While the Power Rangers inhabit a totally different universe, once upon a time, they were almost Marvel superheroes. And it nearly happened because of Stan Lee.
In the wake of the comic book icon’s death on Monday, aged 95, there is plenty to be said about what Lee gave the world. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men — though Lee never worked alone (hats off to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko), Lee was a vital part of the identity the Marvel Universe has today.
But in the 1970s, Lee failed to introduce an entirely different team of superheroes. Once upon a time, Marvel nearly adapted Toei’s Super Sentai series for American audiences. That very same franchise would be officially adapted by Haim Saban to become Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the ‘90s phenomenon that’s still going strong 25 years later.
In the ‘70s, Lee aimed to elevate Marvel not just as a comics publisher, but as a powerhouse brand with original intellectual property to sell across mediums. After some hardship — “Executives felt only 18-year-old boys were reading comic books, nobody else,” recalled former Marvel producer Margaret Loesch in a 2017 interview — Lee eventually brought Marvel to TV in 1978’s The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred actor Nicholas Hammond as the web-slinging superhero.
Spider-Man lasted just 13 episodes on CBS, but the series was a hit in Japan. This prompted Marvel, with the help of Gene Pelc whom Lee dubbed Marvel’s “Man in Japan,” to work with Japanese studio Toei Company, which wielded its own unique franchises such as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai.
Toei and Marvel entered a professional partnership that lasted several years. It started in 1978, with Toei’s Spider-Man series that dramatically reinterpreted Spider-Man (and gave him a giant robot, natch) but kept his red and blue spandex outfit. Marvel also helped Toei produce TV shows, namely Battle Fever J, whose starring character “Battle Japan” (played by Hironori Tanioka) was to be the Japanese equivalent of Captain America. (“Miss America,” another character played by Diane Martin, was kept by Marvel and rebooted as the Latina superhero America Chavez in 2011.)
Marvel produced another series, Denshi Sentai Denziman. But it was the one after that, titled Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan, that captured Stan Lee’s imagination.
“Stan brought me this video and said, ‘Maggie, I think this is a hit. You need to look at it,’” Loesch told Inverse. “I thought it was funny and different, but it was in Japanese. I called Stan and said, ‘Stan, it’s all Japanese.’ He says, ‘I know! But isn’t it great?’”
In a May 1983 issue of Comics Interview, which is the most detailed and surviving account of Toei and Marvel’s collaboration, Pelc describes how Lee was enamored with the Sun Vulcan — a trio of superheroes who used karate and a giant mecha to fight evil.
“I just talked to Stan Lee about a half hour ago and he is so in love with the program,” Pelc explained in the interview. “He said that in all his experience of writing … if they could see this show in America on Saturday morning, it would wipe out anything because it’s full of action and very entertaining.”
Pelc then explained in full detail precisely how Marvel would bring Sun Vulcan to western audiences, and it’s eerily similar to how Saban would produce Power Rangers years later:
“He can sell it as is with a new voice track, or take the prints and cut out the parts where Japanese actors appear, which is about one-third of the film, and reshoot that with American actors, and cut back to the how with the special effects and opticals and visuals, thus creating a series that looks American.”
Unfortunately, Marvel and Stan Lee were never given serious consideration by potential networks. A $25,000 sizzle reel made by Loesch and Marvel failed to convey what Lee saw in three color-coded superheroes fighting rubber monsters. Networks called it “too foreign” and “junk.”
“It was nothing like what was on television,” says Loesch. “Stan and I liked the cheesiness. I thought it was funny and that kids would like it.”
Loesch would be proven right years later. When she left Marvel and joined the new Fox Kids Network in the early ‘90s, Loesch vowed to Lee to produce the Marvel programming they hoped to make together. This vow eventually led to the creation of successful animated Marvel shows on Fox Kids, like X-Men and Spider-Man, which played a crucial role in establishing a built-in audience for their eventual Hollywood adaptations.
But entirely separate was the greenlight for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. After Toei and Marvel’s partnership ended, music mogul Haim Saban scooped up the rights for Super Sentai from Toei. Several years later years, Saban had a show with Japanese superheroes to pitch, and it was up to none other than Margaret Loesch to decide its fate.
For the full story on how that happened, check out Inverse’s feature profile on Margaret Loesch from 2017.
Below are some of Inverse‘s most-read stories about Stan Lee.
- Comic Books Fans and Actors Lovingly Mourn Stan Lee on Twitter
- Stan Lee’s 9 Best Movie Cameos
- A Stan Lee Biopic Movie Was Confirmed in 2016, So What Happened?
- 5 Times Lee Took on Racists in Comic Books
- Marvel Confirmed a Theory About Lee’s Movie Cameos
- Leo DiCaprio Wants to Play Stan Lee, But Marc Maron Exists
- Marvel, Mortality, and Protesting Anti-Stan Lee with Dave Baker
- Lee Did a Legitimate Cameo in a DC Movie
- Elon Musk’s Twitter Rant Gets Support from Stan Lee
- Lee’s ‘Infinity War’ Cameo Supports a Popular Fan Theory
- Lee Pins Continued Marvel’s Push for Racial Respect
- Lee’s Biopic Will Be a ‘70s Period Piece