How the 1990s Changed Comic Book Movies

As Captain Marvel takes place in the 1990s, we look back at when Hollywood started making comic book movies in earnest.

Batman & Robin

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The 1990s was not a great decade for comic book movies. This week’s Captain Marvel may be largely set in 1995, complete with Brie Larson in a Nine Inch Nails tee and a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson, but looking back, the decade is notable for not having many films like it at all, as studios bought, adapted, and usually flattened comics into blockbuster packages.

From Batman to Blade, the comic book films of the decade were largely teed up in answer to unexpected hits. Without really understanding why these films played so well, studios set about developing all sorts of properties for the screen. A generally risk-averse approach meant that many didn’t make it to completion, and the ones that did usually landed some distance from where they started.

For one thing, it wasn’t a great time to be a fan of Marvel movies. After the House of Ideas sold off characters’ screen rights left, right, and center in a bid to save the company from bankruptcy, various projects languished in development throughout the decade. The spread of character rights also gave Marvel fans Roger Corman’s infamous 1994 unreleased Fantastic Four film and the David Hasselhoff-starring TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Perhaps the fan experience is best reflected in Marvel Studios’ generally negative portrayal of the decade up until now. MCU’s various opening flashbacks to the ’90s thus far have been a bit grim: we get a mission report from Dec. 16, 1991 where the Winter Soldier murders Howard and Maria Stark, and a few years later, King T’Chaka kills his brother N’Jobu, leaving his nephew to grow up alone in Oakland.

It’s telling that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have named Terminator 2 as a key ’90s influence on Captain Marvel, rather than any of the superhero movies released at the time. While the produced comic book films of the 1990s may have been wiped on-screen continuity, the trends and growing pains of developing them continue to influence superhero movies today.

Bat-mania

In 1990, the blockbuster success of Tim Burton’s Batman loomed large. Critics enjoyed it, audiences favored its unique atmosphere and relative faithfulness to the comics, and sales for the original soundtrack album by Prince went through the roof. All of this meant that comic book movies looked like big business at the start of the decade.

Throughout the next 10 years, studios kept developing movies based on other major comics properties, looking for another Batman. The film’s screenwriter, Sam Hamm, was enlisted to adapt titles like The Incredible Hulk, which similarly had a cultural cache stored up from its vintage TV version, and Watchmen, a graphic novel that many considered to be unadaptable. To give you an idea of their success, it was almost 20 years and many comic book blockbusters later before films called The Incredible Hulk and Watchmen finally made it into cinemas.

Warner Bros also tried to develop a remount of the Superman franchise based on the zeitgeist-grabbing event story arc The Death of Superman, which was published in 1992. That project, Superman Lives, which had Burton attached as director, Kevin Smith as writer, and Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel, never made it to production. 

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One early attempt to jump on the Bat-wagon was Disney’s Dick Tracy, a long-gestating project that came to fruition the summer after Burton’s comic book juggernaut broke box-office records. An unexpected passion project for Hollywood veteran Warren Beatty, the film came with a star-studded cast including Beatty himself, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Madonna, the latter of whom also contributed to the soundtrack.

While Beatty’s film was by no means a flop, it didn’t live up to Disney’s expectations. The studio didn’t get the Batman it expected, but it should be mentioned that Disney had another run at a period-set comic book movie with 1991’s The Rocketeer. Starring Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, and a post-Bond Timothy Dalton, the film is a rollicking dry run for both Iron Man and director Joe Johnston’s own Captain America: The First Avenger.

Warner’s sister studio, New Line Cinema, did have a major success with distributed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990. Independently produced and co-financed by Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, the film was based on a comic that had already been turned into a popular animated series and toy line by this point.

Unlike Dick Tracy, the Turtles had some existing brand visibility with younger audiences. Appealing to the older kids who liked the comics and the younger kids who liked the spin-offs, it cost $13.5 million to make and earned 10 times that figure at the global box office. This made it the highest-grossing independent film of all time, up until Pulp Fiction arrived in 1994.

Along with two modestly budgeted sequels, this started a trend of New Line having a higher hit rate for comic book movies than either Warner or many of the other majors in Hollywood. Although Turtles definitely widened the net in the scramble for adaptable properties, studios were still pumping money into stuff that wasn’t all that well known by audiences.

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Trying to recapture Bat-mania is most likely what prompted The Shadow, a 1994 flop starring Alec Baldwin as the 1940s comic-strip hero. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi had lobbied hard to make the project, but when producers snubbed him, he went away and came up with his own original superhero, the far superior Darkman.

