Tom Jolliffe looks at the eclectic range of comic book movies brought out in the 1990s…
The MCU. The DCEU. Modern multiplex cinemas are usually packed to the rafters with comic book adaptations, but in the 1980s, the notion of comic book films being a lucrative well to create marketable movies was a little far fetched.
The very top tier characters were deemed a gamble worth taking, such as Batman and Superman, but the studio ending incompetence of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace showed even the biggest characters in comic book lore weren’t guaranteed to bring box office glory. Of course the haphazard and underfinanced film, opening to universal derision, probably didn’t help. Tim Burton’s Batman though did the kind of business at the end of the 80s which suggested comic book adaptations might prove a thriving market in the 1990s.
On the surface of it, you might well believe studios weren’t really into the idea too much. We all know of the big boys, and the continuing adventures of Batman, but few remember many of the eras comic book adaptations, in part because so many bombed and further, many were poor. In actuality, the decade was littered with a mass of comic book films.
The start of the decade brought Captain America to screen, long before Chris Evans brought Steve Rogers to life in Kevin Feige’s MCU. It was Albert Pyun, the mercurial B-movie specialist with a penchant for the weird and wacky, who was tasked with bringing all the American hero to screen, under a rebranded Cannon (post the Golan and Globus split). Matt Salinger played Cap, trundling around with easy grinning charm, but minus the star power of Evans say.
The ill fitting costume which looked like a hastily pulled together am-dram outfit did no favours, nor did a film where Captain America barely uses his shield and hitches lifts everywhere. All said though, the opening war setting and intro to the Red Skull is actually effective. Potentially where ‘Cannon’ channelled much of the budget (and you can certainly tell in the moments it was running thin). The film bombed, got terrible reviews, but in retrospect, it’s a lot of fun.
Also that year, Sam Raimi gave us a great little comic book film that wasn’t a comic book film. Darkman, an afterthought from Raimi, having failed to get a Shadow adaptation off the ground, turned into an unexpected B movie gem which launched two sequels and a run of comic books. Not a bad way for Raimi to warm up for future comic book outings, by creating his own comic character.
Warren Beatty also got in on the comic book act with his big budget, star powered adaptation of Dick Tracy. It was overblown, lavish, greeted with average reviews and box office, but, it’s also kind of underappreciated. It taps into nostalgia in a way that’s in vogue now and the cast, particularly a scenery engulfing Al Pacino, are all game. The soundtrack by Madonna comes at a period where a Madonna soundtrack number wasn’t the death knell it would become in the 21st century.
In 1991, the US finally got to experience the long delayed Punisher movie, starring Dolph Lundgren. Released theatrically in most of the other major territories, the initial US theatrical release fell through as New World Pictures collapsed. The eventual US release was straight to video, and though proved lucrative on that market it essentially marked Lundgren’s card as a leading man more popular on home video than on the big screen. Reappraisal has been kind to Mark Goldblatt’s energetic and well cast film.
1991 also saw Mark Hamill star in the action fantasy Manga adaptation, The Guyver. An enjoyable, if video standard martial arts film. Slightly more successful that year was a Disney comic book adaptation that took the nostalgic route, with The Rocketeer, a WW2 set film with a stunt pilot who finds a prototype rocket pack which the Nazi’s have eyed as a super weapon. A nefarious Timothy Dalton and dazzling Jennifer Connelly provide the presence (somewhat lacking in leading man, Billy Campbell) and Joe Dante, as he’d prove since, is a solid blockbuster director.
Tim Burton brought back Michael Keaton for some Batman hijinks, with a scintillating Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992. It would prove successful, if not quite as mega as the first film.
A few years later the comic hijinks continued with Fantastic Four, but things weren’t quite as they appeared. Roger Corman hastily put a film together in order to retain the rights. Feeling unfinished and haphazard, Corman’s Fantastic Four was never officially released and seemed like a calculated expenditure (not exactly cheap at a reputed $1 million budget) in the hopes of a future sale. The bootleg version became infamous, and the film has subsequently become a cult favourite, despite its shoddy effects. Plus, it’s still better than subsequent big budget versions, with at least some Corman charm.
Another nostalgic throwback to old 30’s serials and fantasy films, was The Shadow, based on the Walter P. Gibson stories. This one really is a little underrated. As well as having some lustrous visuals thanks to Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), it has a stellar cast and a great Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack. It’s garnered more appreciation in time, largely for getting the kind of love for doing what many modern equivalents now get praised for (which wasn’t generally well received by critics). In a far more comical front, and with much greater box office success, was The Mask, a film which cemented Jim Carrey as a magnetic big screen force.
1994 would see probably the best comic book film of the decade but with a very sad attachment… the tragic on set death of Brandon Lee. The Crow, a visionary masterpiece, was way ahead of its time. The tragic central character, resurrected for one night of revenge against the gang who killed him and his fiancé, brings an extra sense of bittersweet tragedy given Lee’s subsequent death. The world was at his feet, the star power and charisma in full force, bolstered with real pathos (even beyond knowing the actors own fate). Lee is exceptional, in a film of creative dazzle from Alex Proyas.
Elsewhere, Damon Wayans starred in Blankman, a goofy, if largely misfiring shmoe turned hero. It did Kick-Ass before Kick-Ass.
Manga was the order of the day in 1995 with two adaptations shot on low budgets, but hoping for wider appeal. Fist of the North Star was to be a star making role for Gary Daniels, starring in a post apocalyptic epic as a hero with unique powers that could save the world from a megalomaniacal force (Costas Mandylor). Gary Daniels displays his martial arts prowess in a film that looks good in places, but cheap in others. Malcolm McDowell provides gravitas, and Chris Penn revels in playing a villain, but there’s a sense that director Tony Randel, more famed for horror (with the very enjoyable Hellraiser 2), hasn’t quite grasped how to best display the fighting.
