For their 10-year anniversary and the future publication of their book Marvel Studios: The First Ten Years, Marvel released an official time line for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But did you know MCU heroes appeared on screen long before that too?
Marvel. Nowadays everyone (at least sort of) knows what that entails. There’s no escaping the big blockbuster films about superheroes catching the crooks and saving their loved ones, the world, or even the universe. And if you’re a bit of a fan, you know that there are several live-action series too, all part of a bigger shared universe: the MCU. But films and series about Stan Lee’s comic book heroes were a thing before the creation of the MCU too.
Just to be clear, only live-action films and series are included. If we were to include all animated series, we’d be going on for quite a while. Another criterium for this list is appearance in the MCU – sorry, Fantastic Four.
1. Captain America
In 1944, the star-spangled hero appeared in a serial – a series of short films – of 15 chapters named Captain America. Though the hero was wearing the costume, it wasn’t truly our beloved Cap. He didn’t have the iconic shield, there was no mention of World War II, oh, and his name wasn’t even Steve Rogers. In his review on WhenItWasCool, Karl Stern speculates that the serial was actually written for another character, but that it ‘ended up going to Captain America after Republic [production-distribution corporation] acquired the film rights to him.’
In 1979 two television films titled Captain America and Captain America: Death Too Soon came out. This time the Captain did have the right name – Steve Rogers, and more importantly, a shield. But along with his costume, that’s where the comparison ends. In this film Steve’s father was nicknamed ‘Captain America’, because of his patriotism. Steve does get an experimental serum, but that serum was somehow derived from his father’s glands?
In the end, it takes another 11 years before the superhero is shown with (more or less) the same backstory he has in the MCU. In 1990 a low budget film (again) called Captain America was released. In this version, the parallels to the MCU are various: the film takes place during World War II, Steve joins the army and becomes a super soldier, the scientist helping Steve is killed and thus Steve remains the only super soldier.
He fights the Red Skull and lands a missile in the ice, wakes up many years later and has to adapt to modern times. When visiting his girlfriend from before, Steve sees she got married and had a daughter named Sharon – like Peggy’s niece in the MCU. Sharon helps the Captain adapt to the new era, and in the end the Red Skull is defeated.
One of Marvel’s most famous heroes, Spider-Man has known several film adaptations. You will probably remember the Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire (2002, 2004 and 2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and its sequel (2014) starring Andrew Garfield, and MCU’s Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland, who first appeared in Captain America: Civil War (2016).
But the friendly neighbourhood webslinger came to life way before that. His first appearance was in Spidey Super Stories (1974-1977), as a part of an educational children’s series called The Electric Company. In the sketches, Spidey would do as Spidey does: catch criminals. He only communicated using word balloons, so kids could practise their reading.
Our favourite wallcrawler’s first television series aired right after; from 1977 to 1979 The Amazing Spider-Man was portrayed by The Sound of Music’s Nicholas Hammond, in a series of the same name. The series ran for two seasons and included some straight-to-television films.
Throughout the years many actors have taken on the mantle of scientist – and occasionally green rage monster – Dr. Bruce Banner: Eric Bana (Hulk, 2003), Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk, 2008) and of course Mark Ruffalo (first appearance in 2012’s The Avengers). Both Norton’s and Ruffalo’s portrayals are a part of the MCU.
The first time a live-action Hulk appeared on the screen however was in a series called The Incredible Hulk. In this version, Dr. Banner had another first name and a different background story. The character was portrayed by two different actors: Bill Bixby played the part of the scientist, while Lou Ferrigno lashed out as his green alter ego. The show ran from 1977 till 1982, and had three film sequels in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
The Norse god of thunder appears in the first The Incredible Hulk television film. With The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) the writers wanted to introduce Thor to the public in order to give him his own series, but it never came to that. This hammer-wielding version is very different from the MCU’s Thor. Donald Blake – yes, as in Jane Foster’s ex from the MCU – finds a hammer in Norway, through which he can summon the god.
Set up as a pilot for a standalone series – though again it never came to that, the film introduced Daredevil. In The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989), lawyer Matt Murdock helps Banner when he gets arrested, and they team up to fight Wilson Fisk. This film did not only bring Daredevil to life, it also brought a surprise: Stan Lee’s very first (uncredited) cameo.
A somewhat more recent – but maybe also forgotten – Daredevil portrayal was that of Ben Affleck in 2003’s Daredevil. In this version too Matt has to fight Fisk, aka Kingpin, but this time he has to go through Fisk’s assassin Bullseye first.
In The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil’s outfit is all black, like Netflix’ Daredevil season one. In the 2003 film, they opted for the red costume from the comics, which according to fans was one of the only upsides of the film.
6. The Punisher
In 1989 Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) started his one-man war against crime in The Punisher. This Punisher, like the comic’s characters, fought to get revenge for his family, but several details of his backstory had been altered. He also didn’t have his iconic skull on his costume, because the makers did not own the rights.
So it could be argued that the first Punisher film was the one from 2004. In it, Frank Castle (again) wanted revenge for his family, after they were killed by mafia boss Howard Saint (John Travolta). In 2008 there was supposed to be a sequel, but due to circumstances it became a reboot. In Punisher: War Zone Frank still is a vigilante, now fighting mafia boss Jigsaw.
Of course this list was only a selection of Marvel characters appearing in films or series before being rebooted in the MCU. Think about Ghost Rider for instance, who had two films starring Nick Cage, and then got a place in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Hell, even Howard the Duck had a film.