The biggest comic book film of 1995 was easily Batman Forever. It was technically a sequel to Batman Returns but had little in the way of continuity with that film. Returns did alright at the box office, but Warner Bros. thought it could have done better. This was due in part to the perceived dark nature of Burton’s films.
WB decided to have Burton just be a producer instead of directing. To replace Burton, they went with Joel Schumacher. At the time, Schumacher’s biggest hits were St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys. The studio thought he’d bring a much lighter tone to the Batman series.
Michael Keaton was also replaced as Batman. There are conflicting reports as to why this was the case. Rumors surfaced that Keaton was asking for too much money. Keaton claimed that he didn’t like the direction Schumacher wanted to take the series in. Also, the studio supposedly wanted a younger Bruce Wayne who was more traditionally attractive. This led them to casting Val Kilmer in the part. Johnny Depp and Daniel Day Lewis were considered. It’s hard to picture Lewis in a comic book movie, but I’m sure he would have been an amazing Batman.
Forever was the first of this series to feature Robin. Marlon Wayans was again considered for the role and was even signed. However, before filming, Schumacher changed his mind and decided to go with Chris O’Donnell. Robin’s backstory is similar to that of the comics. He was an acrobat whose family was killed. However, in the film, unlike the comics, Two-Face is the one who killed his family.
Batman Forever is a decent film. But it unfortunately started the descent into camp that culminated in perhaps the worst big-budget comic book movie ever, 1997’s Batman and Robin.
Another 1995 major release to be taken from comics was Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone. It was directed by Danny Cannon (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer). Judge Dredd is a very popular comic character in Britain from the magazine “2000 A.D.” I haven’t read any Judge Dredd comics, but apparently the movie is only faithful to the general idea and has a much different tone.
The film also featured one of the most annoying actors in history in a large role, Rob Schneider. They originally wanted Joe Pesci. Obviously, if Joe Pesci turns you down, the next logical choice is Rob Schneider. I hear he was Scorsese’s original choice for Goodfellas [sarcasm].
The film didn’t do well with critics and was a commercial flop as well. It only made $113 million on a $90 million budget.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight was also released in 1995. However, it was an original story not based on the comics. The director was Ernest Dickerson, who has directed episodes of The Wire, Dexter, and The Walking Dead, as well as the terrible Snoop Dogg film, Bones. He was also the cinematographer on several Spike Lee films, including Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing. The film starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Billy Zane, Thomas Haden Church, and William Sadler.
Finally, we have Tank Girl, based on the comic created by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett in the late 1980s. Hewlett went on to be the animator for the virtual band Gorillaz. It was directed by Rachel Talalay and starred Lori Petty (Point Break) as the title character along with Ice-T and Naomi Watts.
There were no major comic films this year, but there were 4 minor adaptations. One of these was a sequel to The Crow, titled The Crow: City of Angels. It was directed by Tim Pope, who was mostly known for directing music videos for The Cure. The cast included Vincent Pérez, Iggy Pop, Mia Kirshner, and the future Punisher, Thomas Jane.
This film was the first of many comic book adaptations to be written by David S. Goyer. At the time, he had only written B-horror movies such as The Puppet Masters and Demonic Toys. He would go on to write all three installments in both the Blade trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as well as Man of Steel.
The Crow: City of Angels is absolutely terrible and honestly painful to watch due to the annoying red tint that pervades the film. Both Pope and Goyer disowned it due to studio interference.
There was also another Tales from the Crypt film that came out in 1996, titled Bordello of Blood. It starred Dennis Miller, Corey Feldman, and Chris Sarandon. The director was Gilbert Adler who went on to produce Constantine and Superman Returns.
We also have Barb Wire, based on the Dark Horse comic series that ran from 1994 to 1995. The cast featured Pamela Anderson, Temuera Morrsion (who later played Jango Fett in Star Wars: Episode II) and Udo Kier.
Lastly, there was a direct to video adaptation of Vampirella, who was created in 1969.
