Captain Marvel, the latest dispatch from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is set in 1995. That didn’t sound that long ago … until Marvel evoked the times with throwback promotional gimmicks like Magic Eye posters and crude Angelfire-style websites full of animated gifs. Turns out it’s been awhile.
But the throwback means we’re in the clear to be nostalgic for a more naive time when superheroes wore rubber muscles or black leather, and stood on top of buildings looking out at their cities, which were matte paintings. If Carol Danvers ever takes a break from mid-’90s Skrull-punching to find inspiration at the multiplex, she’ll see an entirely different type of comic book movie from what we have now, if there’s one playing at all.
Today’s comic book movies are expected to have a more sophisticated understanding of the characters and stories they’re translating, but there’s an appealing style and feel to the ’90s movies that’s impossible to reproduce. The so-called practical effects of the pre-digital era are not always better, but they are different. When you’re using giant soundstage sets and miniature models to create your world you’re less likely to stick with boring photorealism. Even after Jurassic Park changed everything early in the decade, CG was expensive and difficult, and they saved it for special occasions.
Perhaps more importantly, comic books and superheroes had not been fully embraced by the mainstream. The movies felt like they had to work harder to convince you to be excited. So even the lowest ranking movies on this list — and there are some terrible ones — have a tone and style to them very different from what we get now, and in most cases it’s pretty endearing.
For her (and your) enlightenment I’ve compiled a ranking of all the live-action, English language comic book or comic strip based movies released in the ’90s. You’ll be seeing a wide variety of theatrical or direct-to-video movies, from t-shirt-selling tentpoles to cheesy B-movies based on obscure indie publications, each with their own way of interpreting what it means to “feel like a comic book” (or “graphic novel,” they might’ve said, if they were showing off). Note: I’ve excluded TV movies (sorry, surprisingly good Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. starring David Hasselhoff), unreleased oddities (Fantastic Four), and ones where the screenplay was written before the comic book (that’s you, Timecop and Virus).
25. Batman Forever (1995)
The conventional wisdom is that Joel Schumacher’s first Batman movie is better than Batman & Robin. I disagree (we’ll get there).
In Batman Forever, Schumacher combines his goofball fantasia sensibility with the more serious Caped Crusader comic tone that people wanted. He succeeds at neither. Jim Carrey gives the most obnoxious performance of his career as the Riddler, who invents a TV antenna that people put on their heads to turn their brainwaves into brain food for the villain. He mugs and poses and spins his cane as if a bomb will go off if he calms the fuck down for even one second. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones tries to match that excess in a reworking of Two Face that, instead of half good/half evil, I would describe as half normal/half outrageous party animal in purple zebra stripes.
Though Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman seems a bit cartoonish now, the mega-hit fueled a hunger for what was considered a “dark” approach to superheroes. Comic fans frequently mocked the concept of “Robin the Boy Wonder” and his crime-fighting tights. Schumacher’s compromise was to incorporate a sullen adult Robin with more subdued colors, but shiny plastic muscles and codpiece. Though the homoeroticism is undeniably subversive for its time, the director captures little of the joy or wish fulfillment of the original character, let alone the drama inherent in an orphan adopted by an orphan.
Val Kilmer isn’t given much to do as Batman, but he falls so hard for sexually-harassing Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) that he plans to give up superheroing after the first date. Bruce Wayne doesn’t end up going through with it, but I can see why Kilmer did.
Schumacher definitely takes influence from the gothic shadows and exaggerated architecture of Burton’s Batman films, and composer Elliot Goldenthal does a valiant job of filling in for the irreplaceable Danny Elfman, but somebody still thought it would make sense to throw on a bunch of random unrelated songs by U2, Brandy, Seal, The Offspring, Method Man, perhaps decided in a raffle or dice roll. Like the soundtrack, Batman Forever is an ungodly slop pile of clashing styles, tones, and agendas, a scrapbook of tackiness and bad taste made all the more insulting by its ability to pass for a blockbuster at the time.
24. Captain America (1990)
There was a time when Marvel Comics was nearly bankrupt and licensed their characters to B-movie producers like Cannon Films and Roger Corman. I enjoy Mark Goldblatt’s cult action movie The Punisher (1989) enough not to completely write off the era, but Albert Pyun (Cyborg, Dollman, Nemesis) had less luck with his adaptation of Captain America, starring Matt Salinger (Revenge of the Nerds) as Steve Rogers.
Though early WWII scenes have a cheesy appeal, Captain America is, simply put, ludicrous after unfreezing the hero in the modern day in order to save the President of the United States (Ronny Cox) by figuring out the real name of Red Skull (Scott Paulin, the dad from Pump Up the Volume). Now, even though he’s the president, the only person he can ask for help is his old friend (played in adult form by Ned Beatty) who was the only one who believed him that he saw Captain America strapped to a missile that almost hit the White House when they were kids.
Luckily Salinger conveys a pretty good mix of aw, shucks and inner turmoil. He’s not gonna make you forget Chris Evans, but you can tell he’s giving it a shot.
