The 1980s had not been kind to comic book films. There were a couple hits, but several flops. The 90s were a bit of an improvement. While it had its fair share of awful adaptations, there were multiple successful ones. By the end of the decade, comic book movies were about to blow up.
The first big one of the 1990s was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Turtles were created in 1984 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They reached the mainstream through an animated kid’s show that ran from 1987 to 1996.
The film version was directed by Steve Barron, known for Coneheads and iconic music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing”, and “Take On Me” by A-Ha. One of the few big names in the cast was 80s star Corey Feldman as the voice of Donatello. The Turtles were made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge hit, making over $200 million on a budget of only $13.5 million. At the time, it had generated more money than any other independent film.
The filmed versions were lighter and more kid-friendly than the comics. Another big difference is that in the movies, the Turtles are human-sized, but only 3 or 4 feet tall in the source material.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have 1990’s Captain America. It was reportedly made for only $10 million, and it shows. It’s faithful to the basic story of Captain America from the comics. Steve Rogers gets injected with a serum by the U.S. government, fought in WWII, gets frozen for 50 years, and battles the Red Skull. However, the Red Skull is not a German named Johann Schmidt. Instead, he’s Italian and his name is Tadzio de Santis.
Captain America was not released for quite a while and finally came out direct to video in 1992. Captain America would not appear again on film until the 2011 Marvel Studios film, Captain America: The First Avenger.
The only other comic adaptation to be released that year was Hardware, which was based off a story from the British comic 2000 A.D. without the permission of its creators.
Due to the popularity of the first film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was produced the next year. It was directed by Michael Pressman who directed Doctor Detroit with Dan Aykroyd and some episodes of Law and Order and Weeds. Corey Feldman did not return for this installment. The sequel showed the Turtles using their weapons a lot less. This is because the first film was seen by some as too violent for a children’s film. Many other countries have strict rules about showing martial arts weapons. So in this one, they often fight using just their fists.
The other comic film to come out in 1991 was The Rocketeer. The character has been around since 1982 and the film was in development hell since 1983. It was directed by Joe Johnston who went on to make Jumanji, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Wolfman, and Jurassic Park 3. The movie featured a young Jennifer Connelly and had many homages to film serials.
The only comic adaptation to be released this year was the highly anticipated Batman Returns, the sequel to 1989’s Batman. Tim Burton returned as director, as did Michael Keaton as Batman.
This movie included Danny DeVito as The Penguin. He was a bit different than in the comics. In the comics, he’s a rich mobster, but in Burton’s world, he’s a deformed freak. Catwoman also appears, portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer. Catwoman’s main characteristic in the comics is that of a thief, but she doesn’t steal anything in Batman Returns.
The third villain is Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. His name is a reference to Max Schreck, the actor who played Count Orlok in Nosferatu. This is not surprising given Burton's obvious affinity for German Expressionism.
The script originally contained Harvey Dent and Robin, but they were eventually written out. Marlon Wayans was at one point cast as Robin, an odd choice to say the least.
Again there was only one comic book film in 1993, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. It was directed by Stuart Gillard, who mostly works in television. Corey Feldman came back for this one as the voice of Donatello.
The film got mostly negative reviews and currently sits at 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. This is the last live action TMNT film to date. There would not be another Turtles film until the animated TMNT in 2007.
One of the best comic films of the 90s was The Crow. It was adapted from the eponymous comic series created by James O’Barr in 1989. It’s about a man who witnessed his girlfriend being raped and beaten before both of them were killed. He is then resurrected by a crow in order to take revenge.
The film was written by David J. Schow and John Shirley. Alex Proyas directed, this being his first major feature. He went on to direct the excellent Dark City, the not-so-excellent Knowing, and the Will Smith vehicle I, Robot.
The Crow was a critical and commercial success, but it became infamous because of the death of Brandon Lee (the son of Bruce Lee) during filming. He died due to an accidental gun discharge. The firearms specialist was sent home early, so an unqualified props assistant was handling the weapons. He didn’t check the gun for the cartridge that was in the chamber. The gun was fired with a blank, which propelled the cartridge into Lee’s stomach. The script was rewritten and the film was finished.
Another success of 1994 was The Mask, based on a Dark Horse comic created by John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke. The movie version was directed by Chuck Russell (Eraser, The Scorpion King) and written by Mike Werb (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Face/Off).
Starring in the main role was Jim Carrey. Carrey wasn’t that famous yet; his only major film prior to this was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which had been released earlier that year. This film, along with Dumb and Dumber, made Carrey a huge star. This was also the first film role for Cameron Diaz, excluding a soft core bondage flick that came out in 1992. The Mask was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but it lost to Forrest Gump.
Also made this year was The Fantastic Four. It was produced by Roger Corman and Bernd Eichinger. Eichinger bought the rights to the characters in 1986. The rights were set to expire in 1992. He wanted to renew the rights, but Marvel had other ideas. Eichinger had to begin production on a film in order to keep the rights.
The thing is, the contract didn’t say anything about how good the film had to be or big of a budget it had to have. So Eichinger and Corman set about making a low budget Fantastic Four movie. Stories differ as to whether or not the film was ever intended to see the light of day. Eichinger claimed that he didn’t intend to release it, but Stan Lee stated that it was just done to keep the rights. Eventually Marvel realized how bad the film was going to be, and offered to pay back the production costs if Eichinger agreed not to release it. Marvel didn’t want the brand to be irreversibly damaged by a B-movie and it is unreleased to this day. Eichinger eventually produced the big-budget Fantastic Four in 2005, followed by a sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Two other comic adaptations were released this year. One was Richie Rich, based on the Harvey Comics character. It starred Macaulay Culkin in his last role as a child actor. The other was Timecop, based on the Dark Horse comic of the same name. It was directed by Peter Hyams (2010: The Year We Make Contact) and starred Jean-Claude Van Damme. This was Van Damme’s highest grossing film.