Hasitha Fernando on the essential superhero and comic book movies of the 1990s…
The popularity of the superhero sub-genre has waxed and waned over the years. Despite having a fairly early start in cinemas it wasn’t until blockbusters like 1978’s Superman: the Movie and 1989’s Batman that cape and cowl affairs began to be taken seriously.
Fast-forward to the present day and superhero films have metamorphosed into the most commercially dominant sub-genre of the 21st century. In this context, it’s interesting to look back at the essential live-action superhero movies of the 90s, which in a lot of ways, served as inspirations to the modern-day superhero movie and beyond…
Batman Returns (1992)
Auteur filmmaker Tim Burton caught lightening in a bottle with 1989’s Batman, launching the career of Michael Keaton and effectively revitalizing the superhero sub-genre. But people wondered if the talented creative would be able to repeat the success with the eagerly awaited follow-up, and in a lot of ways Burton did accomplish this.
Whilst he retained much of the original’s flavor the director infused the sequel with more of his signature gothic style and sepulchral visual flourishes. So, in a lot of ways, Batman Returns turned out to be more Tim Burton than its predecessor. The story, too, dove deeper into Bruce Wayne’s tortured pathos and explored the origins of two iconic Batman characters – Penguin and Catwoman – brought to life in unforgettable fashion by Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer.
The Crow (1994)
A movie whose brilliance gets largely overshadowed by the on-set tragedy of its lead star Brandon Lee, The Crow still remains one of the best comic book movie adaptations to come from the 90s era. Featuring a career defining performance by Lee, the film closely follows James O’Barr’s comic of the same name, which itself showcases a tragic story involving a pair of doomed, starstruck lovers.
The blood-soaked revenge flick drew high praise from critics upon its release, going on to become a sleeper hit at the box-office. Darkly poetic, brutally uncompromising and visually spellbinding, The Crow is certainly a genre film of the first water, that deserves to be viewed repeatedly and appreciated equally.
The Godfather of Marvel superhero movies, Blade was released at a time where comic book films have reached their proverbial nadir with 1997’s Batman & Robin. But the gutsy effort struck a chord with audiences worldwide by offering up a snarky, katana wielding anti-hero personified to perfection by action star Wesley Snipes. And how can we forget Stephen Dorff’s terrific scenery chewing villainy?
An incendiary concoction which combines stellar visual storytelling, Hong Kong martial arts, hardcore violence and a gritty, down-and-dirty aesthetic, Blade still manages to pack a punch even 25 years later. Mahershala Ali, you’ve got big shoes to fill mate.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Many tend to forget that Zorro is the grand daddy of all comic book superheroes. Created in 1919 by American pulp writer Johnston McCulley the stories featured the titular hero as a masked vigilante fighting for the poor and oppressed using his skill and bravado.
Over the years the IP had innumerable big screen and television incarnations, but it was the 1998 iteration starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins that won the hearts and reignited interest in the character. An exquisite swashbuckler that harks back to classic Hollywood in the best ways possible, Zorro makes for one helluva thrilling watch in an age of mass manufactured CGI trickery and fake outs.
The Mask (1994)
The Mask was an adult-oriented comic published by Dark Horse Comics, which got a more of a family-friendly spin when it got adapted in 1994. Headlined by the delightfully zany Jim Carrey and then newcomer Cameron Diaz, the movie proved to be a massive commercial success and cemented Carrey’s reputation as a major box-office draw and a significant comedic talent.
To say the film fully utilized Carrey’s arsenal of facial contortion skills, physical comedy and improv abilities is something of an understatement. And in recognition of this truly singular performance, Carrey even garnered a Golden Globe nomination the following year. If you’re looking for a rollicking good rib tickler, this one’s for you.
The Rocketeer (1991)
An homage to 1930s Saturday matinee serials The Rocketeer was the creation of comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens. The peculiar helmeted superhero made his debut in 1982 and Stevens immediately saw the potential of the IP he’d crafted and pitched the project to multiple studios, eventually getting Disney’s attention.
Although the fun-filled period flick bombed at the box-office when it debuted, critics adored and embraced the movie for what it was – a nostalgic love-letter to a bygone era. For individuals who enjoy good-old-fashioned action adventures, revisiting The Rocketeer would certainly scratch that itch. So, strap on your jet pack and get ready for one rollercoaster ride.
Filmmaker Sam Raimi became a household name with the Evil Dead franchise, but being a fresh face in Hollywood meant things didn’t always come easy. Such was the case where Raimi, unable to secure the film rights for The Shadow – a 1930s noir pulp comic – ended up conceiving his own superhero influenced by the aforementioned character, as well as, Universal horror classics.
The final output was a delicious pastiche of gothic tragedy, body horror and Raimi’s signature dark humor, which critics and audiences thoroughly enjoyed. And with serious talent like Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand attached, what’s not to love?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Created by comic book artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an independently published comic that blew up to become a pop-culture phenomenon back in the late 80s. So, the inevitability of a big screen adaptation was something of a no-brainer and it was simply a question of when.
Opening in 1990, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie wisely amalgamated elements from both the original comic and the popular Saturday morning cartoon into its story. Throw in some tongue-in-cheek humor, outlandish action sequences and a hip-hop soundtrack that screams the 90s, and you have a recipe for success and then some.
The Shadow (1994)
Ah yes. Now we get to the very IP on which Sam Raimi’s Darkman was based upon. Starting off as a mysterious radio show narrator the character was later fleshed out into a distinct literary persona by Walter B. Gibson in 1931. Similar to the likes of Zorro, The Shadow too was a masked vigilante superhero who aimed to bring down the crime in his city.
Languishing in developmental hell for nearly two decades the property finally received the big screen treatment in 1994 helmed by Highlander director Russell Mulcahy and headlined by Alec Baldwin. A box-office dud which got mixed reviews at first, the film since then has gained something of a cult-status, which definitely makes it an effort worth revisiting.
Dick Tracy (1990)
Dick Tracy may not possess superhuman strength or preternatural abilities, but the chap did have a genius-level intellect and an unparalleled crime solving skill set. So, that ought to count for something. The creation of Chester Gould, he made his debut on 1931 in the pages of the Detroit Mirror gaining widespread popularity and even getting a feature film treatment as early as 1945.
However, it is the 1990 version from Warren Beatty – replete with flashy costumes, over-the-top performances, prosthetic grotesqueries and elaborate sets – that we’re enamored with. Some call it an overindulgent mess, but there’s no denying that there is method to its creative madness.
SEE ALSO: The 1990s in Comic Book Movies
What are your favourite superhero movies and comic book films from the 1990s? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.