23. Vampirella (1996)
This chintzy but straight-faced B-movie from prolific director Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall, Bare Wench Project) begins 3,000 years ago on the planet Drakulon before settling into modern day Las Vegas. Vampirella (Talisa Soto, Mortal Kombat), a civilized space vampire who drinks serum instead of blood, rockets off her planet, sleeps on Mars for centuries and then stows away with some astronauts. On Earth she finds Vlad (Roger Daltrey), the psycho who killed her dad (Angus Scrimm), living it up as a rock star. She fights vampire gangs, teams with a secret vampire-hunting agency called P.U.R.G.E., and even meets a young Forrest Ackerman (creator of the Vampirella comic book), all while wearing a red patent leather swimming suit that I guess must be her travel wear, since she wore a comfortable dress on her home planet.
There’s some obvious influence from Superman and Superman II in Vampirella, and it beats Blade to having a climax in which the love interest allows the vampire hero to suck their blood to regain strength before a martial arts duel with a hipster vampire villain who wants to unite the factions to bring on an apocalyptic event and claim the earth from the humans.
That said, everything in Vampirella looks pretty crappy, even as Soto takes it seriously. Daltrey sucks the blood out of the scenery and a lot of its goofy mythology feels like it would work with a little bigger budget and some slicker filmmaking. There’s a certain charm to that.
22. Mystery Men (1999)
There are some who fondly remember this Watchmen-as-a-comedy romp, loosely inspired by Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics, for its Schumacherian excess and impressive comedy ensemble, which included Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Tom Waits, Kel Mitchell, and Geoffrey Rush. William H. Macy brings some sincerity, Greg Kinnear is well-cast as a hateable version of Clark Kent, Wes Studi gets some good jokes as the inscrutable Sphinx, and at the time it was exciting to see Paul Reubens in a movie again, even if his character is just there to fart and have zits like a Garbage Pail Kid.
But Mystery Men couldn’t take the piss out of superhero team movies when they didn’t really exist yet. The joke “what if there was a superhero but he was really bad at it and his costume and name were silly” already felt like ancient Mad Magazine leftovers at the time, and is unbearable to see repeated over and over for two whole hours.
Though the Mystery Men are mostly forgotten, they will live on forever in the video for Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” which was prominently featured in the movie.
21. Barb Wire (1996)
In the year 2017, during the Second American Civil War, in “the last free city” of Steel Harbor, leather-corset-wearing bounty hunter/bar owner/bubble bath enthusiast Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson) gets mixed up in a fight between freedom fighters and various lowlifes over a pair of contact lenses that can get you past the retinal scan at the airport.
Barb Wire’s supporting cast includes Aquaman actor Temuera Morrison (his follow-up to Once Were Warriors!), Xander Berkeley, Udo Kier, Steve Railsback, Clint Howard, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister. The screenplay’s not-as-loose-as-you-might-guess science-fiction-ification of Casablanca is fun to decode. Nothing against Humphrey Bogart, but he may have been held back by his lack of access to wall-cutting foam, a missile-launching motorcycle or a dog trained to bite people on the junk. So there are some fine times here. But with a climax involving a crane at a junkyard, Barb Wire feels decidedly low-rent, and as much as I’d like to tell you that Anderson is underrated in the role, she’s unconvincing as this tough-talking character.
20. Steel (1997)
When a disgraced military weapons designer (Judd Nelson) unloads experimental guns to street gangs as a promotional stunt, his former partner John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) steps up to build a suit of armor, magnetic sledge hammer, and grappling gun to fight off the new crime wave.
I’ll be honest, my favorite thing about this movie is that when O’Neal stands and has a conversation with Nelson, it makes Nelson look like a little boy. The rest of Steel seems more like the pilot for a syndicated TV series than an actual theatrical release from the studio that made the Batman movies. No wonder they don’t mention the character’s connection to Superman.
Produced by Quincy Jones and directed by The Incredible Hulk TV show developer Kenneth Johnson, Steel’s positivity and cheesy squareness at least give Steel a harmless, novelty feel. He’s a nice guy vigilante who loves his grandma (Irma P. Hall) and little brother (Ray J.) and gets help from a friend in a wheelchair (Annabeth Gish), his uncle (Richard Roundtree), and a dog.
19. Spawn (1997)
Spawn is one of the ’90s-est of the ’90s comic book movies, boasting Se7en-style Kyle Cooper opening credits, hackneyed signifiers of darkness (Satan, evil clowns, buildings with gargoyles, spikes, chains) and a rock/electronica team-up soundtrack (Marilyn Manson & the Sneaker Pimps, Metallica & DJ Spooky, etc.). Played by Michael Jai White, the movie version of artist Todd McFarlane’s Image Comics character is a special forces commando betrayed and blown to bits by his own superior, then sent to Hell. Spawn makes a Faustian bargain to return to Earth to see his wife, but decides to hide from her and fight evil when he realizes he’s a sort of Spider-Man/Batman/demon-from-hell hybrid with deadly powers.
The broken-hearted-anti-hero-returning-from-the-dead story might lift from The Crow, but the movie is made with far less style or tonal control. John Leguizamo is admirably game under impressive KNB makeup as the four-foot tall, obese clown demon, Violator, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to watch him fart glowing green gas, eat wormy pizza, and wave around his shit-stained undies. The many digital effects, already ugly and questionable at the time, look left over from a CD-ROM, perhaps the decade’s most egregious case of CG overreach. Money shots of Spawn with his giant cape flowing are so messily animated they look like abstract paintings.
