The comic book movie isn’t going anywhere.

As a source material, comic books are as varied as novels. There are an infinite number of tales to pull from. Where a lot of the doomsaying about the death of comic book movies come in is with the superhero genre specifically. Every upcoming film is met with articles asking if this will finally be the movie that will kill the golden goose.

I don’t think that’s possible. The two superhero movies released so far this year, Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have been large financial successes. The two superhero movies on the horizon, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, are both almost guaranteed to be big hits as well.

For good or bad, superhero movies are here to stay.

The “bad” part of that is what I want to talk about today. It’s the reason I roll my eyes at “the death of the comic book movie”. The good-to-bad ratio of superhero films is the same as any film genre, or any medium, really. It’s 50/50, if we’re lucky.

I’d probably argue that the real superhero cinematic trash fires didn’t start until the ’00s, but the ’90s always hold a special place in my heart. These are all movies we probably remember being excited about. We may have even loved them when we first saw them.

But they are very, truly bad.

Batman Forever

Batman Forever/Batman & Robin

I felt like I had to lump these two movies together. Everyone knows Batman & Robin is terrible, but there are people who will actually defend Batman Forever as being all right or even, god forbid, good! I think it’s actually a worse movie than Batman & Robin in most ways.

It’s a movie stuck between two styles: Tim Burton’s out-of-time Gothic circus and Joel Schumacher’s neon Mount Olympus update of the ’60s TV series. It’s also saddled with the blandest cinematic Batman to date. I’m generally a Val Kilmer fan but he whiffed it hard. The only truly interesting parts of Batman Forever are Jim Carrey swinging for the fences as The Riddler and the fascinating car wreck that is whatever Tommy Lee Jones was doing as Two-Face.

As I stated previously, Batman & Robin is terrible. That being said, it’s a pretty singular type of terrible, which at least makes it interesting. Joel Schumacher was able to go full-bore with his vision and it was a day-glo doozy. I don’t even know where to begin: Uma Thurman’s completely miscalculated Mae West impression? Chris O’Donnell’s coked-out performance? Alicia Silverstone bravely acting through a walking coma? George Clooney’s constant look of shame?

I’ll mention the good things about Batman & Robin because it’s quicker. It admirably tries to meld Adam West’s Batman with ’90s action. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers his groan-worthy one-liners perfectly well, despite his character being a pale imitation of Batman: The Animated Series‘ definitive Mr. Freeze. I like when Batman disables Robin’s motorcycle and then ramps the Batmobile off of a giant middle finger. I also think the credit card joke is kind of funny.

If you’re with some friends and very bored there are certainly worse things to do than watch Batman & Robin. Like watching Batman Forever, for instance.

’90s Alternative:

On the flip side of this grimy, scarred up coin are some actually good Batman movies that were released in the ’90s. 1992’s Batman Returns is Tim Burton’s vision of Batman. It’s undoubtedly his, flaws and all. I think it may also be my favourite Batman movie. Batman Returns has the same otherworldly Gothic ambience as 1989’s Batman but with an added bit of off-kilter timelessness that an admittedly dope Prince soundtrack doesn’t quite afford. While Batman and Bruce Wayne take the backseat to his villains in this movie (and most of his other movies as well, really) it’s hard to complain when those villains are Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, Danny DeVito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer putting in my all-time favourite comic book performance as Catwoman.

It’s also a feel-good Christmas movie!

My second alternative is the 1993 animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The movie is a continuation of the animated series, bringing along its voice cast (notably Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill) and some extremely game additions like Hart Bochner, Dana Delaney and Abe Vigoda. The story is a simple, legitimate mystery that is personal to both Batman and Bruce Wayne. It is arguably the most complete Batman film: it paints a full, sympathetic picture over a run-time of 76 minutes. No lumbering trilogy necessary.

Steel

Steel

The ’90s were a simpler time: Seinfeld ruled the airwaves, everyone had snap bracelet fever and we, as a society, decided to give Shaq multiple chances at a starring vehicle.

Shaquille O’Neal, self-professed Superman fan, decided to bring the character Steel to life. Steel was a folk hero type who was created during the “Death of Superman”/”Rise of the Supermen” comic storylines. Steel was a kind of Superman-inspired version of Batman or Iron Man. He wasn’t a terrible creation at all, so what’s the worst that could happen with a movie version?

Well, Shaq. Shaq was the worst that could happen.

He is in no way the only problem with the movie, but he’s at the very least a 7’1″ problem. Shaq is a funny, charismatic guy in interviews and on live TV. Unfortunately he’s pretty embarrassing when he actually has to deliver lines. See also: Kazaam (please do not also see Kazaam).

There’s a legitimately solid spirit and intention behind Steel, so much so that you almost end up feeling bad for hating it this much. It’s a movie starring a black superhero, a demographic still sorely underrepresented to this day. There’s also a paraplegic love interest, of sorts. There’s a good-hearted, anti-violence message. There’s Richard Roundtree dropping Shaft references.

Unfortunately there’s also Judd Nelson hamming it up so very hard as the villain. And no amount of good intentions can jump the hurdles of low production values, a nonsense story and a star devoid of talent.

