We are arguably in the Golden Age of superhero movies.
We are living in a time when superhero movies have graduated to more than a niche genre. This is a time when multiple genres can coexist under its super-umbrella, and when superheroes are taken seriously as any other character. Films like The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, and Big Hero 6 are proving that superhero movies can be Oscar contenders — and for more than just technical categories to boot.
But it wasn’t an easy road getting here. Before we could enjoy this superhero renaissance, we had to go through the dark ages. Most of the superhero movies from the 20th century, like those below, just aren’t worth remembering. Others you probably wish you could forget. Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Terrible Superhero Movies You Forgot Existed.
Time has not been kind to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, but there’s still a large contingent of fans who hold it near-and-dear thanks to nostalgia alone. The same can’t be said of this tedious, under-baked spinoff starring Helen Slater.
After Superman III‘s ridiculous supercomputer/Richard Pryor mashup flopped, Warner Bros. and the series’ producers decided to shake things up. But the enterprise was seemingly doomed from the start, with a goofy story, shabby effects, and a cast that can only be described as a mixed bag. This film from 1984 bombed at the box office. To top it all off, it couldn’t even win the Razzie awards it was nominated for.
Warner Bros. and DC Comics would no doubt prefer you forgot Supergirl existed, particularly since TV has a far superior version of the character on
CBS The CW — even if Slater co-stars on the show as Supergirl’s adoptive mother.
14. Fantastic Four
The very first Fantastic Four movie ever made isn’t the one starring Jessica Alba and Chris Evans. It predates that trainwreck by more than a decade — but still follows Tim Burton’s Batman by a good five years. So it should at least be fun to watch with some decent effects and modern sensibilities, right?
Roger Corman, king of low-budget shlock filmmaking, was hired to oversee this $1 million-budget disaster, but not because he was the right man for the job or because film rights holder Bernd Eichinger wanted to make a good movie. Corman and his unknown director Oley Sassone got down to work because the rights were about to expire and revert back to Marvel, and the only way Eichinger could hold onto them was to produce a movie.
Despite their half-hearted efforts, Corman and Eichinger had every intention of releasing the movie. But a last-minute intervention by Hollywood producer Avi Arad ended that. Arad wanted to make a big-budget Fantastic Four movie that did justice to the comics, so he famously paid Eichinger $2 million not to release this movie, believing it would harm the franchise, and ordered that every copy of it be destroyed.
Despite Arad’s efforts, copies of the movie leaked out anyway, and today it can be seen in its entirety on YouTube. But throwing away that 90 minutes of your life will only result in seeing the wisdom of Arad’s decision back in ’94, so it’s recommended only if you’re a masochist. Sadly, Arad never succeeded in his aspirations, either.
Here’s a brilliant idea. There’s this NBA basketball player who has zero acting skills, but he’s so popular he’s become his own brand. So let’s put him in a superhero movie. What’s the worst that could happen?
Steel is the answer to that question.
Quick backstory: In the comics, John Henry Irons is a brilliant engineer who’s inspired by Superman to build himself a suit of armor (think Iron Man but without the built-in weapons), grab a giant hammer, and be a hero. He was one of the four heroes who tried to take up Superman’s S-shield when the Man of Steel perished at the hands of Doomsday. Steel’s origin is tied to that event.
With no on-screen Superman mythos to tie the movie to, writer/director Kenneth Johnson cooked up a completely different take on Mr. Irons. This one had him building and selling weaponry to the military but remaking himself as Steel when a villainous soldier starts selling his weapons to street gangs instead. As villainous soldiers tend to do.
Steel is bad because it’s got a ho-hum plot driven by uninspired direction. It’s forgettable because Shaquille O’Neal is not an actor. Plain and simple.
12. The Punisher
The year was 1989, and the star was Dolph Lundgren. Logical casting for ’89, wouldn’t you say? After all, what is Frank Castle, AKA the Punisher, if not a burly, unstoppable force of nature? The broad strokes are familiar — lawman Castle turns bloodthirsty vigilante when his family is murdered — but the specifics delivered some distinct changes.
For starters, Lundgren’s Castle is believed dead thanks to the same mob hit that killed his family. Rather than show us his origin, the movie jumps five years into Punisher’s war on crime, explaining that he’s already executed 125 criminals over the years. (That’s a 25-per-year average. Which is remarkably low compared to all the blood he spills in the comics.) He also never wears Castle’s signature white skull t-shirt.
The cast, which includes Louis Gossett Jr. and Jeroen Krabbé (the bad guy from The Fugitive), manage to ground the movie with some intense drama, and Lundgren even delivers a passable American accent. So why do the production values look like an episode of MacGyver? The film has a very “TV movie-of-the-week” feel to it, despite its gory violence and a truckload of F-bombs. It’s kind of shocking that Hollywood didn’t blink at releasing an R-rated superhero movie twenty-five years ago; these days it’s considered a big risk. Then again, The Punisher‘s U.S. release was canceled after a decent global run, relegating it to the direct-to-home-video bin instead.
