Like any form of entertainment, comic books can be a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to making successful projects. So often, big character and titles are pushed only to flop while stuff that seemed low-level becomes a huge hit. When Marvel first started to push super-heroes in the 1960s, they would commonly claim every new character was a star in the making. After all, Stan Lee had the audacity to put “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” on the very first issue of Fantastic Four. And often, the instincts of writers are right as the likes of Daredevil, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk have become huge stars as intended when they were introduced. That goes for some bad guys like Doctor Doom and the slews of Spider-Man enemies. So it shows how great some characters are from the start.
Others however, take time to develop. Sometimes, they can be under the radar for years before a chance to break out. Other times, they can be meant to just show up in one issue but somehow end up clicking with readers to take off. But there’s a flip side as characters meant to be massive deals turn out to be disasters. For every winner, Marvel has introduced a major loser, a hero meant to be the next star but failing. Or a super-villain intended as a huge threat but turns laughable.
Even trickier is making a comic book character work on screen. Too many times, a character meant to be huge doesn't work while one that was seen as forgettable turns out to be a hit on either the big or small screen. It shows how tricky it can be figuring out what can and can’t work and how Marvel isn’t immune to such shifts. Here are 10 Marvel characters that were never meant to be stars but became so and 10 would-be stars that flopped badly and how you can’t tell for sure what will work.
20 NEVER MEANT: Wolverine
Marvel did give him a big entrance as “the first Canadian super-hero!” In his first appearance, Wolverine fought the Hulk and Wendigo with an outfit that looked more like a cat with stripes and whiskers. He was okay but not as sensational as expected. But Len Wein decided to bring him into the newly revived X-Men team, at first presenting Wolverine as a young guy with a cocky attitude. Chris Claremont had a rough time, making Wolverine jump into situations without thinking and getting beaten down. It was artist John Byrne (a Canadian himself) who helped convince Claremont of the potential and pushed Wolverine better as a more nuanced character. Claremont was inspired to deepen the character, showing his healing factor, metal claws and his long and mysterious past. Soon, Wolverine was not only the star of X-Men but his own book and numerous others. Hugh Jackman's portrayal on the big screen seals the deal and Byrne deserves credit for helping boost this minor character to an icon.
19 FLOPPED: Movie Mandarin
This can be debated a bit but most agree it comes to the flop stage. For decades, the Mandarin has been Iron Man’s single greatest foe. Originally a Chinese nobleman who lost power in the Communist revolution, the Mandarin hit back by finding an alien starship with ten rings of power. He used them in his effort to rebuild a new empire, clashing with Iron Man constantly. It was a good mix of his mystic powers against Iron Man’s technology as they clashed for years. The issue in the movies was the fact that the Mandarin leaned a lot toward past stereotypes of a Fu Manchu type that were hard to see today (especially with China a huge film market). Still, it was surprising when, for Iron Man 3, it was announced Ben Kingsley would be playing the Mandarin, many upset over whitewashing the character.
However, that was nothing compared to the reaction to the movie’s major twist: Kingsley was actually playing Trevor Slattery, a boozing actor who was playing the Mandarin, unaware he was being used as the front for the movie’s real villain. To turn one of Iron Man’s iconic foes into a laughable fraud was a real insult. Marvel even got it as a short film had Slattery in prison informed the real Mandarin wasn’t happy with being turned into a joke. A lot of fans will agree.
18 NEVER MEANT: Jessica Jones
When Brian Michael Bendis created Alias in 2001, he was intended to be for Marvel’s MAX line with more intense storytelling. The main focus was on Jessica Jones, granted super strength, flight and endurance by an accident. She tried her hand at being a super-hero but after being held prisoner by the mind-controlling Purple Man, she was broken. She thus turned into a sardonic private eye. Bendis had thought the character would be a fun niche but started connecting her more to the Marvel Universe as Jessica had a kid with Luke Cage and later married him. Still, it was a surprise when Netflix named Jessica as one of their characters to get her own solo series. But the results were worth it as many hold Jessica Jones as possibly the best of the various Marvel Netflix shows. Krysten Ritter nails the part, hot but also showing the damage of Jessica and trying to do her best. She’s shone on the series and The Defenders and expectations are high for her second season to turn a second-tier character into a star.
17 FLOPPED: Movie Punisher
The Punisher shouldn’t be too hard to make work for a movie. He has no powers, he’s down to Earth, and many can understand his origins. A marine who lost his family in a mob shootout, he’s now dedicated to a war on crime. It’s an easy character yet somehow, three attempts to make him work on screen have failed. In 1990, Dolph Lundgren starred in a movie that ended up going direct to video and didn’t even use the character’s trademark skull shirt. In 2004, he got another shot with Thomas Jane good but it felt watered down, this Punisher more into mind games than just blowing guys away. War Zone went the other direction, over the top with the action and Ray Stevenson rough but was a box office flop. Somehow, audiences just find it hard to connect to him on the big screen. Now, Netflix is ready to start his own series with many hailing Jon Bernthal as terrific on Daredevil and it looks like TV may succeed with the character were the movies have failed.
