It might not seem like it now when you look at the all-time box office records, but for decades, it was nearly impossible for Marvel to get a movie off the ground. This was a time, mainly during the 1980s and '90s, when Hollywood executives didn’t quite understand the comic book industry and even Marvel itself wasn’t in control of the movie rights to its own characters, which were spread across a number of different studios.
The result of these cannibalized movie rights was that the House of Ideas had very little say in the development of their own movies—most of which ran into so many logistical and creative road blocks that they barely got through the initial pitch stage. But a few of these films got tantalizingly close to production—and with some top-flight Hollywood talent attached, too. Here are 10 scrapped Marvel movies that almost happened.
1. JOE CARNAHAN’S DAREDEVIL
Even after Ben Affleck’s tepid 2003 Daredevil left the public consciousness, 20th Century Fox still had the license to the Man Without Fear and were set on giving the character another shot. And apparently director Joe Carnahan (The Grey) was on the doorstep of helming not just one Daredevil film, but a whole trilogy as a period piece set in 1973, 1979, and 1985, respectively. The plan was to incorporate the music of the time as a thematic backbone that evolved as the series progressed through the years, focusing on a much grittier and violent New York City.
“So the first one would be Classic Rock, the second one would be Punk Rock, and the third film would be ‘New Wave,’” Carnahan said in an interview with Movie Pilot. “The problem was, the option was almost set to lapse so we made an eleventh hour bid to Marvel to retain the rights for a bit longer so I could rework the script.”
Ultimately, it was time that wound up being Carnahan's undoing. Before he could finalize the script, the studio’s option on the property expired and the rights reverted back to Marvel, which then gave the character his own Netflix series. If you want just a taste of the tone Carnahan was aiming for, the director released a “sizzle reel” of what his Daredevil period piece would have felt like:
2. NICK CASSAVETES AND TOM CRUISE'S IRON MAN
Almost all of the pieces were in place in the early 2000s to move forward with Iron Man, which was to be written by Smallville creators Al Gough and Miles Millar. Or at least they seemed to be in place. In November 2004, New Line Cinema and Marvel Studios were so certain that they had landed director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) that executives were openly talking about it in the press, with Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad proclaiming that, “Being able to work with such an acclaimed writer/director as Nick Cassavetes to bring one of our preeminent superhero franchises to the big screen is really special.”
The news hit all the big websites at the time … and then there was nothing. It turns out the celebrations were a bit premature; there was no deal in place, and by April 2005, Arad was singing a much different tune. “We want Nick to make the movie. We had him," he said during an earnings call. "He's an Iron Man aficionado. Everything was fine and then negotiations got delayed. We lost a year."
But it wasn't just a director who was tentatively in place; it was the star, too. During this time, Tom Cruise’s name became attached to the role of Tony Stark, but there was never any firm commitment on his side.
"There have been discussions over the last several years and there are a number of factors involved," producer Kevin Feige explained of Cruise’s involvement in 2004. "All we know is that we're putting all the pieces in place and then we'll find the best Tony Stark that we can get."
When none of this got off the ground, Marvel restructured and 2008’s Iron Man would hit theaters without New Line, Cassavetes, Millar, Gough, or Cruise being involved.
3. DAVID HAYTER’S BLACK WIDOW.
How dedicated was David Hayter to making his Black Widow movie a reality for Lionsgate? He named his daughter Natasha after Natasha Romanova, the character’s real name. The script, according to Hayter, would have involved the Widow stopping some nukes that got loose, set to the backdrop of a “splintered Soviet Empire.”
The movie was in production during the mid-2000s, when Hayter was hot off writing the first two X-Men movies and the script that would eventually be turned into Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (he’s also the voice of Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid video game series, for you trivia buffs). Unfortunately, this was also a time when female-led action movies like Æon Flux were flopping at the box office, and the studio just didn’t believe there would be a market for the film.
So the film was scrapped and the character was stuck in development hell until the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought Scarlett Johansson onboard to play her, beginning in 2010’s Iron Man 2. And it’s been all but confirmed that she’ll get her own solo outing within the next few years.
4. KURT SUTTER’S PUNISHER
Sons of Anarchy fans might want to avoid reading about this one, lest your heart break in two. After Thomas Jane’s original outing as the Punisher met some decent box office returns in 2004, Lionsgate and Marvel were keen on a sequel. And who better to craft Frank Castle’s next adventure than Sons creator Kurt Sutter? It sounds like the perfect pair on paper, but it all fell apart when the company rejected Sutter's script.
In an interview with Looper, Sutter explained that he tried to “motivate the absurd violence with some kind of meaning” in the Punisher’s character, while also giving him a love interest. When his original script was rejected, producers Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige had him do another go-round, which went worse than the first.
“So they tried to guide me back, and like I said, I did another pass, but poor Gale Anne Hurd—I think she's the one who sort of championed me in that process,” Sutter recalled. “And Kevin … We were sitting at a big table, and I think she started glancing over at Kevin, going [whispering under breath] ‘I don't know what happened!’”
Sutter’s script was scrapped in favor of 2009’s Punisher: War Zone, which replaced Jane with Ray Stevenson and was a failure for the studio. Now, though, the character can be seen on his own Netflix series played by Jon Bernthal.
5. JAMES CAMERON’S SPIDER-MAN.
The most well-known—and perplexing—scrapped Marvel movie remains James Cameron’s attempt at Spider-Man in the years after Terminator 2 was released. This one was pretty far along at Carolco Pictures, with Cameron writing an extensive treatment focusing on Peter Parker developing his super powers, falling in love with Mary Jane Watson, and taking on villains like Electro and Sandman.
