Gone are the days where heroes dressed in costume were considered camp and not a box office draw: the superhero movie is now one of the primary sources of blockbuster cinema entertainment, and of box office bucks. In the next few years alone, we have Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam and many more of these films to look forward to.
So, how did this surge of mainstream popularity begin?
Superheroes have sporadically been the stuff of blockbusters in the past. 1978’s Superman: The Movie and 1989’s Batman are two standout examples. But none of these films led to the lasting popularity for capes and masks as moviegoers are experiencing today. Many trace this current trend back to two movies, X-Men and Spider-Man. As a modest success in 2000, X-Men proved superpowered characters in costumes could be accepted by audiences. Just two years later, Spider-Man achieved mega-blockbuster status. However, there seems to be a superpowered time that many people would like to forget… the good old ‘90s.
Yup, just as we did with the ‘80s, today we’re going to be looking at the best cinematic superhero yarns from the decade of the Sega Saturn and Dunkaroos. Sure, these films aren’t as impressive as today (for the most part), but they still hold a very special place in our hearts.
Yes indeed, this is the 25 Best Superhero Movies Of The ’90s (prepare yourself for some major apologetics, and a lot of uses of the word “campy“).
25. Spawn (1997)
As a character, Spawn, a wrongly murdered secret agent who games the Devil into returning him to Earth with hellified superpowers and armor, is the bee’s knees. Todd McFarlane’s source material is an excitingly fresh antihero tale but the inevitable film adaptation is, well, underwhelming. Still, the movie does have a pretty big following as of late (just read the IMDb message boards) so it would feel rather indecent not to give it a spot on this list.
On the plus side, Michael Jai White makes an efficient protagonist and this remains the actor’s most well-known part. We do feel his pain (even if it seems forced at times), and it’s an overall faithful portrayal of the character. Martin Sheen makes for a coolly sadistic madman but it’s John Leguizamo who steals the show. His gross-out-humor, maggot-munching portrayal of the clown-faced Violator is what takes this movie out of the dregs and into full-blown camp territory.
24. Blankman (1994)
Damon Wayans stars as Darryl, a genius, nerdy man-child still living with his grandmother. After said grandmother is murdered in cold blood he decides to take the law into his own hands. Donning a ridiculous get up and a bunch of awesome gadgets (including jet-powered rollerblades and electric “newchucks”) he begins his crusade to clean up the streets. He has his trusty robot assistant J-5, his brother Kevin (the “Other Guy”) and uses an old subway station as a secret hideout.
But, aside from all that noise, let’s talk more specifically about the best thing about this movie… Blankman’s costume. It’s like a blend of a Ninja Turtles mask, Batman’s utility belt, and your grandmother’s favorite curtains rolled into one. In fact, it’s the floral cape and solid red onesie that brings everything together. The murdered-out sneaks are the heroic icing on the justice cake.
23. Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990)
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D is a superhero comedy from the wonderfully demented minds over at Troma. And if you’re familiar with the company and their output then you’re aware that Kabukiman is as over-the-top and exploitative as any of their other productions. The movie is funny and entertaining and the action is slapstick and visually hilarious. Kabukiman is an unexpected gem that needs to be seen.
The film tells the story of Harry Griswold, a NYPD detective who witnesses an onstage slaughter during a local Kabuki theater production. During the massacre, elderly Kabuki master Mr. Sato is shot and must pass on the ancient spirit of Kabukiman. Sato’s granddaughter Lotus hopes to inherit the spirit but instead it enters Detective Griswold. Soon enough the spirit completely takes over and Griswold is transformed into Sgt. Kabukiman. Using an unusual arsenal of weapons, including fatal sushi heat-seeking chopsticks and pyro projectile parasols, Sgt. Kabukiman is the hero that genre fans need, but not the one it deserves.
22. Judge Dredd (1995)
Before Karl Urban put on the famous helmet and was involved in a decent adaptation of the character, Sylvester Stallone felt the need to bring Judge Dredd to the big screen. Fans were in an uproar when the film was initially released. It had almost no relation to the comics or the character. It was campy and Dredd barely even wore his helmet!
