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The worst superhero movies ever made

They might be the biggest earners in the franchise-driven Hollywood of today, but the history of the superhero movie is checkered to say the least. It took a lot of trial and error to get to the point where studios were willing to sign off on nine-figure budgets — something that would have been considered absolute folly prior to the late 1970s, when Richard Donner emphatically proved that superhero movies could work if filmmakers were properly backed (his Superman cost a cool $55 million to make), paving the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the bargain. The period between Donner's Superman and the first MCU movie wasn't an altogether fruitful one, however. Some truly terrible superhero films came out during this time — and some real stinkers have come out in the MCU era, too. Let's find out what went wrong with the worst superhero movies ever made.

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Barb Wire (1996)

The leather costume that Pamela Anderson squeezed into for the 1996 adaptation of Dark Horse Comics' Barb Wire was deemed "unnecessarily revealing" by The Telegraph, though for fans of the buxom blonde pin-up, this was the only highlight. The plot revolves around bartender and bounty hunter Barb (Anderson) attempting to escape the devastation of the so-called Second American Civil War of 2017. The leading lady's acting was heavily criticized in reviews, with her inability to deliver believable lines and lack of comedic timing proving a major sticking point for critics. According to the Baywatch star, what should have been a campy classic was ruined by the interference of the movie's backers, Polygram.

"It wasn't supposed to turn out like it did," she told Interview. "When I saw the comic book the movie's based on, I thought, 'Oh my God, she's on a motorcycle in leather, crazy, with big hair, glamorous. This is hysterical. It's totally me.'" Anderson signed on for what she thought was going to be "a dark comedy, real cartoony," but execs changed direction just before production kicked off. "More action, less humor, a different director," Anderson said. "They changed the script six million times."

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Ghost Rider (2007)

Watching Ghost Rider today, it's astonishing to think that this Nicolas Cage-led Marvel movie came out just one year before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with 2008's Iron Man. Not only did Cage ham it up like only he can, but the CGI used to turn the eccentric actor into Johnny Blaze didn't even look that convincing back then, never mind holding up today. According to Cage, the real problem with Ghost Rider (and its equally bad 2012 sequel Spirit of Vengeance) wasn't his acting or the schlocky visual effects, it was the PG-13 rating.

Speaking to JoBlo, Cage revealed that he wanted to go with an edgy, R-rated script turned in by David S. Goyer, but Sony were apparently too afraid to go there at the time. "Ghost Rider was a movie that always should've been an R-rated movie," Cage argued. "David Goyer had a brilliant script which I wanted to do with David, and for whatever reason they just didn't let us make the movie." Cage went on to make the case for rebooting Ghost Rider with a new target audience in mind. "Heck, Deadpool was R-rated and that did great. Ghost Rider was designed to be a scary superhero with an R rating and edge, and they just didn't have it worked out back then."

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Howard the Duck (1986)

Interest in one of Marvel's stranger characters, Howard the Duck, spiked after the anthropomorphic bird popped up in a Guardians of the Galaxy post-credit scene, but those who decided to check out his standalone '80s outing after seeing this were more than likely highly disappointed. Howard the Duck was produced by George Lucas and starred Lea Thompson, who was still riding the Back to the Future wave at the time. Thompson had high hopes for the project, but over the course of the frustrating shoot, she realized it wasn't going to live up to the hype.

"They got all obsessed about having you see the words coming out of the lips of the duck," Thompson told Yahoo!. "Like anyone was going to believe it was real!" After Robin Williams declined, the job of voicing Howard fell to theater actor Chip Zien, who knew something was wrong when Universal neglected to throw a premiere party. "The day the movie opened was the first time I had seen it," Zien revealed. "I paid for my ticket. I went in and was horrified because it was relatively empty. There was no line. By the end of the movie, I was all alone with my friend Roy in the theater. It was just the two of us sitting there."

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Green Lantern (2011)

The failure of 2011's Green Lantern risked ruining the career of leading man Ryan Reynolds, and he nearly took the whole superhero genre with him. The scathing reviews and terrible numbers (it reportedly cost a whopping $300 million to make, $80 million more than its worldwide box office total) threatened to turn studios off the idea of comic book movies altogether, but Reynolds had a way to make right. The very same weekend Green Lantern opened, the Canadian filmed the now-famous Deadpool test footage that would leak three years later and convince Fox to give him his shot at redemption.

Reynolds took the chance with both hands, and his many years of lobbying paid off when Deadpool became a huge hit. The resurgent star credited the success of the R-rated smash to the fact that he and everyone involved had a clear vision right from the get-go. "With Green Lantern, I don't think anyone ever figured out exactly what it was," he told CinemaBlend. "It also fell victim to the process in Hollywood which is like poster first, release date second, script last. At the time, it was a huge opportunity for me, so I was excited to try and take part in it."