One plus is the casting of White, a great action star who still hasn’t received his proper due in theatrically released movies, But in the cult hit Black Dynamite, and straight-to-video action movies like Blood & Bone and Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, he excels — so it makes perfect sense someone would give him a shot with Spawn.
18. Richie Rich (1994)
This mostly harmless children’s comedy stars Macaulay Culkin as the richest boy in the world. When greedy CFO Lawrence Van Dough (John Larroquette) strands Richie’s parents (Edward Herrmann and Christine Ebersole) in the Bermuda Triangle, Richie has to run the family empire in innovative and altruistic ways, while trying to make friends with normal working class kids. The movie mixes the jokey cartoon world of Harvey Comics — his dog is still a “dollarmatian” with dollar sign spots; his baby crib had a mobile made of jewels and large bills, he has a gun that can identify smells — with a real version of the ’90s full of R.E.M. and MC Hammer poster. Jonathan Hyde is very good as Richie’s tightly wound butler and best friend Cadbury, but, honestly, the screenwriters really overdo the hacky contrast jokes like “wouldn’t it be funny if he had to dress in a biker’s clothes?” and “wouldn’t it be funny if he said ‘Let’s kick some butt’?”
Though the excessiveness of Rich family opulence is the joke, and their kindness and generosity are shown to be in contrast with other business dynasties, there’s an unavoidable element of wealth-worship. When the poor kids don’t want to let Richie join their baseball game you want to bust out the world’s smallest violin. He surprises them by hitting a home run, and we feel we should cheer for him like Cadbury does, but we know that earlier he had his regular hitting lessons from Reggie Jackson and workout with Claudia Schiffer (substituting for his personal trainer referred to only as “Arnold”). I guess what I’m trying to say is there are questions of privilege that Richie Rich never addresses. Then the kids warm to Richie as he brings them on his “kid-a-pult,” ATVs and his roller coaster, while The Romantics chant “That’s what I like about you!” on the soundtrack.
The most dated aspects: There are two different fat characters who comically binge eat in all their scenes, Richie and Cadbury openly check out Schiffer’s butt, and a CG robot bee hovers around in front of the camera as if giving us time to gasp in awe.
17. The Crow: City of Angels (1996)
Production designer Alex McDowell, who worked on the original Crow movie, and new cinematographer Jean-yves Escoffier (Gummo) came up with a gorgeous, yellow-tinted look for the West Coast version of The Crow’s gothic urban hellscape.
Just like the original, a man (Vincent Perez this time) is murdered and comes back in mime makeup a year later to kill off the culprits. On the plus side, the weirdo creeps he battles include Iggy Pop, Thomas Jane, and the original Yellow Power Ranger, Thuy Trang. On the negative side, it’s a pretty straight rehash of the already light-on-substance original, with a lead who can’t match the presence of the late beloved actor he’s imitating.
The sequel’s only real legacy is as screenwriter David S. Goyer’s dry run of a comic book movie about a guy in a leather duster riding a motorcycle and killing weird gothic-industrial-biker-occult people in dance clubs. He later re-used the peep show scene as the ending of Blade II.
16. Guyver (1991)
Loosely based on the manga Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, this low-budget, New Line Cinema release is a monster movie with a bit of martial arts. While getting beat up by street toughs, a not very good aikido student (Jack Armstrong) finds a weird alien device that connects to his head and turns him into a sort of biomechanical Ultraman-like hero called a “Guyver.” He spends the rest of the movie running from employees of The Chronos Corporation, who look human, but are actually “Zoanoids” who turn into slimy monsters.
Mark Hamill, mustachioed and trenchcoated, is kind of cool as a grim CIA agent — or, at the least, he outshines the bland hero. The plot plods along, given no help by a cheesy keyboard score or the sometimes rhyming Jimmy Walker, whose jokes include yelling about Teriyaki sauce and sushi (because Japan) and who ends the movie by stooping to saying “Dy-no-mite!” in his monster form. But the creature FX by Screaming Mad George and Steve Wang — also the directors of the movie — are quite ambitious. The henchman monsters look pretty corny and don’t move their faces that much, but there are numerous weird transformations.
The Guyver itself has a menacing design, faithful to the source material. It can grow elbow blades or fold itself up and turn into tendrils that slither into holes in the wearer’s neck. In one of the gooiest scenes, a monster rips one of the silver spheres out of his head, so he shrivels up and melts into a puddle of green slime. Later, the metal ball starts to grow muscle tissue, and gets swallowed by a monster, and then the fully grown Guyver rips out of his stomach. So it’s not all bad.
15. The Mask (1994)
Awkward, Tex-Avery-loving bank employee loser Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) discovers the mystical mask of Loki, which unleashes his “innermost desires” to be a green-faced cartoon character who zips around in a zoot suit robbing banks, doing dance numbers and fighting gangsters. Although his manic night life puts him in the sights of both the police and organized crime, his main focus seems to be on impressing the flirtatious hot lady (introducing Cameron Diaz). The movie’s fascination with the ’90s swing revival hasn’t aged well, and Stanley’s self-proclaimed “nice guy” and “hopeless romantic” status don’t seem as cute in the age of homicidal incels. We could call him mostly harmless, if not for the scene in which he brutally violates two auto mechanics by stuffing mufflers up their asses for overcharging him.
