There was a time when big budget superhero movies were unknown. In the Forties the best that any superhero could do would be a Saturday matinee serial, often shot on a shoestring budget. Indeed, no less than Batman's first appearance on screen, The Batman (1943), had a budget so small that they could not afford a Batmobile (a plain old Cadillac filled the role). All of this changed in 1978 with the release of Superman, a big budget film featuring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and no less than Richard Donner in the director's seat. Both Superman and is first sequel, Superman II, did enormous business at the box office.
Despite the success of the first two Superman movies, a boom in superhero movies in Hollywood was not forthcoming. This would not take place until the 1989 release of Batman. Batman, featuring the controversial choice of Michael Keaton in the title role, brought Batman back to his roots as a dark night avenger. It also placed as much emphasis on character development as it did action. Batman not only proved to be the top movie of 1989, it also proved to be one of the most successful movies of all time. Batman would result in three sequels, of which only Batman Returns (1992) approached the original in qualty. With its success, Hollywood started looking to comic books for sources of inspiration.
Of course, the first film that struck close to Batman in its format and subject matter was neither a superhero film or based on a comic book. Dick Tracy was based on the famous comic strip by Chester Gould and featured Warren Beatty in the title role. While Dick Tracy was a policeman rather than a superhero and his origins lie outside comic books, the character would have a lasting impact on superhero comic books. Namely, Dick Tracy boasted one of the most colourful rogue's galleries of all time: Flattop, The Brain, Mumbles, and so on. Tracy's rogue's gallery could be argued to be predecessors of the supervillains of comic books. Although it had a fairly big name cast (Warren Beatty as Tracy, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, and so on) and a big budget for its time, Dick Tracy performed below expectations at the box office. It was perhaps a warning for superhero movies to come in the next few years.
Many of the superhero movies following in the wake of Batman and Dick Tracy may well have had those movies' success if Hollywood had simply followed their forumula. Both Batman and Dick Tracy were made on fairly good sized budgets. Both Batman and Dick Tracy were highly stylised, the films approximating the original source material quite well. Both films had an emphasis on character as much as they did on action. And both Batman and Dick Tracy were based on fairly big names in their media (Batman perhaps being the second most famous comic book character after Superman and Dick Tracy one of the more famous comic strip characters). Of course, in Hollywood's defence, in many instances they simply could not bring big name superheroes to the big screen in the Nineties. Plans for a Superman movie to follow the wretched Superman IV: the Quest for Peace had been percolating since 1987. Problems with the development of a new Superman feature kept the Man of Steel off the big screen until this year. A movie based on Spider-Man was in development for ten years before finally making it to theatres in 2002. Because of the importance of the big name superheros to their parent companies, the choice was often made to take their time in developing movie properties based on their characters. The heros often appearing in superhero movies of the Eighties were then often not big names.
Indeed, it is doubtful that many comic book fans had heard of The Rocketeer, a character created by Dave Stevens who appeared in only a smattering of comics published by smaller companies such as Pacific Comics and Dark Horse. In the comic books The Rocketeer is stunt pilot Cliff Secord, who found a jet pack and then used it to fight crime. The series was set in 1938. The movie, released by Disney in 1991, was fairly loyal to the comic book series, although the adult elements of the comic book series was toned down to make the film more family friendly. Set in Los Angeles in 1938, the movie pits The Rocketeer against Nazis and gangsters. The film was very well done, perhaps the best superhero movies of the early Nineties besides Batman Returns. Unfortunately, The Rocketeer did not do well at the box office.
While The Rocketeer was a little known superhero, Captain America has been one of the big names of the comic book world since his debut in 1941. He was also one of the few big name superheros who would almost make it to the big screen in the wake of the success of Batman. Sadly, it would be in a film that could possibly be the worst superhero movie ever made. Indeed, the movie was so bad that it was released directly to video rather than to theatres. The film was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the production team behind Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. It was shot on a shoestring budget and introduced extreme changes into the mythology of Captain America (for instance, his archnemesis the Red Skull was an Italian fascist rather than a Nazi).
Not every superhero movie made in the early Nineties took their characters from comic books. The Shadow first appeared in 1929 (nine years before Superman) and would eventually be the star of both his own radio show and a pulp magazine published by Street and Smith. Even today this day, his catchphrase "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men..." is still well known. The Shadow was then an obvious choice for a film property. And the movie The Shadow (released in 1994) is for the most part a good film. The casting was perfect, with Alec Baldwin as The Shadow (and his alter ego Lamount Cranston), Penelope Ann Miller as Margot Lane, and John Lone as his archnemesis, Shiwan Khan. The film is also well written and well developed. Sadly, in my humble opinion, it suffers from fatal plot twist (I won't spoil it here) that effectively ruins the film. Regadless, The Shadow did not do well at theatres.
Another superhero who emerged from a medium other than comic books (he made his debut in a comic strip in 1936) was The Phantom. Created by Lee Falk (who also created Mandrake the Magician), The Phantom was a mysterious, costumed figure who fought crime in the jungles of Africa. Previously brought to the screen in a 1943 serial, The Phantom debuted as a major motion picture in 1996. The Phantom featured a fairly well known cast, with Billy Zane in the title role, as well as Treat Wiliams, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Samantha Eggar in supporting roles. The film was set in the Thirties and had The Phantom travel to New York to stop a madman from getting three magical skulls. Many consider The Phantom to be a bad film, I suspect because of its small budget and the fact that it features no spectacular special effects. That having been said, it is fairly faithful to its source material and it does feature a good performance by Billy Zane. I think that the worst that can truly be said about The Phantom is that it is a fun, popcorn movie that never rises above being a fun, popcorn movie.
Indeed, it must be pointed out that there were much worse superhero movies released in the Nineties than The Phantom. One of those was Steel, releasead in 1997 and starring NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. The movie was based on the DC Comics character of the same name, a weapons engineer named John Henry Irons who designed a special suit of armour. In Steel O'Neal proves that many times sports stars simply cannot act. Worse yet, the script is poorly written and full of plot holes. Short of Captain America, it may be the worst superhero movie to emerged from the superhero cycle of the Nineties.
With but few exceptions, the superhero movies of the Nineties did not perform well at the box office. Worse yet, the cycle was probably doomed with the decline in quality of the Batman franchise. Both Batman and Batman Returns were solidly good movies. Sadly, while Batman Forever and Batman and Robin had larger budgets, they were also not nearly as good as the previous movies. Indeed, Batman and Robin is often regarded as one of the worst superhero movies of all time. The Batman movies also made less money with each sequel; perhaps in large part because of its poor quality, Batman and Robin effectively bombed. With most superhero movies doing poorly at the box office and the Batman franchise failing, the superhero cycle of the Nineties came to an end.
Of course, it is questionable whether it ever really ended. In 1998 (just a year after Steel), a movie based on Marvel Comics' vampire slayer Blade was released. The movie was fairly well received by critics and did well at the box office, effectively proving that superheroes did not mean box office poison. Its success was followed in 2000 by the release of X-Men, which proved very successful at the box office and produced two sequels. It also started a new boom in superhero movies that has produced such films as Spider-Man and Batman Begins. Whether Blade and X-Men were simply continuations of the superhero boom started by Batman or the beginning of a new wave of superhero films is debatable. Regardless, with Superman Returns coming out this week and with Spider-Man III coming out next year, superheros will probably be filling movie screens for some time to come.