There is perhaps no right of passage more enjoyed by the children of the 1990s than going to the theater. The ‘90s had a wealth of excellent cinema, and superhero movies were no exception. With the ‘80s bringing us the likes of Batman, RoboCop, Swamp Thing and more, the landscape was redesigned and superhero films were a hot commodity again. It was only fitting that the ‘90s provide the same level of excitement with a mix of sequels and new films. Everyone scrambled to replicate the success of the blockbusters of the ‘80s, and as a result, we got some of the most amazing and memorable comic book movies to date from characters who hadn’t been seen in years.
They weren’t all winners, though. A teased Fantastic Four movie never materialized, the Ninja Turtles became too kid-friendly, and Batman skewed too close to the ‘60s roots he was desperately running away from. But when the movies were good, they were great., redefining classic characters and wowing audiences with state of the art technology. You haven’t forgotten these movies, and neither have we. So grab a pack of your favorite sour candy and butter up that popcorn. We’re counting down the greatest superhero movies of the ‘90s.
15. BARB WIRE
Barb Wire has a very limited comic book history, composed of a handful of issues and a number of guest appearances. Nonetheless, with comic book properties being snatched up left and right, Barb Wire picked up a film of her own in 1996. Barb Wire received a ton of mainstream press, but it had very little to do with its comic book roots.
Marketed largely on the sex appeal of star Pamela Anderson, the film was an almost immediate flop. Critics derided its poor writing and acting, with some calling the film that worst of things: boring. In the box office, the film made less than $4 million, failing to even recover its budget. The character of Barb Wire only made a handful of comic appearances after the film, though there was a 2015 revival released by Dark Horse Comics imprint Project Black Sky.
Spawn created an empire that rivalled Marvel and DC, as the fabled Big Two became the Big Three in the early ‘90s. A Spawn feature film was almost an inevitability when you look at the cinema landscape of the time. Starring future Arrow villain Michael Jai White and John Leguizamo as Spawn and Clown, the film got audiences talking about the character in the mainstream like never before.
The comic was notable for its moody atmosphere and over the top violence. Spawn was more of a generic action film, retaining the violence but failing to capture the tone and mood of the comic. The film was, however, marketed on the back of its special effects, which have aged poorly but were genuinely impressive in 1997. A planned sequel failed to materialize, though there is still talk of a reboot today.
13. THE GUYVER
Following the success of Batman, superhero movies were at a premium. Desperate to cash in, studios began reaching for any prospective film they could find. While many projects, such as James Cameron’s Spider-Man or Terry Gilliam’s proposed Watchmen film never took off, one oddity did. The Guyver hit theaters in 1991, receiving a brief theatrical run thanks to New Line Cinema.
Based on the Japanese manga The Guyver: Bio Booster Armor, The Guyver followed a young man named Sean Barker who was possessed by a bio-organic weapon called a Guyer. Featuring Mark Hamill (who is prominently featured in the film’s misleading poster art) and Jeffrey Combs, the film was met with a poor reception but became a cult favorite with its incredible visual effects and fight sequences. The film did warrant a telemovie sequel in Guyver 2: Dark Hero, which featured a pre-Metal Gear Solid David Hayter as Barker.
12. THE PHANTOM
Despite the box office failure of The Rocketeer and the lukewarm response to The Shadow, there was still a market for superhero films. Dating back to the ‘80s, a film based on Lee Falk’s wildly popular comic The Phantom had resided in development hell. It finally came around in the mid-‘90s, with director Simon Wincer at the helm.
The film had a shockingly all-star cast, featuring Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Despite this, the film was largely a flop with a poor critical reception and a miserable box office. Much like with The Rocketeer and The Shadow, plans for a franchise built around the character were dead on arrival. An attempt to reboot the character was made in 2009 with a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, but it received even less favorable reviews.
11. THE MASK
Adapting a story like The Mask to the big screen took some effort. The original graphic novel was rife with violence that was comical but presented in a darker nature. When it came time to bring this to the big screen, the studio found itself at odds with the violence. The film underwent a series of rewrites and scripting attempts, trying to balance the violent story with a more fantastical character.
The end result was more akin to a Looney Tune short, but it worked. Jim Carrey took the role and made it something truly unique. Alongside then up and coming young star Cameron Diaz in the female lead, The Mask became something truly spectacular. The film was slated to kick off a franchise, but the plans fell apart when Carrey left. A sequel was released in 2005, but Son of the Mask was a flop in every regard.
Sam Raimi was a popular director in the ‘90s, but what he really wanted was a superhero movie. Unable to secure rights to existing properties, he opted to make his own. The result was 1990’s Darkman. Injured in an explosion, scientist Peyton Westlake is hideously disfigured and no longer feels pain. Using a series of experimental masks made of a light-sensitive material, Westlake seeks revenge as the terrifying Darkman.
Darkman was a dark, violent film with a frenetic violence unlike anything seen in superhero movies at the time. Starring Liam Neeson just as his star was beginning to rise, the film met mixed praise from critics but developed a dedicated fanbase. Darkman saw a number of direct-to-video sequels but has remained a dormant franchise, aside from the odd bit of merchandise.
9. ROBOCOP 2
RoboCop, to many, is considered to be one of the greatest action films ever made. Hyper-violent and yet somehow carrying a message about identity and media influence, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven film was a surprise success. All eyes were turned to it for a sequel, which brought in comic writer Frank Miller for a draft on the screenplay.
RoboCop 2 hit theaters early in 1990. Helmed by Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner and bringing back stars Peter Weller and Nancy Allen, it was well received but failed to find the same success as its predecessor. The film has gained a stronger following over the years since, as its violent tone and tongue-in-cheek nature have been appreciated by new fans. It especially received a brief resurgence following the city of Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing, something the film jokingly predicted.
