These days, a new superhero movie hits theaters and streaming services almost every week. But it wasn’t always that way. Superheroes stormed pop culture 2000s, with 2002’s Spider-Man, and then The Dark Knight and Iron Man in 2008, which brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the world.
Even before the golden age of superhero media, Hollywood and Burbank knew that comics provided fertile storytelling ground. So they brought superheroes to screens big and small, sometimes with a giant budget and sometimes with hardly a budget at all, sometimes adapting classic characters like Batman and Superman and sometimes making original oddities like Buckaroo Banzai.
If you’ve seen every entry in the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, here are a few superhero movies and shows from the early days of blockbusters to satisfy your cravings for capes and tights.
3 Dev Adam (1973)
From the very beginning of Marvel’s launch in 1962, editor-in-chief Stan Lee strived to bring his heroes to live action, largely to no avail. The one exception happened completely out of his hands and, more importantly, outside of American copyright laws.
The Turkish film 3 Dev Adam (3 Giant Men) helped cement that country’s gleeful disregard of IP law and canon, telling a story that teamed Captain America with Mexican luchador Santo in a fight against Spider-Man, imagined here as a drug lord who can create duplicates. Wilder than any fanfiction, 3 Dev Adam might earn the ire of all comic book nerds offended by these loose interpretations, but they’ll never forget what they see.
Friday Foster (1975)
Before Superman: The Movie, Hollywood considered special-effects-driven superhero stories too much of a risk, especially for a lower-budget picture. So when Blaxploitation filmmakers looked for comics inspiration, they sought out a different kind of hero, the crusading reporter Friday Foster, played by the legendary Pam Grier.
While Friday Foster lacks the spectacle that you might find in other comic adaptations, it has plenty of thrilling sequences as Grier’s character teams with PI Colt Hawkins (Yaphet Kotto) to investigate an assassination attempt on the country’s richest Black man Blake Tarr (Thalmus Rasulala).
Comic book superheroes may be an American genre, but other countries have their own versions of caped crusaders, such as China’s Infra-Man. This Shaw Brothers production owes a debt to Japan’s Kamen Rider franchise, itself a take on American superheroes, but offers its own take on secret identities and superpowers. Directed by Hua Shan and written by prolific sci-fi and wuxia author Ni Cong, Infra-Man comes to life when scientist Liu Ying-de (Wang Hsieh) transforms officer Lei Ma (Danny Lee) into a colorful, kung-fu fighting robot to battle Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu), who has emerged a 10 million year sleep.
While it’s clearly working in the superhero model, modern American fans may see Infra-Man as an early version of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, especially in the similarities between Dragon Mom and Rita Repulsa.
Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975)
Before comic books, proto-superheroes lived in the world of pulp novels, including genius scientist/adventurer/good-looking man Doc Savage. Created by Henry W. Ralston, John L. Nanovic, and Lester Dent, Savage set the stage for Superman and Batman, with his arctic Fortress of Solitude and commitment to individual excellence.
But when director Michael Anderson brought the character back in the 1970s for Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, with onetime Tarzan actor Ron Ely in the lead, the character felt too much like an also-ran next to his successors. Still, there’s no denying the cheesy charm of the Doc’s big-budget romp, which pits him and his companions the Fabulous Five against a mad millionaire with mystic powers.
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1975)
Only a few short years after debuting in Action Comics #1 (1938), Superman leaped into other media, first radio and then television and serials. But after his initial heyday, the Man of Steel has floundered in live-action, as filmmakers struggle to translate Superman’s adventures. Few entries capture that difficulty like It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, the TV movie version of the Broadway musical of the same name.
Despite attempts by producers to give the hero and his story a contemporary feel, neither David Wilson’s Supes nor Leslie Ann Warren’s Lois Lane made a positive impression, making the special one of the more embarrassing entries in the Superman canon.
Wonder Woman (1976 – 1979)
Although superheroes did occasionally get to star in feature films such as 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men, caped crusaders tended to be most comfortable either in theatrical serials or in television series. That’s certainly the case with Wonder Woman, starring the magnetic Lynda Carter, which ran for 59 episodes after its TV movie pilot.
The series launched with a TV movie that more or less follows the comic origin, with Princess Diana leaving Paradise Island to be with American soldier Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), but eventually adding its own elements — including the hero’s signature spin — that remain key parts of the mythos across media.
The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979)
Spider-Man is the world’s most popular superhero, so beloved that not even the cheap production values of his 1967 animated series could diminish his reputation. So it’s no surprise that he would eventually get his own live-action series in The Amazing Spider-Man, despite the producer’s inability to reproduce the wall-crawler’s amazing spider powers.
The series follows only the barest threads of the comics, with Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) stopping crimes he learns about while working as a photographer at the Daily Bugle. But they did manage to make a comic-accurate costume in live-action, which goes a long way to forgiving any other shortcomings.