However, one has to admit that despite all the negative things that have been said about this film it is still awesome cyperpunk shoot-em-up entertainment. Stallone was a decent choice to play the titular character. He’s got the jawline, the build and the voice. The special effects are on-point and the film boasts a fairly decent supporting cast (well, maybe not including Rob Schneider). It took all of the screenable elements of the comic book and made them accessible to an audience a bit wider than its original fan-base. It’s too bad the film gets unduly knocked by purists and those misguidedly looking for detail realism in the genre. Judge Dredd is severely underappreciated and you shouldn’t be afraid to admit it.
21. Tank Girl (1995)
One of the most immediately striking things about Tank Girl is its look. If we were to tell you to imagine a mid-nineties grungy comic book action movie set in a dystopian future (with a soundtrack including Hole, Bikini Kill and Bush) the biggest surprise is that it looks almost exactly as you’d expect. It’s a strange truism in movies that production decades are almost more identifiable on films set in that generation’s idea of “the distant future” than those set in their mundane present. From the outset, Tank Girl reeks of mid-nineties counterculture in a way that very few other films can claim to do. It’s dated, certainly, but undeniably stylish.
Lori Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl, an antihero who lives in a post-apocalyptic Australia. There, she battles against an oppressive organization (that seeks control of a dwindling water supply), some genetically-enhanced super soldiers and a ruddy massive tank. Yes, the movie doesn’t have the best reputation but this isn’t a movie you go into with high expectations. Read all the negative comments, take them to heart, and then watch the movie anyway. It will make Tank Girl a pleasant surprise.
20. Barb Wire (1996)
In Barb Wire, the adaptation of the Dark Horse comic that improbably used the plot of Casablanca as a foundation, Pamela Anderson is the former Barbara Kopetsky, now turned Barb Wire; and her main character traits are that she dresses in fetish wear, and hates it when men call her “babe” – which happens pretty much every fifteen minutes in this film.
With all this in mind, Barb Wire is a pretty fun movie. Even Roger Ebert conceded that the movie “has a high energy level and a sense of deranged fun,” and how often do you get to see Pam Anderson play a dominatrix with a machine gun? Indeed, the filmmakers play to Pamela’s “strengths” by dressing her in tight leather that comes off whenever she’s near water. Barb Wire knows it’s B-grade material and never attempts to take itself too seriously. It promises trash and delivers it. What’s not to love?
19. The Phantom (1996)
The descendent of a line of African superheroes travels to New York City to thwart a wealthy criminal genius from obtaining three magic skulls which would give him the secret to ultimate power. Yup! He’s the ghost who walks, an immortal crime fighter in purple and had a pet wolf before it was cool (we’re looking at you, Jon Snow). Yes, The Phantom doesn’t sit at the forefront of most minds when you talk great superhero movies, but it’s certainly one of the most underrated and shamelessly entertaining.
Aside from its purposely campy hi-jinks, there’s some really great meta stuff on display (“For those who came in late…” announces the voice-over at the start, before getting us caught up with the hero’s origin story, which isn’t all that far removed from a joke you’d find in Deadpool), whilst for the action-hungry there are genuinely impressive set-pieces. It’s just good ole fashioned fun.
18. Batman Forever (1995)
After two gothically dark Batman tales under the helm of director Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher was able to take the silliest parts of The World’s Greatest Detective’s mythology and transform them into a campy – yet still suitably atmospheric – superhero tale (unpopular opinion, we know).
As always, Batman stories are only as strong as their villains, so BF’s decision to draft in A-Listers like Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey to play iconic members of The Caped Crusader’s rogue’s gallery was a stroke of genius. Even if they were a bit silly, both actors attacked their parts with a great amount of gravitas and charisma. For this writer at least, Carrey’s euphoric delivery of cheesy lines like “it’s so you… and yet, so… YOU!” always raises a smile. Batman Forever is in and out but wins in the end by staying true to its unbridled comic spirit.
17. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
There was a time when violence did not seem so… violent. Bad guys fought good guys. Robots crashed into buildings. Mutated animals clashed with ninjas. Aliens beating up minors who have complete lack of variety in the color of their wardrobe was allowed. Hell, even pizza loving giant turtles joined in on the act from time to time. Letting kids enjoy the kicks, punches, and flips of saving the world was just fine with parents. Man, those were the days.