’90s Alternative:

I believe 1998’s Blade is in the running for the best comic book movie ever. Wesley Snipes is Blade to me (sorry Sticky Fingaz) and there aren’t really a lot of other superhero actors who make me think that. Christopher Reeves and probably Robert Downey Jr. That’s it. The movie itself is ’90s action in the best possible way. It successfully updates a character built on the back of blaxploitation and classic horror renaissance. Snipes is charismatic in ways Shaq could only dream of, making a shift of the eyes or a stony glare carry the kind of weight pages of dialogue never could. A few dodgy special effects aside, Blade holds up much better than you’d expect and anyone who disagrees is trying to ice-skate uphill.

JudgeDredd

 

Judge Dredd

Sylvester Stallone has created a number of wonderful characters, many of them very similar to superheroes. Rocky Balboa. John Rambo. Even Marion “Cobra” Cobretti. So it’s not exactly a surprise that he’d want to tackle an actual comic book superhero (for the sake of this discussion I’m calling Judge Dredd a superhero, even though that’s extremely debatable, but just go with me on this one).

I actually used to really, really love Judge Dredd when I was a kid. I was a sucker for sci-fi, Stallone action movies and weirdo production design, so this movie was practically made for 8-year-old me. Which is the problem. 8-year-old me had terrible taste.

Again, there are certainly some things to enjoy in Judge Dredd. Sylvester Stallone in all his pompous glory. An actually solid supporting cast including Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane, Joan Chen, Scott Wilson, Jurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante. Assante in particular pitches his performance on the right side of ham. Ignoring the pitfalls of the glossy, plastic-y sci-fi that plagued the ’90s there were some cool makeup effects and design choices.

Unfortunately the negatives push the verdict on this movie beyond a reasonable doubt. The story is rote and filled with generic action beats, which is a shame when the source material is loaded with original satire and interesting takes. Judge Dredd turns the character into any generic wrongfully-disgraced cop, which is a damn shame.

Also, Rob Schneider has a substantial supporting role. Ugh.

’90s Alternative:

The obvious choice for an alternative recommendation is Dredd, a tight, clever action movie that tells an interesting story without jettisoning any of the fascism satire. However, this is a ’90s article, so the true alt recommendation is 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The story is simple, almost quaint, but it has amazing atmosphere. You can almost smell the damp, New York City streets in some of the scenes. The voice cast is great and the turtle costumes continue to hold up shockingly well. Elias Koteas as Casey Jones is one of my favourite supporting characters in a film. Watch this movie instead of Judge Dredd, it balances fidelity to the best parts of the source material with engaging characters and appropriate action.

And if you really, really like Rob Schneider and need him in your life, watch Demolition Man. It’s a much better ’90s Stallone sci-fi flick and Schneider is barely in it.

spawn

Spawn

I remember going to see 1997’s Spawn in theatres with a friend. We were both excited even though neither of us had read the comics. I’d seen a couple episodes of the HBO animated series when I was up too late one night and we may have had a couple Spawn toys. Spawn was basically designed to appeal to kids who liked over-designed, muscle-bound monsters and seemingly “mature” storylines. And it worked.

I think we liked the movie afterwards. I don’t think we talked about it too much and I know none my friends got it on VHS so we could watch it repeatedly (unlike 1998’s Godzilla, which we embarrassingly loved) but we enjoyed it, I think.

Which is a good argument for why the legal voting age can never be 9 years old.

Spawn is terrible. It actually manages to sidestep some of the issues of the source material (it doesn’t have any aggressive “edginess”) but winds up being angsty, boring and silly. It’s unfortunate that there are good actors trying to do some good work in the movie. Michael Jai White is solid, trying to bring the movie over the finish line on his shoulders alone and John Leguizamo is really fun as Clown. The movie also manages to have a few solid special effects, including Leguizamo’s practical makeup to turn him unrecognizable and the cool-at-the-time cape effects. But the majority of effects have aged like any other CGI-heavy movie from the ’90s: they’re lucky if it just ends up looking silly instead of laughably embarrassing.

Overall Spawn is boring. It’s wallows without having anything interesting to say.

’90s Alternative:

Now if you like movies with actually great effects that’s also extremely interesting, you need to watch 1990’s Darkman. Sam Raimi’s attempt at creating a comic book superhero is extremely watchable. He blends a ’90s crime thriller with campy horror seamlessly. Darkman is a throwback to Universal horror films, he could come straight from the ’30s. Equal parts Batman, Phantom of the Opera and The Shadow, Raimi created an instantly iconic character without being overtly derivative. It’s also a fun movie, which is par for the course with Raimi in his prime.

Also, something to look out for while watching Darkman: Liam Neeson could somehow do a better American accent 25 years ago than he can now.

 

So what do these movies tell us? Besides the fact that 1997 was a terrible year for comic book movies… not much. There are certainly trends, every year has trends and every decade (as tenuous a term as it is when it comes to fads and styles) brings different cultural perspectives.

These days comic book movies have become a successful genre in their own right, which means studios will continue pumping them out.

Which, sadly, means we’re still going to get our share of Spawnand Batmen Forever. Luckily we still get the good ones too.

Michael Walls-Kelly
michaelwallskelly@gmail.com

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