16 NEVER MEANT: Hawkeye
It’s rare to find a one-issue character who would become such a big name. Originally in an early issue of Iron Man, Hawkeye was shown as a low-level crook with an affinity for archery. He was in love with the Black Widow, then a Soviet spy, and tricked by her into a heist that went badly. It looked like that was it and so it was a surprise when he suddenly showed up at Avengers mansion asking to join the team. He convinced them he wanted to turn over a new leaf and was accepted. It was here the character blossomed into an arrogant guy but able to back it up with his amazing bow skills.
He’s taken on identities like Goliath and Ronin but it’s the classic look that Clint Barton is famous for. Hawkeye has not only been a top Avenger but led the West Coast version and a critically acclaimed solo book. That’s not to mention him on the big screen as well and amazing how what was meant to be a one-issue baddie instead turned into the guy once voted the best Avenger of all time.
15 FLOPPED: Edward Norton's Hulk
After the mess of 2003’s Hulk, Marvel was hoping to give the character another shot, especially with plans to link it to their growing cinematic universe. The Incredible Hulk had a lot more action and drive and did look better to be a hit. However, Edward Norton’s performance in the main role wasn’t quite what fans wanted. A very intense actor, Norton was a bit too rough for Banner, the man meant to be a bit more mild to make his transformations into the Hulk more gripping. Not helping was how Norton was a horror on set with egotistical moves and demanding full control. He would only do Avengers on the condition he get say over the script with the idea of turning the Hulk into the main character. This led to a row where he was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is now a much better Banner for fans, capturing the character as Norton didn’t and making him relatable in both human and monster form. Norton is a talented actor but he was ironically too angry to make his Hulk work.
14 NEVER MEANT: Deadpool
It’s easy to mock Rob Leifeld. The man was a terrible artist with human beings with ridiculously over-exaggerated limbs and legs and a bad style that made the ‘90s hard to read. But he deserves credit for helping create what has become one of Marvel’s most popular characters. In one of the final issues of New Mutants, leader Cable is attacked by Deadpool, a witty hitman who’s taken down fast after a fight. It was just meant for one or two appearances but Leifeld’s cool costume made the character stand out. It was built up more with showing how Deadpool could come back from almost any injury and then adding on a wild motormouth style of talking packed with jokes and pop culture references. Graduating to his own title, Deadpool got bigger with breaking the fourth wall and poking fun at his own adventures. At one point, he had about five titles and it’s only been bigger with his smash hit big-screen movie. So say what you will about Leifeld but at least he introduced a major Marvel mainstay.
13 FLOPPED: Jennifer Garner's Elektra
Daredevil is often criticized as a terrible movie although many contend its director’s cut redeems it. The big attraction besides Ben Affleck in the title role was the casting of Jennifer Garner as Elektra. As the star of Alias, she had the beauty and looks and it seemed a promising choice. She wasn’t bad, including some great fight scenes and thus Fox decided to give her a spin-off film. That film now ranks as one of the absolutely worst rated of any comic book movie. It took the edge off Elektra, turning her more into a mother figure and protector than the cool assassin fans loved. Garner seemed flat and out of it but in her defense, she was saddled with a horrible script and lame “mythology.” Garner looked hot in the part but the movie itself was just insulting to the character. Elodie Yung would do much better in the role for the Daredevil TV show as Garner showed some actresses just can’t fit a part well.
12 NEVER MEANT: Ant-Man
The character of Ant-Man has been through changes over the years. Orginally, founding Avenger Hank Pym was in the role, able to shrink down but soon shifting it to growing to be Giant-Man among other aliases. Low-level inventor/thief Scott Lang “borrowed” the suit and did a career of it himself and a few others have taken on the role. Still, to make him a major player in the MCU seemed a baffling move. Edgar Wright spent a lot of years working on the movie but dropped out just before production, giving it some bad buzz. The idea of a major movie based on a character who talked to ants just seemed insane. But the clever script and Paul Rudd’s performance as Scott won fans over to make it a hit. Rudd reprised the role in Civil War to acclaim and an upcoming sequel will build on the mythology with Janet Van Dyne and others pulled in. Not bad for a small character becoming a big deal.
11 FLOPPED: Maggot
Many cite him as possibly the worst X-Man ever. Considering how many people have been on that team, that says a lot. Introduced in 1997, this blue-skinned muscular mutant from South Africa had perhaps the most disgusting mutant power ever. His digestive system took the form of a pair of giant slugs that could eat through anything before returning to him. Yes, Marvel wanted this guy as an X-Man. They gave him a big entrance with stuff like saving Cyclops from a bomb in his chest and aiding the team out. But his horrible power turned fans off, not helped by how he talked in a baffling Afrikaans slang that readers barely understood. The character was soon booted off the team and seemingly killed off-panel in another comic although he’s popped up alive since. Either way, X-Men fans cite him as a guy who should never have been created, let alone on the team.
