results.
There were fanciful directors who didn’t really understand the genre or think along the lines of a contemporary superhero action film. The classic stories were embellished, iconic characters were taken out of context, and even new characters and elements added in that didn’t fit at all.
We love ya, Marvel, but here are 15 of your worst.
15. Captain America (1979), Captain America II (1979) & Captain America (1990)
Captain America and its sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon, were TV movies, both released in 1979. The movies were directed by Rod Holcomb and Ivan Nagy and starred Reb Brown. Both aired on the CBS network in two one-hour time slots. Let’s just say the public was underwhelmed by the low budget non-special effects. Let’s face it: it’s hard to portray a convincing, virtually indestructible hero on a low budget with the kind of technology available at the time. In 1990, Menahem Golan, an Israeli producer/director known for low-budget action films in the 1980s, produced a Yugoslavian/American version of Captain America that went directly to video. Directed by Albert Pyun, it’s been largely forgotten nowadays, although some enthusiasts of bad movies enjoy the cheap effects and generally awful acting.
14. Man-Thing (2005)
Fans of Marvel comic books may already know Man-Thing, but if you don’t count yourself in that group, you probably won’t remember the character by this forgettable flick. The one thing it has going for it is some creepily good visuals from director Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man). Ten years after the massive flop, which was released shortly after Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, along with the first two X-Men films, just when Marvel movies were picking up steam, Leonard opened up in an interview about what went wrong. He saw the movie more as a horror flick wrapped around a personal story – not the superhero/monster story more common to Marvel Comics. Ang Lee’s Hulk opened and bombed as filming for Man-Thing was already underway, and studio execs were suddenly nervous about letting directors have their way with tried and true comic book stories. Leonard lost creative control of the project, even as he stayed ostensibly at its helm, and a new script was substituted for his vision. “That’s what, for me, what I’ve learned was if you can’t shoot the vision of the movie you need to shoot in terms of script, then you shouldn’t do it. That’s what I learned,” he told an interviewer in 2015. Words of wisdom.
13. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
This movie, the third in the ill-fated Punisher series, was put out by the Marvel Knights, Marvel’s sister studio, and stars action movie veteran Ray Stevenson in the title role. In the comic book world, Marvel Knights was the imprint for more mature (more violent) stories, and as such, it could have been the right home for The Punisher’s story. The result, however, proves that theory wrong, although the movie certainly is undeniably violent. There’s virtually no story line for the first 15 minutes or so of the film, just non-stop slaughter. The villain starts out as a thug named Billy, played by Dominic West. He’s shoved into a glass-crushing machine by Punisher, and comes out screaming, seemingly cut into pieces and already sewn back together as the now supervillain Jigsaw. Sure. With its over-the-top violence and crappy dialog, it’s like a modern version of those cheesy 1980s action flicks, but without the period camp that makes them fun.
12. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
It would probably be better for Marvel if they stopped every planned trilogy at the second outing. Those third installments do tend to suck, as in X-Men: The Last Stand, the third of the X-Men series. Brett Ratner took over as director from Bryan Singer, who’d been responsible for the first two movies in the series. Ratner’s been successful in the movie biz, but not necessarily as a director, known for such sheit as 2014’s Hercules and the craptastic Rush Hour 3. It’s not surprising, then, that Last Stand lacks both style and substance. The story introduces a load of new mutant characters, only to kill just about everyone off by the end. The next movie in the X-Men series, we’ll note, went back in time to erase the whole story.
11. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Nobody really needed a new version of Spider-Man in 2012, just a few years after the flop that was Spider-Man 3. But many of us went along for the ride and found the new, cool-kid version of Peter Parker, as played by Andrew Garfield, and his chemistry with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy at least interesting enough to come back for more. By The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, any goodwill that had been built up evaporated. The momentary conflict with Gwen over his Spider-Man responsibilities rings false, and there are too many villains who develop so quickly, and are so cartoonish that we don’t care about any of them. There’s Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nice guy who develops into the supervillain Electro after an accident. There’s Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). Harry Osborn is dying of a congenital disease, and Peter refuses to put him in contact with Spider-Man, as he requests, in order to give him the serum that might save him, so he turns on Peter, too. There’s a lot of time spent on Peter’s teen angst; he remembers his promise to Gwen’s dying father to stay away from her. Technical prowess in the action sequences can’t lift the lackluster story above mediocre at best.