But it is a role that takes full advantage of Carrey’s physical talents without being as obnoxious as Batman Forever, and even his random, impassioned imitations of movie scenes kind of work. The digital animation to cartoonify Stanley’s body was groundbreaking, and it’s a novel enough use of the technology that it’s still fun to watch now that it has been far surpassed. The Mask also launched Diaz, then a 21-year-old model with no previous acting experience, into better roles.
14. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990), TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (1991), TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III (1993)
I’m a little too old to understand Ninja Turtles well enough to judge one against another. You had to be there, I think, so I’m calling this a three-way tie. What started as a small-press comic parody of Daredevil, and later a smash hit cartoon, became a live-action feature film too quickly for anybody to stop and make sure it made any goddamn sense. Four pet turtles exposed to toxic waste become muscle-bound color-coded ninja vigilantes trained by wise rat-man sensei Splinter (puppeteer Kevin Clash) and protect the city from evil ninjas and their army of teen pickpockets.
The movie makes a big assumption that eating pizza is funny and avoids making a case as to why they needed to be turtles as opposed to any other type of creature. I do get a kick out of the backstory that the evil Shredder (James Saito) has a grudge against Splinter because he recognizes him as a pet rat that scratched him when he knocked over a cage during a double murder 15 years ago.
But a Golden Harvest production with effects by Jim Henson is nothing to sneeze at. The spectacle of martial artists performing acrobatic choreography in full body rubber monster suits partly makes up for the first movie’s endless weaknesses. Elias Koteas, Sam Rockwell, Skeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf also show up in early roles.
The even more nonsensical first sequel is either better or worse for being the one where the humanoid turtle vigilante martial artists and junk food enthusiasts inexplicably go onstage at a club to rap with Vanilla Ice. Martial arts prodigy Ernie Reyes Jr. (Red Sonja) co-stars as a pizza delivery boy who discovers their secret existence.
In the third movie, the last of the original series, a magic scepter causes the turtles and their friend April (Paige Turco) to switch places with people in feudal Japan. April finds herself locked up as a witch, while the turtles are mistaken for “kappa” demons. This all happens at a volatile time when an English trader (Stuart Wilson) plans to introduce guns to Lord Norinaga (Sab Shimono).
Putting these turtle people into a period martial arts film is a cool idea, and the animatronics by All Effects Company (Short Circuit, the Energizer Bunny) are impressively expressive. Unfortunately, the turtles pretty much never stop talking in that way where you can tell every other line is supposed to be a joke but usually the joke just amounts to saying “dude” or mentioning a popular TV show or something. This keeps it from being much different or classier than when they’re at home eating pork rinds and skateboarding, though maybe a little more boring.
13. Judge Dredd (1995)
The cult British comic about a satirically authoritarian dystopia makes for a weird Sylvester Stallone vehicle. As a “Judge” in Mega-City One, he patrols the crime-ridden streets arresting, sentencing and even executing people on the spot. Then one day his psychotic test-tube brother Rico (Armand Assante) busts out of the Aspen penal colony and frames him for murder. Dredd has different adventures as a wanted man, like getting kidnapped by cannibals, fighting inside the head of the Statue of Liberty, and being in a chase in which Rob Schneider wets himself.
There’s an inherent, Paul-Verhoeven-esque cheekiness to the glorification of these police state fascists in gold-plated glam armor zooming around on their flying motorcycles believing they’re the good guys. Then Dredd goes to the wasteland, takes off his helmet and becomes a generic Stallone hero. When he returns to his unjustifiable job it kind of seems like we’re supposed to be happy for him.
Though wielding a lower budget, Dredd (2012) is a much fiercer, more entertaining movie. The hook of the ’90s version is delving further into the politics and weirdness of the comics.
12. Men in Black (1997)
I’ve always felt Men in Black was too slight and insubstantial to justify its popularity and continued existence as an ongoing, big-budget franchise, but revisiting the comic adaptation, it’s hard to deny director Barry Sonnenfeld’s short and sweet, mostly deadpan take on the simple premise of a government agency trying to act casual while concealing the existence of cartoonish extraterrestrial races among us.
Humor-free veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones doing the extreme opposite of his Batman Forever performance) recruits wisecracking NYPD detective James Edwards (Will Smith) to become Agent J, giving him (and us) a tour of this secret world and his role in policing it with laser guns, flying cars and memory-erasing devices. Though I find some of Smith’s riffing and mugging intrusive, Sonnenfeld is very good at staging jokes like J being flailed around by a tentacled baby in the background of a conversation, and Rick Baker and Industrial Light and Magic provide an endlessly ambitious menagerie of alien creatures, most impressively the corpse with a head that opens to reveal a tiny pilot inside.
