The world holds its breath throughout 2012, with arguably the most famous superheroes each getting their latest installments: The Amazing Spider-man, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Yet it hasn’t always been this good, with comic book fans often resorting to getting their rocks off in back alleys with the smell of an oily rag and only The Punisher (1989), Captain America (1990) and maybe even Catwoman (2004) to get us off.
The following list represents some of the more obscure films of the last few decades, found in our ongoing search for vintage clips for Behind the Panels, our weekly comic book podcast. We realise that this list could be exhaustive – with suggestions of Howard the Duck, Condorman, Supergirl and The Return of Captain Invincible all thrown at us as we were compiling this – but the list below had something special. That winning combination of little-known heroes, at least as far as the public is concerned, and/or just being the lesser-known version of something more famous.
We suspect a whole special could be dedicated to Japanese Spider-man.
Dr. Strange (1978)
Marvel in the 1970s was a very different beast to what it is now. With the exception of the ongoing Ghost Rider, Spider-man and X-Men franchises, Marvel has wrestled back most of its major characters and got them humming the way they want. In the 1970s, there were a number of licences happening, and this was still going right up to the 1980s (The Punisher) and 1990s (Captain America). Based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (aren’t they all?), here King Arthur’s nemesis Morgan le Fay (Jessica Walter) seeks to entrap and enslave and all that, but Merlin calls on the hereditary powers of a psychiatrist named Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten). It’s all about thwarting. Perm power!
Extra Obscure Points: The 1992 Doctor Mordrid was originally intended as a Dr. Strange film, until the option expired and the film was rewritten for the screen. Early concept art was done by an uncredited Jack Kirby!
We might excuse this if it was from the 1980s, or even the early 1990s, but this was 1997: a year before Blade and only three years before Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Yes, basketball star Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal, better known as Shaq (remember him?), was in non-basketball movies for a while. Combing off the critically acclaimed Kazaam and Good Burger was his Razzie Award nominated performance in Steel.
Based on the character created during the whole death and rebirth of Superman saga back in 1993, something not mentioned at all in this film, here John Henry Irons (Shaq) forges a suit of armour, adds some high tech weaponry with the help of Richard Roundtree (Shaq meets Shaft!) and goes after Judd Nelson, for crimes against cinema presumably. There is some temptation to give the film props for the portrayal of Sparks (Annabel Gish) as a wheelchair-bound heroine who kicks ass in her own right. Currently holding a 12% rating on the all important Rotten Tomatoes, and not looking as thought it will shift any time soon, Steel perhaps remains an obscure superhero movie for a reason.
Swamp Thing (1982)
Swamp Thing might be the obscure character to have appeared in the most places, but we challenge the person on the street to describe anything about him. You wouldn’t think that the combination of Wes Craven and DC Comics would fall into obscurity these days, but while Swamp Thing has a cult following and generally positive reviews, this one kind of gets lost in the sea of 1970s Superman and 1980s Batman films. Swamp Thing has never been a massive comic book character on the scale of DC’s Holy Trinity, but he has been a persistent one, with some of the greats writing for him: Len Wein, Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, Andy Diggle and currently Scott Snyder. With themes of environmentalism and mysticism, he is totally a zeitgeisty hero for the new millennium. He is now forming one of the major themes of DC’s New 52 universe, and it has been rumoured that Joel Silver will produce a remake of the film.
Extra Obscure Points: Even more obscure is The Return of Swamp Thing (1989), a comedic sequel to Craven’s film seven years later, and there was even a TV series that ran for 72 episodes!
Nick Fury – Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (1998)
So Nick Fury. Badass bald dude. Looks a lot like Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch. Is known for hiding in the shadows of the end credits. Wrong. Who else could it be but the motherfreakin’ Hoff. The very same year that Blade was released, it’s very same writer David S. Goyer (yes, he of Batman Begins) penned this made-for-TV movie that saw a retired Nick Fury back to fight the evil HYDRA and Baron Von Strucker. Who else would be his right-hand woman but Melrose Places‘s Lisa Rinna (pictured above, left) as (deep breath) Contessa Valentina “Val” Allegra de Fontaine? Quality is completely irrelevant when The Hoff is involved.
Adam West is held up as the ultimate in retro Batman fun from the 1966 TV series and movie, but that dude is new school compared to the series of theatrical films starring Lewis Wilson at the Batman and Douglas Croft as The Boy Wonder, Robin. This Batman was badass too, despite the gimpish appearance to the contrary. At the end of Chapter 10, Bats was involved in a plane-crash, but simply staggered out somewhat dazed at the start of Chapter 11. At the time, Columbia Pictures was touting this as a “Super Serial” and was their largest scale serial production, but the lower budget meant that no attempt was made at a Batmobile, instead using a Cadillac and later a limo. Batman also worked for the government as a secret agent. Seriously. Even so, it’s popularity ultimately led to the 1960s version, and for that we will forever be grateful.
Extra Obscure Points: The whole marathon 260 minute serial was released in 1965 as An Evening with Batman and Robin, before Adam West even strapped on his booties, old chum!
What are your favourite obscure superhero movies? Let us know in the comments below!