Fist of the North Star bypassed theatrical release in the US, much like Crying Freeman, though this came with more cohesion, and ultimately a more engaging story in Christophe Gans’ superb, Woo-inspired action romance. Mark Dacascos leaps with cat like grace from high doors, roofs and walls in gun battles, fist fights and sword fights, whilst Patrick O’Hearn’s dreamy synth score is gorgeous (and one I listen to with regularity still). It should have been a star making film for Dacascos, but it didn’t pick up the audience it deserved outside Europe.
1995 also had a dash or two of cyberpunk. There was a little in Fist of the North Star certainly, but far more evident in the Lori Petty starrer, Tank Girl. These kind of underground, punky comics seemed like popular sources in the 90’s (you could go as far as including Johnny Mnemonic, based on the William Gibson short story). If the Petty lead brash, girl power hefty vision of Tank Girl (directed by Rachel Talalay) didn’t quit tickle audiences and critics on release, it’s certainly grown a cult following in years since thanks to the energy and quirky characters. Malcolm McDowell steps across from the North Star too, whilst Ice T comes over to play more or less the same character he does in Johnny Mnemonic (well…he plays Ice T), just half Kangaroo if I recall. There’s a lot of Petty’s Tank Girl in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn that’s for certain. This is colourful, campy and fun.
1995 was also the setting for a Stallone star show, as he overpowered 2000A.D’s infamous Judge Dredd, turning the helmeted and monosyllabic lawgiver into a generic Stallone character. The film steals from an array of sources, not least Blade Runner and Mad Max, whilst the big production feels out of control in the slippery hands of newcomer Danny Cannon (and Stallone had the power certainly). Still, despite so many glaring floors, I enjoy this one still. There’s neat action, nice design and a great support cast with Max von Sydow, Diane Lane, Joan Chen and a magnificently over the top Armand Assante. Stallone, even in a movie with Rob Schneider is probably the weakest part of the film, and I say that as a massive Stallone fan.
The same year Joel Schumacher took over the Batman franchise, taking a distinct turn into excess and camp with Batman Forever. It retains some interesting aspects, but feels weak in the villain department with Jim Carrey just TOO Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones never comfortable.
Lesser known was a little show-time special starring erotic thriller goddess, Joan Severance. Black Scorpion (and a subsequent, less effective sequel) was a low budget but watchable comic book film produced by Roger Corman. Sequel and short lived TV series aside (minus Severance) this female Batman riff eventually spawned its own comic, much like Darkman. Severance elevates proceedings as well as watching male pulses (as per). The action sequences are a tad Austin Powers in their delivery, sets look ropey and the costume is half baked, but you’d expect nothing less from Corman.
1996 was getting to a turning point in a decade of largely misfires. The Phantom, a kind of mid level comic book character who stepped into DC and Marvel during his time, didn’t have that huge a built in audience, and nor did Billy Zane provide the box office weight the film probably needed. The result is a passable distraction with some nice production, and Zane has enough charisma to carry it. A little more unforgettable, for perhaps the wrong reasons, was Barb Wire, the big screen breakout for TV megastar and slow mo running specialist, Pamela Anderson.
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Barb Wire bombed spectacularly and was savaged by critics and audiences. Perhaps though, the slightly tongue in cheek approach was lost on some. Anderson is a little awkward throughout, but there’s a sense the film-makers are playing up the silly pastiche elements. Made now, it would have been more favourably received, even if the modern version might have benefitted from a Margot Robbie with her added nuance. Still, in revisiting, it’s cheesy, campy, but it keeps moving, there are enjoyable set pieces and soundtrack, and it’s affably silly. Call me crazy (but DON’T call me babe), but I think Barb Wire was slightly misunderstood, and the love has certainly grown in time.
1997 saw Shaq get in the act in a film definitely best forgotten, as he starred in Steel. Slightly more ambitious was Spawn based on Todd McFarlane’s comic. The big budget film was something of a tent-pole for New Line Cinema. Michael Jai White was given a breakout role, but as is the way with comic book films, he spends much of the film masked, or in full burn makeup, so it didn’t act as the career catalyst it could have been.
Despite moderate box office success, albeit a mediocre critical reception, Spawn has its strengths with a game cast (Martin Sheen is a good bad guy and John Leguizamo has a lot of fun as the grotesque Clown). The film’s ambitions in visual FX aren’t matched in the delivery though, with many of the CGI sequences already looking dated in 1997. Again though, this is one I dig for some of the imaginative (albeit rough) visual ideas and the fact it feels a little different. The ideas and scope also escape the grasp of a somewhat inexperienced director too.
Meanwhile, Joel Schumacher continued to take Batman into increasingly garish and campy territory in 1997. If Batman &Robin has grown in popularity, it’s largely as a so bad its good kind of way, with a painfully miscast George Clooney.
As the decade tailed off, one film managed to not only find that rare combination of box office success, a willing fan base and reasonable reviews. That film was Blade, which had Wesley Snipes at the peak of his powers, but pushed him into a new level of fame. His combination of steely charisma, toughness and martial arts prowess was perfectly utilised in a film that tiptoed the line of brilliance, even if it faltered in the final third (and a groan worthy moment involving sunblock).
The new century then brought us early forays for the X-Men and Spider-Man, which kick-started the next wave, solidified by the time Iron Man brought the MCU to life in 2008.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.