Instant Expert: Marvel Movies Before The MCU

Marvel Movies before the MCU

by James White |
Updated on

Ever wanted to become an expert in a particular corner of cinema? To amaze your friends with the breadth of your knowledge and the context at your fingertips? Of course you have, and Empire is here to help! Our Instant Expert series aims to quickly acquaint you with a particular subject, distilling it down to the five essential films that will provide all the foundation you need. Enjoy!

The Road To The MCU

In today's Avengers-dominated world, it can be easy to forget there were Marvel adaptations that existed long before the all-consuming umbrella of Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed the MCU itself sprang into life some years before Disney began its Thanos-like quest to gather all the various characters and bend them to its will. Once upon a time, a cash-strapped Marvel Comics company, looking to goose its bank account, sold the rights to many of its characters to a variety of different studios, including Fox (X-Men/Fantastic Four, Daredevil etc), Universal (the Hulk) Sony (Spider-Man) and New Line (Blade, among others). This led to a wide range of movies with different stalwart Marvel types that worked well enough on their own (in most cases, anyway), but had little to no coherent storytelling between them. These days, almost everything is in Disney's hands, but Sony still has Spidey and his associated rogues/friends (and we’re all familiar with the chaos that particular custody agreement has wrought), and Universal retains certain rights to the Hulk, which is why there has been no recent solo movie for Bruce Banner.

Yet there are lessons that Marvel – the Kevin Feige-led version of today – clearly learned from what had gone before, incorporating those learnings into the structure of the overall cinematic universe and the movies that make it, and make it work. So for this inaugural Instant Expert entry, we thought we'd look at some of the MCU’s forebears and discover how they shaped (in success or failure) the cinematic behemoths that followed.


Instant Expert: Marvel Movies Before The MCU

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Blade (1998)

Regardless of how you view the movie itself, (and there are many who would argue that Guillermo del Toro's follow-up is the superior entry), 1998's first outing for the daywalking vampire, played to scowling perfection by Wesley Snipes, was a key factor in proving that superhero films could escape the overly camp traps that the Batman franchise had slid into. David S. Goyer adapted writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan's character, who debuted as a minor player in 1973's Tomb Of Dracula comic, but quickly became a popular mainstay. Stephen Norrington took the helm, injecting some flair and style into the proceedings (witness the memorable blood-spraying rave sequence in the prologue), but it was Wesley Snipes' raw charisma that placed the Daywalker on the map. Blade kicked the door open, showed that a different take on a character – while keeping a lot of what made it work – could succeed, even one that audiences weren't as familiar with. Fact alert: Michael Morbius was originally planned as a future antagonist, but that was scrapped because the rights to the character belonged to Sony, who have just produced a film of the scientist-tuned-vamp starring Jared Leto, due out next year.

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X-Men (2000)

Once again, a film soundly eclipsed by its sequel, and since shadowed by the controversies around director Bryan Singer and its lacklustre recent instalments. But X-Men had real power to it, taking the concept (and adding extra thematic layers, including hatred and otherness), while not forgetting to have a little fun along the way, partly thanks to elements taken from multiple writers (including Buffy/Firefly boss) Joss Whedon and a star-making turn from Hugh Jackman, who would go on to push the superhero film even further with Logan. Before X-Men, superhero team films were viewed as too silly a concept for audiences to accept, but the success of Professor X and co. changed all that, spawning a multi-film franchise that had connections and continuing storylines (though these became knottier as time went one on). It also proved an early producing job for one Kevin Feige, who would go on to mastermind the entire MCU. Fact alert: Danny Boyle and Kathryn Bigelow were among the directors either attached or considered as the movie tumbled through development.

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Daredevil (2003)

Did Daredevil make huge leaps forward in the genre? Not really. But there were useful takeaways from Mark Steven Johnson's stab at the Man Without Fear. The film was a blend of old-school thinking — tying the concept to a rising star name in Ben Affleck, and stacking the cast with the likes of Colin Farrell (whose mad-eyed Bullseye is the film's MVP) — and a moody edge, which was apt for the darker story Matt Murdock was to tell. Its attempt to spawn a shared universe resulted in Elektra, which, sadly, proved an even tougher example of what not to do. With its output, the Marvel team from Iron Man onwards realised the value of blending some core elements from each heroes' journey, but also going its own way for the film version. And despite Johnson's occasional nods towards humour, the bleaker tale of Matt Murdock didn't exactly lend itself to laughs. It's perhaps not surprising that Daredevil was pushed (successfully) to TV, forming part of the street-level Defenders series. Of course, with the movie side essentially consuming that arm of the company, there's always a chance we'll see Matt and his various supporting characters arrive on the big screen once more.Fact alert: Kirby, the forensics assistant played by Kevin Smith, is a nod to artist Jack Kirby, one of the key players in making the comic book version a success. Interestingly, Daredevil is one of the few major Marvel heroes of the 60s not co-created by Kirby. Instead, that honour went to Bill Everett.

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Spider-Man 2 (2004)

If there's truly a film that can be said to lay the groundwork for Marvel's current incarnation, it's Sam Raimi's Spider-sequel. Building on the success of his first effort, Raimi's second bottles the formula even more successfully, deepening Tobey Maguire's take on the character and introducing one of his most iconic rogues' gallery members in Dr. Otto Octavius (played with nuance and then flair by Alfred Molina). Raimi's love of the genre shines through, and this was the best incarnation of Spidey until Feige and the MCU team got their hands (temporarily) on the character. It was a huge success, and cemented the fact that you can be largely faithful and audiences will eat up the concept and the character. Even with the many noses at the scripting grindstone (a fact of big budget cinematic life the current Marvel administration can't quite escape), the movie holds together very well. Conversely, the Spider-series under Raimi's regime also includes the third film, which, even with its defenders, is almost the opposite of the second, loaded down with villains and full of ill-judged choices that feel more studio-mandated than filmmaker-selected. Of course, following the grand plan with freedom to colour within the lines is a key facet of the roster of MCU directors. So you might have been surprised to see Raimi signing up to direct the Doctor Strange sequel, which means dealing with a character he didn't even originate on screen. Still, with Raimi having said that Strange is among his favourite comic book characters, expect him to bring a similar passion to his next trip into superhero territory. Fact alert: Sam Raimi naturally managed to sneak his car, The Classic (a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88) into the film, sitting in Aunt May's driveway.

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Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007)

Though the Fantastic Four films aren't considered shining high points of the superhero genre, they do represent a stepping stone to the MCU's style of fun mixed with deeper emotion. And there's even the presence of Chris Evans, who would go on to play such a key role in the MCU. In the 2005 original, director Tim Story played up the livelier aspects of the team, who were considered a risk despite being among Marvel's most famous characters. Silver Surfer, which brought the iconic glider to screens (via a combo of Doug Jones in the performance capture suit and Laurence Fishburne on voiceover duties) improved on the original, introducing an interstellar element to the story long before Marvel pulled of the same trick in Guardians Of The Galaxy. While it slides into goofiness a little too much for its own good, it was another strong example of the teamwork and character dynamics that the MCU has honed. And Story, like Norrington before him, represents one other trick Team Marvel has honed: finding directors not traditionally associated with action, and backing them up with experienced second unit and effects teams. Silver Surfer doesn't hold a candle to the better examples of later team movies, but it's certainly more effective than Josh Trank's dour, troubled Fantastic Four that escaped onto screens in 2015.Fact alert: Fishburne is a big fan of Galactus and thought he might be voicing the powerful character in the movie. He's still itching to voice the role should the MCU team decide to employ it.

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