12. The Shadow (1994)
Set in the 1930s, The Shadow tells the story of Lamont Cranston, played by Alec Baldwin. A playboy millionaire along the lines of Bruce Wayne, Cranston has voyaged across the world to find himself. While in Asia, he becomes a warlord and opium dealer feared by the locals. One night he is kidnapped and taken to a holy man who sees the good in Cranston and vows to teach him the skills to become a hero. Once trained, Cranston returns to New York City and lives his life with the dual identity of Lamont Cranston and the hero known as, DUN-DUN-DUN, The Shadow.
A love letter to the pulp noir and radio plays that bore it, The Shadow is a deceptively mature film that highlights the less than heroic origins and motivations of its characters. Less about feats of derring-do and more about bending the weak and evil sides of our nature to the will of good, the trope-filled story has a more pragmatic and less idealistic take on heroism, and is a refreshing throwback and a fun movie that doesn’t nearly get the recognition it deserves.
11. Mystery Men (1999)
Mystery Men is a superb slapstick alternative to the straight superhero movies doing the rounds at the time. Loosely based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics, the film tells the story of a group of superheroes with unimpressive powers who are required to save the day (after the city’s true hero, Captain Amazing, is kidnapped).
You have Ben Stiller playing Mr. Furious, a hero who literally does nothing but throw hissy fits and gets red in the face. William H. Macy plays The Shoveler, who will hit you in the face with a shovel if need be. Hank Azaria plays The Blue Raja, a superhero that throws cutlery with great accuracy. And then you have a bunch of other heroes with “powers” that range from throwing a bowling ball to becoming invisible (but only when nobody’s looking). Also, let’s not forget Paul Reubens as The Spleen, a superhero who can break gas so potent that anybody who smells it faints. Needless to say, this bunch definitely achieves peaks of sublime nuttiness.
10. The Mask Of Zorro (1998)
Zorro has been a fixture in American cinema for decades. Part cowboy, part pirate, and maybe even a little bit Batman, he’s been protecting the poor and the innocent from the corrupt Mexican government for as long as most of us can remember. But he’s never been better than when played by Antonio Banderas, in the surprisingly great film The Mask Of Zorro – a well-crafted, swashbuckling revenge tale reminiscent of The Count Of Monte Cristo.
This is a largely forgotten film, which is a shame because it was seen as a crowd-pleaser upon its release, and it still holds up quite well today. The performances are top-notch, the swordplay is very well choreographed, and the use of humor in the film (of which there’s a ton) saves it from being too dark or cynical. It’s an all-around good time that should really be given a second look. The sequel, on the other hand, is a hot mess and should be avoided at all costs.
9. Darkman (1990)
A great pre-Taken action role for Liam Neeson, Darkman marked director Sam Raimi’s first foray into superhero territory before he really struck box office gold with Spider-Man. Unlike his web-slinging trilogy, Darkman was fated to be a cult rather than mainstream hit, but it was successful enough to prompt two sequels, and it’s absolutely full of Raimi’s blackly comic trademarks.
Neeson plays Dr Peyton Westlake, a scientist who’s horribly disfigured by a group of gangsters. Determined to exact revenge, he uses a synthetic skin he’s been working on, which allows him to create new faces – the only drawback being that the material begins to disintegrate within a few hours. Peyton uses this newfound skin to infiltrate the criminal gang that ruined his life, and the scene’s set for a gleefully messy confrontation. Some fifteen years before he co-starred in Batman Begins, Neeson got a chance to play his own unique version of a dark, troubled character. He does it to perfection.
8. Dick Tracy (1990)
For its time, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy was an outlier. A star-packed callback to the glory days of trench-coat-clad crime fighters and a nostalgic confection set to the music of Stephen Sondheim, it was unafraid to not just nod, but fully lean on its roots as a two-dimensional story ripped right from the funny pages. It was one of the first movies to really try to be a translation of the source material rather than an adaptation (which Sin City would do to greater success years later).
The goofy, inhuman-looking henchmen that Tracy faces off against were recreated with drastic makeup and prosthetics, while the big, boxy clothes – particularly Tracy’s signature yellow trench coat and fedora – look drawn straight onto the actors. Most of the city is painted backdrop, with the buildings obviously built on a soundstage to add that extra dose of unreality to the proceedings. Almost all of the shots are static, with the action and actors crammed into a single frame, just like a square set of comic panels. Voices are dubbed over, close-ups are hyper focused, and the fist-fights and shoot-outs practically have BLAMMO! and KAPOW! stenciled above them.
7. The Rocketeer (1991)
A bracing, thrilling comic book adventure, this adaptation of Dave Stevens’ hero is – like the aforementioned entries on this list The Phantom and The Shadow – a warm homage to 1930s matinee serials. Though really, The Rocketeer is as good as they come in this retro-superhero subgenre. Everything about it works, and works very well.
Part of why it works so well is that it actually uses its time period to its advantage. Sure, the idea of a guy strapping a rocket-pack to his back is a bit far-fetched and anachronistic, especially for 1938. But the fact that the rocket was invented by Howard Hughes actually makes sense and somewhat grounds it in reality. Also, the main villain plot involving the Nazis and their plans to use the rocket to take over the world is totally something that isn’t that far-fetched (they are Nazis, after all). Joe Johnston directs with a real lightness of touch, and brought a similar sense of humor and charm to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, some years later.