10 NEVER MEANT: Star-Lord
Created as part of a wave of “cosmic” characters in the 1970s, Star-Lord had been planned for something bigger but that fell to the wayside fast. Instead, he was stuck in comic limbo for years, barely noticed or remembered. It wasn’t until a 2006 crossover event that he was brought back and given a bit more of a push leading a squad of aliens including Rocket Raccoon and Groot. This led to a new version of Marvel’s old Guardians of the Galaxy title with him in a typical costume. Still, expectations were low for a movie version using these characters, especially when the part was cast with Chris Pratt, best known as the chubby dimwit of Parks and Recreation. But GOTG instead turned into one of the studio’s biggest hits, a fantastic romp that turned Pratt into a box office star. Marvel paid attention by shifting the comic Star-Lord to match the movie version and made the character more fun. With a hit sequel and more to come in Infinity War, the guy who’s always been asked “Who?” when he says his name is well known to any Marvel buff.
9 FLOPPED: Superpro
Man, did Marvel eat it on this one. In 1991, the company entered a partnership with the NFL with the idea of some cross-promotion between them. To help push it, they created the character of SuperPro. One-time football player Phil Grayfield suffered an injury and now a reporter. He was interviewing an eccentric scientist who had developed a “super suit” meant to cut down on football injuries. When thieves attacked, Grayfield was splashed with chemicals which granted him super-powers and used the suit as a crimefighter. As origins go, it was rather dumb but the outfit was just ridiculous. It was basically an armored up football uniform, complete with helmet and selling it as a super-hero costume was idiotic. Writer Fabian Nicieza openly says the character was just lame and the football-themed enemies he fought weren’t much better. The book was axed after 12 issues and the character never seen again and both Marvel and the NFL are happy he was sacked.
8 NEVER MEANT: Phil Coulson
He was never meant to be anything but a minor one-note character. In Iron Man, Coulson was a low-level government agent hanging around events before revealing he was part of an organization with a long name. “Just call us SHIELD.” Clark Gregg won them over to be put in the sequel and then Thor and fans started enjoying his dry wit. In Avengers, he was shown a bit of a fanboy of Captain America but fans connected and were thus rocked when he was killed by Loki. He was meant to end there, the sacrificial lamb character but the audience reaction was far greater than Marvel ever expected. They loved the character and wished he could have lasted longer. So, Marvel brought him back to life and as the star of Agents of SHIELD. It got a great reaction thanks to Gregg, the character pulling fans into adventures including SHIELD torn apart by HYDRA and other fantastic elements. The comics have even added him as a regular character as well, making him one of the best cases of a non-comic character that ended up a star.
7 FLOPPED: Movie Apocalypse
Since his creation in the late 1980s, Apocalypse has been one of the X-Men’s most feared foes. An immortal alive since Ancient Egypt, he maintains power and dedicated to “survival of the fittest.” An epic storyline had him conquering the world of an alternate reality and his shape-changing and power makes him a great foe. It made total sense for him to be the key enemy for a big-screen X-Men movie. It’s just a shame it turned out so lame. Oscar Isaacs just seemed off in the role, his Apocalypse nowhere near the huge and beefy man of the comics and thus not as imposing. It didn’t help that he seemed to whisper a lot instead of the bellowing tones Apocalypse uses and when he did scream, it was more laughable than intimidating. This is a character meant to shake the world yet Magneto did more of the real work for the film and Apocalypse’s final defeat was an anti-climax. Fans had waited years for this character on screen only to have it be a whimper, not a bang.
6 NEVER MEANT: Peggy Carter
In the comics, Sharon Carter was introduced as Captain America’s love interest in the 1960s. It turned out she was the younger sister of Peggy, a resistance agent Cap had loved in the 1940s. As time went on, it was retconned to Sharon being Peggy’s grand-niece and more about her than Peggy. But for the first Captain America movie, the writers had Peggy as a top agent who helps Steve when he becomes a hero and pushing him along in his quest. Obviously, the idea was for a heartbreaking romance with Steve frozen for decades and Peggy forgotten. However, Hayley Atwell was a great figure, beautiful but strong and made Peggy stand out. Marvel and ABC thus decided to give her a TV show, Agent Carter. While it wasn’t a huge ratings hit, it was a winner with critics and fans who loved Peggy’s battle for respect in the 1940s amid some terrific action stuff. A second season had her in L.A. but the show was sadly axed afterward. However, Atwell has played an aged Peggy in some of the movies and Atwell would love the play the role again to show how this Carter is more popular with fans.
