Total Recall: Marvel Comics Movies, Worst To Best
We count down every movie featuring a Marvel character to hit the big screen.
With X-Men Origins: Wolverine debuting this weekend, we decided this week's Total Recall would be the perfect place to pay homage by looking back at every theatrically released adaptation in the studio's history. Unlike most Total Recalls, there are no surprises here: rather than cutting off the list after the top 10, we excluded only the movies that weren't produced for theaters (thus, regrettably, ruling out David Hasselhoff's made-for-TV turn as Nick Fury) or were waylaid somewhere between the set and the cineplex (depriving us of an in-depth discussion of Dolph Lundgren's Punisher). Still, what our Marvel recap lacks in suspense, it makes up for in scope and breadth; from Howard the Duck to Punisher: War Zone, all of the comics giant's theatrical exploits are present and accounted for, including the highs (X2, Spider-Man 2, Iron Man) and the lows (Elektra, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider). Ready to relive your favorite Marvel moments? Let's get started!
Goodness gracious. Given that we're talking about a stable of characters that includes a talking duck and a motorcycle-riding skeleton with a flaming head, you'd hardly expect a movie about a scantily clad ninja assassin to be Marvel's darkest critical moment -- but then again, maybe you've seen 2005's Elektra, in which case you understand all too well (and have our deepest sympathies). After the drubbing taken by Daredevil in 2003, a spinoff might not have seemed like the likeliest of projects, but 20th Century Fox was sufficiently impressed with Jennifer Garner's sai-twirling abilities to invite her back into the red leather uniform for her own full-length feature. Unfortunately, neither Elektra's long-running popularity with Marvel readers nor Garner's athletic screen presence were enough to salvage Elektra from a screenplay that many critics felt sapped the character of its essential appeal -- such as the New York Daily News' Jami Bernard, who bemoaned the loss of "the unrepentant ferocity that made her a crossover hit in the first place." Elektra ultimately performed so poorly at the box office that its videogame tie-in was never released -- but with a rumored Daredevil reboot on the horizon, we may yet see the character return to the big screen.
20. Howard the Duck
It was a Universal picture, so Marvel can't take all the blame, but it still marks the first major movie adaptation of one of the publisher's characters, so we're counting it as Marvel's debut -- and therefore one of the least auspicious beginnings in cinematic history. The anthropomorphic duck (voiced here by Chip Zien) was undeniably an odd choice for the leadoff spot in Marvel's filmic batting order, having wavered in and out of the comics company's print lineup since the early 1970s -- and always existing on the periphery, only interacting occasionally with the likes of Spider-Man, Man-Thing, and the She-Hulk. But if he has few friends in the mainstream Marvel universe, Howard found moviegoers and film critics an even less hospitable lot: Howard the Duck went down as one of the most notorious duds of all time, barely recouping its $37 million budget and earning heaps of negative reviews from the likes of Filmcritic's Bill Gibron, who wrote "It really is that bad." Finally out on DVD, Howard eventually acquired ironic cult status, but its failure highlighted the many difficulties inherent in bringing a character from comics to the screen -- difficulties that would keep Marvel out of theaters for many years.
The Incredible Hulk wasn't the only Marvel reboot to hit theaters in 2008 -- with Punisher: War Zone, the studio took its third crack at adapting the one character that, by all rights, should have been the most eminently adaptable of all. Initially planned as a sequel to 2004's Punisher, War Zone slowly morphed into a reboot, partially as a result of Thomas Jane pulling out of the project after three years spent, in the actor's words, "sweating over a movie I don't believe in." With a new Punisher (played by Ray Stevenson) and a new director (kickboxer and Green Street Hooligans helmer Lexi Alexander), War Zone looked to provide the franchise with its darkest, bloodiest spin on the character yet -- and on that front, at least, it succeeded, earning the comic fan's coveted "hard R" for "pervasive strong brutal violence, language, and some drug use." By pretty much any other measure, however, War Zone was a severe disappointment: not only did its domestic gross peter out at a dismal $8 million, but critics gave it a beating worthy of the Punisher himself; the New York Post's Kyle Smith, for instance, decried its "dopey fight scenes, grimy look and goopy gore," saying it was "so far from ept that inept is the wrong word. It's anti-ept." As the lowest-grossing Marvel-branded theatrical release to date, War Zone seems likely to keep the Punisher off our screens for some time, but as long as the character is selling comic books, the possibility of a fourth film remains undimmed.
18. Fantastic Four
Even if it had 45 years of history to contend with, 20th Century Fox's Tim Story-directed Fantastic Four had at least one thing going for it right off the bat -- namely, that no matter how badly it bungled the opportunity to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's quartet of radiation-powered crimefighters to theaters, it literally had to be better than 1994's Fantastic Four, a $2 million quickie produced by Roger Corman as part of a deal arranged to help Constantin Film hang onto its option. On that front, Fantastic Four certainly succeeded; thanks to nifty special effects, a plum summer release date, and a game cast that included Michael Chiklis as the Thing, Chris Evans as the Human Torch, and Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, it sold $330 million worth of tickets worldwide. Those numbers provided more than ample justification for a sequel, but they weren't quite large enough to drown out the howls of protest from critics who derided the movie as a disappointingly bland adaptation missing much of the charm and family drama of the comic that inspired it. Jessica Alba was frequently singled out -- and eventually earned a Razzie nomination -- for her misguided appearance as the Invisible Girl, but as far as many critics were concerned, the whole thing was a mess; the Hollywood Reporter's Michael Rechsthaffen summed up the overall tenor of most reviews when he called it "a tone-deaf mishmash of underdeveloped characters, half-baked humor and unhatched plotting drenched in CGI overkill."
17. Ghost Rider
To many longtime Marvel readers, Ghost Rider is one of the more dependably awesome characters in the publisher's pantheon; though he's frequently flitted in and out of active duty since being introduced in the early 1970s, it's pretty hard to mess up a comic book protagonist with a predilection for leather jackets and chain whips, a motorcycle that runs on hellfire, and a flaming skull for a head. When it comes to bringing said protagonist to the screen, however, things can get a little more complicated -- as evidenced by 2007's Ghost Rider, which starred Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze, the stunt rider who cuts a deal with the devil and becomes a sort of supernatural bounty hunter in the bargain. Cage came to the film as an avowed fan of the comics -- an attitude that should have been familiar to director Mark Steven Johnson, whose leading man for Daredevil, Ben Affleck, expressed a similar level of personal interest in his character. Unfortunately, the similarities don't end there; like Daredevil, Ghost Rider went down as a critical dud whose respectable performance at the box office was overshadowed by the beating it took from writers like the San Francisco Chronicle's Peter Hartlaub, who said it "has everything you don't want from your superhero movie, including lack of logic, boring action scenes, bad acting in the supporting performances, a brutally slow 114-minute running time and cringe-worthy dialogue." Still, with Cage ready to rev up for a sequel, perhaps smoother roads lay ahead for the franchise-in-waiting.