11. Barb Wire
Everyone knows that Pamela Anderson brings exactly two things to any project she’s in. Here’s a hint: one of them ain’t the ability to act. Anderson stars in Barb Wire (because there’s literally no one else on earth who could or would), spending some of her time in one of history’s all-time most physics-defying costumes. That bustier must have been made of solid steel.
Anyway, what was the character’s name again? It doesn’t really matter, because nobody who watched this garbage ever looked at her face, anyway. They were only interested in what was five or six inches south of her face, and let’s be real: on that count, the movie delivered.
Making this excrement all the more unbelievable is the fact that it was a riff on Casablanca, of all things. Anderson’s character owned a nightclub where the good, the bad, and the silicone passed through, but the time period was moved away from the comics’ World War II era to an apocalyptic civil war instead. Because that’s cooler.
10. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Oh, the punchlines for this one just write themselves.
First of all, you’ve got David Hasselhoff. And the year is 1998, when Baywatch was still going strong, Baywatch Nights had just been cancelled, and he was about to appear in a series of cameos as himself, in like, all the movies, ever. Marvel had yet to have a single hit movie — big screen or small — though that wouldn’t elude them much longer, as Blade arrived to save them just a few months after this nonsense came out.
This Nick Fury was made for TV, and bore zero resemblance to the version of Fury seen on the big screen as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. It incorporated elements from the comics like Hydra and Baron von Strucker, but the plot went in predictably silly direction. Hasselhoff did pull off the eye patch, though, so that counts for something. Right?
9. The Phantom
One of the most underrated titles on this list, The Phantom is perfectly serviceable action flick that’s most notorious because of its star Billy Zane (best known as Rose’s villainous fiancée in Titanic), who went for it.
Yeah, a grown man in a purple unitard adventuring in the jungle is a ridiculous notion, even if it is based on a long-running “pulp” comic, but Zane is nothing if not a consummate professional. Case-in-point: Whereas most actors don muscle suits under their super-tights, Zane bulked up the hard way and didn’t use any padding. That’s all him under the purple. He even trained himself to move and carry himself like the character did in the comics.
“Terrible” might be an exaggeration for The Phantom. It’s a fine attempt at cohering the character’s origin story with a modern take on it, and its lighthearted swashbuckling was a good fit. Why it never managed to be memorable is something of a mystery. It didn’t even return half of its budget at the box office.
8. Captain America (1979)
Long before Chris Evans buffed-up to become super soldier Steve Rogers, a man named Reb Brown gave it a go. Prior to acting, Brown’s only claim-to-fame was playing on his high school and college football teams. He was a burly man with huge muscles, so of course Hollywood turned him into a superhero.
This TV movie remixed Cap’s origin story to an extreme degree, turning Cap into an artist whose dad was “Captain America” in World War II. When Steve is nearly killed by some of his dad’s old enemies, he’s injected with a super-soldier formula called F.L.A.G. (don’t ask) that makes him stronger and more agile. You can see where this is going, right?
What you can’t predict is that Cap’s signature tool was a souped-up motorcycle that came with all sorts of gadgetry, including a windshield that doubled as his shield. Which okay, that’s actually kind of clever, except that it turned his shield into a clear acrylic thing. By all accounts, Brown brought no charisma to the role, and it was kinda tacky that his uniform made him look more like Evel Knievel than the Sentinel of Liberty.
7. Captain America (1990)
You know, the rise of Captain America to prominence in Marvel’s movies must be extremely gratifying to everyone involved, given how many times the House of Ideas tried to get him there. This attempt, in 1990, starred actor Matt Salinger (son of famed writer J.D.) in a rubbery blue suit that hewed closer to Cap’s comic book appearance. But rubber? It’s like they were trying to translate Michael Keaton’s Batsuit into red, white, and blue; you can practically see the copious amounts of powder required to squeeze poor Salinger into the thing.
This film follows the same basic origin story that Chris Evans’ flick would hinge on two decades later, but with some unnecessary changes. Among them: Red Skull is an Italian named Tadzio de Santis, Peggy Carter is now Bernice Carter and Sharon (who’s totally not a law enforcement officer) is her daughter, Cap is frozen for 40 years in Alaska, and weirdest of all, that rubber suit’s cowl had fake ears on the sides.
Fake ears, people.
The plot was a jumbled mess that never bothered to make sense, and it ended with an absurd environmental message: an appeal to support 1990’s Environmental Protection Act, alongside a comic drawing of Captain America. Why is that absurd?
Because the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 had nothing to do with America. It was a British resolution.
6. Dick Tracy
Looking back, the thing most viewers today (who were alive and old enough in 1990) recall about Dick Tracy is that it was a Warren Beatty vehicle in which the entire color palette was restricted to a handful of primary colors to match the look of the comic. Oh, and Madonna was in it as a femme fatale. Because what else would she be. It’s not like she’s a chameleon.
Dick Tracy had a lot going for it. Beatty was believable in the part, and directed the film as a longtime fan of the comic who’d wanted to make it into a movie for more than 15 years. It had a stellar supporting cast full of big-screen heavyweights, including Al Pacino, Glenne Headly, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, William Forsythe, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Sorvino, Kathy Bates, and many more. Many of them were little more than extended cameos, but Beatty’s ability to attract so many A-listers was genuinely impressive.
