Looking Into Marvel's
Long Before It Dominated The Box Office With Films Like Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Created A Slew Of B-Movie Gems With CBS
Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in the 1977 adaptation of The Incredible Hulk
By Michael Sallustio
Modern Times Magazine
May 31, 2016 — It’s hard to imagine a time when Marvel wasn’t completely dominating the box office. With the recently-released Captain America: Civil War opening to stellar box office numbers and getting rave reviews, it’s safe to say that Marvel, at least on the Disney end, has pretty much got this whole cinema thing figured out. Still, despite its current success, this was not Marvel’s first attempt to popularize its roster of characters with mainstream audiences.
The 1970s was a decade when Marvel made a real push to get its characters off the comic page and into live-action programming. Marvel partnered with CBS to make this happen, and these contributions came in the form of made-for-TV movies, some of which received theater releases as well.
Currently, Spider-Man makes his first appearance in the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe in Civil War, but in 1977 he was in a made-for-TV film that served as the pilot for “The Amazing Spider-Man”, which ran for two seasons on CBS. The origin of Spider-Man is relatively consistent with what we've all come to know. Peter Parker is a student working in a laboratory and is bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him astonishing powers. In it, Spider-Man must face off against a mind controlling self-help guru who plans to extort New York City by threatening a mass suicide.
A few things are changed in this version, though. For one, there is no Uncle Ben and no “With great power… yada, yada” to guide his moral compass. Peter just happens to be a stand up gent! Also, no Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy; instead Spidey’s normal gals have been replaced by Lois Lane rip-off, Judy Tyler.
Nicholas Hammond, who was also one of the Von Trapp kids, plays the role of Peter. Hammond was 27 when he took the role, but don’t worry, as a college kid he doesn’t look a day over 35.
As a series, “The Amazing Spider-Man” would eventually be cancelled despite having decent ratings due to an expensive stunt budget and because CBS began to worry it would be seen as the "Superhero channel."
The Incredible Hulk (1977)
Two months after the pilot for Spider-Man, Marvel and CBS released The Incredible Hulk, which ended up spawning a television show that lasted five seasons, and for good reason. Of the CBS superhero pilots, The Incredible Hulk is clearly the superior one. Focusing more on drama than sheer spectacle, the pilot tells the story of David Banner who, plagued by the death of his girlfriend, looks to find the cause of unnatural strength in people during times of great danger. He hopes to find the reason for his own lack of strength that could have saved his girlfriend during a horrific car accident.
Unlike the titular character in The Amazing Spider-Man, so much of Banner’s driving force is steeped in his desire to atone for his shortcomings rather than some innate desire to be heroic.
Beyond that, the acting is a cut above CBS’ other offerings. Bill Bixby and Susan Sullivan are well-trained actors and Jack Colvin is fantastically weaselly as tabloid reporter Jack McGee. Even body builder Lou Ferrigno brings humanity to the Hulk similar to Boris Karloff’s Monster.
Dr. Strange (1978)
If you saw Civil War in theaters, you probably also got a glimpse at the trailer for the upcoming Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen him on screen, though, as 1978 gave us a Dr. Strange adaptation. Although it would never get a full series like Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk, the movie is not altogether horrible. Maybe because, according to Stan Lee, this was the film he was allowed to have the most input on.
In this pilot, Stephen Strange is a caring psychiatrist, but beyond the hospital walls a battle of metaphysical proportions is being waged. The evil Morgan le Fay is unbound from her prison and tasked to kill current Sorcerer Supreme, Lindmer. It is up to Chosen One, Strange, to stop le Fay and take the mantle as the new Sorcerer Supreme.
Peter Hooten, who rocks a mean perm and is one hell of a ladies’ man, portrays Stephen Strange. But most memorable performance is probably Jessica Walter as villain Morgan le Fay. Walter is probably best known as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development or as Fran Sinclair from the 1990s TV show Dinosaurs if you’re one of those people.
Captain America (1979)
Of today’s Marvel movie franchises, the Captain America films tend to be the more cerebral. In both Captain America: Winter Soldier and the new Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers must come to terms with the new America he’s woken up to, where government overreach is a severe problem.
The CBS pilot for Captain America couldn’t be further from this. Taking place four years after the end of the Vietnam War, Captain America has a much different tone than today’s installments. In it, patriotism is viewed as a kind of punchline that Steve Rogers is constantly fighting against. Steve is an ex-Marine who’s hanged up his rifle and decided to cruise along the California coast, wind blowing through his feathery hair, fulfilling his lifelong dream as a sketch artist. You can’t make this stuff up. Still, trouble finds him, and he reluctantly ends up taking a super-steroid known as F.L.A.G. He dons the mantle of Captain America, a name mockingly given to the first Captain, Roger’s father, by his enemies.
As ridiculous as the movie’s plot is, it shouldn’t be completely written off. For the very brave movie watcher, it just manages to be horrible enough to fall into that “so bad it’s good” category. The acting is atrocious and the dialogue is just one notch up from a porn film. Actually, with lines like, “And trucks pull out!” maybe it’s on par with a porn film.
Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)
Released only 10 months after the first Captain America was the fittingly titled Captain America II: Death Too Soon.
In it, Cap must stop a terrorist played by the late, great Christopher Lee from poisoning Portland’s craft beer supply or something like that.
It’s really not important.
Captain America II tries to do things bigger and better than before, but unfortunately ends up reminding us that we really didn’t need a reminder of how bad the first one was.
All is not totally lost though. There’s probably one of the most humorous motorcycle crashes cinema has ever managed to capture as we see Cap drive his bike off a bridge and watch his lifeless body slam against the side of dam before careening into the raging waters below. What can you say? You got to dig through dirt to find diamonds.
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