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

1997

Menn In Black

The Summer of 1997 should have killed superhero cinema for good. Not only were we subjected to the atrocity that is Batman and Robin, but we were also served the tremendously odorous cow patties that were Spawn and Steel. Oof. Give up, Hollywood. We could handle Barb Wire, but not the Superman-less, Shaq-ful Steel. That’s a meal no amount of seasoning could turn delicious.

As Burton did with Batman Returns, Schumacher cranked his interpretation of Gotham City to eleven with Batman and Robin, but where some could dispute Burton’s vision as “too disturbing” or “too funny,” everyone could unite under the umbrella of hate for this Day-Glo monstrosity. Val Kilmer split, and George Clooney plopped in. If you partake in enough substance abuse, the sequel works as a peculiar entertainment. You can’t help but marvel at the extreme production design or the confidence in which both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman strut in their rogue’s gallery costumes. Schumacher went for it, and we recoiled, but you can’t blame the director after we lapped up Batman Forever. This is more of the same.

So, as the DC Comics universe allowed their franchises to wither, Marvel Comics made a major play at the box office. Men in Black began life as a limited series from Aircel Comics, which was snatched up by Malibu Comics, which was then gobbled up by Marvel. The books barely lasted beyond its sale to Columbia Pictures, and the film only dimly relates to the plots that birthed it, but the characters were recognizable. While its origins are easy to forget, we should not dismiss the impact Men in Black‘s financial success had on other studios going forward. As the ’90s were winding down, and the usual superhero suspects were coming up short, Marvel presented itself with a large and fallible library of characters to pillage. Here was a house not of gods, but of struggling humans. Their interior lives, and how they responded to larger-than-life situations was the appeal.

1998

Blade

New Line Cinema, the company that entered a larger arena thanks in part to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally wanted Blade to be a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-like spoof. It was screenwriter David S. Goyer that convinced them to go with a meaner version of the character. From his pen and Wesley Snipes’ performance sprang most of everything you would now recognize as a hallmark of “The Daywalker.” In fact, even that most excellent moniker and the half-human/half-vampire origin story finds its beginnings in Goyer’s script. What comes from the comics is the self-loathing and the overwhelming hatred for the bloodsuckers that inflames an already poisonous nature.

On a budget of $45 million, Blade raked in $131 million worldwide. Two years earlier, Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy. When Toy Biz saved them from destruction in ’97, the new marching orders were to fetch some of that serious Hollywood money. Avi Arad went from CEO of a toy company to Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment, and Blade solidified his faith in their brand, transforming him into an absolute zealot. For the next decade, Arad would license off as many properties as possible, establishing Marvel as a dependable home for heroic storytelling, and radically preparing them to alter the movie landscape as Marvel Studios.


1999

Mystery Men

The decade closed out on two unusual titles from Dark Horse Comics: Virus and Mystery Men. The first one is your basic January dud that came and went with barely a whimper, but the more forgiving could appreciate its longing towards superior horrors. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Virus concerns an alien signal that infects the machinery of her tug boat crew. Gadgets go haywire and reproduce into little robots capable of converting sailors into cyborg killers. Utter nonsense, but if you squint hard enough you’ll see a little Leviathan, Deep Star Six, and maybe a smidgen of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Mystery Men is The Boys minus the NC-17 attitude. In a city protected by the corporately endorsed Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), there are very few crimes for the remaining heroes to squash. The lack of devious activity leaves folks like Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) rather bored and in a dangerous quarrel with each other. Captain Amazing is feeling the doldrums, too, and the attention span of his sponsors is drifting. His bright idea to cure their problems? Unleash the deadly Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) from prison so he can kickstart a problematic crimewave. Mystery Men lays a lot of eggs on its road to comedy, but a few hatch into guffaws satisfying enough to keep the runtime enjoyable.

Ultimately, though, The Matrix has to be the comic book film of the year despite being a total fabrication of the Wachowskis. Absorbing nearly every anime, manga, kung fu flick, philosophical text, and comic book they ever consumed, they regurgitated everything to fill their science fiction action bonanza. Our collective brains were blown by their outpouring, and as we picked up the pieces, we sifted through the ideas and the concepts to discover new loves. The Matrix was a celebration of artists like Geoff Darrow, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Masamune Shirow, Steve Skroce, etc. Through investigation of their influences, we came away enriched by a myriad of creators. The Wachowskis cracked the code on the medium and invited everyone to participate in “a world where anything is possible.” Nothing is more comic book than that final thought from Neo.

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