Faster Than a Speeding Decade

As I’ve said here previously, the early 21st century has been a good time to be a nerd, and one need look no further than the current “fad” of big-budget superhero movies to find proof. I say “fad” hesitantly because I hope in my heart of hearts that this is more than just a passing trend, and superheroes maintain their place in the landscape of Hollywood.

Because sadly, it wouldn’t be the first time superhero movies enjoyed a period of exposure before fading back into obscurity, though this time around they’ve been much more successful.

Let’s talk about that horrible decade known as the 90s. In the wake of Tim Burton’s successful Batman movies, Hollywood started dipping their toes into the superhero pool trying to replicate Burton’s success. The results…were not pretty, and ended up ensuring the dream of big budget superhero spectacles like Marvel’s upcoming The Avengers would remain a dream for some time to come.

So without further lead-in, let’s take a look at some of the sad examples of the first time superhero movies were making the rounds at theatres.

The Shadow (1994)

Hoo-boy, starting off on a bad note. Conceptually, The Shadow is actually pretty cool. Awesome costume if you’re into the whole retro/pulp vibe and unique hypnotic-based powers. On paper it seemed like a winner.

Then a young Alec Baldwin entered the picture with some hammy acting, and so did a lazy script involving an evil Asian guy inventing the Atomic Bomb (yep, because the whole Atom Bomb thing? All an Asian’s fault….how horribly offensive).

The character actually didn’t even start out in comics, instead originating in radio dramas as a pre-superhero era crimebuster who used hypnotic powers and twin automatics to dole out justice. Sadly the movie didn’t live up to the premise, delivering a half-assed snoozer.

The Phantom (1996)

You wouldn’t be blamed for getting The Shadow and The Phantom mixed up, I mean they do have similar names and are both pulp-adventure heroes from the time before “superhero” was even a word. But while The Shadow at least looks cool with his suit, cape, face-obscuring scarf and snappy hat…..The Phantom fights crime in head-to-toe purple spandex. Ouch

Like The Shadow (and most of the movies on this list, come to think of it), The Phantom went for a retro adventure vibe, basically a kind of Indiana Jones vibe but with more tights and less charm.

Our hero this time is the latest in a long line of purple clad heroes based in a tropical jungle, fighting greedy treasure hunters and even spending some time in New York, looking even more out of place in that atrocious outfit.

The only thing making this one watchable is the over-the-top performance Treat Williams gives as the main villain, Xander Drax.

The Rocketeer (1991)

To this one’s credit, it actually pulls off the retro adventure vibe pretty damn well. It’s no Indiana Jones, but it still manages to conjure up some charm. This is definitely helped by the excellent score by James Horner, some good performances and Jennifer Connelly looking insanely gorgeous in period gowns and dresses. Call me shallow, but hey, it’s true.

In this one a stunt pilot played by Billy Campbell finds an experimental rocket pack and uses it to fight mobsters and Nazis. Unlike our last two heroes who were genuine relics of an older age of superheroes, The Rocketeer was actually conceived around the 80s as an homage to classic pulp heroes.

If it sounds like I’m being easy on this one, I basically grew up watching this movie. It was my first superhero movie, and the image of this guy in his art-deco helmet and rocket pack still conjures up warm memories.

The Crow (1994)

How come all these movies are “The something”?

Anyway, finally we got a movie that isn’t going for the retro vibe, and is in fact about as 90s as you can possibly get. The Crow is based off the graphic novel of the same name about a man who comes back from the dead one year after he and his fiancee are brutally murdered to wreak vengeance as an un-killable rock and roll superhero.

Yeah, rock and roll. This movie is one of the great rock and roll movies of all time, in fact! The atmosphere is bleak and and the color scheme is made up of shades of black. The soundtrack is an all-star ensemble, featuring The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine and others. It’s a story about vengeance, love and justice.

But most important of all, this movie has heart. It isn’t just mindless violence and nihilism, there’s actually a lot of heart and soul in this movie. And if it isn’t already obvious, yes I really love this flick.

This film is also noteworthy for being the last performance of Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), who died as the result of an on-set accident. Like his father, he was taken before his time but left a brief but memorable career as his epitaph.

Steel (1997)

What do you get when you put Shaquille O’Neal in a rubbery looking “metal” suit and put him up against an evil Judd Nelson? A terrible, terrible movie.

The other bad movies on this list had SOME redeeming factor like a cool costume or a memorable performance…but this one just sucked. The acting is terrible, the script is worse and it takes nearly an hour to actually see a damn superhero. Not that it’s worth the wait

O’Neal plays John Henry Irons, a weapons designer for the military who gets kicked out after an accident and decides to take justice into his own hands as a kind of Iron Man lite if you will.

In the comics, he actually has heavy ties to Superman, even wearing a cape and a metal S-Shield. In the movie he’s just some dude in a really bad looking suit.

This movie nearly killed the superhero genre, and when you watch it, it isn’t hard to see why.

(Special thanks to Cassandra Duchesneau for the title)

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