Where the movie failed was in its story. It was a dazzling spectacle, but its main character was constantly upstaged by his vastly more interesting costars. Ultimately, both Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy himself just had no soul. Maybe next time.
5. The Shadow
Yet another attempt to launch a big-screen franchise, The Shadow was steeped in its pulp roots while getting a glossy update. The stylish film starred Alec Baldwin as Lamont Cranston, AKA the Shadow, a man seeking to atone for his own foul deeds, thus legitimately answering the character’s tagline question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”
Baldwin was forced to wear a horrendous wig at the movie’s outset, but took on a more refined look when he became the Shadow. The cast had an impressive roster, including Ian McKellan, Penelope Ann Miller, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle, and more. The problem was that none of it ever felt like it mattered. Despite some good intentions, it was impossible to invest in any of the movie’s characters.
4. Justice League of America
Back in 1997, CBS green-lit a pilot for a show called Justice League of America. Of course, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were far too big and important by this time to waste on a villain-of-the-week TV show, so JLA focused on a hodgepodge group of DC heroes that included the Flash, Green Lantern (Guy Gardner no less, played by a guy who looked nothing like Guy Gardner), the Atom, Fire (wearing a green costume for no good reason), and Ice.
Their costumes looked they were made of rubber, but they were far from the worst part of this blight upon humanity — which thankfully, CBS never aired. (Even YouTubers won’t stoop to posting this one.) There was bad acting, horrible writing, effects that looked like hand-drawn animation, and inexplicable periodic interruptions to the story that show “TV news”-type interviews with the main characters. None other than David Ogden Stiers turned up as a heavily made-up (and overweight) Martian Manhunter at one point, who despite everything, managed to bring some gravitas to his role.
The worst thing about Justice League of America was that it never took its premise seriously in any way. The heroes were roommates in a house together, and frequently dropped unfunny jokes or sight gags. It wanted to be a superhero drama but it was a bad sitcom instead.
3. Dr. Strange
From the minds behind the 1970s series The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk on CBS came Dr. Strange, a two-hour TV movie that was intended to be the pilot episode of a new series. You’ve never heard of it because the series never happened.
There’s no way to deny that Doctor Strange was a bizarre choice for a live-action TV series in the ’70s. CBS had seen success with relatively grounded superheroes, like Hulk and Spider-Man. Why not go for another character that wouldn’t require a ton of visual effects? Hawkeye, Black Widow, heck even Wolverine would have been easier. To be fair, Hulk did try to spinoff Daredevil and Thor. But Doctor Strange? For real?
For reasons unknown, the abbreviation-titled Dr. Strange deviated from the source material in some odd ways. Like making Strange a psychiatrist instead of a surgeon, and instead of his mentor being the Ancient One, there’s an old wizard named Thomas Lindmer (take out the “d” and rearrange the other letters). On the plus side, it had Arrested Development‘s matriarch Jessica Walter as villain Morgan Le Fay, but actor Peter Hooten was nowhere near obsessive or conceited enough for the title character.
Still, Hooten’s mustache kept hope alive for the Awesome Facial Hair Bros.
2. Wonder Woman
To say that this pre-Lynda Carter attempt at a televised Wonder Woman bore little resemblance to the character we know today would be an understatement. Instead of star-spangled panties and a bustier, actress Cathy Lee Crosby wore a sporty jacket and leggings. She was an all-American girl who fought (all too briefly) with a red staff, wore no bracelets and no tiara, and most sacrilegious of all, had no golden lasso.
Also, she was Steve Trevor’s assistant. That’s a sharp contrast from the final beat from the Gal Gadot movie’s trailer.
You can’t really blame Wonder Woman‘s shortcomings on the movie itself. It was following the basic concepts from the comic book of the time, which featured a similar uniform and focused more on Diana Prince than WW. But at least it had Khan himself — Ricardo Montalban — as its villain.
1. Generation X
Four years before Bryan Singer gave the world its first truly watchable “superhero team” movie (X-Men), another attempt was made to depict Marvel’s mutants on screen. But this was the small screen, and its ambitions were significantly lower.
Loosely based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Generation X was about mutant students at Xavier’s School learning to use and control their powers. Or at least that’s what it should have been about. Instead it was trying way too hard to be an edgy/hip teen show somewhere between Misfits of Science and Party of Five. Most of the plot revolved around an all-important “dream dimension” which was connected to psychic abilities and the mutant gene, somehow.
On the team were Jubilee, M, Skin, Mondo, and a few others invented for the series. The kids’ headmasters were Emma Frost (Finola Hughes, alternating between an American and British accent) and Banshee (Jeremy Ratchford, doing a charicature of an Irish accent). Xavier and the other A-list mutants were nowhere to be found, despite the school being named after him. The usually-dependable Matt Frewer got top billing as the villain, but he played it so over-the-top, Jim Carrey would have felt uncomfortable while watching.
It aired once, but shocking no one at all, didn’t get picked up as a series.