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)

Having grown up in the  nineties, this decade will always hold a special place in my heart. Not only was this the time  I did important things like have  my first kiss and try my first  beer, but it was also the time I fully realized film and I had much more than a casual love affair.

I’m not suggesting that the  nineties were any sort of golden age, but  besides my nostalgic attachment to  the period,  it is pretty hard to argue that nineties cinema  didn’t have some damn good moments. Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith  made their first films, Susan Sarandon was in every other film out there and Leo and Johnny first made us ladies swoon… and continue to do so today. In ode  to the decade,  here are my top ten  films from the nineties:

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) The soundtrack. The dancing scene. The gimp scene. Resevoir Dogs is an brilliant debut, but this is the film that really set off the career of one of the most important American directors in recent history. This film has become a staple of pop culture history,  and it would be incomprehensible for it not to be on this list. Oh yeah, it’s pretty good too.

2. Gattaca (1997) Back when Ethan Hawke’s hipster  pseudo-intellectual bravado was still sexy, he made this science fiction film about people being genetically engeneered from birth to be perfect. As with any Ethan Hawke movie from the  nineties, the film has some eye rolling moments of melodrama. The  cinematography, though, more than makes up for the weaker moments. Before he went and got all douchey, Jude Law also has a great supporting role as Hawke’s confidant.

3. Girl, Interrupted (1999) This female driven drama about life at a nut house is all about the breakout performance of Angelina Jolie. How can anyone else, even nineties indie  darling Wionna Ryder and future Mad Men star Elizabeth Moss, possibly expect to catch any of the spotlight with Jolie’s Lisa standing next to them? It was a loud, brave performance that rightly earned her an Oscar and showed the world just what a force she was to be reckoned with.

4. Romeo and Juliet (1996)

Before there was that little film about a sinking  boat, I wore out my VHS copy of this film oogling the teen heartthrob that was Leonardo Dicaprio. Unlike some of my other teen heartthrob crushes (whatever did happen to you, Johnathan Taylor Thomas?), Dicaprio has gone on to prove himself to be a completely talented actor. I admit at times it’s hard to really judge any of the performaces in this film which sometimes feels like a speed addict’s dream, but it will always be in my film collection for its inventive take on Shakespeare.

5. Clerks (1994) One of the best first time films from a director; simple yet throughly affective about the day in the life of a couple of clerks. Kevin Smith may have had a hard time moving on from low lifes in New Jersey, but with this one he got it completely right. Clerks continues to be  one of my most quoted films.  

6. Fight Club (1999) Brad Pitt shirtless? Yes please. More than that lovely sight, this film about men who start an underground fight club to combat their mundane lives is  a brilliant comment on our materialistic society. Ed Norton and Brad Pitt have a delightfully understated bromance throughout the film and it’s directed by David Fincher, who over the years has become one of my favorite directors.

7. What’s eating Gilbert Grape (1993) Read my full length  review of why I believe this film deserves to be on the list.

8. The Big Lebowski (1998) If you don’t already know why this film is on my list then read my review from last week.

9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) Just like the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, this film is strange, psychotic… and completely captivating. After years of continued debate, a good friend of mine and I still don’t agree on who made a better Thompson. While I throughly admire the work of Mr. Bill Murray, in this case he just doesn’t come close to competing with the brilliance of Johnny Depp’s performance in this film. That performance is what makes me come back. Well that and it’s a good film to get “high” on…

10. Cider House Rules (1999) My feel good film on the list. Sure, its subject matter includes abortion, drug abuse and incest… but I dare you not to be moved by it and even feel all warm and tingly by the end of it. Michael Caine steals  show as the head  doctor of a Maine orphanage, and  Tobey Maguire is adorable as his conflicted protege. Ladies, wanna convince your man to check this film out with you?  Perhaps the promise of Charlize Theron nudity will do the trick.

—–

On a personal note, readers of this column know that this is the time of year when I usually take time off to go work for the Toronto International Film Festival. This year instead of a month without the column, my old Avenue Video co-worker Thomas will be taking over Friday Film Review for a couple of weeks to bring you film commentary from a different perspective. See you in October!