Strange superhero movies you may not know exist

Superhero movies have become a major staple of modern cinema, yet their road to mainstream popularity wasn't always smooth. Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, movie and television producers adapted comics titles with varying degrees of success. Superman: The Movie (1978), Tim Burton's Batman (1989), and The Incredible Hulk live-action series (1977-1982) proved superheroes had screen potential, but they were exceptions; most attempts to bring the comics to life either flopped or were met with indifference. Here are a few superhero movies that most people have either forgotten or never knew existed.

Swamp Thing (1982)

Between The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), horror auteur Wes Craven directed Swamp Thing, a film adaptation of DC Comics' horror series of the same name. In it, scientist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) is transformed into Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) after soldiers working for the evil Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) attack his laboratory in the Louisiana bayou. Despite the source material and Craven at the helm, the results were too corny to be appropriately horrific. The action scenes are poorly handled and the special effects, even for the early 1980s, aren't much to look at: Swamp Thing and the monster he fights during the climax resemble rejects from the Power Rangers. The movie's only saving grace is B-movie queen Adrienne Barbeau in the romantic lead—a casting choice no doubt appreciated by many 16-year-old guys in the audience circa 1982.

The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)

How do you follow up a bad superhero movie from the early 1980s? With a bad sequel in the late 1980s! In The Return of Swamp Thing, everyone's favorite scientist turned walking lily pad must again defeat his nemesis Anton Arcane, who somehow survived being turned into ManBearPig in the first movie. The only positive thing to say about The Return of Swamp Thing is that the costume looks better. Heather Locklear gives one of the most insufferable performances of her career as the new lady in the creature's life, Abigail Arcane, and her work is eclipsed only by some the worst child actors this side of The Phantom Menace. This sequel doesn't even approach horror film territory, although it did spawn one of the most cringeworthy public service announcements in human history.

Fantastic Four (1994)

A decade before 20th Century Fox made its first Fantastic Four movie, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman developed his own adaptation. Why haven't you seen it? Probably because the movie was never officially released, either in theaters or on video; in fact, it was only made to retain the Constantin studio's rights to the Fantastic Four before they expired. The budget was approximately $1 million, resulting in special effects straight out of a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s. (The Human Torch visuals during the film's climax are particularly poor.) The filmmakers must have completely run out of money before they completed dubbing, since it's difficult to understand anything Doctor Doom says. Despite all this, it's arguably the most watchable Fantastic Four movie to date, simply because it's unpretentious.

The Shadow (1994)

For the uninitiated, The Shadow was a pulp character from the 1930s best known as the star of a series of popular radio dramas. The late Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, lent his vocal talents to these broadcasts. In the 1994 movie version, Alec Baldwin plays Lamont Cranston, a rich New York playboy who uses his alter ego the Shadow—and a handful of mystical powers, including invisibility—to fight crime. The movie does a fine job of capturing its 1930s setting and honors the dark source material; unfortunately, the story, about a descendant of Genghis Khan determined to detonate an atomic bomb, is unremarkable. Universal, the studio behind The Shadow, wanted a superhero franchise, but the premise doesn't really lend itself to that formula. Plus, just as Disney later learned with John Carter, there isn't a large built-in audience for a property created before most Americans owned televisions.

The Phantom (1996)

Based on the classic comic strip of the same name, 1996's The Phantom stars Billy Zane as Kit Walker, a wealthy playboy in 1930s New York City who secretly fights crime as the titular hero. (Are you noticing a pattern here? Rich playboys have too much time on their hands.) The mantle of the Phantom is passed from father to son, and Kit is the latest incarnation. The filmmakers' goal with this movie was seemingly to recreate the action serials of the early 20th century, and in that regard it succeeds, but the idea was fundamentally misguided. Sure, the Indiana Jones movies pulled it off, but director Steven Spielberg updated the material for modern audiences in several important respects, whereas The Phantom is just as cheesy as those original serials. Plus, let's just be honest, it's hard to take a hero seriously while he's running around in a goofy purple costume—and the stock plot, which hardly bears describing, involves a villain trying to find an ancient relic to unlock supernatural powers. If you're daring enough to watch The Phantom, look for an early performance from Catherine Zeta-Jones as the villain's female sidekick.

Doctor Strange (1978 movie)

Decades before making his big-screen debut, Marvel's Doctor Strange starred in a made-for-TV movie aired by CBS in 1978. Intended as a pilot for a television series that was later abandoned by the network, it tells Strange's (Peter Hooten) origin story as a medical doctor turned sorcerer extraordinaire. The movie feels like a lot of comic book-to-television adaptations of the era, such as The Incredible Hulk series: the special effects are dated, the costumes look like someone raided a circus performer's wardrobe, and most of the scenes were obviously shot on CBS backlot sound stages. You can't really fault the movie for any of this, but needless to say, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't exactly have big shoes to fill with his Doctor Strange. One notable thing about the 1978 Strange: a young, foxy Jessica Walter (best known as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development) portrays the villain, Morgan Le Fay.

