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Almost Avengers: Marvel movies that never happened

Tom Cruise as Iron Man? Leonardo DiCaprio as Spider-Man? We salute the comic book adaptations that almost came before the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

- 03:25

Stan Lee with some of Marvel's mightiest heroes.

Ron Galella/WireImage

Marvel movies like Avengers: Endgame and Black Widow give us a galaxy of stars playing comic book heroes. Stars like George Clooney, Tom Selleck, and David Bowie's wife.

OK, so Clooney, Selleck and Angie Bowie haven't appeared in Marvel movies -- but they nearly did. Long before the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, multiple Marvel films and TV shows were planned but never made it to screens. Think of it as an alternate universe -- a multiverse, even. And with rumors that Tom Cruise might play an alternative version of Iron Man in the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the door may even be open for some of these Marvel-ous alternate universes to cross over.

Marvel characters first came to the screen with a Captain America film all the way back in 1944. Later, having made his name writing comics, Marvel figurehead Stan Lee became a full-time Hollywood ambassador shopping the characters to TV and movie producers. 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 and tell us they wouldn't all have been amazing.

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 other 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 until Spidey finally became 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 MCU fold, but aquatic antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner is still drowning in murky rights issues.

Probably the most notorious -- and hilarious -- example of a tussle over rights is the 1994 Fantastic Four flick filmed by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman. He threw the movie together on a shoestring 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 Daredevil TV show 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 any time soon.