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Stan Lee with some of Marvel’s most powerful heroes.

Ron Galella / WireImage

the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives us a galaxy of stars playing comic book heroes like Iron Man, Spider Man and Black Widow. Stars like George Clooney, the first wife of Tom Selleck and David Bowie.

OK, so Clooney, Selleck, and Angie Bowie never really put spandex onscreen. But they almost got there: Long before the success of the Avengers and the MCU, several movies and TV shows attempted (and failed) to adapt these comic book heroes. Think of it as an alternate universe – a multiverse, even. And with rumors that Tom Cruise could play an alternate version of Iron Man in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the door can even be opened for some of these wonderful alternate universes to intersect.

Marvel characters first appeared onscreen with a Captain America movie in 1944. Years later, after making a name for himself writing comics, Marvel figurehead Stan Lee became the full-time ambassador for the comic book company in Hollywood and bought the characters from TV and movie producers. The fascinating Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe details how in the 70s, 80s and 90s stars from Brigitte Nielsen to Leonardo DiCaprio almost donned the capes and tights of Marvel heroes.

Click through our gallery to see what these movies might have looked like and try to tell us that they wouldn’t have blown you away.

So why did none of these potential films succeed?

Sometimes the filmmakers just didn’t understand what they had. Production company Cannon at one point developed a Spider-Man storyline in which our friendly neighborhood robot literally turned into a tarantula.

Then there were the legal issues. Marvel’s history is a tangle of legal battles over film rights, toy marketing, and spinoffs exploited by other companies – often followed by decades of efforts to reclaim them. Spider-Man’s rights were a sadly tangled web for decades until Spidey was finally a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in time for Captain America: Civil War and Spider: Man: Homecoming. Disney’s deal with Fox could bring the X-Men into the fold of the MCU, but the aquatic anti-hero Namor the Sub is still drowned in dark rights issues.

Perhaps the most notorious – and hilarious – example of a rights fight is a Fantastic Four film directed by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. He edited the film on a low budget in 1994 so that its rights didn’t expire – only for Marvel to take a look and throw money at Corman to bury the infamous bad case:

Meanwhile, some projects simply ran out of time. I’m a huge fan of the Daredevil TV show on Netflix, but sadly it put the kibosh on an intriguing 1970s proposition from Narc and Smokin ‘Aces director Joe Carnahan. The project fell through when the rights returned to Marvel in 2012, but we can see what could have been in Carnahan’s sizzle reel crushing atmospheric clips from classic crime and blaxploitation films:

And of course, many of these projects were conceived before 1989’s Batman proved how much of a box office sensation a superhero can be. They were also in the works long before CGI helped special effects catch up with characters’ special powers. But even now, with teams filled with heroes like Infinity War and solo movies like Black Panther blows up the box office, there are still a number of other projects stuck in limbo.

We’ll never know what 2015 is The ant Man would have looked like if original writer and director Edgar Wright had stayed. Or what Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro would have done with Doctor Strange. Or how an Olivia Newton-John and Paul McCartney musical Silver Surfer could have worked. Still, there’s a lot more to where they’re coming from, true believers, so let’s salute the Marvel movies that never existed, knowing there won’t be a shortage of superhero shows anytime soon.



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