Though those sound like the pillars for any Spidey origin story, there were plenty of off-brand moments in the film, such as its heavy profanity and the infamous sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane atop a bridge tower. This take on the Wall Crawler probably wouldn't have found its way into your Happy Meal. The whole project fell apart when Carolco went under, which gave way to Sam Raimi's mega successful 2002 Spider-Man.
6. SAM RAIMI’S SPIDER-MAN 4.
Following Spider-Man 3’s divisive 2007 release, director Sam Raimi was admittedly tired. The third installment of the series had upped the scope, the action, and the cast, but it had failed to live up to the expectations of critics and audiences. Even Raimi was openly disappointed with it, saying that he "didn’t really believe in all the characters, so that couldn’t be hidden from people who loved Spider-Man."
Still, the director was onboard for a fourth and final installment in the series, going so far as to work on a script that included John Malkovich as the villainous Vulture and Anne Hathaway playing Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. the Black Cat from the comics (though she’d be playing “The Vulturess” in this version).
With pressure mounting and deadlines looming, Raimi decided to call it quits, telling Vulture that he told Sony, “I don't want to make a movie that is less than great, so I think we shouldn't make this picture. Go ahead with your reboot, which you've been planning anyway."
The studio soon made news of Raimi’s departure public, but, in a still-strange move, they then immediately announced The Amazing Spider-Man reboot for 2012 in the same exact press release, explaining what Raimi meant when he said he knew they were planning a reboot anyway. This is a case of both sides half-heartedly planning a movie that was always doomed to failure.
7. WESLEY SNIPES’S BLACK PANTHER
The early 1990s were a wasteland for scrapped Marvel movies. There was Oliver Stone’s attempt at bringing Elektra to the screen, which was soon replaced by Natural Born Killers, and an early draft for a Luke Cage movie that was floating around. One of the most high-profile of these failed films was a Black Panther project, starring Wesley Snipes.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Snipes recalled one conversation with director John Singleton, who he was trying to convince to helm the project: "I am loosely paraphrasing our conversation. But ultimately, John wanted to take the character and put him in the civil rights movement. And I’m like, 'Dude! Where’s the toys?! They are highly technically advanced, and it will be fantastic to see Africa in this light opposed to how Africa is typically portrayed.' I wanted to see the glory and the beautiful Africa. The jewel Africa."
Finding a director wasn’t the only problem—there were script issues and the fact that in the early ‘90s, CGI technology hadn’t yet caught up with a world like Black Panther’s Wakanda.
"Ultimately, we couldn’t find the right combination of script and director and, also at the time, we were so far ahead of the game in the thinking, the technology wasn’t there to do what they had already created in the comic book," Snipes said.
Though Black Panther fizzled, Snipes kept an interest in the Marvel Universe, which eventually led to the title role in the Blade trilogy.
8. BO DEREK AS DAZZLER
X-Men mainstay Dazzler was originally conceived as a partnership with Casablanca Records for a debut in an animated film. Those plans soon fell through when Casablanca was bought out, but the treatment for the animated movie, and the rights to the character, remained with Marvel. The next idea was a no-brainer: Turn that treatment into a live-action movie.
The treatment was written by former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and it was presented to none other than Bo Derek, who agreed to star in the project. Because the treatment was originally intended as an animated partnership with Casablanca, it had roles for all of the record company’s biggest names, like Cher, Rodney Dangerfield, KISS, Robin Williams, and Donna Summer (though these would have likely been all dropped for live-action).
A bidding war over the project ensued, but Shooter explained on his website that a combination of a lackluster final script—not written by anyone with a background in comics—and Derek’s insistence that her husband, John Derek, direct the movie caused the project to fall apart. Dazzler eventually became a regular in the X-Men universe during the 1980s, but the disco-loving mutant with the ability to create light shows from her hands never quite reached A-list level.
9. THE REVOLVING DOOR OF DOCTOR STRANGE
Hollywood’s interest in Doctor Strange began decades before the Sorcerer Supreme’s 2016 big screen debut. In 1978, actor Peter Hooten donned the mystical mantle of Strange for a live-action TV movie that was meant to spawn its own show. Well, that never quite materialized, and soon after, movie studios began showing an interest in bringing the character to theaters.
Two well-known names took cracks at Doctor Strange with no luck. The first was Bob Gale, one of the minds behind the Back to the Future series. He wrote a script in 1986 that eventually found its way online a few years ago. After that project failed to get off the ground, writer/director Wes Craven was attached to bring the character to life at Savoy Pictures until it went bankrupt.
After that, writers and directors like David Goyer, Guillermo del Toro, and Neil Gaiman were all linked in some way to Strange until Marvel eventually hired director Scott Derrickson to direct Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange in 2016.
10. X-MEN ORIGINS: MAGNETO
Before Magneto’s early days were recounted in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the Master of Magnetism was going to get his own feature film in the same vein as X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie was to take a look at the character’s time as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II and show how that experience shaped his views toward humanity in the decades after.
The script was written by Blade and Batman Begins writer David Goyer, who was also tapped to direct the project. This was until director Matthew Vaughn was hired to do First Class. When asked if his Magneto script was part of the inspiration for Vaughn’s take on Magneto’s origin, Goyer told Mandatory, “It was sort of that but expanded. I was a little bummed. They definitely took some elements from our script.”