10. Howard the Duck (1986)
We’d like to have been a fly on the wall during the pitch meeting where studio executives greenlighted this cinematic disaster. To be fair, Howard the Duck was supposed to be an animated film, and as such, it may have had just the right tone to actually be funny and successful. As it was, some kind of contractual obligation led to this live-action debacle starring Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones and produced by Gloria Katz and none other than George Lucas. In fact, Lucas announced Howard the Duck as his follow-up to the first, and hugely successful, original Star Wars trilogy, if you can believe that. Released in 1986, it had the distinction of becoming the first Marvel comic book story to be made into a cinematic release movie. The movie cost $37 million to make and made just $38 million at the box office. It came at a time when Lucasfilm was just gaining ground and almost sunk the company. Historical note: Lucas sold off his animation department to Steve Jobs to raise money… a company that later became Pixar.
9. Ghost Rider (2007) & Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)
The premise sounds great – a stunt motorcycle driver is turned into a sort of demon after making a pact with the double-crossing Devil, doomed to hunt down evil souls as a flaming skull maniac. The movie should’ve been dark and visually spectacular, but somehow it all fell flat. We’re putting both the original and the sequel of this mediocre-at-best franchise starring Nicolas Cage as Ghost Rider / Johnny Blaze, the tortured superhero transformed into the flaming skull. The original co-starred some serious talent in Eva Mendes, Sam Elliott, Donal Logue, and Peter Fonda, but the story just didn’t have the kind of energy a superhero flick needs and was too predictable. (Frankly, we also just don’t buy Eva Mendes waiting soulfully around for Nic Cage for hours, finally realizing she’s been stood up as she wonders gloomily if she’s pretty!) Panned by critics, it still made enough money at the box office to generate a sequel. The second time, it was co-stars Ciarán Hinds and Idris Elba who are left muddling around in an overly complicated story with little real tension or suspense.
8. Elektra (2005)
Jennifer Garner tore up the screen in Alias, where she played a secret, secret agent recruited through her family ties on TV from 2001 to 2006. She’s also a trained dancer, giving her the physical chops for the role (and then some). It all sounded good when she took up the role of Elektra, first in the Daredevil movie and then in her own flick. So how did it all go so wrong? First, it’s the story that focuses on complications involving a girl and her father whom Elektra has been hired to kill but whom she protects instead for no real reason that we can figure out. She’s perfectly happy to be a hired assassin, wearing her red leather bustier and tight pants and wielding her sai but suddenly decides to turn on her employers. Okay. If the movie had concentrated more on action, it may have worked. Instead, it resulted in a forgettable flick and Jennifer Garner’s last attempt in the action-hero mold. She’s just a little too sweet and friendly to be convincing in the assassin’s role, unlike French actress Élodie Jung, who plays a far more kickass version of Elektra Natchios in Marvel’s TV version of Daredevil.
7. Hulk (2003)
Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, and Nick Nolte, with acclaimed director Ang Lee at the helm, this movie had a lot of potential. But despite solid performances and chemistry between Bana and Jennifer Connelly – who was, we admit, a very convincing scientist in the role of Betty Ross – the uneven effort didn’t please Marvel fans and didn’t become box office gold either. Sam Elliott was his reliable competent self as General Thunderbolt Ross, but Nick Nolte’s eccentric take on Bruce Banner’s father, along with other decidedly odd and off-putting additions like a rabid, gamma-poisoned poodle attack, hijacked the story into oddball territory. Some of the action sequences were cool, especially the split screen helicopter attack sequence, but there’s too much emphasis on the whole father/son dynamic that just gets weird without adding suspense, tension, action, or much of anything else.
