Marvel Studios Countdown is a biweekly column focusing on all things related to Marvel Studios and their movies, past, present and future.
As much as Marvel has settled into a crowd-pleasing house style now, it’s funny to look back and see that the film that started it all for them was 1998’s Blade (no, Howard the Duck doesn’t count). If there’s one thing Blade proved to Marvel it’s that any of its characters has the potential to carry their own film -- a philosophy that led to Iron Man a decade later.
Truth is, Marvel has always been in the monster business. Heck, even one of their most beloved characters is a monster (the Hulk). While they may specialize in superheroes, they’ve never been a company to shy away from the weird and supernatural. Sure, Avengers, X-Men and Spider-Man are what most people think of when they think of Marvel movies, but there’s actually a legacy of films devoted to the darker corners of the Marvel Universe.
Dr. Strange (1978)
This feature-length TV movie was a pilot for a potential Dr. Strange TV series that never went anywhere. Marvel was experiencing great success with The Incredible Hulk at the time and was looking for another property that they could translate easily to television. Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter played the sorceress Morgan LeFay, sent by the Nameless One to destroy the latest Sorcerer Supreme, a cocky young psychiatrist named Stephen Strange (Peter Wooten). The film introduces its weirder supernatural elements early on, before settling into the typical low-rent thrills of Marvel TV from this time period (like the Spider-Man and Captain America telefilms). It’s really more of a fantasy about dueling wizards, but there’s certainly enough funky occultism to make it worth a watch.
Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (1980, aka Yami no Teiô Kyûketsuki Dorakyura)
Almost impossible to find, Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned was a Toei-animated feature based on Marvel’s long-running Tomb of Dracula comic book (the very same comic where Blade debuted as a thorn in Drac’s side). The plot finds Dracula stealing Satan’s bride away from him, then settling down into regular family life before a cultist kills Dracula’s newborn baby. After that event, God brings the baby back to life as a sunshine-shooting super-messiah named Janus who battles Dracula for the greater glory of good. If it sounds completely insane, it is, and we highly recommend it, not just to Marvel fans, but to fans of crazy cult monster movies too.
The Monster of Frankenstein (1981, aka Kyofu Densetsu: Kaiki! Furankenshutain)
All right, we both know that Marvel didn’t create Frankenstein’s Monster, but they got a lot of mileage from him in his own comic book series and in Toei’s animated follow-up to Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned. The film incorporates a lot of strangely religious material, like the Monster teaching a young woman about God, and breaking down into tears when he realizes his own body’s scars match those of the crucified Christ. The film is even more difficult to track down than the Dracula animated movie, so good luck.
Synthesizing the late '90s fascination with Asian action films and anime with all-American horror turned Blade into a bonafide success. The character was first introduced in the comics as a '70s blaxploitation riff on Van Helsing - a pissed-off vampiric “daywalker” who’s out to stop Dracula at any cost. They ditched Dracula for the film, but it still holds up quite nicely when looking back across Marvel’s repertoire. Director Steven Norrington impresses with well-staged action sequences, grimy visual flair, and a satisfying commitment to Blade’s R rating. The movie’s thrills are simple ones, just bushels of blood and bullets, but it works, and its influence looms large on later popular films like the Underworld series.
Blade II (2002)
Hiring Guillermo del Toro pretty much ensured that the sequel to Blade would be more monster-heavy. Here we get the “reaper virus,” something that turns average, ordinary, horrible vampires into disgusting, petal-mouthed super-vampires. The 10-year-old CG is a little dodgy, but the film is still a hell of a lot of fun, and del Toro’s eye for the macabre still comes across even through all of the explosions and gunfights.
Blade Trinity (2004)
Although there was talk at the time of spinning costars Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds off into their own Nightstalkers movie, the cold reception to Blade Trinity nipped that in the bud. Questionably wonky casting decisions (where else are you going to find Patton Oswalt and Natasha Lyonne fighting the good fight against vampires Parker Posey and WWE’s Triple H?) and the overall directorial inexperience of writer David Goyer led to the weakest Blade installment by far. The film is gun-shy for some reason about addressing the first vampire as Dracula, opting instead to cast pretty-boy Dominic Purcell in that role as “Drake.” It’s a toothless creative decision -- how much cooler would the third Blade film have been if they cast a good actor as Dracula and actually called him Dracula? We’ll never know.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil this one right now -- Man-Thing, the brainless swamp monster character with pyrokinetic powers, only shows up for the last bit of the movie. The film itself is a mess, one of Marvel’s most boring, with a meandering screenplay about a new sheriff butting heads with both an oil company and the locals when people in the bayou start turning up dead. When production began, the film was intended for theatrical release. When production finished, the film debuted on Syfy.
Ghost Rider (2007)
Ghost Rider could’ve been another Blade, and by all accounts it almost was, but Sony got cold feet on the horror elements and decided Ghost Rider should have the same glossy all-ages appeal as its previous blockbuster Spider-Man films. Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, Ghost Rider is an aggressively stupid movie, with flashbacks to things that happened minutes before and a Swiss cheese mythology that goes on and on about how there’s only one “Rider” every generation, despite the appearance of two Ghost Riders in the film. I could keep going all day on Ghost Rider’s offenses, so I’ll just offer this last one: the villain, Blackheart, is seeking an artifact that will make him unstoppable. Throughout the entire movie, he defeats and eludes Ghost Rider without the artifact, until he gets the artifact and is promptly defeated. Uh-huh.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
More grim and gritty than its predecessor, but not much better, Spirit of Vengeance chases the Affliction-tee crowd (who thankfully rejected it) with minimal results. It takes a certain something for a film to feel dirt cheap even with great special effects and the star power of Nicolas Cage, and Neveldine and Taylor paint Spirit of Vengeance with the fetid stink of a direct-to-video cash-in.
We don’t want this piece to end on a downer, so I’ll offer a little bit of an honorable mention to a couple of titles that aren’t exactly horror-tinged, but dip their toes in those waters. The Incredible Hulk, while stripped almost entirely of pathos, has one of the best monster-versus-monster battles of any Marvel movie at the conclusion of the film, and Punisher: War Zone sports more gruesome gore effects than pretty much any film on this list. If you want to add some Marvel flavor to your Halloween, there are some pretty good choices out there.