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


Demon Knight

Making comics requires madness — a similar madness found in filmmaking. Documentarian Terry Zwigoff discovered an equally troubled soul in cartoonist R. Crumb and rearranged the next nine years of his life to capture the insanity on film. What began as a deep dive into the mind of an outlaw artist unravels into an exploration of the creative drive that tortures every member of Crumb’s family. Crumb must be seen to be believed. It’s one of those. Snatch up that Criterion Blu-ray and don’t ask too many questions. Blind-buys don’t come any more satisfying.

Who do we become as technology augments the reality around us? Ghost in the Shell is a philosophically rich anime ripped straight from the pages of Masamune Shirow’s manga series of the same name. Major Motoko Kusanagi is on the hunt for the mysterious cyber-terrorist known as The Puppet Master. Her investigation jumps from one assassination to another, and the closer she gets to her target, forces from within her military organization prevent her from uncovering the truth. Peppered with plenty of rad action set-pieces, the real pleasure stems from the heady conversations addressed towards the audience. (The Matrix chases everything initially asked in Ghost in the Shell. More on that later.)

Tales From the Crypt saw its first adaptation in the early 1970s with a solid anthology film directed by Freddie Francis. Decades later, HBO upped the gore quotient considerably and cranked out numerous ghastly scenarios inspired by the gnarliest of the comics. After seven seasons on the air, the producers wanted to bring the concept back to the silver scream. Instead of adapting a particular story, however, they dusted off an old script that had already traveled across the desks of Tom Holland, Mary Lambert, Charles Band, and Joel Silver. They planned to make Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight the second part of a trilogy, but Universal Studios insisted that the film be their launching off point. Ernest Dickerson came on board as director and shot the hell outta the bible horror tale. They pushed out the Bordello of Blood sequel a year later, but the thrill was gone before it even reached its miserable audience. The IP busted, but I’m still waiting for its return.

When Batman Returns made a lot less money than the first film, Tim Burton was pushed out of the director’s chair. Joel Schumacher was brought on board, and his goal was to¬†return the “comic” to the comic book movie. Michael Keaton did not jive with such an interpretation and skedaddled for cheaper, greener pastures. Val Kilmer joined the cast but was clearly not the center of attention as the villains robbed the spotlight…er, bat-signal. Jim Carrey decided to chase the lunacy of the ’60s era Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t keep up, although he tried. At the time, Batman Forever appeared to be a bold new direction for the series, but in hindsight, the movie is but a sour taste indicating a franchise about to spoil.

Oh yeah, Tank Girl and Judge Dredd came out in ’96 too. I’m sure there are a few fans of those odd ducks out there. Speak up, Kieran Fisher.


The Phantom

Cemetery Man is actually based on a novel written by Tiziano Sclavi, the Italian creator behind the Dylan Dog comic book series. So, while the plot, the characters, and even the medium do not resemble his stapled enterprise, any opportunity to celebrate Sclavi’s brilliance is worth taking. Also known as Dellamorte Dellamore, the story follows a caretaker of a local cemetery (Rupert Everett) who occasionally has to halt his attendants from rising out of their tombs. When he sleeps with the widow of a wealthy man atop his grave, the undead husband lashes out, biting her on the neck. More problems for the caretaker. Silly, gross, and uncomfortable, Cemetery Man is a delicacy for horror fanatics, and a perfect appetizer to get you frothing for the Dylan Dog comic books.

Dark Horse Comics came back rather limp with Barb Wire. Set in the dystopian hellscape that is 2017 America, the movie stars Pamela Anderson as a nightclub owner who spreads her time between pole-dancing and bounty hunting. She does her best Han Solo, desperately trying to remain neutral while the righteous die around her. Director David Hogan made a trashy b-movie worthy of Roger Corman, and you’ll have a good time if you can get into that kind of spirit. Udo Kier, need I say more?

Billy Zane slams evil as the ghost that walks in The Phantom. Similar to The Rocketeer and as successful, The Phantom marries our obsession with Indiana Jones to the superhero aesthetic. The original comic strip by Lee Falk is a no-nonsense punch ’em up adventure, and director Simon Wincer replicates that can-do vigilantism with a splash of irony. Not the comic book movie people were hungry for at the time, but Zane perfectly encapsulates the beaming charisma of golden age heroes. If you crave more swashbuckling in your cinema, The Phantom provides.

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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.