By the time you get to Billy Zane in The Phantom, it’s pretty plain that mining comics that were contemporary to Detective Comics was a non-starter. Far from the paradigm-shifting hit it could have been, Batman started to look like something of a one-off, even in comparison to its own sequels.

Bat-mania 2

Where did they get all those wonderful toys? The desire for “toyetic” movies had an impact on various projects, not least the Batman sequels. Burton’s weirder, kinkier sequel, Batman Returns, notoriously made producers and merchandisers grimace because they didn’t get the movie they had expected when they booked a Happy Meal tie-in with McDonald’s.

On TV, the excellent Batman animated series (which came with its own near-perfect movie spin-off, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) nailed the tone that none of the subsequent Bat-movies made in the ’90s could. In fact, the producers’ reaction to Batman Returns was a turning point for this particular franchise that sent the Caped Crusader spiraling towards his doom.

Director Joel Schumacher replaced Burton and Val Kilmer took over as the Dark Knight from Michael Keaton for 1995’s messy Batman Forever, a sequel that was both colorful action blockbuster and psychosexual thriller, all with a family-friendly PG rating. Today, the movie is remembered not as a classic but a strange curiosity among Bat-fans.

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Nevertheless, Batman Forever was a roaring success with audiences at the time, giving Warner Bros. a box office hit that landed only just short of the first film’s box office total, while also landing the studio a surprising Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. On the merchandise front, the movie came with plenty of toys, but also one of the best soundtracks for a bad movie ever put on a compact disc, including Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” among others.

While many are more disparaging of Schumacher’s second entry in the franchise, at least that sequel is more tonally intact than his first effort. In keeping with the comedic tone of the beloved 1960s sitcom, 1997’s Batman & Robin turns the dynamic duo’s legendary readiness for any eventuality into a toy company’s dream, with gadgets, suits, and vehicles galore.

There’s no shark repellent, but there’s a bit where Batman, Robin, and Batgirl all sod off to get changed into silver-plated winter armor for the movie’s climactic battle with Mr. Freeze. It’s like seeing one of those random superhero toys — Spider-Man’s car or Hulk’s spacesuit — in an actual film for one time only.

Batman & Robin feels like it’s Schumacher’s vision all the way through, where Forever definitely didn’t. To be fair, people rave about that kind of authorial integrity as a positive aspect of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman all the time. The only real difference is that Snyder’s vision is Die Walküre and Schumacher’s is Springtime for Hitler. Unfortunately, neither director’s vision is very good.

In just under a decade, the Batman franchise had gone from being mean, moody, and magnificent, to being overlong and overwhelmed by glaring fluorescent colors and even more glaring innuendo. As George Clooney once remarked: “I think we killed the franchise.”

No More Heroes

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In contemporary comics, the mood had gone in the opposite direction. Older readers were buying edgier and darker stories about original and established characters alike. As well as pulling from Dark Horse and other imprints, there was a swerve away from superheroes in the mid-90s. While a succession of family films was borne out of old-fashioned comics like Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and Dennis the Menace, the older audience flocked to anti-heroes rather than traditional four-color heroism.

It’s a period in which you get fare as varied as The Crow, an impressively realized film that was somewhat overshadowed by Brandon Lee’s tragic death during filming; Timecop, a Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle based on a little-known anthology strip; and Tank Girl, an often-surreal feminist western that meddling studio executives never understood. None of these films are superhero stories.

In other cases, you can still see that same lighter approach that took hold of the Batman sequels being carried out with greater success. As seen in the pages of Dark Horse Comics, The Mask is a properly scuzzy and despicable character, and yet by hitching the property to Jim Carrey’s rising star, New Line turned it into one of the decade’s more fondly remembered comedy vehicles. Different as this crowd-pleasing, Tex Avery-fuelled take was from the source material, it made a really good movie.

But in the following year, Hollywood showed just how little it understood 2000AD with the movie Judge Dredd, a poorly regarded actioner that does just about everything a 1990s Hollywood movie could do to bastardize its source material. In particular, Danny Cannon’s film shows the tendency to lump comic book movies into either the action genre or the comedy genre and then strictly adhere to their textbook conventions. The problem, as Sylvester Stallone saw it, was that when he walked on set wearing Dredd’s iconic uniform and helmet, “nobody laughed.”