Enter the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The heroes we needed right then, if not the ones we deserved. The series premiered in America in 1993 and concerned five (later six) teenagers granted incredible powers, snazzy color-coded spandex suits and giant battle robots by Zordon, an extraterrestrial head who lived in another dimension (or something) and was assisted by a hyperactive robot given to exclamations of “aye-yi-yi-yi-yi”, which was rarely helpful. Together, the five (later six) Rangers, along with their dinosaur-themed robots (or Zords), fought terrible (in more ways than one) monsters sent by the evil Rita Repulsa (and later her boss / arch-nemesis / husband / body horror nightmare Lord Zedd).
It’s exactly as good as it sounds, i.e. brilliant – and its first feature film was everything you’d expect it to be.
16. Guyver (1991)
A live-action version of a cult manga and anime, starring Mark Hamill and directed by special effects maestro Screaming Mad George? Yeah, buddy!
Following a young man who encounters an experimental suit of biological armor, The Guyver lacks the angst and melodrama of its Japanese source, but retains the protracted monster fights. The Guyver bio-armor and the numerous monster antagonists are on the rubbery side to say the least, but that’s all part of the film’s goofy charm – it’s essentially the equivalent of a feature length episode of Power Rangers (which, as we’ve just established, is awesome).
Today, it’s difficult to watch the original Guyver movie without wondering what a big-budget, serious handling of the comic would look like; certainly, if one were adapted with a tenth of the care and knowledge Joss Whedon brought to The Avengers, for instance, it could be fantastic. For now, we’ll have to make do with Dark Hero, a more faithful take on the concept. Speaking of which…
15. Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
Compared to its predecessor, Guyver: Dark Hero is much closer to its source material, more serious and violent. The flashback to the creation of the Guyvers, for instance, is taken almost verbatim from the manga. It stars no-one in particular, but what it lacks in acting talent, it makes up for with less cheese and more blood – a lot more blood. This different approach worked, and Dark Hero has gained a substantial cult following over the years – subsequently receiving better reviews than the first film. Like The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath Of Khan and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, this one of those rare cases in which the sequel is actually better than the original.
This time around the titular hero is trying to find out why the Guyver unit forces him to fight and kill evil. He is lead to an archaeological site where scientists have discovered an ancient spacecraft. Now he must fight once again before the wrong people discover the secrets of the Guyver’s origin.
14. The Heroic Trio (1993)
Three of Hong Kong’s finest actresses unite in this outrageously entertaining, over the top, superheroine adventure. The women ultimately square off against an ancient Ming Dynasty eunuch from the past. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no, not that Wonder Woman), who’s married to cop Damian Lau by day. By night, she straps on a mask and takes to the rooftops. Maggie Cheung is Thief Catcher, a tough-as-nails mercenary who offers to find the bad guys for bucks. Michelle Yeoh is Invisible Girl, who starts off as a lackey of the eunuch but eventually sees that she doesn’t have to follow such a dastardly fellow.
Chinese superhero movies range from the ridiculous (Invisible Space Streaker) to the sublime (Super Infra-Man), and this one is very special indeed. A delirious cocktail of fantastical stunt-work (the motorcycle spinning through the air with riders still aboard is a real showstopper), graphic horror (cannibal kids chow down on human entrails), and campy fun (Wonder Woman’s acrobatic display before an audience of adoring children), this packs a huge amount of action into eighty-six minutes and moves like a speeding bullet.
13. Black Mask (1996)
The government has created an experimental group of super-soldiers, the 701’s, out of a group of law enforcement officers. But when the 701’s proved to be unstable, the government tried to kill them off. Jet Li plays Tsui Chik, aka the Black Mask, one of the super-soldiers who manages to escape and now lives as a quiet and reserved librarian, all the while wondering if any of the others managed to escape, especially Yeuk (yes an unfortunate name when vocalized in English), a girl he vowed he would always be there for. In next to no time he gets his answer when a rash of superpowered villains start killing off mobsters. Soon enough, the 701’s plan is fully revealed and it’s up to The Black Mask to save the day.
Based on the Chinese manhua of the same name, Black Mask is the perfect showcase for Jet Li in his prime, with the outrageous and glorious fast and furious pace and camerawork of the movie put into second place by all the flying bodies Li is responsible for. It’s a glorious spectacle to behold. In face, you could watch it on mute and still be blown away by the action bits.
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