The MCU that never was: Marvel movies that (thankfully) never got made

No Way Home brings back Spider-Man stars from parallel universes like... Leonardo DiCaprio? Here are the weird and wonderful adaptations that never happened.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Stan Lee with some of Marvel's mightiest heroes.

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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, Tom Selleck and David Bowie's first wife.

OK, so Clooney, Selleck and Angie Bowie never actually donned spandex on screen. But they nearly did: Long before the success of the Avengers and the MCU, multiple films and TV shows tried (and failed) to adapt these comic heroes. Think of it as an alternate universe -- a multiverse, even.

As Spider-Man: No Way Home reunites various different versions of the wall-crawling superhero from multiple movies, let's look at these Marvel-ous alternate universes to see what might have been.

Marvel characters first came to the screen with a Captain America film all the way back in 1944. Years later, having made his name writing comics, Marvel figurehead Stan Lee became the comic company's full-time ambassador in Hollywood and shopped the characters to TV and movie producers. The fascinating book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe details how in the '70s, '80s and '90s, stars from Brigitte Nielsen to Leonardo DiCaprio came close to donning the capes and tights of Marvel's heroes.

Click through our gallery to see what those movies could have looked like and try to tell us they wouldn't have blown your mind.

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So why did none of these potential movies make it?

Sometimes the filmmakers simply didn't understand what they had. Production company Cannon at one point developed a Spider-Man script in which our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler literally turned into a tarantula.

Then there were the legal issues. The history of Marvel is a tangle of legal battles over film rights, toy merchandising and spinoffs farmed out to other companies -- frequently followed by decades of trying to claw them back. The rights to Spider-Man were an infamously tangled web for decades, as James Cameron tried to cast Leonardo DiCaprio before Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield played the role. Ultimately, Tom Holland's Spidey became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in time for Captain America: Civil War and Spider: Man: Homecoming. Similarly,  Disney's deal with Fox could bring the X-Men into the MCU fold, but aquatic antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner is still drowning in murky rights issues.

Probably the most notorious (and hilarious) tussle over rights was a Fantastic Four film made by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. He threw the movie together on a shoestring in 1994 so his rights wouldn't expire -- only for Marvel to take one look and throw money at Corman to bury the infamously shoddy affair:

Meanwhile some projects simply ran out of time. I'm a big fan of the TV show Daredevil on Netflix, but sadly, it put the kibosh on an intriguing 1970s-set proposal by Narc and Smokin' Aces director Joe Carnahan. The project fizzled when the rights reverted to Marvel in 2012, but we can see what might have been in Carnahan's sizzle reel mashing up atmospheric clips from classic crime and blaxploitation movies:

And of course, many of these projects were conceived before 1989's Batman proved how much of a box office sensation a superhero could be. They were also in the works long before CGI helped special effects catch up with the characters' special powers. But even now, with hero-packed team-ups like Infinity War and solo movies like Black Panther absolutely smashing the box office, there are still a number of other projects stuck in limbo.

We'll never know what 2015's Ant-Man would have looked like if original writer and director Edgar Wright had stuck around. Or what Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro would have done with Doctor Strange. Or how a Silver Surfer musical from Olivia Newton-John and Paul McCartney might have worked. Still, there's plenty more where they came from, true believers, so let's salute the Marvel movies that never were, safe in the knowledge there won't be a shortage of superhero showstoppers anytime soon.

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