Though Jones’ rock solid seriousness is the foundation for the whole movie, the other MVP of the cast is Vincent D’Onofrio, first playing an abusive redneck husband, then an alien bug badly passing for human while wearing the skin of the abusive redneck husband. Somehow he balances a form of wacko physical comedy with enough menace to still work as the main villain threatening the planet.
At barely 90 minutes, Men in Black is over so quickly you don’t notice that we don’t see any of J’s home life or past that he completely left behind in order to take the job. K, however, gets a nice little ending to his story, ready to be undone in a sequel.
11. Fist of the North Star (1995)
This direct-to-video manga adaptation from the director and writer of Hellbound: Hellraiser II casts two mulleted white guys in leather vests (Gary Daniels and Costas Mandylor) as characters named Kenshiro and Shin, who are the heirs to the world’s two remaining martial arts schools. If you can get past such audacious whitewashing, it’s a pretty cool B-movie. In a futuristic wasteland, desert wanderer Kenshiro is the last remaining practitioner of a fighting style that uses pressure points to cause people’s bodies to enlarge and explode. To his dismay, he’s the world’s only hope against the Southern Cross school run by Lord Shin, who stole his girlfriend (Isako Washio), shot his dad (Malcolm McDowell) ,and conquered the world.
After healing a little girl (Nalona Herron)’s blindness and receiving messages from his dad’s ghost, Kenshiro protects post-apocalyptic settlers including Melvin Van Peebles, Downtown Julie Brown (!) and Dante “Rufio” Basco from Shin’s gang of marauders, led by Jackal (Chris Penn), who wears leather straps around his mutated head. A flashback reveals that he’s worn them since Kenshiro’s punches caused his head to bulge, so we get to look forward to finding out what happens when someone unravels them.
Daniels is a real martial artist, of course, so there are some decent fights in Fist of the North Star, though the cool super-powered punches are mostly in the earlier part of the movie.
10. Tank Girl (1995)
Tank Girl is narratively scatterbrained and stylistically obnoxious, but nothing less would properly represent its heroine’s personality. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect role for Lori Petty than the bratty punk trickster driving a tank through post-apocalyptic Australia to rescue her young friend (Stacy Linn Ramsower), sold to a brothel by the fascist Water & Power corporation. Throughout the adventure, Tank Girl, aka Rebecca, changes hair and clothing from scene to scene, even becomes an animated character a few times. Her tank sometimes follows her around like a dog. When she runs out of bombs she loads the cannon with beer cans, though she hates to waste them. She loves Doris Day and watches Sonja Henie films during a tank battle. The rescue involves an elaborate Cole Porter musical number.
Tank Girl stumbles whenever it follows a standard good vs. evil movie formula — do we really need a big showdown on a catwalk? — but the world it depicts is unique. Director Rachel Talalay and production designer Catherine Hardwicke (who’d later direct Twilight) worked closely with Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett (now better known for his Gorillaz videos and album art) to mimic the meticulous style of his drawings of homes, vehicles and costumes cluttered with logos, graffiti, tattoos and trinkets. They also use his still drawings as establishing shots, which tends to be disorienting and feel like a shortcut, even if it fits the frenetic style of the movie. And I’m sorry to say that Stan Winston’s makeup does not do the job of making us accept the mysterious race of kangaroo-people that Rebecca befriends. They’re not as funny as her, but they definitely believe they are. Maybe they’re related to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Counterpoint: Tank Girl is the only movie where Ice-T plays a kangaroo-man. The cast also includes Malcolm McDowell (the villain, of course), Iggy Pop, James Hong, Dawn Robinson from En Vogue, and a pre-Mulholland Drive (hell, pre-Children of the Corn: The Gathering) Naomi Watts as “Jet Girl.”
Tank Girl is a mess, but a sweet one.
9. Crying Freeman (1995)
Mark Dacascos stars in this Canadian-Japanese-French co-production based on a manga by Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood author Kazuo Koike. Crying Freeman tells the story of a Yakuza assassin who sheds tears every time he kills despite seeming otherwise emotionless. This is because he’s really just a peaceful ceramicist mind-controlled by a cult called The Sons of the Dragon. When a painter (Julia Condra) witnesses one of his hits, he’s supposed to kill her, but instead he falls in love, overcomes his programming and protects her in the middle of a battle between Yakuzas, Triads and Interpol.
French director Christophe Gans, who later had success with Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill, pays heavy homage to John Woo’s The Killer in stylish shootouts, gloomy slow motion and themes of honor. It’s a style that many film-savvy westerners hungered for at the time, but for some reason Crying Freeman was never released in the U.S. If it had then maybe I’d spend less time explaining to people that yes, the guy from Iron Chef also stars in martial arts movies.
8. Batman & Robin (1997)
I know, I know. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have ranked Joel Schumacher’s camp fiasco this high even under torture. I genuinely considered it the worst big-budget movie ever made, as did others, since the vibe in the room after release was that comic book movies might be dead altogether. But the implosion let the franchise go in a totally different direction, leading to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Now there’s no reason to take it personally, and I can enjoy the unlikely existence of this mega-budget ode to gaudy, tacky, corny, stupid excess.
