In the modern era, where some of the best films of any given year premiere on streaming services, the idea that a movie has to play in theaters to be considered a “real” one is at best archaic. Mostly it’s laughable. And sometimes even that definition isn’t cut and dry. The “Amazing Spider-Man” live-action TV series debuted overseas as three theatrically-released feature films, assembled from two-part episodes, entitled “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man Strikes Back,” and “Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge.” If you lived in a territory where they were theatrically released, then you might think they were the first Marvel superhero movies.
Then again, Toei released two feature-length animated films based on Marvel’s horror comics, entitled “Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned” (1980) and “The Monster of Frankenstein” (1981), and the short-form theatrical release of the Toei’s live-action Spider-Man series (1978). There’s also the “Doctor Strange” TV movie (1978) and two “Captain America” TV movies (1979), which were of course preceded by the “Captain America” theatrical serials all the way back in 1944.
But if you want to get picky about it, if you demand that the film we call the “first” Marvel movie be a live-action, feature-length, theatrical film based on a Marvel character that debuted exclusively in theaters?
Somehow, the makers of the “Red Sonja” movie got away with using Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith’s almost completely original version of the character without actually crediting them, or even crediting Marvel Comics. They also seem to have tricked Arnold Schwarzenegger a little bit, since the superstar only appears in a supporting role but has a title card above even Brigitte Nielsen, who plays the title character. Audiences could be forgiven for thinking they were buying tickets for a Schwarzenegger-centric film.
Brigitte Nielsen, who would play Ludmilla Drago in “Rocky IV” later that same year, and would go on to co-star in the hit films “Cobra” and “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” plays Red Sonja rather faithfully to the comics. Her performance is on the wooden side, but then again so is Schwarzenegger’s. Schwarzenegger plays a character named Lord Kalidor, who is kind of like Conan the Barbarian, except his name is different. Joining them is another “Conan” alum, Sandahl Bergman, who originally played the only woman Conan ever loved but now plays a different character, the villainous Queen Gedren.
“Red Sonja” is, let’s be fair about this, not a particularly good movie. Richard Fleischer, who previously directed “Conan the Destroyer” as a monster-centric matinee adventure — as opposed to John Milius’s “Conan the Barbarian,” which was more of a serious epic — gives this film that same hokey spirit. Except this cast isn’t as dazzling or as committed, and the monsters aren’t as numerous, or as cool.
But, and this is very important… we’re not here to claim that “Red Sonja” is the first great or even good Marvel Comics movie. We’re just saying it’s the first. “Howard the Duck” erroneously held this distinction for decades, and after nearly 50 years it’s still generally considered a stinker, so it’s not like we’re taking the crown away from a beloved classic.
This content was originally published here.