6. Doctor Strange (1978)
Back in 1978, there were plans for a Doctor Strange TV series, with Stan Lee acting as consultant. The pilot was made, airing on CBS in September of that year. Other than Jessica Walter, who fabulously plays the world’s worst mother on Arrested Development these days, the rest of the cast would go unrecognized today. Walters played Morgan Le Fay, an evil sorceress who is the foil for the Doctor himself, played as a kind of suave ladies’ man by an actor called Peter Hooten. We can sympathize with the fact that they only had what we’d know as primitive special effects technology at the time, but what they came up with was campy bad. Morgan is supposed to be using her powers but obviously just pushes someone off a cliff. The Doctor spins against a kaleidoscope background. Spells and magic are largely shown as shimmering lights, and the costumes seem to come off a suburban supermarket Halloween rack. Needless to say, the idea of a TV series died with the lackluster ratings.
5. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Once again, star power and a long history of success as a comic book saga couldn’t save this movie from being a flop. Tim Story, who’s had some success with the last three Kevin Hart documentaries, among other things, directed the sequel to the already mediocre first outing, which was released in 2005. Ioan Gruffudd returned as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, fighting a CGI character, the Surfer, who has been sent to earth to prepare it for the destructive arrival of his master Galactus. Doctor Doom returns to join forces with the foursome to defeat the enemy. Ho hum. The CGI Surfer and the enigmatic cloud that is Galactus just don’t generate a sense of menace or danger, and the whole story fizzles.
4. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
The third time was definitely not the charm when it comes to Spider-Man 3, the last entry into the roster of Webslinger movies by Sam Raimi. Finding himself at the end of his planned trilogy, perhaps, Raimi just threw every idea and concept that had been left out of the other movies into this one. That’s pretty much what it feels like. Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker has his hands full with Harry Osborne (James Franco), who has turned on him entirely and become the next Green Goblin. Then there’s the Sandman guy who is actually the thief who shot Uncle Ben. Then there’s also the space gunk symbiote that first inhabits Peter Parker/Spidey, and subsequently ends up turning Eddie Brock into Venom. Add the rivalry between Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, and even the girl across the hall from Peter’s apartment, and there’s just too much going on to follow or care about any of it all that much.
3. The Punisher (1989)
Dolph Lundgren had just starred as He-Man in the stinker Masters of the Universe in 1987 – a flick with a 17 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. Maybe that’s why he dyed his hair dark brown and is almost unrecognizable in this Australian/American version of The Punisher story. Mark Goldblatt directed the movie that also co-stars Louis Gossett, Jr.. The story doesn’t adhere much to the Marvel canon, and Frank Castle doesn’t even wear his iconic skull t-shirt. Dolph has been great in a number of action roles, but here, he’s wooden and unconvincing, and the action sequences lack any sense of, well, action, which is pretty much the only thing that fuels the Punisher’s story. The movie played outside the US for a year or so, and then went straight to video for the American market.
2. Daredevil (2003)
Meant to be an atmospheric neo-noir film, the first screen version of Daredevil, written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson and starring then real-life couple Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock and Jennifer Garner as Elektra Natchios, the love interest, quite simply doesn’t generate the mystique an origin story needs. Matt Murdock is a character who exudes a certain kind of energy – a blend of determination, wit, and grit, veering along that spectrum. He’s had it rough, but he’s a tough, streetwise survivor. Ben just makes Matt seem depressed for most of the movie, and there’s no real superhero energy happening – and here we have two of them in this film, for god’s sake. Colin Farrell plays the eccentric assassin, Bullseye, with some fervor, but he’s the only breath of life in this sleepy outing.
1. Fantastic Four (2015)
The most recent reboot of the so far ill-fated Fantastic Four franchise left many scratching their heads at its lack of action-movie appeal. Behind the scenes, it turns out that Josh Trank, whose main claim to fame to that point was the 2012 sleeper sci-fi hit Chronicle, was at odds with studio execs for much of the shoot. There were many reshoots, which resulted in a lot of sudden changes in tone and direction in the final version. What should be a rousing superhero action movie is painfully short on action, superheroes – the story focuses too long and too much on the four as children, not even getting into the superhero transformation part until near midway through the movie – and rousing scenes. There’s a lot of talking and boring exposition, and all in all, the story never really gets off the ground. Will the Fantastic Four ever get a solid cinematic version? Let’s hope so, although this recent disaster has probably put the possibility off for a few more years.