Comic book and superhero movies are everywhere these days. There are about fifty in development (that we know of) at any given time and studios are mining more and more obscure properties in order to meet demand. After X-Men hit gold at the box office in 2000 there’s been a major superhero movie every year since - sometimes even five or six.
Things weren’t always this way though. In the '70s and '80s we were given Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman. They were epic, but they were also oddities. Sure, studios saw the potential of the genre, but the movies that were made were mainly cheap knock-offs.
Some were dreadful, some were amazing. Not every movie that defines an era is a success though; some movies managed to make an impact in their absurdity as surely as some did in their success.
1. Darkman – 1990
The very definition of "cult classic." Where some entries on this list got it wrong, Darkman really excels!
Yes, it’s easy to dismiss it as a cheap clone of Batman, as it came so close after Tim Burton’s version of said caped crusader; but it really isn’t. It doesn’t really belong in its era at all, the cinematic landscape of the time was heavily influenced by the action juggernauts of Stallone and Schwarzenegger with only Michael Keaton in Batman standing apart.
Directed and co-written by Sam Raimi, Darkman is based on a short story Raimi wrote that paid homage to Universal's horror films of the 1930s. Although it is by definition a horror, the movie plays out like a superhero origin story, hence its place in this list.
The film stars Liam Neeson as Peyton Westlake, a scientist who is attacked and left for dead by a ruthless mobster, Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Westlake is working on ‘Synthetic Skin’ primarily for burn victims, but is unable to keep the samples stable. After a power outage, the skin lasts longer than normal and it is determined that it’s reacting to light and will only keep stable in darkness.
After Westlake is burned and almost killed in a chemical fire caused by Durant, he uses the remains of the burned out lab equipment to repair his destroyed face, albeit only for a short time.
The tone of the movie is pure Raimi and many of the scenes of Westlake struggling to maintain his sanity are echoed in 2002’s Spider-Man, also directed by Raimi, when Norman Osbourne (Willem Dafoe) loses his mind.
Darkman was well received by critics and performed well at the box office, grossing almost $49 million worldwide, well above its $16 million budget. Unfortunately, not enough to inspire a decent franchise, and the sequels were direct to VHS.
Some of the action sequences, particularly the rooftop showdown, are straight out of the ‘80s. The aforementioned showdown owes much to Runaway. The now famous subway scenes are borrowed from the ‘80s Beauty and the Beast TV series. It does have much to its own merit though as it creates its own mythology in a fairly tight runtime and made a leading man out of Liam Neeson. Unlike some of the other movies in this list, the leading man led the movie from start to finish.
It may not be the most well-known movie on this list, but it’s easily one of the best. A rare example of a comic book superhero movie done right in an era when they were still the poorly understood child of the action genre.
2. The Phantom - 1996
Set in the 1930s, The Phantom tells the story of Kit Walker (Billy Zane) who inherits the title of The Phantom from his father. It’s heavily influenced by the Indiana Jones movies, which oddly works in its favor. The superhero genre wasn’t really as established at this point, so pinching the visual style and storytelling from a massively popular franchise is smart. Even better, like Indy, they avoid the origin story and jump straight into the plot. There’s a clever loophole they exploit to tell the origin. “For those who came in late” a voice announces at the start of The Phantom, before a short film piece plays and runs us quickly through the events that have led to the starting point. It’s a stylish and efficient way of getting the dreaded superhero origin story out of the way. It’s a clever idea and one that I’d love to see exploited in a Marvel movie.
Sadly, it’s downhill from there, as the next half hour focuses solely on the villains and forgets to establish the hero. By the time Kit Walker comes back to claim the movie, it’s gone on without him so well, he feels like an imposter in his own movie. Everything about the main character is wrong. The costume is too busy and more at home in the '90s where it was made, rather than the ‘30s where it was set. Remember how Captain America: The First Avenger was shot like a war movie that happened to also be a Marvel movie? That’s what this movie needed to do, be a 1930s movie, not a 1990s movie.
Then there’s Billy Zane. I want to love Billy Zane, really I do, but he makes it very hard at times. This is one of those times. He’s amazing as Kit Walker, he exudes charisma and is nothing like his role in the following year’s Titanic. Unfortunately, as The Phantom, he really struggles. Zane’s Phantom is never able to sell that the character is exciting or fun in the same way that he’s able to sell Walker. Remember how Michael Keaton sold Bruce Wayne AND Batman? Yeah, that’s what Zane can’t do, he just doesn’t have the physicality.
