Comic book adaptations suspend disbelief and embrace the impossible worlds and characters. They don’t bat an eye at mysticism or scientific inaccuracy. Ideas exist and resemble reality enough to become canon for a story arc. Bruce Banner is a brilliant physicist who experimented with gamma radiation to produce super soldiers. A failed test left him the victim of gamma poisoning. Rather than be the cause of his death, he transforms into a not-so-jolly, green giant: The Incredible Hulk.
Like most heroes, the superpower he is endowed with comes with side effects. In exchange for his superhuman strength, he must become so enraged that his heart rate reaches dangerous levels or meet an impending death. The likelihood of gamma radiation altering someone’s muscular structure is slim. If anything, this bit of science fiction is a cautionary tale about the risks of super science, like the atomic and nuclear bombs. Marvel has come a long way since its days on the moral yet innocent pulpy pages. Comic book fans must admit, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t have run today without its 1970s and 1980s adaptations that dared to walk.
12/12 Captain America (1979)
B-movie actor Reb Brown plays the patriotic Avenger in his made-for-television movie. Captain America’s backstory is changed considerably for a then-modern audience. Instead of fighting in World War II, Steve Rogers is a former Marine with a father who bears the nickname “Captain America.” Inspired by his father’s legendary life, he becomes a nomadic sketch artist until an assassination attempt injures him and makes him a test subject for his late father’s super steroid in development. The Six Million Dollar Man plot saves Rogers’ life and sucks the life out of the character through mediocre scenes and a costume too embarrassing for Halloween.
11/12 Spider-Man (1977)
Nicholas Hammond was the first on-screen Spider-Man for CBS. The television film was the highest performing production from the network and spawned The Amazing Spider-Man TV series. The expensive, technical camera work and stunts were remarkable, but the enemies and fight scenes were far from imaginative. Awkward stare downs and wall-crawling that looks like floating are long and distracting at times. There are some unbelievable funny moments. In one scene, Spider-Man is denied a taxi ride, so he decides to hop inside the compactor of a garbage truck for transportation! Welcome to New York, Spidey.
10/12 Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (1981)
Spider-Man finds his way to Hong Kong, this time with some gadgetry and web action. He is tasked with clearing an innocent Chinese man’s name, a friend of the editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, who is held hostage for having rumored knowledge about corrupt Chinese government officials. Peter Parker develops a love interest with the hostage’s niece who helps him save her uncle as well. It’s a far cry from New York, but a unique sequel.
9/12 Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978)
The first Spider-Man film that introduced his Spidey-Sense power also shows off more of New York. Another surprise: he finally gets that taxi ride! Here the web-slinger must stop a bomb from decimating the city and killing a president for ransom money. Spider-Man receives aid from regular citizens and even juggles bringing Daily Bugle reporters along for the caper. Hammond would’ve been great to see in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
8/12 Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Captain America takes care of the elderly, domesticates a cat, and paints pictures in his sequel. When a scheme to accelerate the age of everyone in town is discovered, Captain America suggests the FBI take care of it. No truer words of lackadaisical indifference have ever been spoken by an American. Beyond the ridiculous build-up, Captain America rides a multifunctional bike that turns into a glider.
7/12 The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
The Hulk meets Thor in this sequel. The green goliath thinks he has found a cure for his condition until the god of thunder interrupts his plans. Plans for a television series with Thor were also interrupted and unproduced, as was the case with other backdoor pilots for Marvel characters. The film was also the first time two characters came together from the same Marvel universe.
6/12 The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
Daredevil was another Marvel character introduced into the world of The Incredible Hulk. Though the blind defense lawyer Matt Murdock didn’t get a series out of it, his team-up with Banner to defeat Kingpin, AKA Wilson Fisk is endearing. Banner is seen as more of a lonely man in the film, trying to hide his anger and find his way to a cure. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk also marked Stan Lee’s debut cameo appearance in a live-action Marvel adaptation.
5/12 Dr. Strange (1978)
Medical drama meets magical realism in this pre-Benedict Cumberbatch Dr. Strange TV movie. Sorceress Morgan le Fay attempts to rule over Earth but must defeat the Sorcerer Supreme before he passes on the torch to a new wizard. Dr. Strange treats a patient under le Fay’s spell and saves her from the astral plane. The trippy sequence, special effects, and scenery are impressive; it’s too bad the network didn’t develop it into a series. It could’ve competed with Doctor Who.
4/12 Howard the Duck (1986)
An alternate universe where a civilization of anthropomorphic ducks live like humans doesn’t sound far-fetched for Marvel. When you realize the adaptation for Howard the Duck came from the mind of George Lucas, you start to wonder who the real lame duck is. Duck breasts, bestiality, and one ugly duckling of an attempt at a Marvel feature film since the 1944 Captain America serial, Howard the Duck is a quack pot adventure.
3/12 The Punisher (1989)
Dolph Lundgren plays the antihero Frank Castle, AKA the Punisher. When the mob takes his wife and daughter’s life, he wages a one-man war on crime to avenge their deaths. He faces off with the Yakuza using stealth, brute force, and guns ablazing. Despite the character missing his signature skull shirt, he does use a skull-headed blade. Castle’s morality is tested in this calculated, dark comic book adaptation.
2/12 Spider-Man (1978)
The Japanese Spider-Man from the Toei Company doesn’t disappoint. He calls himself “an emissary of hell” and strikes poses like a Power Ranger. He emotes as fierce as he kicks and punches. This Spider-Man also puts his webs to good use and drives a tricked-out race car styled like a cereal box toy prize. His enemies are larger-than-life like Ultraman; the choreography is fast-paced, and next to Spider-Man Strikes Back, keeps you entertained.
1/12 The Incredible Hulk (1977)
The original Marvel TV series before there was Disney+, starred Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. The pilot television film gave way to a five-season series and humanized the green monster. In the film, Banner suffers the loss of his wife in a car accident after not being able to rescue her from the burning wreckage. He studies gamma radiation and tests the substance on himself to generate superhuman strength. He discovers the angry regret deep inside himself, and releases his maddening strength as the Hulk. The emotional and psychological duality of the character is a timeless classic.