6. The Mask (1994)
1994 was the best year of Jim Carrey’s career, with the rubber-faced comedian scoring three huge hits with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb And Dumber and this, an adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series. Dialing his signature manic energy up to a thousand, the actor goes for broke and delivers a comic performance of supreme confidence, as a loser who finds a mask that gives him superpowers.
Though, the actual plot is largely forgettable and ultimately unimportant, as The Mask is designed as a showcase for Carrey’s boundless energy and comic skills. However, the movie is more than just a self-indulgent star vehicle and provides plenty of humor and an infectious sense of fun to back up Carrey’s CGI-infused scenery chewing. Of course, you can’t talk about The Mask without mentioning Cameron Diaz and her iconic introduction, with the actress making an unforgettable first impression in her feature debut. Next article: why Milo is the greatest dog in cinematic history.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
In the early ‘90s the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the absolute peak of their popularity. With an animated series bringing in millions of viewers entering its third season, the most popular boys’ toy line on the market, breakfast cereals, frozen pizzas, video games… the world belonged to the TMNT. Their final frontier was live action, something which seemed more than a little ambitious considering the limitations of special effects technology at the time.
Based on the amazing comic strip by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, TMNT the movie returned to its comic book roots which was both refreshing and exciting. For those of you lucky enough to have actually read the original source material, rather than any subsequent publications, you’ll remember the gritty, black and white style that was closer to Sin City than its kids TV show counterpart – the conflict between unofficial leader Leonardo and hot headed Raphael being the perfect example of this. Still, overall, the results were also lively and funny enough to keep adults enthralled as well as kids. It was a shell of a hit, indeed.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
It’s Christmas time in Gotham. For most communities that would mean a month of holiday cheer and festive lighting, but for the citizens of Tim Burton’s city in Batman Returns, it means their depressing urban cage becomes only more melancholy under a cold blanket of white. The lights and trees are only cruel, ironic reminders of their own emptiness. Even if Batman can save them from crime, nothing can save them from themselves. And this is supposed to be a kid’s movie, folks!
Indeed, making an even darker, grittier sequel before it was the standard practice, Tim Burton turns his Batman follow-up into more of a Gothic art movie than a studio blockbuster, a decision that reportedly gave Warner Bros. higher-ups plenty of sleepless nights. Michael Keaton has grown into the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, generating plenty of chemistry and sexual tension with Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic leather-clad Catwoman. As the main villain, Danny deVito makes the Penguin both vicious and pitiful (and gets most of the best lines), while Christopher Walken essentially plays himself, but does a damn good job of it.
3. Blade (1998)
Based on a Marvel Comics character with roots in Hammer horror movies and ‘70s Blacksploitation cinema, Blade was released to the world and caught everyone completely by surprise. Director Stephen Norrington and writer David S. Goyer took the elements of the comic and crafted a taut, thrilling tale centered on a half human/half vampire stalker of the undead.
With Wesley Snipes bringing a reserved but still-compelling performance to the character, fans were treated to a horror/action hybrid that would lay the groundwork for the soon-to-explode popularity of superhero pictures. Though, with that being said, it’s hard to imagine a film this risky being made today (even though Deadpool has recently made R-rated heroes cool again). But with the overlooked original and its equally impressive follow-up, the first two features in this comic book franchise make for a great one-two punch of uniquely engaging superhero flicks.
2. The Crow (1994)
A movie perhaps most famous for the fact that its lead, Brandon Lee, was killed accidentally onset – a fact that only adds to the melancholy nature of the narrative – The Crow tells the story of the death and resurrection of rock star Eric Draven to avenge the murder of him and his fiancé. The film, with its amazing soundtrack that is also worth checking out, perfectly captures the mood of the times in pop culture with a very grungy and gritty visual setting and brutal action.
Several inferior sequels and a TV series followed, none of which are anywhere near as remarkable as the original. Lee’s death aside, the film is instantly relatable for its audience. We have all loved and lost, albeit perhaps less tragically than we see in this film, and the recurring theme of love enduring beyond death has a massive appeal to the romantic in us all. It’s dark, moody, and seductively overwrought; it’s an amazingly pure expression of morbid romanticism.
1. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)
Move over Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight, the real king of Batman films has been around a lot longer. For those sadly unaware of this work of genius, let us introduce it. Based on the wildly popular Batman: The Animated Series (a show which balanced the dark yet goofy tone of Batman’s pulp adventures perfectly) Kevin Conroy once again reprises vocal duties as the Caped Crusader. After a masked vigilante starts murdering crime bosses, Batman is blamed for it and forced to go on the run while proving his innocence, while at the same time catching the real killer. Oh, and he also has to deal with the former love of his life turning back up.
The film coming out at a time when its more family friendly companion Batman Forever was in pre-production, Mask Of The Phantasm provided the coarse, character driven Batman experience that fans were craving after the two dark and murky Tim Burton installments. Featuring moments of violence that the animated series wouldn’t be able to include and a far more progressive character study, Mask Of The Phantasm remains the best animated Batman installment yet – as well as the greatest superhero movie of the ‘90s.
Are there any other movies you’d like to add to the list? Let us know below.