Before Marvel become an unstoppable force at the movies, they had a lot of failures. Low budget movies that were direct to video and project that fell apart. The one thing they did have going, mostly in the 70s and 90s, was TV movies. Almost all of these were attempts to start live action tv shows and less than half were successful. But does that mean all of them are bad? Not necessarily although many are. So let’s rank the 13 live action TV movies that Marvel created based on their superheroes!
13. Generation X (1996)
This was was our introduction to the world of the X-Men in live action form. And it was a massive, massive disappointment. First of all, it wasn’t even the X-Men or X-Force or any characters who’d been around for long. It was Generation X, the latest update on the New Mutants idea of mutants being taught at school. But ok, we’ll go with it. It had Jubilee, Banshee and White Queen/Emma Frost. And the bad guy was Matt Frewer (Max Headroom) who can often be fun. But the budget was low so the powers are accordingly small. Mondo is strong, M is… super smart? They created two new characters, Buff and Refrax, rather than use comic characters like Husk or Chamber that would require money spent to display their powers. And then Skin, who looks pretty normal and stretches his fingers a little. The villain’s plan is to use a machine to enter people’s dreams and, I dunno, control them or get rich. It’s boring. The worst kind of bad.
12. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998)
You know who totally is not Nick Fury? David Hasselhoff. So it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously because Hasselhoff is playing it 100% straight, no tongue in cheek. He’s supposed to be a gruff war veteran and master spy. He chomps a cigar and wears an eyepatch that looks really uncomfortable. It has weak, no-name actors playing Arnim Zola, Baron von Strucker, Dum Dum Dugan and other folks we’ve now seen in the big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Bizarrely, this was written by David Goyer (Blade trilogy, Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and came out the same year as Blade, which basically started the current generation of well-done comic book adaptations. The main villain, Viper, was played by Sandra Hess fresh off playing Sonya Blade in the Mortal Kombat sequel that Bridgette Wilson didn’t feel like doing. She’s not very good.
11. Captain America (1979)
Marvel had done pretty successful TV movie versions of Hulk and Spider-Man in 1977 that led to tv shows for both. Captain America was a fairly obvious choice to try next. Why didn’t it work? So many reasons. Steve Rogers in this one had a dad that was an impressive dude during WW2 so he had the nickname Captain America. But Steve Rogers lives in modern day as a struggling artist and former marine. He’s played by Reb Brown and is pretty beefed up from the beginning. Then he’s in a car accident and is given the FLAG serum. It’s literally referred to as super steroids. The government gives him an embarrassing spandex suit, massive motorcycle helmet and a clear plastic shield and tell him to beat up some bad guys so he does.
10. Night Man (1997)
Who? Exactly. Night Man was a superhero published by Malibu, a comics imprint that Marvel bought. Then Marvel made it into a TV movie and a tv show that actually lasted 2 full seasons. Night Man is a saxophonist whose real name is actually Johnny Domino. He gets hit by lightning and it allows him to sense evil and he no longer needs sleep. He befriends a genius professor who gives him a suit that’s bulletproof and allows him to fly. His nemesis was played by Kim Coates who went on to star in the much better tv show Sons of Anarchy. The show’s highlights included guest stars like Little Richard and Donald Trump.
9. Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
They went back to the well one too many times and ended with the Hulk dying. No one wants that! Basically, the Hulk came back as a very successful tv movie in 1988, then in 1989, then here in 1990. But while the first two each had him go up against and ultimately team with other superheroes, this one just felt like a tv episode stretched out. It was originally announced that She-Hulk would be in this one, but no. David Banner is trying to get a cure and some other scientist might have it but evil European spies try to get it and in the end, Hulk falls out of an airplane and dies.
8. Doctor Strange (1978)
Dr. Strange isn’t GOOD per se but it does have some fun things going for it. First of all, star Peter Hooten has a big-ass 70s perm, mustache and big gold chains, making him look like a disco king. He goes up against an actual supervillain from the comics, Morgan le Fay. Oh, and Morgan le Fay is played by Jessica Walters about three decades before she played the mom on Arrested Development. She doesn’t look bad! Le Fay is working for a demon who is trying to break through into our world and Dr. Strange has to stop that. It doesn’t have that much action, though. Still, he does do magic and supporting characters like Wong and Clea are in there. It’s a product of its time but pretty good for that era.
7. Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Why is the sequel to Captain America so much higher? Because it has an actual villain played by Christopher Lee. Yeah, the real Christopher Lee. Dracula, Count Dooku, Saruman. He’s just a gangster in this but he makes it a lot more interesting just by being there. It’s still a pretty stupid movie, but because one competent person is involved, that makes it unintentionally much funnier. Lee plays General Miguel who kidnaps a scientist to make a fast-aging serum. He plans to blackmail people with it. Ultimately, Captain America throws it in Miguel’s face and he dies in a minute.
6. Return of the Incredible Hulk (1977)
This wasn’t really intended to be a TV movie, just a 2-parter. It seems to have been made as a second pilot, basically, to let the network be sure they wanted to do Hulk as a tv show. It’s not really even the best episodes of the show, but it’s still better than the stuff before. Basically, David Banner realizes his new boss is evil and is drugging his crippled stepdaughter. It’s unintentionally kind of funny. But it has Bill Bixby and Lou Ferigno and they were good at being Banner/Hulk.
5. Blade: House of Chthon (2006)
The Blade tv movie is a weird beast. Originally it was going to be a Showtime series starring Wesley Snipes and Karen Jensen from the first film was also set to return. But then Snipes sued New Line over his Blade movie royalties so it fell apart. A revised version, now starring rapper Sticky Fingas as Blade, was picked up by Spike. It was written and produced by David Goyer who wrote the three tv movies and was set in the same continuity as the movie trilogy. It was decent for a TV movie. Really it’s just the first two episodes making up a pilot episode. Blade meets Krista, a war veteran whose twin brother was recently killed by Marcus, a powerful vampire. Marcus tries to infect her but Blade cures her and reveals her brother was working undercover for him. So they decide to team up.
4. Spider-Man (1977)
It’s a simplified version of Spider-Man and it didn’t have much in terms of swinging around and doing big, acrobatic fights, but at least the costume looked like Spider-Man. As a kid at the time, that was pretty much good enough. Nicholas Hammond played a likable Peter Parker, a photographer at the Daily Bugle. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gets his powers. The bad guy is some new age guru who hypnotizes ten New Yorkers to jump off a building unless the city pays him $50 million. Peter decides to become Spider-Man and save them (he’s momentarily hypnotized but he gets over it).
3. Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
A TV movie in ’88 was a huge hit so they threw together another one. This time, Banner is in a new city that is controlled by Kingpin. He’s on the subway one day when some thugs try to rape a woman so he hulks out and beats them up. When he transforms back to Banner, the cops arrest him and he’s put on trial. Fortunately, his lawyer is Matt Murdock who he later learns is superhero Daredevil and they team up to fight off Kingpin’s men. Kingpin is played by John Rhys-Davies so that’s sort of fun even though he has hair and a beard. Also, Daredevil just wears a black jumpsuit and facemask so he doesn’t really look like the red-suited superhero. But there is a Stan Lee cameo for the first time in a Marvel (TV) movie! He plays one of the jurors.
2.The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
Six years after the tv show ended, NBC agreed to make a TV movie. And it was pretty good! Banner has been Hulk-free for two years and is working at a hospital on a gamma device to cure himself. Dr. Donald Blake, a former student of Banner’s, joins the hospital and just tells him that he is now mystically bonded with the Norse god of thunder, Thor. He transforms into Thor to prove it and Banner freaks out, transforming into the Hulk. They fight a bit and then become pals. Then it turns out there are some criminals in the hospital that want to steal Banner’s work so Hulk and Thor fight them. Thor does not look like the comic book Thor too much but he’s still Thor and they fight so it’s a lot of fun.
1. The Incredible Hulk (1977)
Easily the best of the Marvel TV movies because it led to a 5-season long tv show plus the other TV movies listed above. It was successful for a reason. Bill Bixby is really likable as Banner, Ferigno looks convincingly like Hulk and the show had the hook of Banner constantly on the run from the authorities so he’d arrive in a new town to help someone (or try to work on a cure for himself and meet some nice people along the way) and he’d inevitably turn into the Hulk and punch the bad guys a bit. In the pilot, his gamma device explodes and mutates his DNA so that he transforms into the Hulk whenever he gets angry. It kills his coworker Elaine. Tabloid reporter Jack McGee tries to figure out what happened and tracks Banner along with the authorities. It holds up pretty well (keeping in mind they have no CG). Just good old fashioned stunt work and interesting characters to keep you distracted from the fact that Hulk doesn’t really do too much.