5 FLOPPED: Movie Fantastic Four
The FF began the entire Marvel comics line back in 1961. They are the forebearers of the entire Marvel Universe, the ones who started it all and Stan Lee still holds them as special. Yet the movie versions have just been terrible. There was an infamously cheap 1994 Roger Corman film that never was released and now seen as pretty bad. The 2005 film had a big budget but a terrible take on Doctor Doom (although Chris Evans’ performance as the Human Torch was hailed). The sequel had a cool Silver Surfer but then a terrible “space cloud” Galactus, none of the wonder of the comics.
But that was genius compared to the horror of the 2015 movie. Arguments rage over whether it was studio interference or Josh Trank’s bad writing as trying to do a “grounded” approach to the FF doesn’t work well. Between the atrocious touches (The Thing getting “It’s Clobbering Time” from his abusive brother) to an even worse Doom, the movie was such a massive flop that Marvel canceled the FF title to distance from it. Thus, the movie versions weren’t just not fantastic but absolutely damaging.
4 NEVER MEANT: Squirrel Girl
For years, she was a go-to answer for lamest Marvel heroine. For a 1992 special, Steve Ditko (yes, co-creator of Spider-Man) cooked up a story where, during a fight between Iron Man and Doctor Doom, in came this gal in a squirrel costume. She claimed to have the strength and agility of a squirrel and even used squirrels to defeat Doctor Doom. Yes, really. She was dismissed as a one-off joke before coming back, usually in comedic titles like the Great Lakes Avengers. But then, writers decided to have fun by transforming her into a bad-ass able to defeat Fing Fang Foom, Thanos and even Galactus with a chirpy manner. She became an Avenger and finally graduated to her own title. It’s been acclaimed for its wonderful humor and her a truly relatable heroine. Finally, she’s ready to hit TV in the upcoming New Warriors show and proven herself as a joke that became a true star.
3 FLOPPED: Netflix's Iron Fist
In various previews of The Defenders, magazines and websites would use a common joke: “All your favorite Marvel Netflix heroes…and Iron Fist.” On the one hand, expectations were high after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage so maybe fans were hoping for too much. The comparisons to the hit Arrow (presumed dead millionaire returns as a trained fighter) were also overwhelming the show. However, the series was seen as a serious let-down with many citing the casting of Finn Jones as the key issue. The man just seemed too bland, not capturing any of the intensity Danny Rand should have and coming off “frat boy” like in some scenes. There was also the sense of entitlement and hard to root for a millionaire and it wasn’t helped by the character made out to be an idiot half the time. Indeed, Defenders seems to be speaking out directly to those issues with characters taking shots on Danny’s foolishness and rich background. Hopefully, the second season can fix those problems because as it stands, Iron Fist is the weak link of the Netflix Marvel chain.
2 NEVER MEANT: Spider-Man
Yes, believe it or not, Marvel’s most famous character was never meant to be a big deal. Stan Lee had been cooking it up with Jack Kirby doing the idea of a muscle-bound youth. But Lee didn’t feel it right and so Steve Ditko created the slimmer Spidey and unique costume. However, the publishers weren’t sure of this, openly saying “people are scared of spiders” and thought it would be better for a villain. The only reason he got published in Amazing Fantasy #15 was that the book was about to be canceled and so Martin Goodman decided to just let it run. The reader response to the tragic tale of Peter Parker was much bigger than expected so they decided to give him his own magazine. The rest is history as Lee’s wonderful writing, Peter’s character and the cool design made Spider-Man the flagship character for Marvel and one of the biggest heroes of all time.
1 FLOPPED: Venom
For a time in the 1990s, Venom was the hottest thing going. Back in 1985, on a space mission, Spider-Man discovered a black costume that could alter its form. It turned out the costume was an alien who wanted to bond with Spidey. After being driven off, the alien found Eddie Brock, a reporter disgraced when Spider-Man revealed his greatest story to be a fraud. Venom was soon a huge deal, constant appearances to attack Spider-Man and winning fans over with his wild manner. Soon, he was turned into an antihero and starring in his own book with the symbiote making its way to other people. Fans had pushed the idea of it on the big screen and while Sam Raimi wasn’t a huge fan, he bowed to demand and had him in 2007’s Spider-Man 3. Sadly, he completely ruined it. First, the suit’s “bad influence” just made Peter an emo joke.
Then, there was the casting of Topher Grace as Brock. The character is meant to be big and beefy, a direct contrast to Peter’s smaller form. Instead, Grace was the same size as Tobey Maguire and thus robbed Venom of intimidation. The bad CGI didn’t help and neither did shoving Venom to the sidelines, not even showing up until the third act of an already bloated movie. The character is said to be getting a new feature in an upcoming film but as it stands, his movie debut was pure poison.