Believe it or not, there were some truly great 90s comic book movies. For many of us, that particular decade doesn't feel like it was all that long ago, but it is a time that is getting further and further away in the rearview mirror. There is a lot of nostalgia for things made during that period be it toys, games, music and yes, movies. The thing is, not everything holds up as well as we would like it to and the 90s specifically had not yet cracked the code on comic book movies.
Long before Marvel would launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe and lay out a template that virtually every studio in Hollywood is trying to emulate, comic book movies were just something that studios would try. In the 90s it was a completely, seemingly random thing. Sure, some movies were made based on books from the big two, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, but really it was all over the place. It wasn't the cornerstone of the industry like it is now.
Things really started to change in 2000 when Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie hit theaters and the era of the modern comic book movie as we know it truly launched when Spider-Man came out two years later. These are movies that felt like they borrowed some of the best elements of things that were done in the 90s and they learned from the mistakes of some of the worst movies that were made in that decade that were based on comic books. And there were plenty of those to go around.
Movies like Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd or the famously terrible Tank Girl (which now has something of a cult following) took material that has proved it can work today under the right conditions and really bastardized it, simply because it seemed like the system had no idea what to do with it. Not to mention what Marvel movies looked like in the 90s. There was the unbelievably bad Nick Fury: Agent of Shield that starred David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury and the truly terrible Captain America movie from 1990. The point is, a lot of mistakes were made and there was a lot to learn from.
With that said, there were a lot of positives that happened as well, which are things that helped pave the way for the comic book movie period we are in right now. Some of the best comic book movies from the 90s are movies that you wouldn't even think of as comic book movies, while others were astounding anomalies that just managed to do superheroes right at a time when that wasn't very common. So here are the nine best comic book movies of the 90s.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
For some reason, Hollywood has had a relatively tough time truly cracking the code when it comes to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The most recent Michael Bay produced reboot succeeded in some areas, but failed big time in others. Outside of the comic books, the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie from 1990 may still be the best representation of the heroes in a half shell to date. Sure, it is incredibly corny, cheesy and at moments maybe even groan-worthy when watching it as an adult, but the amount of joy 90s kids felt watching this movie can't be ignored.
The movie also really helped propel the Ninja Turtles into the pop-culture consciousness. Seriously, so many toys came as a result of this movie. Critics may not love it, but fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably have a soft spot for this movie. Not everything has to be gritty and overly serious. Sometimes you just need people in huge, weird Ninja Turtle costumes fighting ninjas in goofy suits to have a good time. If anyone is ever going to make a truly great live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie in the future, they would be smart to take some cues from Steve Barron's early 90s fan favorite.
In the 90s, comic book movies weren't as simple as pulling from Marvel or DC Comics. They weren't the biggest movies in the world at the time, so things like The Rocketeer had the chance to be made. The movie was based on the character created by Pacific Comics. Director Joe Johnston has made his mark on the modern superhero movie with Captain America: The First Avenger, but The Rocketeer really lent itself to his strengths as a director. It is a glitzy, fun, B-movie, pulpy action adventure and the type of thing we simply don't see in the modern comic book movie landscape.
The Rocketeer benefited from a great cast that included Jennifer Connelly, Paul Sorvino, Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton. Sure, many of the story elements and beats in the movie feel familiar and not all that surprising, but watching it now, it is surprising how well it holds up. The movie centers on a cocky stunt pilot who discovers a jet pack, puts on a fancy helmet and becomes a superhero with those two simple things alone. If you have never seen The Rocketeer, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you have seen it, you probably have a special place for it. At the very least, it is a fun and different look at what a superhero movie can be.
There is little argument over what the best Batman movie sequel of all-time is. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will pretty much be sitting comfortably in that spot for the foreseeable future, but Tim Burton also made himself damn fine Batman sequel. Batman Returns is strange, dark, different and still holds up today as a very good Batman movie. It was also that last time we would see Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and he still may be the best person to ever play Bruce Wayne. Batman is still up for debate, but something about Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne really works.
There is so much to love about Batman Returns. Danny DeVito is perfectly cast as The Penguin and his execution is going to be hard to rival if the role is ever recast on the big screen. There is also the delight of seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in her prime as Catwoman. Anne Hathaway did a fine job in The Dark Knight Rises, but again, the Batman Returns version of Catwoman is tough to top. There is also the excellent supporting cast that includes Christopher Walken and even Paul Reubens. Tim Burton is very hit/miss when it comes to his directorial efforts, but Batman Returns remains one of his finest moments and is still one of the finest and most interesting live-action Batman movies ever made.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Batman Returns wasn't the only great movie about The Dark Knight to be released in the 90s. In fact, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is considered by many fans to be one of the best Batman movies ever made. Period. It doesn't matter that the movie is animated, it is truly a great and perfectly executed Batman story, taking place in the world of Batman: The Animated Series; one of the most true-to-character representations of Batman ever.
