September 17, 2014 by NowhereButPop
With new and more obscure comic book movies coming out within the next few years, movies like Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and possibly even Black Panther, I’ve become increasing intrigued by the industry’s failed attempt at making comic book movies back in the 90s. For a genre of films that was once deemed a risky endeavor at best, now, movies like The Avengers, and the last two Batman movies have all grossed well over $1 billion dollars each, proving just how lucrative (good) comic book movies can be.
Maybe it was because it was the 90s, or maybe it was because they tried to make comic book movies into 90s comic books, or maybe it was even because they made 90s comic books into 90s comic book movies, but with the exception of Batman Returns and Batman Forever, superhero movies in the 90s were God awful. The films that immediately come to mind are The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, and the ever infamous Spawn.
The first three movies all take place in the 1930s and are all inspired by their pulpy noir roots. The problem with all of these movies is that no one really gives a shit about the source material. No one’s interested in a douchebag in a purple leotard with daddy issues, or in a WWI vet with PTSD trying to stop the last descendant of Genghis Khan and Tim Curry from dropping a nuclear bomb on New York City. But for some reason Hollywood chose to make these comics into movies.
Prior to the new millennium, comic book movies were in a bind. Because of the failure of every Superman movie after the second one, they were seen as a risky investment, even with the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, so the studios decided to gamble with lesser known properties as a sort of trial run. A horrible movie based on the Shadow, isn’t nearly as crippling as a bad Green Lantern movie. The problem though, is that no one cared about these lesser properties and so on top of shitty reviews, they flopped at the box office. The problem wasn’t superhero movies, the problem came from turning The Shadow and Judge Dredd into movies. From these few instances and failed attempts, comic book films were put on the back burner until X-Men came out in 2000.
By the 90s, these overly pulpy characters were not only dated, but also grossly out of style. Even Dick Tracy, for all its hype and excitement, underperformed both commercially and critically. So, how could Hollywood remedy this problem and cater to a more cynical and action-craving generation? Easy, make a comic book so entrenched in generational clichés, in other words, literally make a 90s comic book movie into a 90s comic book. The best (and subsequently only) test subject would be the most 90s of all comic books-Spawn. With its senseless violence, irreconcilably plot lines, and ill-defined characterizations, Spawn represents everything we talk about when we talk about 90s comics. Style over substance with so much action that there isn’t any room in the story for heart and soul, unless of course someone is having their heart ripped out a la Temple of Doom, or sacrificing their soul in an ill-fated attempt to have sex with your ex-girlfriend one more time.
First off, making a PG-13 movie based on Spawn is probably the worst way to go about making a Spawn movie, but hey the 12-17 demographic is just too big to pass up. Having a homeless resurrected corpse stalk his ex-girlfriend and fighting a demonic clown (played by John Leguizamo no less) all the while Martin Sheen has a pacemaker that doubles as a dirty bomb strapped to his heart isn’t cinema gold, in fact, it’s perfect fodder for some guy to right about everything wrong with 90s comic book movies, some 20 years later.
Unless it was a surefire success, which was no guarantee for comic book movies, Marvel in particular was hesitant to license out their more precious franchises like X-Men or Spider-Man. In fact it was only until James Cameron came into the picture that Stan Lee became serious about making a movie based on his comics. Originally supposed to direct X-Men, James Cameron then decided he’d rather direct Spider-Man, and by 1994 it looked like Marvel would finally join DC in the film business.
Because of Cameron’s Production Company went bankrupt however, neither movie was produced and Marvel went movie-less until 2000. It was a miracle in disguise that neither was made though, because they would have killed any possibility of franchising, they were that bad. Not much is known about the planned X-Men movie save for the fact that Bob Hoskins was to play Wolverine. James Cameron Spider-Man however, was a bit more fleshed out. The 70 page script-ment, which can be found online proved that Cameron had no idea what Spidey is all about. Imagine if Tim Burton directed a Quentin Tarantino penned Punisher movie and you’re about halfway there. According to James Cameron, Spider-Man is an incredibly foul-mouthed murderer who anytime he sees Mary Jane, even if in the middle of stopping a crime, has to swoop in an have sex with her right then and there. The movie was supposed to end with Spider-Man having less than consensual sex with Mary Jane on top of a gigantic spider web…oh and he has his mask on the entire time. I will say this however, I do think that there was potential for a good 90s Spider-Man movie. But what the hell do I know?
Even in movies that were never made, it just seems like everyone had the wrong idea on how to make a comic book movie. It’s as if from 1990-1999 the only ideas given the greenlight were the worst ones that could have possibly been conceived. This also says nothing about the aborted Superman Lives, a movie directed by Tim Burton, written by Kevin Smith, produced by John Peters, and starring Nic Cage as Superman himself. Again, thank God it was never made; it would have been intriguing to see, but executed horribly.
Although it wasn’t a great as everyone initially remembers it to be, the mere fact that X-Men didn’t suck meant that superhero movies were a viable option for Hollywood. I think it was around this time that everyone started to realize that in the 90s, the problem wasn’t comic book movies themselves, but really the fact that they just combined shitty ideas with obscure comic books that no one over the age of 7 and under the age of 65 would have enjoyed.
After all the busts, and the near deathblow that was Batman and Robin, it was X-Men that was the final hope for comic book movies, and from that small but important success, comic book movies have boomed over the past 15 years. Comic book movies like The Dark Knight and Days of Future Past, aren’t just great comic book movies, they’re also great films, finally marrying the two. And because we’ve been familiarized with bad comic book movies, even the worst ones have become somewhat amusing and enjoyable. As much as I love The Avengers, I’d still watch The Phantom anytime it’s on. It’s nice to see how far we’ve come.