There’s an amazing car chase through New York which is a great action set piece. 1930s New York, from the sets to the cars, looks incredible. Zane’s Phantom leaps from car to car and for a moment you could believe you were in an action classic. Once the stunt guy goes home though, it’s just flat.
The uneven tone of the movie is its undoing. There are moments of tension, followed by moments of outright comedy. Some of the source material is handled in a stone faced manner, some is very tongue-in-cheek. It reeks of the kind of studio interference that doesn’t even trust its leading man to lead the movie.
It’s a movie that’s out of step with its era. It’s a little late to capitalize in the success of Indiana Jones and a little early to ride the coat tails of The Mummy, both 1930s set adventures that actually worked.
3. Batman and Robin - 1997
With the box office success of Batman Forever in June 1995, Warner Bros. immediately commissioned a sequel. Schumacher wanted to pay homage to the camp style of the 1960s television series even more than he had with Batman Forever. On paper, this made sense. Batman Returns had underperformed, despite being critically well received, and the studio went lighter and brighter for Forever. This returned a massive amount of cash, so adding even more neon could only be better, right?
Wrong! Batman and Robin was disliked almost universally on its release and has failed to generate much of a cult following since. George Clooney (Batman) has even apologized for making the movie.
It suffers from the same problem that The Phantom does. The studio doesn’t trust its leading man to lead the movie. In fairness, Clooney wasn’t the mega star he is now, but in a movie called Batman and Robin, you’d expect Batman to be the star. Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) gets top billing and really dominates the movie. Putting a star like Schwarzenegger in the fourth part of a franchise is going to cause a problem. It upsets the balance of the movie. In fairness, he does a fairly decent job delivering some dialogue that’s clunky, even by his own standards.
None of the action set pieces really stand out and the movie suffers from being made in the era where practical effects we considered dated but CGI wasn’t quite ready to take its place. Gotham looks anything but gothic, the Batmobile looks more like the Pope-mobile and even Alicia Silverstone in skin tight rubber couldn’t save the movie.
It does have a few sweet moments, the interactions between Alfred (Michael Gough) and Barbara (Silverstone) are in danger of being touching; if the relationship had been explored further, it could have made her arc more compelling.
4. Spawn – 1997
Spawn is based on the Todd McFarlane comic book series of the same name and is notable for being the first comic book movie to have a black actor in the lead.
Spawn is an origin story of the character, and begins with the murder of Al Simmons, a soldier/assassin. He is then resurrected as Spawn, a reluctant, demonic leader of Hell's army. Spawn (Michael Jai White) later refuses to lead the war against heaven and shuns evil.
Spawn divides the fan base. Personally, I love it. It’s over violent in places and lacks a degree of humanity, but it does actually manage to make the lead character sympathetic. Few movies make a black ops assassin turned literal hell spawn into a guy you can root for.
Visually, Spawn holds up pretty well. Considering it was 1997, the digital cape still looks cool and the action sequences are fairly lively.
The film was considered a modest box-office success; based on a $40 million budget, it grossed $54,870,174 domestically and $32,969,867 overseas for a worldwide total of $87,840,042.
The reason the movie is probably quite forgettable to anyone not a comic book geek is the next movie on this list…
5. Blade – 1998
Before Neo made long black coats cool, there was Blade. Truly, Blade was the turning point for comic book movies. R-rated, bloody, over the top gratuitous violence… and based on a Marvel Comic.
Marvel isn’t known for doing dark very well, if at all. The current MCU stays firmly in the light, leaving DC to go down the dark and gritty route. Before they had their own studio, Marvel was broke and selling movie rights to stay solvent. A few bad movies had been made, Howard the Duck and the original Captain America movie to name a few, but Blade was the first really good Marvel movie.
Blade is, like Darkman, a horror movie that also happen to have a superhero in the lead. Wesley Snipes is perfect as Blade, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He’s brutal and energetic but also displays the odd hint of vulnerability. Up to this point, few superheroes were ever depicted as vulnerable.
The opening fight sequence in the night club is visceral and bloody, yet doesn’t stretch into the absurd. It’s a standout sequence that has rarely been matched in any comic book movie. I’d go as far as to say it’s on an equal footing to anything the Dark Knight has to offer.
Blade set the standard for a ‘real world’ universe for a superhero to inhabit. Tim Burton’s Batman had come close, as had Richard Donner’s Superman. But the world of Blade looked and felt real and not ripped from the camp excess of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies. It was a blood curdling breath of fresh air that left its fangs in the movies that would follow.
So, comic book movies went from sucking to awesome in a few short years. Sure, X-Men made the money which made people take notice of the genre, but really, for me, it was Blade that turned things around.