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Not So Marvelous

The lost Marvel Comics movies

Sure, "The Avengers" has made $1.4 billion worldwide and is now the third-biggest moneymaker of all time in the U.S. alone. Yes, the other five stand-alone Marvel Studios movies -- from "Iron Man" to "Captain America: The First Avenger" -- have all struck gold at the box office, ranging from solid to spectacular business. And of course, Marvel properties owned by other studios -- mainly "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," but even films like "Fantastic Four" and "Ghost Rider" -- have earned plenty of cash for all parties involved. Since 1998, when "Blade" came out, the film division of Marvel Comics has become a serious and massive movie enterprise.

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But it wasn't always that way. Starting with a 1944 Republic Pictures serial based on Captain America -- but bearing hardly any resemblance to the comic book super-soldier -- Marvel went through a long history of failed projects, misfires and downright embarrassments before the cinematic ship was finally righted with first "Blade," then "X-Men," then the monster success of 2002's "Spider-Man." Along the way there were several false starts, canceled projects and even a couple of movies that got made -- but which the studio probably wishes didn't exist. Here's a look at the "lost" Marvel films (not counting cartoons):

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"Iron Man": No less than three studios -- Universal, 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema -- all had a whack at bringing Tony Stark to the screen before Marvel made "Iron Man" its first self-financed film and debut hit in 2008. A film version was in development as far back as 1990, Nicolas Cage had been attached to star at one point, and a slew of directors and scripts went through the revolving doors at all three studios. However, what was the closest Shellhead ever got to the screen before Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. got the job done? Tom Cruise was going to star as late as December 2004, with Nick Cassavetes attached to direct. But the project fell through, the rights went back to Marvel, and the rest is history. Looking back now, can you imagine Tom Cruise in the Iron Man armor? Would that have worked?

"X-Men Origins: Magneto": After the first three "X-Men" films were completed, Fox decided to spin off a couple of prequels. One was "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which came out in 2009 and told -- well, sort of, anyway -- the backstory of the series' most popular mutant and how he came to be. The other was supposed to be "X-Men Origins: Magneto," which would detail the rise of Erik Lensherr from concentration camp prisoner to mutant leader as he hunts Nazi war criminals. A script was written, David S. Goyer ("The Unborn") was hired to direct and Ian McKellen was ready to play Magneto again in modern-day framing sequences. But somewhere along the line, "Magneto" derailed and a lot of the character's backstory was assimilated into "X-Men: First Class." Just as well, since that movie was a welcome return to form for the franchise.

"The Silver Surfer": Interest in a movie about the cosmic anti-hero who is a herald of the planet-devouring Galactus had first surfaced in the early '90s (even Quentin Tarantino wrote a script!). But the technical challenges of bringing the Surfer to life on-screen were too much even for a company like Lucasfilm, which passed. A group of USC students made a short film proving that the Surfer could work on film, leading to interest from the studios. 20th Century Fox began developing a Surfer film over the next dozen years, with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson rumored to star at one point and Baz Luhrmann approached to direct. Although several scripts were written, the studio ended up deciding to use Norrin Radd (his real name) as the antagonist in 2007's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." Despite the lukewarm response to that film, however, a script for a Surfer spin-off film was ordered. It remains on a backburner somewhere at Fox ...

"Fantastic Four": Speaking of Marvel's first family, the road to the two rotten movies of 2005 and 2007 was a typically long and torturous one -- except that it somehow coughed up another movie in the process. The rights to the Fantastic Four were controlled in the late '80s and early '90s by German company Constantin Film, which had to make a movie or lose the property. So in 1993 a Fantastic Four film was indeed made, with Constantin hiring Roger Corman's New Horizon Pictures to make it as cheaply and quickly as possible. The film was never released and never meant to be: It was literally made just so that Constantin could hold onto the rights (sadly, the actors all thought they were making a "real" movie). Marvel eventually bought the movie from Constantin so that Fox could proceed with its big-budget Fantastic Four films, and it remains officially unreleased -- although you might want to look it up on YouTube if you're curious.

"Captain America": Like the Fantastic Four, Cap did have a previous screen incarnation you've probably never seen (and that's not including two really bad TV movies produced in the late '70s that have virtually no connection to the comic book -- Steve Rogers isn't even the hero). Somehow a company called 21st Century Film Corp. got hold of the rights and produced a movie called "Captain America" in 1990, starring Matt Salinger in the title role, Ronny Cox as the president and Scott Paulin as the Red Skull. Intended for theatrical release, it never got there: It went to cable and direct to video in 1992. Reviews were poor across the board for the film -- what reviews there were -- but if you need to see it, you can get it via MGM's on-demand DVD service.

"Namor the Sub-Mariner": Namor, son of a human sailor and a princess from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, debuted in the very first issue of "Marvel Comics," published in 1939 by Marvel predecessor Timely Comics. One of the first superheroes and an important character in the Marvel Universe for nearly eight decades, Namor has yet to make it onto the big screen. He came close though: Universal Pictures announced a Sub-Mariner movie in 2006, with Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3") slated to direct a script from David Self ("Road to Perdition"). The movie never happened, however, and the rights have reportedly reverted to Marvel. Will that studio's next round of new movies include its longstanding Atlantean prince?

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