It's pretty safe to say that Marvel is Hollywood's golden boy. With billions of dollars in box office revenue and a massive legion of fans, Marvel has earned its spot as one of the biggest commodities in entertainment. Nevertheless, Marvel's filmography is far from flawless. In fact, some of the earliest films based on Marvel properties were so bad and/or obscure that nobody remembers them, even out of nostalgia.
Note: I am not including Howard the Duck on this list since it would be too predictable of an entry.
1. The Punisher (1989)
Yes, before the two misguided attempts to bring the character to the big screen in 2004 and 2008, there was the 1989 version starring Dolph Lundgren. Released three years after the disastrous Howard the Duck, Hollywood would once again try to bring a famous Marvel character to theaters. However several production problems caused the movie to fade into obscurity rather quickly.
The Punisher was originally intended to be a worldwide release. However, the movie's production company, New World Pictures, had filed for bankruptcy. This resulted in the movie's North American release being cancelled. It became a straight-to-video release instead and was only released in theaters internationally.
It's not like it would have done well in theaters anyway. The movie received generally negative reviews. Still, it was a step up from Howard the Duck, which is still remembered for its critical thrashing.
2. Captain America (1990)
Once again, Hollywood tried to bring one of Marvel's biggest characters to cinemas. However, even more production issues sent this one straight to the shelves of Tommy K's. The film rights for Captain America were first bought by now-defunct company called The Cannon Group in 1984. They had also gotten the film rights to Spider-Man, though they never followed through on that project after Captain America's failure.
Directors like Michael Winner (The Mechanic, 1972) and John Stockwell (Into the Blue, 2005 and Turistas, 2006), as well as several screenwriters including Stan Lee himself were attached to the project throughout production. Eventually, it was settled that Albert Pyun (The Sword and the Sorcerer, 1982) would direct and Stephen Tolkin (Masters of the Universe, 1987) would write.
Things only got more complicated when Canon ended up in over half-a-billion dollars in debt. This led to Canon co-founder Menahem Golan leaving the company to take control of the 21st Century Film Corporation (not to be confused with 20th Century Fox), taking the film rights with him. However, financial issues continued to haunt the film during production, leading to its theatrical release being cancelled. Just like The Punisher, Captain America ended up getting a straight-to-video release. However, it got even worse reviews and is often dubbed the worst superhero movie ever made.
The story was rushed and bland, Captain America was thoroughly unlikable, and the production values were completely slapdash. Just goes to show what production problems can do to a movie. Shockingly, this movie can be seen on Blu-Ray, but it was released by Shout! Factory and not Disney/Marvel Studios.
3. The Fantastic Four (1994)
Just like The Punisher, The Fantastic Four is another property that Hollywood has trouble with, even to this day. It all started when German producer Bernd Eichinger planned to make a Fantastic Four movie. He had discussed ideas for the film with Stan Lee as far back as 1983. Eventually, Eichinger's production company Constantin Film obtained the rights to the Fantastic Four. Once he obtained the rights, however, several curve balls were thrown at him.
First of all, his search for financial backing proved to be difficult. Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures showed interest in another superhero franchise after the success of the Batman and Superman movies. However, they were still concerned about how big the budget would be. Imagine how expensive it would be in 1994 to make characters turn invisible, light on fire, stretch, and exist as a creature made of rock. With the rights set to expire in 1992, Eichinger agreed to shoot the movie for a mere $1 million.
This resulted in a B-movie that was so cheesy, that it makes the 2005 Fantastic Four movie look like Prisoners. Filled with cartoon sound effects, corny dialogue and production values that look more like the 60's than the 90's, this is one film that has to be seen to believed. For reasons that are still not quite clear, the movie was never released in theaters or on video.
Some speculate that filming such a cheap movie that would likely be panned by critics was a collaborated effort from Stan Lee and Eichinger for Constantin Film to keep the rights. All Eichinger had to do was film a Fantasic Four movie and he would keep the rights; it didn't matter how good or bad it was. This is likely true, as Stan Lee has stated the movie was never intended for a release and Eichinger tried afterwards to get a big-budget adaptation made. The movie can be seen in all its campy glory here.
4. Man Thing (2005)
Believe it or not, Marvel was involved with one of those Sci-Fi Channel original movies. Man Thing's backstory isn't quite as complicated as the previous ones on this list, but it did have some production troubles of its own. Man Thing was originally intended as a straight-to-dvd release, but after the success of the Spider-Man movies, Marvel wanted to release it in theaters by Halloween, 2004.
During production, Marvel was convinced that the movie would not turn in a profit. As a result, the North American release was cancelled. Like The Punisher, it was only given an international release. It went straight-to-dvd in North America after being screened on the Sci-Fi channel in April of 2005.
It too got scathing reviews from the critics for its wooden characters and terrible execution. It was also heavily criticized for almost completely disregarding the source material. Man Thing was turned into a completely antagonistic monster, the setting is changed from the Florida Everglades to Louisiana, and Man Thing's original identity was changed from a scientist to a Native American stereotype. It is clear why Marvel kept this film out of theaters; it served no purpose except to reduce the comic into a withered husk of a creature feature.
5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
This one is rather recent, but the fact that Marvel has gone out of its way to erase it is worth mentioning. This movie was released a mere 5 years ago to rather negative reviews. After being turned down by Bryan Singer, Zack Snyder was attatched to the project. He originally envisioned as a darker, more violent movie, perhaps worthy of an R rating. However, producer Laura Donner insisted on a PG-13 rating. Snyder eventually left the project to work on Watchmen. Gavin Hood (Ender's Game) was eventually attached to direct, and he too wanted a darker origin story for Wolverine. Soon enough, creative differences between him and the studio led to an extremely troubled production. The studio decided they wanted more than just a Wolverine origin story; they wanted to include other X-Men characters too and perhaps tease more movies of their origins. What we got was below mediocre.
What started as an edgy origin story eventually turned into what many consider a circus act. It was cursed with constant one-liners, underdeveloped supporting characters that were just tossed into the story at the last minute (Gambit, Cyclops, Emma Frost, etc.), and perhaps the worst incarnation of Deadpool ever (seen above). It's no wonder why Marvel has since erased some of this film's continuity (with the exception of a few clips added into X-Men: Days of Future Past). They changed Emma Frost's backstory in X-Men: First Class, and have promised that the upcoming Deadpool movie will have no relation to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The fact that they never used the title phrase: "X Men Origins" again also suggests that they plan on forgetting this one ever happened.