The ’90s Were A Weird Time For Superhero Movies


The ’90s were an interesting period in cinematic superhero history. The decade began just after Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie created the type of superhero film fanfare (and expectation) that’s become commonplace these days. And it ended just before Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” laid the infrastructure for the modern superhero movie.

In between there were several “Batman” sequels (not all good), and the start of the often overlooked “Blade” franchise, which should probably get more credit than it does as a precursor to what we’re now witnessing on big screens. Yet, the decade’s superhero films are marked, mostly, by the limitations of the time’s technology.

The state of computer processing power hadn’t quite evolved to a place where CGI versions of Iron Man or Thanos could be brought to vivid life (which is why there’s Roger Corman’s low-budget “Fantastic Four” film from 1994). But there was a demand for superheroes in Cineplexes, and the filmmaking technology was exactly at the place where the simpler comic heroes from an earlier era could be given the kind of big budget treatments that had otherwise eluded them. Which is why much of the post-“Batman” superhero cinema of the ’90s was built around low-tech, narrowly defined comic strip characters that hadn’t been popular in decades. Like “Dick Tracy.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Warren Beatty’s star-studded, mega-budget blockbuster about a detective who loves yellow trench coats and Tommy guns, and was adapted from a syndicated newspaper strip that began in 1931. Hoping to capture the public’s fascination in much the same way Burton’s “Batman” did the previous year, the colorful “Tracy” adaptation that was produced and directed by its star, Beatty, arrived with much anticipation (and franchise hopes) thanks to a coordinated hype campaign from Disney. It didn’t quite work.

Despite a huge $162 million global haul, “Dick Tracy,” which you can catch on Cinemax’s streaming service, was perceived as something of a disappointment for not reaching the heights of Batmania (which earned more than $411 million worldwide). Nonetheless, while no sequels materialized, “Dick Tracy” did do well enough relative to its budget to spawn a raft of old-timey pulp and newspaper hero adaptations.

Four years later, Universal’s “The Shadow” would hope to achieve the kind of mass cultural penetration “Dick Tracy” briefly managed. First appearing in pulp magazines in 1931 before being embodied on the radio by Orson Welles (who popularized the famous “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” catchphrase), “The Shadow” predated Batman’s creation by almost a decade, but while billionaire Bruce Wayne’s cape-and-cowled alter ego became a fixture in the intervening decades, billionaire Lamont Cranston … didn’t.

Despite an impressive cast (Alec Baldwin as the titular vigilante, Jonathan Winters, Ian McKellen, Penelope Anne Miller, and Tim Curry in supporting roles), a considerable budget, dazzling production design evoking 1930s New York and effective direction from Russell Mulcahy (“Highlander”), “The Shadow” pretty much died at the door when it was released in the summer of ’94. Universal was hoping to rake in those mighty Bat-bucks (as evidenced by an expansive, multi-pronged merchandising campaign), but they severely underestimated how much of a total zero “The Shadow,” which can be seen via Showtime’s streaming app, had become by that time. It earned only $48 million worldwide. Ouch.

Two years later, it would be Paramount in the barrel with their big budget adaptation of “The Phantom.” Created by Lee Falk in 1936, the purple-clad hero with the skull ring motif had continued to dish out justice in the jungles of the fictional African country of Bengalla in newspapers all over the world (and remains popular internationally to this day), but had largely fallen by the wayside domestically by the mid-’90s.

As such, it’s not a huge shock that “The Phantom” met a similar fate as “The Shadow,” with its $17 million domestic total falling well short of the $45 million budget. Admittedly, the ubiquitous “Slam Evil!” tagline wasn’t the best, but audiences overlooked a fun throwback to an earlier era of super-heroism. Starring Billy Zane in the title role (and in a nothing-to-the-imagination purple leotard), the film, streaming on Amazon Prime, was directed by “Lonesome Dove’s” Simon Wincer, features a sumptuous music score by David Newman, as well as an all-time great comic book villain turn by Treat Williams as megalomaniacal industrialist Xander Drax (“Begins and ends with the letter ‘x’!” he says at one point.)

Each of these films is worthy of a look, in some ways to show how out of touch the studios were about effective zeitgeist in the ’90s. These were the heroes of a previous generation. Compared to the superheroes found in comic books of that decade, these pulp heroes felt flat, antiquated. They never truly transcended their moment. And the march of time means that some artifacts must inevitably be left behind, no matter how many millions of dollars movie studios invest into getting people to think otherwise.

By Zaki Hasan.

Original article can be found HERE