What happened to comic book movies in the 1990s?

News Simon Brew 5 Nov 2010 - 13:03

With the movie schedules jam-packed with comic book movies right now, why was the 1990s so poor for them? Simon finds out…

It's already been pointed out far and wide on the Internet, but the summer schedules for the next two years are looking jam-packed with blockbusters. And more and more of them are being derived from a comic book source. Furthermore, it's not even the summer alone that's playing host to such films, either.

Next January, for instance, in a completely out-of-season slot, we get The Green Hornet. And that's going to kick off a series of films that includes two new X-Men movies, at least, Thor, Captain America, The Dark Knight Rises, Ghost Rider 2, The Avengers, The Green Lantern, possibly Deadpool, Iron Man 3, G.I. Joe 2, Sucker Punch, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, Superman, Fantastic Four and Daredevil reboots, Ant-Man, and Judge Dredd. That's just for starters, and there's lots more we've missed out on.

The catalyst, if you trace all of this back, was the success of X-Men. Sure, before then, there had been comic book movie hits. But it was Bryan Singer's maiden X-Men outing, back in 2000, that arguably kick-started the fad that's continued right to this day. It took a few years for the impact of X-Men to really be felt, but it shunted up Marvel's own moviemaking ambitions, and it began a process that changed the industry.

What's surprising about this, however, was that the decade before was quite so barren where comic book movies were concerned. It wasn't that there weren't any. As we'll come to see, there were plenty. But they were regarded differently. They were, outside of the Batman universe, anyway, niche projects, designed to capture a small-ish audience, and thus made on tight budgets. It was the marriage of Internet hype and a big budget, serious approach to the X-Men that arguably turned things around.

Let's get the 90s big hits out of the way first. Tim Burton's Batman Returns, followed by Batman Forever and Batman And Robin, under the stewardship of Joel Schumacher, were all mass market movies that made mass market money. Even the much maligned latter film coined over $200m worldwide at a time when that kind of number was more impressive than it was now.

One of the most successful 90s comic book movies ironically arrived right at the start of the decade, but that in itself had ramifications. Disney poured a lot of money into Warren Beatty's big screen vision for Dick Tracy, and yet, while it brought in over $100m at the US box office, it inspired one of Disney's then-chiefs, Jeffrey Katzenberg, to turn the studio's policy around, actively seeking more smaller movies, rather than pouring all the efforts into one bigger one.

That policy would continue at Disney until, really, it started working with Jerry Bruckheimer in the back half of the decade. Nonetheless, it wasn't just Disney that had absorbed the lessons that Dick Tracy had taught.

Contrasting with Dick Tracy, and arriving in the same year, was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This, too, was derived from a comic book source, but crucially, was made on a far lower budget. For some time, it stood as the most successful independent movie of all time, courtesy of its $135m US box office total, and its similarly cheap sequels would earn a fair amount of cash, too. The lesson had been learned: you want a comic book hit, you don't need to spend big to get it.

And, boy, was that a lesson Hollywood was quick to embrace. Just look at the higher profile comic book movies, outside of Batman, that did turn up as the early 90s wore on. Alec Baldwin was cast as The Shadow, for instance, a hilarious (but not intentionally so) predictable three-act superhero-esque romp.

That fared a lot better than Billy Zane as The Phantom, though. Zane and the comic book genre have wisely been kept apart since. Even Barb Wire, despite the presence of Pamela Anderson in what was to be her movie star-making role, was relatively cheap, and ultimately disappointing.

The bigger hits that there were mainly turned out to be surprises. The Mask was powered primarily by the emerging star of Jim Carrey, at that stage hot off Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The impressive The Crow came to screens off the back of its notoriety, given that Brandon Lee had died on the set of the film. Blade in particular, meanwhile, ramped up lots of its money on video and DVD towards the end of the decade.

Furthermore, in the family market, more easily sellable comic book movies were scoring solid hits. Dennis pulled in a few bucks for Warner Bros, Steven Spielberg oversaw Brad Siberling's take on Casper, guiding it to box office gold, while Richie Rich, a decent performer, hardly set the world on fire.

The films, meanwhile, where Hollywood did take some kind of gamble were failing to perform. Perhaps the highest profile of these was the Judge Dredd film, with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role. On the plus side of the Dredd film, it tried to pack in as many references to the 2000AD strips as it could in places, and it did have Dredd fanatic Danny Cannon at the helm. On the downside? Well, it was Sly, wasn't it? A star who never quite got the vehicle that he was in, and took his helmet off as a result.

There were, of course, films that still managed to bring in a decent profit. Spawn was a terrible, terrible movie, but it was a cheap one to make, and at least managed to get to the top of the box office pile temporarily. Van Damme, meanwhile, made one of his better flicks with Time Cop (even though the advertising, contrary to now, barely offered a hint of the source material), and there's an argument that suggests that Lori Petty's turn as Tank Girl deserves some reassessment.

We do, too, take every opportunity possible to mention Mystery Men, a flawed yet welcome little flick.

Still, most of the projects we've talked about nonetheless had something in common. They were low budget, lacking in ambition, or both. When you consider that the decade that followed would see Christopher Nolan twice pushing the superhero genre into darker territory, while Bryan Singer showed how to orchestrate a stunning opening action sequence with X-Men 2, and Sam Raimi redefined the financial expectations from the genre, it's surprising that the 90s was so shy. There were signs of the bandwagon, certainly, but outside of Gotham City, nothing could be seen as a guaranteed hit.

It's a very different picture now, of course, and one that's now allowing smaller comic books to get a look in. Would something akin to RED have been possible in the 90s, for instance? It's doubtful that the budget would have been signed off, even if similar star power could assemble. After all, it was mooted in the 90s that Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis could join together in a big screen take on Sgt Rock. That never happened, as the budget involved would have been too big a risk.

Were that project mooted today, with massive modern day stars involved, the cheque couldn't be signed quick enough.

But, then, today the comic book movie bandwagon is in full flow. Marvel Studios has a slate to rival any major studio, and DC is heading the same way. And small comic book publishers are being scoured for potential future hits.

For those of us walking out of a screening of The Phantom in the 1990s, and wondering just who, other than Billy Zane, auditioned, it would have been impossible to guess how far the genre would come. Who says progress is a bad thing?

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