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Steel (1997)

Marvel's Black Panther was quite rightly lauded for bringing together a cast that was 90 percent African or African-American, but King T'Challa wasn't the first black superhero to make it to the big screen. People often overlook the fact that Shaquille O'Neal beat Chadwick Boseman to the punch when he starred in the 1997 adaptation of DC's Steel, though nobody can really be blamed for forgetting about this downright awful movie. Twenty years after its abysmal release (it pulled in $1.7 million against a budget of $16 million), Steel director Kenneth Johnson apologized for his creation, admitting that he probably should have walked away once he found out who his star was going to be.

"I said, 'Guys, if you're gonna put Shaq in the lead, then you've got to at least have a major movie star next to them," he told Vice. "Yes, he was a big persona and a great role model for kids and all that, but he's no movie star. But these people just wouldn't budge a dime to place an actual movie star in the role." Johnson went on to reveal that Warner Bros. co-president Bill Gerber (who was fired the following year) opted for O'Neal over the likes of Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington because he knew Shaq would "sell more toys."

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Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige once called Richard Donner's Superman the "paradigm by which we all still should follow" when it comes to making superhero movies. This critically acclaimed adaptation of DC's most famous comic book was a genre benchmark, but when audiences started to tire of the franchise two sequels later, the rights were sold off to cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, founders of the Cannon Group. The pair had developed a reputation as some of the most disreputable figures in the film industry, and Christopher Reeve saw this side of them during the making of the universally abhorred Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.

In his biography Still Me, Reeve revealed that the production was plagued by cutbacks and tight budget restraints. To save money, shooting was moved to England, which hurt the integrity of the final product. "[There's] a scene in which Superman lands on 42nd Street and walks down the double yellow lines to the United Nations, where he gives a speech," Reeve wrote (via Flickering Myth). "If that had been a scene in Superman, we would actually have shot it on 42nd Street… Instead, we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere."

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Spawn (1997)

When you sit down to watch a DVD commentary and the first thing the director says is "you can blame it all on me," it doesn't bode well. That's exactly how Mark Dippè introduces himself in the Spawn commentary. A former Industrial Lights and Magic employee, Dippè was known as a visual effects wizard at the time, but he'd never directed a movie before — and it showed. Badly. "Spawn is a staggeringly poor film," Den of Geek said when they revisited the botched adaptation in 2015. "[It's] an effects movie, but a good number of the effects aren't good. Some are flat out awful."

As a former ILM staffer, the one thing that Dippè ought to have been able to get right was the visual effects, though as far as he was concerned, the CGI wasn't the problem. Speaking to Wired in 1997, the outspoken filmmaker lashed out at censors for forcing him to change parts of the movie he felt were perfectly suitable for PG-13 audiences. "The MPAA is driving a stake through my heart with this, because they're making me take this movie down so much," he said. "They're a bunch of buttheads. They should stand up for something like this because deep down, Spawn is a very positive story."

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Batman and Robin (1997)

The most infamous of the multiple terrible superhero movies to drop in 1997, Batman and Robin put an end to the Caped Crusader in Hollywood until Christopher Nolan came along and resurrected the franchise with his Dark Knight trilogy. Warner Bros. brought Joel Schumacher on board to replace Tim Burton for 1995's Batman Forever, which made tons of merchandise money but didn't go over so well with critics. Follow-up Batman and Robin also made money, but this time out, the critics (and the fans) were up in arms. The movie has a measly 10 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes today, and Schumacher is well aware that he'll never live it down.

"After Batman and Robin, I was scum. It was like I had murdered a baby," he told Vice. "Look, I apologize. I want to apologize to every fan that was disappointed, because I think I owe them that." Chris O'Donnell (who played Robin to George Clooney's Batman) blamed the studio for not having its priorities straight. "On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie," he said. "The second time, I felt like I was making a kid's toy."

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Daredevil (2003)

Long before he donned the Dark Knight's cape and cowl in the DC Extended Universe, Ben Affleck made his ill-fated foray into the superhero genre with 2003's Daredevil. The blind vigilante is a favorite among Marvel fans, who by and large hated Affleck's take. The critics weren't convinced, either, with the majority of them finding the film lacking compared to Tobey Maguire's debut outing as Spider-Man the previous year. Interestingly, the backlash Daredevil received made Affleck say yes when the opportunity to play Batman came along.

