Monday, 9 May 2016

Marvel Arch

We all have to start somewhere, even billion-dollar film franchises.

Marvel Studios have surfed an almost unbroken wave of colossal financial success since their first feature, Iron Man, in 2008.  Even their lesser performing films have made back more than double their budgets, while their heaviest hitter: The Avengers, made over one and half billion US dollars.
I’ve still yet to see Captain America; Civil War but apparently my ticket money is going to make very little difference to the stellar box-office takings of this take on an armoured billionaire v a big blue Boy Scout, done right.

Overall, it’s a track record which must surely drive rival studios, and comics publishers, batty.
Even other companies fortunate enough to own rights to certain Marvel characters have found themselves sitting on a goldmine - 20th Century Fox made one of their biggest profits in history with Deadpool earlier this year, while Sony Pictures still own Marvels’ highest earning figurehead to date - Spider-Man.

But it hasn’t always been this way.  In 1986 rival comics company DC were still basking in the success of three Superman feature films when the first Marvel character made his way to the big screen.  Was it one of their pantheon of super-powered heroes or a mighty-muscled Avenger? Actually, even though there had been a very cheap Captain America serial in the 1940s, Marvel’s first big budget cinema star was … a talking duck.

Howard the Duck, starring a wise-cracking waterfowl from another dimension, was produced by no less a name than George Lucas, starred Tim Robbins and boasted effects by ILM. However the end result was unanimously mauled by critics and still listed by the LA times in 2014 as one of the costliest box office flops of all time.  Out for a duck - this was hardly a foreshadowing of the colossal amount of love and revenue Marvel’s film adaptations generate today.

Howard the Duck returned at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy (inset)
almost 30 years after his disastrous debut.
In New Zealand in 1977, eager youngsters were able to part with their pocket money to see Spider-Man on the big screen.  But this certainly wasn’t a Hollywood-produced blockbuster.  Instead, and certainly not for the last time, this was an American TV movie pilot was being hawked around overseas cinemas.
Star Nicolas Hammond made enough of an impact for those same kids to again fork out money for the sequel (actually two episodes of the ensuing TV series edited together) and Hammond was even invited to take part in Television New Zealand’s 1979 Telethon.

The original Spider-Man pretty much did whatever a man can.
Enjoying relative success with Spidey, and the long-running incredible Hulk television series starring Bill Bixby it was to be the small screen where Marvel focussed their efforts for the next decade.  And it was also here that a succession of TV Movies which would probably make contemporary Marvel executives want to wear masks themselves, resulted.  

Later this year audiences will be able to thrill to Benedict Cumberbatch as Sorcerer Supreme: Doctor Strange, but few will remember the 1978 Universal TV pilot movie of the same name.  Starring a permed actor called Peter Hooten, but also featuring a slightly better known thespian called John Mills, it’s ratings did not lead to a series being picked up. Marvel head Stan Lee kindly suggested this could have been due to Doctor Strange’s time-slot opposite acclaimed historical series Roots

It remains to be seen whether Benedict Cumberbatch will be a better Doctor Strange
than Peter Hooten was in 1978.
The following year no less a figure than Captain America exploded onto the small screen in a white and blue motorcycle helmet.  Reb Brown starred as Cap in two TV Movies again for Universal, promptly disappearing again until the current success of the character encouraged DVDs of these films to begin furtively reappearing on retail shelves.  An even lesser-regarded direct-to-video Captain America film starring Matt Salinger (this time with little rubber wings affixed the sides of his head), appeared in 1990, to howls of critical derision.

Captain America through the ages (Chris Evans not pictured)
It was the turn of two more Avengers to meet small screen ignominy in 1988, when Thor and the Hulk combined forces in TV series revival attempt: The Incredible Hulk Returns.  Chris Hemsworth’s current charismatic portrayal of the 'norse god' Thor has made him an undeniable access point to Marvel for female viewers, but Eric Kramer’s TV movie portrayal, clad in tight leather pants and a very shaggy jerkin, made considerably less impact.

By Thunder - it's Hammer Time!
As usual, the TV alter ego of the Hulk himself was, ‘David’ (rather than “Bruce’) Banner as executives decided to break from decades of comics tradition because the alliterative name sounded ‘too gay’. Having him played by an actor named Bill Bixby seemed to render this dubious point moot.

By the 1990s three of the now-beloved Avengers were down and out, reputations besmirched and options for series abandoned.  Could any further humiliation possibly be waiting in store for mighty Marvel?

Samuel L Jackson has met universal acclaim for his recurring supporting role of Nick Fury, giving support and guidance to the Avengers through almost all their films.  But before Fury was ever played by one of contemporary cinema’s paragon of cool he was first portrayed in a 1998 TV movie pilot by another iconic figure: David Hasselhoff.  Written by David Goyer, whose work was most recently seen in Batman v Superman for DC, a series was once again not forthcoming, despite the best efforts of the Hoff.

Samuel L Jackson wasn't a patch on the Hoff
But as any comic reader knows, the hero is always brought lowest before rising up to triumph in the end.  As we approached the millennium, lesser-powered Marvel characters The Punisher and Blade quietly laid groundwork for big-hitters the X-Men and Spider-Man to re-take the big screen, and since the formation of marvel Studios in 2008, past indiscretions with live action depictions of their mightiest heroes appear to have been forgotten.

But perhaps Marvel are now also confident enough to believe that you should never forget where you came from.  Viewers waiting for the traditional post credits sequence at the end of the phenomenally successful Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 might have been surprised to meet a certain talking duck. 
Welcome back, Howard, the world is ready for you at last.

And here is a condensed version on, with video clips:

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