The Punisher (1989)

Do you have an urge to watch a cheesy action movie in which Dolph Lundgren murders dozens of Yakuza gang members? (Okay, other than Showdown in Little Tokyo?) Then the 1989 adaptation of Marvel Comics' The Punisher is your best bet. Lundgren plays Frank Castle, a grieving cop who takes revenge on organized crime for his family's death by driving his motorcycle from one action set piece to the next. The greatest fight in the film, however, may be Lundgren's struggle with the English language, followed closely by the internal conflicts that must have been suffered by his co-star, former Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. If it wasn't called The Punisher, this would be virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other 1980s action movies. Just watch any Death Wish sequel instead and you'll get the idea.

Darkman (1990)

Before Liam Neeson had most of his family taken by vaguely European criminals, he starred in Darkman—which, unlike most movies on this list, was an original screenplay instead of a comics adaptation. Neeson portrays scientist Peyton Westlake, whose life is forever altered after he's attacked by ruthless mobsters and left horribly scarred. Conveniently enough for revenge purposes, he is now also resistant to pain and stronger than before. Westlake takes on the role of Darkman and uses his new abilities, combined with synthetic skin of his own invention, to pay back those who wronged him. Sam Raimi, director of the Evil Dead and original Spider-Man movies, co-wrote and directed Darkman, and it contains many hallmarks of his work, including slapstick humor and over-the-top action. The first movie was successful and spawned two less-regarded sequels starring Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo. Raimi fans may want to check out the first movie—and watch for a cameo by Bruce Campbell near the end.

Captain America (1990)

The 1990 adaptation of Captain America was meant to be a major theatrical release, but instead it went straight-to-video. Why? Because it's horrible. The story tells the familiar tale of would-be soldier Steve Rogers taking a special serum, becoming superhero Captain America, and going on to fight his Nazi nemesis the Red Skull. Aside from the obviously low budget, the film's greatest flaw is the casting of Matt Salinger as a thoroughly uncharismatic Captain America. As his surname suggests, Salinger is the son of the late J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, and watching just a few minutes is enough to make you wonder whether his heritage was the only reason he got the role. Aside from throwing his shield and staring blankly at people, Salinger's Captain America holds a unique superpower: the ability to feign sickness to commandeer cars. What a hero!

Condorman (1981)

Condorman was Disney's attempt to capitalize on the success on Superman: The Movie (1978). In it, Woodrow "Woody" Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is a comic book artist who decides to become a real-world version of his creation. His intentions come to the attention of the CIA, and the agency recruits Wilkins for a mission to save a beautiful KGB agent (Barbara Carrera) who plans to defect to the United States, even —in a bid to waste taxpayer's money—building Wilkins his own Condorman-themed car and boat. More of a James Bond parody than a traditional superhero film, Condorman is dated and brimming with over-the-top cheese, yet it's hard to fault it since the movie is aimed at kids. Many children of the 1980s have fond memories of watching Condorman on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and given the cash Disney's made on the Marvel movies, you shouldn't be surprised to see a remake at some point in the future.

Captain America and Captain America 2: Death Too Soon (both 1979)

Captain America and Captain America 2: Death Too Soon were made-for-television movies premiering on CBS in 1979, both starring B-movie action king Reb Brown as Captain America. Someone on the production clearly thought that motorcycles were the "in" thing in 1979, as Captain America wears a motorcycle helmet (with white wings!) in both movies and much of the action is motorcycle-centric. Cap's bike even has a hang glider! As with other TV adaptations of the era, the limitations of the budget are clearly evident, particularly in the case of Captain America's shield, which looks like it was made out flimsy clear plastic. The second movie is the best of the two, because Christopher Lee plays the villain—and even when he's in a subpar project, Saruman brings his A-game.

Various Spider-Man 1970s Movies

Spider-Man was the star of several made-for-TV movies in the late 1970s, including Spider-Man (1977), Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978), and Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge (1979). The first was the pilot for the Amazing Spider-Man television series that aired on CBS during that time period, while the second and third were two-part episodes edited together into feature-length films. The movies and the series all share similar elements, including a Spider-Man costume that looks like something you could find at a Spirit Halloween store and scenes that look like a fan film shot without permits. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether you're watching a Spider-Man movie or the beginning of an adult XXX Spider-parody.