Though it’s not an explicit parody, and its attempts at humor rarely work on the level intended, there’s something joyful about this aggressive onslaught of ludicrousness. A rocket launches Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) into the upper atmosphere, and they airboard safely back to earth. The Dynamic Duo click their heels together and ice skate blades pop out of their boots so they can battle an evil hockey team. Arnold Schwarzenegger, adorable under his giant metal Mr. Freeze costume and thick blue glitter makeup, leads his henchmen in a The Year Without a Santa Claus sing-along and makes more than two dozen ice or cold puns. Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy builds a greenhouse in a Turkish bath, hypnotizes men by blowing pheromones at them, gets Bane (played by 400-pound professional wrestler Jeep Swenson) to wear a fluffy pink gorilla costume, and yells “Curses!” as she gets eaten by a giant venus fly trap.
These days, online trolls raise pitchforks over any superhero movie that hints at diversity, so it’s kind of hard to believe that a Batman movie where, during the opening titles, the Batman symbol mounted the Robin symbol, flew under the radar. I don’t think people noticed because they were distracted by the butt and crotch shots in the suiting up montage. The genius of Schumacher’s subversive homo-eroticism was to just to throw it out there like it’s what you expect in a movie designed to sell plastic cups at Taco Bell. It worked.
I hated this movie so much, and I wasn’t wrong about any of it, but now I kind of love it. Do you remember the scene where Coolio officiates an illegal motorcycle race wearing a coat made out of shoes? I bet you don’t, because it’s not even in the top 100 ridiculous moments of Batman & Robin. It’s that rare case of a studio giving a director license to spend $125 million on a movie that literally no other director would’ve made, or want to have made. There is joy in this movie.
7. Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
This manga-adaptation sequel is a cooler and more legit action movie, despite the lack of Mark Hamill. One major improvement is David Hayter (English-language voice star of the Metal Gear Solid games), who replaces Jack Armstrong as Sean Barker, the young man accidentally infused with mysterious alien bio-armor. Though it has a few less monsters and transformations than the first film, I think they’re much more sophisticated designs with a little less of the guy-in-rubber-costume look.
As the subtitle indicates, this is more of a brooding Guyver who doesn’t like that his extraterrestrial parasite is making him kill people, even if they’re bad guys. At night he sweats up a storm to Hellraiser-esque nightmares of tentacle-based torment, but by day, he blocks bullets with his palms, jumps off cliffs as his armor encases him, and marks crime scenes by burning his logo into the wall with lasers in the helmet. His dreams lead him to an Incredible Hulk-style adventure at an archaeological site near alleged werewolf sightings, where he falls in love, hides his secret, learns more about the alien technology and fights more people who transform into monsters.
Dark Hero’s fights are much longer and better shot. Stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto is a veteran choreographer, director, and producer of shows like Power Rangers and Kamen Rider, and there’s something fun about those kinds of fights in an R-rated setting where the monsters can gets their faces bashed in or their throats slit. It’s also easier to get caught up in the story when the movie itself takes it seriously, maintaining a consistent tone instead of constantly interrupting with bad jokes.
The most unlikely thing about the movie is that its star, Hayter, would later help launch the next era of comic book movies as screenwriter of X-Men, X2: X-Men United and Watchmen.
Bonus:The Shadow (1994)
Director Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow would go right here if it was actually based on a comic book, and not a character from a radio drama who was later adapted into comics, pulp magazines, and movies. Rules are rules. But since it was made possible by Burton’s Batman, has many of the same ’30s and ’40s influences, and so clearly belongs in the conversation with other superhero movies of the era, I want to recommend it.
Alec Baldwin plays the title character, a magical mind-controlling vigilante in a black cloak who rescues people in trouble before making them his agents to help rescue other people in trouble. The movie is strange: it opens with a long-haired Baldwin living in Tibet, leading a brutal opium gang and using the name Yin-Ko. A good Tulku’s spell causes him to separate his evil side into the alter ego of The Shadow, for which Baldwin wears a huge fake nose to look like the character in the cover paintings.
Despite his ordinary-sized nose, Baldwin is incredible casting because of his voice; the character originated as the narrator of a mystery show, and here he’s often speaking while invisible. He also gets a few chances to be funny at a time when he wasn’t yet known for it. A standout moment: a scene in which The Shadow responds to the barbarian sorcerer Shiwan Khan (John Lone) invading his secret base by asking “So, what brings you to the Big Apple?”
And I’d love to see just one modern comic book movie send us out with as much rock opera bombast as Taylor Dayne’s Jim-Steinman-penned end credits song “Original Sin (Theme From ‘The Shadow’).” But it’ll never happen. I’m surprised it even happened then.
6. The Crow (1994)
Brandon Lee gives his most committed performance as vengeful, psychotic rock ‘n roll ghost Erik Draven in Alex Proyas’ weird hybrid of gothic painting and Death Wish rip-off. Michael Wincott and Tony Todd are among the despicable scumbags and witches menacing a foggy model city until Lee’s resurrected murder victim manifests to taunt them by quoting poetry and laughing off bullet wounds.