But for a darker and yet immeasurably more dreadful adaptation of a comic book, one need only look at 1997’s Spawn, a low point for the genre that seems destined to be repeated with an upcoming “joyless” reboot. Across a range of produced films, studio executives and/or filmmakers struggled with both the darkness and the light of their comic book source material.

The Biggest Comic Book Movies of the ’90s

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That said, 1997 was also the year that Columbia Pictures released the highest-grossing comic book movie of the decade, simultaneously kickstarting a franchise and cementing Will Smith’s status as king of the box office. Based on a Marvel comic (but not that Marvel), Men in Black teamed Smith with Tommy Lee Jones for a terrific science-fiction comedy caper about a covert government agency “protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe.”

Adapted by Bill & Ted screenwriter Ed Solomons and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film still holds up as a smart, funny, and inventive rollercoaster ride. Backed by ingenious visual and prosthetic effects and an all-time great performance from Vincent D’Onofrio, Men in Black is one of the very best blockbusters of the decade.

The film was a worldwide box office smash hit on the scale of Batman ’89, After studios spent most of the decade trawling comic books for IP, the little-known source material for Men in Black was barely a factor in its success. It’s just a really good time at the movies. Better than any other ’90s movie with comic book origins, it manages to be funny and playful without undermining the premise and the stakes aren’t portended so ominously as to seem po-faced either. Plus, unlike its two leaden sequels, the movie deftly and smartly introduces a bunch of sci-fi concepts and takes them in stride.

Even though it’s a Not-That-Marvel movie, it’s the closest thing the 1990s had to the tone struck by Iron Man in 2008. Without a superhero in sight, it’s the film that somehow predicted where comic-book movies were going. Heck, it also followed where they’d been by having Smith’s banger of a theme song as a tie-in single.

Breaking Out

Batman & Robin and Spawn brought an end to the ’90s way of making comic book movies, right on time for 21st-century’s takes on the X-Men and Spider-Man to freshen things up. But before the decade was out, New Line once again struck gold with Blade in 1998. Stephen Norrington’s film is often credited as the real start of comic book movies becoming more popular in the 2000s. Certainly, it showed that comic-book properties were still bankable after a couple of high-profile bombs.

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However, it’s still of a set with those films that were indistinguishable from non-comic book movies. Sure, it’s fun to watch. But as an action-packed horror film with at least one immortal line about motherfuckers trying to ice-skate uphill, it’s more of a Wesley Snipes movie than a Marvel movie.

With the brand’s big hitters still in various circles of development hell at that point, it’s not what you would necessarily expect from the “first” Marvel movie. Even though the first act and the way in which Blade is introduced feels a bit Batman, the film is a forerunner to films like The Matrix and Underworld rather than the superhero movies of the early 2000s.

While Blade played to an older crowd and the manga influences in The Matrix made audiences believe a man could fly again, the end of the 1990s brought us Mystery Men, another film that proved informative to comic book cinema in the following decade.

Based on the obscure Flaming Carrot Comics, the film united Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Kel Mitchell, Paul Reubens, and Wes Studi as a super-team of misfits with varying super-heroic abilities (as in some of them have powers and others just seem to think they do) who have to step up to take on Geoffrey Rush’s legit supervillain Casanova Frankenstein.

Very much a studio comedy, Mystery Men plays all the familiar tropes of comic books and their movie adaptations with a good, clean sense of fun. Granted, we hadn’t been as exposed to this in pop culture by 1999 as we were by the time that films like Deadpool rolled around, but it’s nicely styled after Schumacher’s Batman movies in places and there’s at least one perfect joke about superheroes who disguise themselves with glasses.

But while Blade went on to get two sequels, Mystery Men only made about half of its $68 million budget back. And thus ended the ’90s era of comic book movies.

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Let’s All Meet up in the Year 2000

In 2000, the two big comic book movies were X-Men, Fox’s long-gestating mutant movie, and Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s ahead-of-its-time deconstruction of superhero lore. That both of those vastly different films have sequels or spin-offs released in 2019 shows just how much ground has been covered in the last two decades or so.

While Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the only real ongoing comic book movie franchises of the 1990s, there was a great deal of experimentation with various properties throughout the decade, in one way or another influenced by the success of these recent benchmarks. Slowly but surely, the success or failure of these projects paved the way for studios to invest in more faithful versions of more well-known comics.

The 1990s aren’t a great time in the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this period held some necessary if painful lessons for everything that followed. Captain Marvel may well be the superhero movie we never got back then, but we couldn’t have got to where we are now without comic book cinema being tried and tested throughout that mad, bad, and weird decade.