The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982)
Unlike the heavily serialized shows of today, television series used to tell standalone stories, which each episode presenting a new problem for the cast to solve. No character fits that model more than Marvel’s Jade Giant, the Hulk. In each episode of The Incredible Hulk, lonely David Banner (Bill Bixby) would wander into a new town, trying to lie low while searching for a cure.
But inevitably, something would make him angry, transforming him into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno). As repetitive as the structure may be, there’s no denying its effectiveness, leading to not only five seasons of the show but also three made for tv movies.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
“Verisimilitude.” That’s the word director Richard Donner used to motivate his crew when bringing the Man of Steel to life for the 1978 blockbuster Superman: The Movie. Rather than shy away from the more outlandish elements of Superman lore, such as the futuristic Fortress of Solitude or searing heat vision, Donner and his special effects team embraced them, resulting in stunning flying sequences.
But the movie’s greatest effect is Christopher Reeve in the main role, believably separating mild-mannered Clark Kent and all-powerful Superman into separate personalities. When combined with Margot Kidder’s tenacious performance as Lois Lane, Superman remains a great example of a character-driven superhero spectacle.
Doctor Strange (1978)
The same year that Superman: The Movie told audiences “You will believe a man can fly,” Doctor Strange could hardly make viewers believe that a man could meditate intensely. Unlike previous Marvel entries that worked around their limited budget, Doctor Strange couldn’t find a satisfying way to bring its psychedelic hero to television. Peter Hooten does his best as psychiatrist Dr. Steven Strange, who learns about his mystic inheritance after a young woman in a magical coma comes under his care.
But it's future Arrested Development star Jessica Walter who truly stands out as the movie’s big bad, Morgan Le Fay. Her scenery chewing can’t quite overcome the movie’s meager visuals, but it does make an otherwise disappointing entry very watchable.
Captain America (1979)
A superhero who predates the Marvel Era, Captain America had some success in live-action, thanks to a 15-part Republic Serial released in 1944. But when the Sentinel of Liberty made his return, it was for the lackluster tv movies Captain America and Captain America: Death Too Soon, both aired in the same year.
Reb Brown (whom Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will recognize as the multi-named hero from Space Mutiny) plays a motorcycle-riding son of a military hero who becomes a superhero after taking the FLAG formula. Between the two, the sequel stands out more, thanks to its more comics-accurate Captain America costume and the always fantastic Christopher Lee in the villain role.
Legends of the Superheroes (1979)
Thus far, this article could be seen as having a pro-DC and anti-Marvel bias, heaping more praise on Wonder Woman and Superman than on Captain America and Doctor Strange. Well, rest assured, DC has its own embarrassing entries, none more so than Legends of the Superheroes. The title of two 60-minute tv specials, Legends of the Superheroes dig deep into DC’s catalog to feature characters rarely seen outside of comics, including Black Canary and the wizard Mordru.
And what do these titans do when they’re assembled together? Celebrate the birthday of retired hero the Scarlet Cyclone and tell corny jokes at a roast hosted by Ed McMahon. The zingers they hurl at each other may not get you smiling, but you’ll certainly be guffawing at the special’s cheesy treatment of legendary characters.
Flash Gordon (1980)
FLASH! Ah-AAAA! If you know anything about this adaptation of the classic pulp character, it’s probably the amazing original soundtrack by Queen, which gave the movie a rock opera feel. What may not know is that, despite its silly premise, Flash Gordon is a rollickin’ good time, even to modern audiences.
Sam J. Jones is serviceable as football star-turned-savior of the universe Flash Gordon, but the real standouts are Max Von Sydow as baddie Ming the Merciless, Brian Blessed as birdman Prince Vultan, and especially the movie’s glorious production design from Danilo Donati. Huge sets with outlandish costumes make Flash Gordon as much fun to watch as it is to hear.
Disney didn’t buy Marvel until 2009, but that doesn’t mean they stayed out of the superhero game. In 1981, they released the James Bond-esque Condorman, based on the novel The Game of X by Robert Sheckly. Michael Crawford plays comic book artist Woody Wilkins, whose attempts to design a realistic flight suit based on his character Condorman get him tied up in a plot to help a KGB spy defect, against the wishes of the brutal Krokov (Oliver Reed).
Some will certainly enjoy the movie’s campy approach, but others may see the combination of superheroics and Cold War intrigue as a dim forerunner of another Disney superhero romp, The Incredibles.
Swamp Thing (1982)
Over the course of his life, the late Wes Craven revolutionized horror not once but twice, first with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and then with Scream (1997). His one foray into comic book superheroes may not have been quite as important, but there’s no denying that Swamp Thing is a ghastly good time. Based on the DC Comics character, Swamp Thing comes to life when the thugs of Anton Arcane (Louis Jordan) destroy the bayou lab of Alec Holland (Ray Wise) transforming him into the titular plant man (Dick Durock).
With the always-wonderful Adrienne Barbeau in the lead as a researcher following Holland’s work, it’s no wonder that Swamp Thing earned not only a sequel but also an animated series and a live-action show.