Though remembered mostly for the tragic on-set death of its charismatic star, the aggressive visual style, the face paint, and the alternative/industrial/gothic rock soundtrack make The Crow among the most influential films on this list. In many ways, it aged better than its imitators, though for me, the sadism leaves a bad taste. Until the end, Draven is invincible, and he cackles as he torments his prey. The exaggerated savagery of the city and its inhabitants more than justify his behavior, but in a post-Columbine and incel world it’s a little icky to think about him as an icon to angry outsiders who feel they’re victimized and entitled to retribution.
Still, The Crow’s surface pleasures make it required viewing.
5. The Rocketeer (1991)
Twenty years before Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston directed this similarly aw, shucks ’30s-era superhero film about stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) finding an experimental jetpack stashed by mobsters who stole it from Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff takes it for a thrilling test run, adds a cool helmet that helps him steer, and soon stumbles into a career as a masked vigilante performing high flying rescues. But matinee idol Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who is actually a spy, wants to steal the technology for the Nazis.
It’s the kind of movie where the hero’s jet pack gets a bullet hole in it, and he covers it with a piece of gum. It’s also the type where a gang boss (Paul Sorvino) finds out the guy that hired him is a Nazi, turns patriotic and aims his tommy gun in the other direction. It makes sense that Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens was a storyboard artist on Raiders of the Lost Ark, considering his Saturday matinee adventure sensibilities. Cliff is a cool guy in a leather jacket who can throw a punch, but also a small town nice guy who hangs out with an old man (Alan Arkin), makes his headquarters in the local diner, and dates an aspiring ingenue (Jennifer Connelly) who’s maybe too nice for the business. The backlot intrigue, along with scenes involving Griffith Observatory, the Spruce Goose and the Hollywoodland sign, give the movie a specifically Californian flavor to its nostalgia.
And now The Rocketeer itself is an artifact of a different time in Hollywood. The twisty, turny flying scenes are top notch Industrial Light and Magic right before everything started turning digital, so they’re thrilling and delightful at the same time.
4. The Phantom (1996)
The most underrated of the ’90s Old Timey Superhero movies, The Phantom captures a perfect adventure serial feel that’s funny without quite being a parody. The movie is very aware of its own goofiness and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for it. Yes, it says, I am a movie about a guy in purple spandex who lives in a skull-shaped cave and fights pirates, mercenaries and corrupt businessmen over supernatural artifacts, and I don’t give a shit what you think about it. Got a problem with having a villain (Catherine Zeta-Jones) switch to the good guys because someone asked her “Why are you so mean?” Too bad. Don’t enjoy a scene in which the Phantom’s wolf tells the Phantom’s horse where to go to catch The Phantom when he jumps out of a stolen seaplane? Get over yourself.
The crucial ingredient is the pitch-perfect casting of Billy Zane as The Phantom, Christian name Kit Walker. He jumps and swings and somersaults around the jungles of fictional Bengalla (portrayed by lush locations in Australia and Thailand), a job he inherited from his father (Patrick MacGoohan), who provides consultation in ghost form. Zane’s comic strip poses, knowing smile, and dry line delivery are the exact right balance of corny and awesome to invest us in his derring-do and fisticuffs. Also clearly having fun is Treat Williams as delightedly evil lead villain Xander Drax, who at one point shouts, “Did you hear the exciting news? We’re going to the Devil’s Triangle!”
You could argue that Walker’s shipwrecked ancestor who started this purple-pirate-puncher business generations ago was being used by the natives, but now he’s the very definition of a White Savior. I would love some day to see that archetype exploded by having the next heir to the mantle be a black man, especially an American one with no experience in Africa. What would he make of the Bengallans, and would they still call him “The Ghost Who Walks”? Or was that a racial slur all along?
But despite the archaic racial ideas in the material I think the 1996 movie has a subversive streak it was never given proper credit for. Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, who also wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, exalts a hero who’s sort of a reverse-Indy. At one point he tries to “steal” an artifact from a New York museum, saying “I represent the original owners.” I don’t think it’s accidental that the villainous treasure hunter Quill (James Remar) wears a brown fedora.
3. Dick Tracy (1990)
Most of today’s comic book movies look similar to one another. They take place in a grounded world, so the influence of comic art mostly shows up in the costumes and special effects sequences. But in the wake of Burton’s expressionistic Batman, comic book movies of the ’90s leaned towards the stylized. No one took it further than Dick Tracy director Warren Beatty, who (with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Richard Sylbert) depicts the Prohibition-era surroundings of Chester Gould’s yellow-coated detective using only the seven colors available in the Sunday comics section. It’s a city terrorized by red, blue, green and purple suited gangsters with gimmicky cartoon faces that won an Academy Award for makeup artists John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler.
Supercop Tracy (Beatty) tries to take down the criminal empire of Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino). In between club raids, spinning headlines and encounters with tommy guns that punch perfectly round holes through cars, Tracy finds himself tempted by club singer/potential informant Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), apologizing to his poor girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenn Headly) and looking after a little boy he rescued (Charlie Korsmo). Then 53 and unmarried, Beatty turned his primary-colored goof into a deeply personal and heartfelt story about a man whose celebrated success has allowed him to avoid responsibility in relationships and made him fear slowing down to be a husband and father. The emotions are real, even if he’s living his life three panels at a time.