And now we come to perhaps the most infamous of all comic book films, Batman and Robin. Joel Schumacher returned to direct and Tim Burton was no longer involved in any capacity. Chris O’Donnell reprised the role of Robin (whose costume was based on that of Nightwing), but Val Kilmer did not return as Batman. Instead George Clooney played Bruce Wayne. Clooney toned down the dark aspects of the character from previous installments. He was much more well-adjusted than the previous Batmans.
The main villain was Mr. Freeze. His origin story was based on the animated show Batman, not the comics. He was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was one of many missteps. Schwarzenegger made Mr. Freeze into a campy joke, making some sort of cold related pun every five minutes. Also considered for the role were Anthony Hopkins, Sylvester Stallone, and Hulk Hogan. Hogan would probably have been even worse than Arnold, if that’s even possible.
The other villains were Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Robert Swenson as Bane. Thurman definitely dialed up the camp for her roles, but wasn’t as bad as Mr. Freeze. Bane is almost nothing like his comic counterpart. In the comics, Bane is one of Batman’s most intelligent and dangerous rogues. However in this film, he is just a dumb brute that does the bidding of Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.
Batman and Robin also introduced Batgirl to the series. In a bit of uninspired casting, Schumacher chose Alicia Silverstone. She was very popular at the time, mainly for her part in the 1995 film Clueless. Her career took a hit from this movie that she never really recovered from.
Batgirl’s origin was changed from the source material. Originally, she was Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, but in Batman and Robin, she’s Alfred’s niece. This change makes sense because Gordon is not nearly as important in the films as he is in the comics.
The film was an unmitigated disaster. Critics lambasted it and it is often considered the worst superhero movie ever. The damage was so severe that Batman did not appear on film again until 2005. Schumacher and Clooney were at one point set to return for a sequel, but this quickly changed when the film was released. The potential sequel was going to be called “Batman Triumphant” and featured Scarecrow as the villain.
Instead, WB considered doing a Batman Beyond film based on the animated series of the same name. The show featured an elderly Bruce Wayne training a young protégé in the future. This idea was also abandoned, and the studio made plans for “Year One”.
Batman: Year One was a well-received graphic novel by Frank Miller that told Batman’s origins. WB got Miller to write the script for the film version with Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) directing. This film was going to be radically different than most conceptions of Batman and featured Alfred as a black mechanic. This was also abandoned for a Batman vs. Superman film. This too was tossed aside for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Also in 1997, we have the film adaptation of Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. It was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, known for Get Shorty and being the cinematographer on a few Coen Brothers films. The film is apparently quite different from the source material. In the comics, the MIB face all sorts of supernatural creatures, such as werewolves, demons, mutants, and zombies. The film just focused on aliens.
The film was very successful, grossing almost $600 million on only a $90 million budget. It won the Oscar for best makeup and spawned two sequels.
1997 also saw the release of Spawn, based on the Todd MacFarlane character. Spawn was created in 1992 and became quite popular in the mid-90s. Michael Jai White portrayed the title character, making him the first African-American superhero on film. It was directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé, who since then has mostly done made-for-TV and direct to video films.
Finally, we have the movie Steel, starring NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. It was based on the DC character of the same name, AKA John Henry Irons. The film was quite different from the source material. It was also a massive bomb, making only $1.7 million at the box office.
One of the first successful superhero films that didn’t involve Superman or Batman was 1998’s Blade. It was also Marvel’s first hit film and showed that comic book films were viable properties.
Blade, created in 1973 for Marvel, was a vampire hunter. The filmed adaptation was directed by Stephen Norrington, who went on to direct the comic book film, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It was written by David S. Goyer, who wrote the two Blade sequels as well. Wesley Snipes starred as Blade, with Kris Kristofferson and Stephen Dorff. Blade made over $130 million. Comic movies were now taken a bit more seriously, a fact cemented two years later by the smash hit X-Men.
Two comic adaptations were released in 1999. One was Mystery Men, starring Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Hank Azaria. It was directed by Kinka Usher, who hasn’t directed a film since. Mystery Men was pretty funny, but it bombed at the box office. It cost about $68 million to make, and only grossed $33 million. However, over the years, it has garnered a better reputation.
Finally, there’s the film Virus, based on the Dark Horse comic created by Chuck Pfarrer. It starred Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Sutherland, and William Baldwin. Virus got poor reviews and flopped at the box office.