The movie has the benefit of featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and The Joker respectively. Save for Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill is generally considered to be the definitive Joker outside of the comics and Kevin Conroy has been called the "one true" Batman. So, that definitely counts for something. It also features the voice of Stacy Keach as the villain The Phantasm, a villain that was so well done in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that no live-action production has tried to use him again. This is truly a must-watch for Batman fans and a movie that gets overlooked a lot in the modern landscape. An argument could be made that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best comic book movie of the 90s and a lot of Batman fans would probably agree with that sentiment.
For years, the general sense was that comic book movies were not something that could be gritty, dark or serious. Many of the worst comic book 90s (Batman & Robin) took the opposite approach, completely missing the mark in terms of why people responded to the source material in the first place. The Crow was truly one of the first comic book movies to ever get dark and gritty right. So much so that the movie holds up incredibly well to this day and part of the reason the long-rumored and in development remake has never really gotten off the ground. Director Alex Proyas really laid out the groundwork for filmmakers like Christopher Nolan who would later realize their visions of truly serious and truly excellent comic book movies.
That said, The Crow isn't just great because it was an influence piece. The insanely well-crafted story of Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee, who was tragically killed on set during the making of the movie in an incident with a gun that had a defective blank bullet in it, is beautifully realized on film. A compelling story, based on the graphic novel by James O'Barr, about a rock musician and his fiancee who are murdered by thugs, but Draven is resurrected a year after his death to get revenge on those who wronged him. Despite the unbelievable tragedy of what happened to Brandon Lee, The Crow remains and excellent comic book movie and one that everyone who enjoys them should see. Just avoid the sequels.
Jim Carrey has definitely fallen from grace in recent years, but the mid-90s was where he really started to shine and had his most proud and memorable moments. The Mask, based on the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name, was one of those moments. The movie centers on a magical mask that gives the person wearing it zaney, reality-bending powers and also allows that person to abandon any inhibitions a normal person might have. The movie really needed a guy like Jim Carrey to work on any level and at the time, it worked quite well.
There is no denying that The Mask hasn't aged as well as some 90s nostalgia seekers would like it to, but that doesn't take away from the merit that exists in this movie. It was also the first movie Cameron Diaz ever starred in, for whatever that is worth. The Mask was also a tremendous hit with critics and at the box office. The movie still holds a 77 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made a very impressive $351 million worldwide from just a $23 million production budget. That alone makes it easily one of the most successful comic book movies of the 90s.
Men In Black
In 1997, Will Smith was just becoming the truly massive movie star most of us know him as today. Many probably think of Suicide Squad as his first comic book movie, but that isn't the case. Men In Black, one of the movies that cemented him as one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet, was actually based on a comic book and remains one of his biggest hits ever. Men In Black started out as a comic book series that was published by Aircel Comics, which later was bought by Malibu Comics who were then bought by Marvel.
In any case, what started out as a series of comic books about guys in black suits working for a secret government agency who deal with aliens hiding among us on Earth became a movie about exactly that, but it starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie was a tremendous success, grossing $589 million worldwide, which in 1997 was a staggering amount and even by today's standards is very good. A couple of Men In Black sequels and even an animated TV series were made, but none of them were as good as the first Men In Black. Even today, the effects really hold up and it stands as a very fun, well-paced truly memorable sci-fi movie. Also, Vincent D'Onofrio plays a giant alien cockroach. What's not to love?
The Mask of Zorro
Sometimes a comic book movie comes out that people don't even realize is actually a comic book movie. Something like Road to Perdition comes to mind. Another prime example is The Mask of Zorro, which was a really solid action adventure movie that came out in 1998. Zorro actually started out as a pulp comic series dating back to 1919 and despite some changes, the core of the character has largely remained the same. Part of the reason that The Mask of Zorro works so well is that it stayed true to many of those fun, swashbuckling elements that have helped the character endure for more than 100 years.
There have been a lot of movies made about Zorro over the years, but The Mask of Zorro is easily the one that holds up the best for modern audiences, largely thanks to the direction of Martin Campbell. The movie also boasts a great cast, with Antonio Banderas playing the titular hero and Catherine Zeta Jones playing the love interest, both at the height of their powers. With Anthony Hopkins playing the original Zorro. It also doesn't hurt that the movie was produced by Steven Spielberg. Even though we may not really think of it as a comic book movie, The Mask of Zorro is no doubt, a very good comic book movie.
Let's get this out of the way up front; Blade II is better than Blade. There is almost no question about that. However, Blade did a lot of things right and is still probably one of the better comic book movies made in the 90s. At the very least it is one of the most entertaining. This movie came out a decade before Marvel hatched plans to create a cinematic universe and a few years before the serious superhero boom that was brought on by movies like X-Men and Spider-Man. It was very much ahead of the curve. With that in mind, it is still a very effective movie and one that any fan of comic book movies should have in their collection.
David S. Goyer wrote Blade, with Wesley Snipes portraying the main character of Blade, the vampire hunter. Sure, by modern standards certain elements of this movie are cheesy and a bit by the book, but it did help to put forth the template that many superhero movies still use today and Wesley Snipes was perfect in the role. So much so that there are still whispers of his character showing up in the MCU at some point. That should say something about the quality of the movie, or at least the quality of the portrayal of this very non-traditional Marvel Comics character.