8. THE SHADOW
It only made sense for The Shadow to get a theatrical film in the ‘90s. After all, the characters roots are undeniably iconic, and the decade was all about plundering the depths of pulpy superheroics. One of the first detective superhero titles in the 1930s, The Shadow has a direct influence on modern comics, even going so far as to appear in several Batman stories in the ‘70s.
The 1994 iteration brought in Alec Baldwin, himself very nearly cast as the lead role in Burton’s Batman, as the enigmatic Shadow. With Highlander‘s Russell Mulcahy in the director’s chair and an all-star cast that included Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellan and Tim Curry, The Shadow was everywhere for a few months. Intended to kickstart a new franchise as a blockbuster, the film instead died quickly against the likes of The Lion King and The Mask.
7. BATMAN FOREVER
With Tim Burton and Michael Keaton out, the wildly popular Batman franchise underwent something of a soft reboot. Though Burton remained on as an executive producer, Joel Schumacher took over in the director’s chair while Val Kilmer became the new Batman. With the addition of Robin, the two faced off against Two-Face and The Riddler in a neon-tinted adventure that skewed more towards all-ages than its predecessors.
Batman Forever wasn’t perceived on the same level as Batman or Batman Returns. The new, fantastical design of Gotham proved a bit much for some fans. And while the tone wasn’t as light as it would become in Batman & Robin, it was certainly a stark contrast to what had come before. Still, Batman Forever proved to be incredibly popular, with even Bob Kane declaring Kilmer to be the best on-screen Batman he’d ever seen.
6. TANK GIRL
Tank Girl is a weird comic. Set in a punk rock alternate future Australia, the title character is an outlaw who lives in her own tank after an incident involving Crocodile Dundee actor Paul Hogan, who is an Australian political figure in this future. As with all strange cult favorite comics, though, Tank Girl proved a prime choice for a film adaptation. Starring Lori Petty and Malcolm McDowell, Tank Girl hit theaters the spring of 1995.
Say what you will about the final product, Tank Girl stayed true to its roots. The film is wild and fantastic but maintains its positive notes about feminism and identity. The film was a box office flop and critical failure, but managed to find an audience once it was circulated on home video, developing a cult following. The film and character remain popular today, despite their limited appearances over the following years.
5. THE ROCKETEER
Perhaps no box office flop is more beloved, more endeared or more respected than 1991’s The Rocketeer. The film itself was a throwback to the swashbuckling serials of old. A pulp hero created by fans of pulp heroes, the World War II era setting was brilliantly realized with a stellar cast and top-notch visual effects. But The Rocketeer just never caught on in theaters.
Its failure is largely attributed to the Disney branding. At the time best known for their animated children’s films, the Disney logo made The Rocketeer look like a kid’s film, and adults and teenagers never showed much interest at the time. The Rocketeer‘s planned sequel was scrapped, but it achieved cult popularity with the home video release, with talk of a reboot or sequel occasionally coming up in recent years.
The year 1997 wasn’t really a great one for comic book movies. Despite some success earlier in the decade, films like Batman & Robin and Spawn had left a bad taste in the mouths of theater-goers. But then something magical happened. Stephen Norrington and David S. Goyer crafted a stunning comic book movie that came out of nowhere: Blade.
Starring Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff, 1998’s Blade was based on a Marvel property which was fairly obscure at the time. Blade had made a number of one-off appearances but hadn’t had any kind of meaningful on-going adventure for a while. The film took advantage of this to rework the character to be edgier, to tremendous success. Though the two sequels saw dips in quality, it’s worth considering that without the success of Blade, we wouldn’t have ended up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it is today.
3. THE CROW
Written and illustrated by James O’Barr in response to the real-life death of his fiance, The Crow was meant to be a form of catharsis and became a cult classic in the process. The story of a man from beyond the grave seeking revenge, the comic was quietly released in 1989 and slowly became a hit.
The film adaptation wasn’t released until 1994 and is perhaps best known for the tragedy associated with it. During filming late in production, a prop gun which unknowingly had a dummy round in the barrel was fired, fatally shooting star Brandon Lee. The film was released using state of the art (for its time) CGI effects and a body double. Though the film never really took off at the box office, it remained a fan favorite, garnering three sequels, a television series, and an upcoming planned reboot.
2. BATMAN RETURNS
Tim Burton’s 1989 effort Batman brought the character back from the grave. Despite the Adam West Batman television series ending decades earlier, the character never bounced back from his campy, kid-friendly nature. The comics were attempting to course correct, bringing back the detective elements from the character’s roots, but it wasn’t until Burton’s film that the character was reborn.
It was inevitable that there would be a sequel, and Batman Returns lived up to the hype. Though many argue it was weaker than the original film, it still garnered praise from fans of the comics and first film alike. Remembered for stellar performances from Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, the film redefined Catwoman and Penguin going into the ‘90s. Many aspects of these changes carried over to the comics, defining the characters for much of the decade.
1. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one hell of an accomplishment. Released in 1990, it’s easy to forget that the film was independent, and one of the highest grossing flicks of all time. The film definitely didn’t look like what many considered an independent film, thanks to moody cinematography and incredible suits by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
Though the animated series was popular at the time, the film was starkly different. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created to be an homage to the comics which were still in their infancy at the time. Though a critical hit and box office smash, the film still drew its share of attention. The violence and language didn’t jive with the squeaky clean image the cartoon portrayed, resulting in the sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze being changed heavily to make things more kid friendly.
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