From Ninja Turtles to Blade: The '90s Radicalized Comic Book Movies

We traverse the last decade of apologetic comic book cinema year-by-year.

S Week Comics


The Penguin

If Batman is a mere glimpse into Tim Burton’s imagination, Batman Returns is a full-on peep show. Depending on your kink, your reaction will vary. Some left the theater with accusations of “too disturbing” while others declared it “too funny.”  The narrative retreats even further from Bruce Wayne’s story, focusing instead on his evil mirror image, The Penguin (Danny Devito). As such, the film is a melancholic Christmas tale masquerading behind capes and leather. While Batman stands on the sidelines confused over his feelings for Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the audience is left to sympathize with a stunted, twisted, and broken creature. Every time I reach the climax, and the penguins carry off poor Oswald Cobblepot, I find myself cursing that damn Batman. Sometimes, Detective, you gotta use your words rather than your fists. A simple trip to the psychiatrist couch could have spared a lot of pain on both sides of the ally.

Anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki revamped Hikōtei Jidai’s watercolor manga The Age of the Flying Boat into the magical, meditative adventure film Porco Rosso. With a plot revolving around World War I fighter pilots, air pirates, and ghosts, Miyazaki cherishes the tiniest human moments between his cast of eccentric characters. While maybe not as grand a spectacle as his later sagas Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Porco Rosso offers the same amount of heart and sorrow-tinged whimsy.


Mask Of The Phantasm

The Ninja Turtles close out their trilogy with a film that’s probably a little better than you remember. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III travels to ancient Japan so it can explore the early days of the dreaded Foot Clan, and thankfully, they bring Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) with them…well, not with them; the hockey-masked avenger is stuck back in their sewer lair as babysitter to the real-deal samurai that warp to contemporary New York in place of the turtles. Hijinks abound, and the practical suits are not nearly of the same quality as those designed by the Jim Henson Creature Shop in the previous two films, but there is an energy and inventiveness here that was sorely lacking in the first sequel.

Similar to The Addams Family, the Dennis the Menace film that buoyed in the middle of the summer owes its spirit to the original television series and not the Hank Ketchum comic strip. Walter Matthau has a lot of fun as the cantankerous neighbor to the terrorizing child, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score unifies the rambunctious vibe of the movie. More importantly, in the fall of the year, Addams Family Values hits and reveals the true horrors of childhood as Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) burns her summer camp to the ground.

That Christmas, the best film of the year — and the single greatest Batman cinematic experience — pummeled its way into theaters. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was originally planned as a direct-to-video release, but at last minute’s notice, an over-confident Warner Bros. pushed it out onto screens. The critical reaction was strong, but the crowds were not aware enough to show up. Directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, Mask of the Phantasm addresses the loneliness of a life forever trapped in crimefighting better than most of the comics and the live-action appearances. As an old flame returns to seek vengeance on the mobsters responsible for her father’s death, Bruce Wayne struggles to convince her of his vigilante code of conduct. The feature stands as a shining example of what the animated series could achieve; containing more emotional truth than anything Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher could muster.

Written by, produced by, directed by, and starring Robert Townsend, The Meteor Man is not based on a pre-existing property because there simply is nothing quite like him on the market. As he did with Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend sheds light on the lack of representation in pop culture by doing-it-his-damn-self and using his skill of comedy to underscore his anger towards the system. The Meteor Man is a goofy lark of a flick, mocking as much as celebrating the genre.


The Crow

The Crow is where the cinematic superhero genre entered its teenage years. Square jaws and good deeds won’t cut it in this world. Violence must be met with violence. When a woman is raped and beaten to death, and her fiance is tossed through a window only to splat many, many floors below, justice must meet the rage of that horrendous deed. Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) rises from his grave and charges his way through an army of despicable lowlifes, countering their demonic nature with an equally powerful hatred. This is the flick my middle school self would point out to those that dared to remark that comic books were meant for kids. No way. Comic books were serious business, folks. Angst, aggression, all that good stuff.

The Mask exists on the other end of the spectrum. Sprung from the weirdo Dark Horse Comics series by Doug Mahnke and John Arcudi, the Jim Carrey vehicle basically uses the concept of a magical mask that transforms its wearer into a cartoon character to push the performer to his most ridiculous heights. The film is nowhere near as violent or grotesque as its comic book counterpart, but it perverts the Tex Avery-inspired gags about as far as you could with a PG-13 rating. The Mask made a boatload of money and motivated Dark Horse to continue flooding the market with their IP. In the fall of the same year, they would unleash one of the last beautifully fluffy and enjoyable Jean Claude Van Damme movies, Timecop. How does that one compare to the comic? No idea. Never did manage to track down the source material, but the JCVD sci-fi silliness delivers.

Richie Rich closed out the year, and that Macaulay Culkin kid sure has a lot of pizzazz. It sticks closely to the original concept of the Harvey Comics creation with a mind to celebrate capitalism run amuck. Just because you’re the wealthiest kid on the planet, that doesn’t mean you’re devoid of feelings. Richie Rich does his darndest to make friends and stop the villainous industrialist Lawrence Van Dough (John Larroquette) from mooching in on daddy’s business. It’s as harmless and memorable as Dennis the Menace.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, Curator for One Perfect Shot, & co-host of the Comic Book Couples Counseling podcast.