The contradictory goals of visual artificiality and emotional authenticity likely softened the film’s potential as a crowd-pleasing spectacle, if such a thing was even possible. But they also make it a one-of-a-kind film.
2. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s only sequel infuses the modern comic book movie form he created in 1989 with a much weirder and more personal touch. Notorious at the time for upsetting children, it’s now clearly the best of the not-trying-to-be-grounded Batman films.
As a literal adaptation of Batman, there’s much to complain about. Our hero mostly sulks about Wayne Manor until there’s a gang riot downtown, then he drives in to beat them up. He casually dynamites a low-level clown thug and sets another one on fire with an engine blast, but tries to stop Catwoman from killing the rich guy who hired them. It’s not the best depiction of the existing character’s code or methods. But as a poetic portrait of Burton’s gothic fantasy world and the heightened psychologies of its inhabitants, Batman Returns is something truly special.
Burton’s most drastic and inspired change to the mythos is his monstrous version of Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny Devito). Dumped over a bridge by his parents and raised in a sideshow, he lives with a circus gang in an abandoned zoo, blackmailing corrupt businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who then convinces him to run for mayor. Even more memorable is Selina “Catwoman” Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), reinvented as Shreck’s awkward secretary who, after being thrown out a window, unleashes her vengeful, sexually aggressive, not-gonna-put-up-with-any-more-shit side. She straight up cat-burgles the movie, taking screen time away from Batman, getting her way at the end, and even grabbing the final standing-on-a-building-as-the-music-swells shot.
The screenplay by Daniel Waters (Heathers) squeezes in numerous laughs without breaking Burton’s moody spell. There’s timeless political satire in a CEO who runs the city and nearly manages to replace the mayor with a repulsive, sexually harassing monster running on a bullshit law and order platform. (The part that doesn’t work today is that a recording of him saying something terrible ends his campaign.) Yet there’s also room for a poetic sort of absurdity. Cobblepot begins the movie in a baby carriage floating through sewers like Moses; at the end, six emperor penguin pallbearers return his corpse to the water.
It certainly helps that Batman Returns is one of the most beautifully designed and photographed comic book movies of any era. Both the silliness and the melodrama might be harder to swallow without the lush atmosphere or the incredible Danny Elfman score sweeping you along. By filtering the spirit of Gotham City through his feverish monster movie brain, Burton created a superhero experience unlike anything before or since.
1. Blade (1998)
Wesley Snipes was not the first choice to play Blade, but he’s the only one who could’ve pulled it off. There are few actors acclaimed for their acting on stage and in film who also have training in Shotokan karate, Hapkido, Capoeira, kung fu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Snipes exceeded whatever expectations these unique qualifications set for him with a stoic and physically impeccable performance. An all time champion of superhero poses, Snipes stands, crouches, slinks and cocks his head like a drawing. And there’s a rhythm to him: he knows the exact moment to swing his coat like a cape, spinning and sheathing his sword, or flashing a quick, taunting smile.
He is the Daywalker, the half-man, half-vampire, boogie man to bloodsuckers. Though we see flashes of Blade’s backstory, we meet him already deeply entrenched in a vampire-hunting operation with his own techniques, arsenal, headquarters, and fundraising methods. He’s a guy so deep into his mission that he’s lost track of things like how to have a polite conversation, how to walk around in public without open carrying a sword and machine gun, how not to use the lady you like as bait and then tell her to “get over it.” But he’s very good at other things. In one of the greatest introductions to any character in a comic book movie, he decimates an entire dance floor of vampire ravers drenched from head to toe in human blood without getting a single drop on himself.
Blade exemplifies one of the tenets of ’90s comic book cinema — that fidelity to the source material is not always necessary, and may even be a liability — by completely reinventing Blade and his world. Screenwriter David S. Goyer and director Stephen Norrington took the loose premise of a black vampire hunter immune to vampire bites from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula, changed his powers, his personality, his look, his weapons and his mentor, and created a new culture of vampires to pit him against. And yet, Blade beats many of the more faithful adaptations at having a “comic book” energy; larger-than-life characters and concepts presented without self-conscious distance, involved in propulsive action sequences full of battle poses and graphic vampire deaths worthy of a cover or splash page.
Blade also predicts the future of comic book movies by canning the nostalgia, trying to make something current or a little bit ahead of the curve, and trusting the audience to accept a fairly complex mythology. Though it has some parallels with earlier movies on this list (sharing story elements with Vampirella, for example) it feels separate from them, the beginning of a new age, and arguably even of its own subgenre of digitally enhanced horror-themed action that would include the much longer Resident Evil and Underworld sagas. Goyer would also go on to be a major shaper of the next age of comic book movies as co-writer or writer of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not to mention TV shows of Blade, Constantine and Krypton.
There are other movies on this list that could reasonably be called the best comic book movie of the ’90s. But to me Blade is the clear choice because it has held up to the most rewatches, continuing to be a juggernaut of entertainment with negligible signs of dating. I remember some of the parts that got applause on opening night, when the movie was a surprise, and they still give me the same thrill now that it’s a twenty year old classic.
Vern is the author of Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the novel Niketown. He reviews several movies a week at OutlawVern.com. Follow him on Twitter@outlawvern.
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