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Poor superheroes. They weren’t even the major cultural force they are today and people still made fun of them in 1983. Written by great action scribe Steven E. de Souza, The Return of Captain Invincible offers a comedic deconstruction of superheroes before comic books started breaking down the genre. Alan Arkin plays a beloved World War II-era hero forced into retirement by anti-Communist crusaders.
After decades of drunken exile in Australia, Captain Invincible must pull on his silver tights once more to battle his arch-nemesis Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee, of course). Philippe Mora’s direction doesn’t quite balance the movie’s dark comedy, but The Return of Captain Invincible remains an interesting oddity.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
When you hear the word “superhero,” only one name comes to mind: Jeff Goldblum. Okay, maybe not, but that’s what makes him such a great audience surrogate for the cult favorite Buckaroo Banzai. A loving update to pulp heroes such as Doc Savage, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is the world’s greatest physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock star.
Through the eyes of Goldblum’s Dr. Sidney aka ‘New Jersey,” the latest addition to Buckaroo’s rock band/team of experts, we watch as the heroes battle to stop Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) gain ultimate power by accessing the 8th Dimension. Directed with pitch-perfect precision by W.D. Richter from a script by Earl Mac Rauch, Buckaroo Banzai embraces everything weird and wonderful about pulp heroes.
The Toxic Avenger (1984)
At first glance, Troma Studios seems like an unlikely home for superheroes. After all, the direct-to-video company built its name on low-budget movies designed only to offend, such as Class of Nuke ‘Em High and Surf Nazis Must Die. But the studio truly established its ignoble reputation with The Toxic Avenger from Troma founders Lloyd Kauffman and Michael Herz.
At first glance, The Toxic Avenger follows the usual beats of a superhero movie, with nerdy Melvin Ferd Junko III (Mark Torgl) who becomes a super-powered monster after bullies expose him to toxic waste. But instead of using his abilities for good, Melvin becomes a force of revenge, brutally killing anyone even slightly naughty. The Toxic Avenger certainly isn’t your usual superhero. But that’s what makes the character such a cult favorite, generating multiple sequels and a currently-in-production remake starring Peter Dinklage.
Howard the Duck (1986)
Behold, the first Marvel movie released to theaters: Howard the Duck. Believe it or not, the all-powerful Marvel Cinematic Universe was preceded by this odd-ball movie produced by George Lucas, which featured Ed Gale (voiced by Broadway’s Chip Zien) as the foul-mouthed fowl and Lea Thompson as Beverly, the rock and roll woman who loves him.
Even as it watered down the satire creator Steve Gerber brought to the original comics, Howard the Duck amps up the weirdness. Between fantastic special effects and the movie’s bonkers plot, Howard the Duck is much better than its reputation suggests.
The Spirit (1987)
Comic fans know Will Eisner as one of the genre’s masters, the man who literally wrote the book on sequential art after spending decades pushing the limits of the medium. Sadly, The Spirit, the live-action adaptation of his most famous character, hardly carries the same spirit of innovation.
Sam J. Jones does his best impression of a hard-boiled detective as Denny Colt, a cop who becomes masked avenger the Spirit after his apparent death, and director Michael Schultz tries to keep things snappy. But despite the involvement of steady hands like Nana Visitor and Philip Baker Hall, The Spirit and its colorful costumes feel, at best, like a warmup for the 1990 Warren Beatty vehicle Dick Tracy.
The Punisher (1989)
After the failure of Howard the Duck, Marvel wouldn’t return to the big screen until 1998’s Blade. In the meantime, they went back to tv movies and direct-to-video films such The Punisher. As fans of the comics know, Frank Castle aka Punisher, isn’t much of a hero, a man driven to massacre all criminals after his family is killed by the mob.
But that does make him a good fit for a low-budget action flick, which is exactly what this barebones picture gives us. Statuesque Swede Dolph Lundgren doesn’t make for a believable New Yorker, but he does cut an imposing presence, even without wearing the character’s signature death’s head logo, which has to be good enough for Marvel movie fans of the 1980s.
As you can tell from this list, superhero movies were regularly made throughout the 1970s and 80s, but with the exception of Superman, they didn’t get the blockbuster treatment. That all changed with Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. It took making Jack Nicholson the highest-paid actor ever (at that time, at least) to get him to play the Joker, but that type of A-list talent showed the world that Warner Bros wanted to take the Dark Knight seriously.
But despite that studio attention, Burton breathed enough of his personality into the production to make Batman a unique film, with its Gothic architecture and comedian Michael Keaton as a truly nuts Bruce Wayne.
Greensboro, North Carolina resident Joe George writes for Den of Geek, Sojourners Magazine, The Progressive, Think Christian, and elsewhere. Joe's areas of geek expertise include horror, science fiction (especially Star Trek), movies of the 60s and 70s, and all things superheroes. He posts nonsense from @jageorgeii on Twitter and from @joewriteswords on literally every other social media site in the world.