"Part of it was I wanted for once to get one of these movies and do it right, to do a good version. I hate Daredevil so much," he revealed on TimeTalks (via NME). The character was resurrected by Charlie Cox in 2015 when Netflix started building their Marvel TV universe, which Affleck is evidently a fan of. "The Netflix show does really cool stuff," he continued. "I feel like that was there for us to do with that character, and we never kind of got it right."

This wasn't the first time that Affleck bashed his own film in public. When he sat down for an interview with Playboy magazine in 2013, he revealed that Daredevil was the only movie that he regrets making. "I love that story, that character, and the fact that it got f***** up the way it did stays with me," he said (via SlashFilm).

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The Fantastic Four (1994)

Technically, Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four has never been released, but this low-budget take on Marvel's first family became a thing of legend after bootleg copies began making their way around the convention circuit. The story goes that Neue Constantin Films president Bernd Eichenger contacted veteran B-movie producer Corman after failing to secure a $40 million partnership with 20th Century Fox. Nobody else wanted in, so — knowing that he would lose the film rights to the Marvel property if he didn't start making a movie by December 31, 1992 — Eichenger set about making the cheapest movie he could. All he needed to do was get it into production in time, though he neglected to tell the cast and crew what he was up to.

"They just thought it was another gig, and a really interesting one that could help them," Marty Langford (director of 2015 documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four) told Vice. Music video director Oley Sassone was crestfallen when he found out, having gone into The Fantastic Four thinking it was his big break in the movies. Despite the mess that followed, Sassone remains proud of the effort everyone put into making it, though he makes no apologies for the "low-grade, amateurish" visual effects. "Nobody was doing big computer graphics back then, and unfortunately we didn't have any money to even get the better guys that were in the business," he told Film Voltage.

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Catwoman (2004)

If you watch Halle Berry's notoriously terrible Catwoman movie and Christopher Nolan's game-changer Batman Begins back to back, it's hard to believe there was just a year between them. This very loose DC adaptation was nominated in seven categories at the Razzies and triumphed in four, including Worst Actress for Berry, who actually showed up in person to collect the award. With the Oscar she'd won two years previous in hand, she started off by thanking the studio behind this critical and commercial disaster. "First of all I want to thank Warner Brothers," the actress said through fake sobs. "Thank you for casting me in a piece of s***, godawful movie."

In 2018, Berry addressed Catwoman while accepting the Matrix Award from New York Women in Communication (via Glamour). Berry once again acknowledged how bad the picture was, but she defended her decision to accept the role, revealing that the "s***-load of money" she made changed her life. "While it failed to most people, it wasn't a failure for me because I met so many interesting people that I wouldn't have met otherwise, I learned two forms of martial arts, and I learned not what to do."

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Captain America (1990)

With the MCU now over a decade old, it's hard to imagine anyone but Chris Evans as Captain America, but Matt Salinger (son of famed American author J. D. Salinger) was tossing shields when Evans was still in elementary school. Directed by experienced B-movie helmer Albert Pyun, this low-budget Marvel adaptation was never actually finished, with the production running aground before the final scenes were shot. Unwilling to send the existing footage to the deep, dark vault that it most certainly belonged in, studio execs had editors cobble together a version that could be released on VHS.

"They just ran out of money," Salinger told GQ. "It was a lot of well-intentioned people that loved the story and loved the character and wanted to make a good film and just weren't able to." The actor revealed that the shoot was grueling, with his rubber suit causing him to overheat. On top of that, the costume looked ridiculous. "They gave me these ears — they weren't my real ears — they just had this plastic that was part of the costume, these rubber ears. And there were some shots where they just looked so bad. Really kind of cheesy."

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Condorman (1981)

Dubbed an "ideological intervention from the Disney machine" by Time Out, 1981's Condorman is a camp cocktail of Cold War spy thriller, comedy and superhero movie, all watered down for family consumption. This misfire from the Mouse House stars Michael Crawford as Woody Wilkins, a comic book creator who insists on doing everything he writes in real life, just to prove it can be done. After accidentally getting involved with a seductive Soviet spy, Wilkins has to become the hero he created, flying and all. Stunt doubles were used for certain shots, but Crawford himself was in the ghastly Condorman suit for the most part, and he almost died in it.

"I was dragged along the river Seine by the boat ahead of me, and it nearly drowned me," he told SMH. "Being dragged underwater with thirty foot wings on, you could do nothing, because the wings were taking me down. I was really like a yellow legged submarine going to the bottom of the Seine, rapidly… I was so upset when I came up, because they didn't stop!" Crawford told Broadway World that the set got a little rowdy at times, thanks in no small part to co-star Oliver Reed. "He got in terrible fights with people," Crawford said. "He was a character and three quarters."