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90’s Hero Movies Well Worth Another Watch

Plus the ones that aren't...

By Matt CatesPublished 7 years ago 6 min read
Banderas as the new Zorro

For every action there’s an equal but opposite reaction, or something like that.

And so, to pay for the sins of the 80’s, the 90’s were born…and with them lurched a slew of “dark” hero films crafted as if to atone for the campiness of Superman et al.

Some were darker than others, a few more deconstructionist than dark. Once in a blue moon a light-hearted hero flick would sneak in like a shadow (not theShadow, mind you) to remind us of the innocence lost. I’m lookin’ at you, Rocketeer!

Here’s my short list of pure popcorn hits to purview at your pleasure. Some are dark; some ain't. If you do check some of them out, just be careful who you confess it to. Yes, I think they’re all pure gold, but some snotty cinebuffs aren’t as understanding as your old pal Matt. Well to heck with those no-fun folks! Party on, dudes...!

No reason not to launch with Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s follow-up to Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson–starring Batman. As great as the first one was, in some ways the sequel was superior, with a bigger scope, better effects, a creepy, toy-making Christopher Walken named Max Shreck, and no annoying Vicki Vale!

Instead we get treated to the penultimate in dominatrix icons, Catwoman/Selina Kyle, as played by one hella ghoulish Michelle Pfeiffer. Circuits fried when the duo of rubberized adventurers first awkwardly clasped on the rooftops of Gotham, and many a salacious viewer (and several of the old married ones) found themselves wriggling in their theater seats for the next hour. Legend has it the summer following that autumn blockbuster saw a marked uptick in birthrates across the U.S.

This was the standard to which Anne Hathaway was held to when she squeezed into the suit for her turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises…but arguably Pfeiffer’s catty take just can’t be whipped.

You want dark, for the 90’s this was it. Few hero films of the era can hold a candle to the phenomenon which was The Crow. Though it managed to spawn several low-budget sequels, really, like the Highlander, there can be only one. And his name was Brandon Lee, badass martial arts expert, son of Bruce Lee, and, like Heath Ledger, Lee played a white face-painted, long-haired crazy who died in real life due to a freakish prop gun accident.

Long story short, the prop crew made their own dummy cartridges instead of buying them, but they failed to take out the primers. Later, part of a dummy was lodged in a prop gun because of that primer…and later still, that dummy bullet ended up being fired into Lee’s abdomen at close range. It was a haunting end for a talented young actor, and helped propel the film—which is incredible in its own right—into a legend in its own time…again, much like Ledger and his Joker from The Dark Knight.

Look at The Crow then do an About Face and you get The Rocketeer, a film 180 degrees opposite. This 40’s noir piece from the Mouse House was anything dark, but Disney did manage to make the innocence of the era exciting-ish.

Sporting a devilishly handsome protagonist (Billy Campbell for all your ladies out there), and a drool-stimulating Jennifer Connelly (for all ye lads) as his pin-up model girlfriend, The Rocketeer’s biggest attraction is the outfit itself—that stylish jetpack, the gold helmet, and check out the accompanying pilot’s jacket and trousers. Few films have been so faithful to the comic book origins of the costume, and what a costume it is!

Realistic yet outlandish, fashionably retro with a hint of steampunk… It’s too bad there wasn’t an equally creative villain to combat, but then again we do get an evil Nazi Timothy Dalton (yes, 007 is the baddie, in case I have to say it). The Rocketeer failed to soar to the heights Disney might’ve wanted, but it’s still a minor cult classic…for good reason.

Before he was Ra’s al Ghul or Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson got his hero hands dirty as the facially-scarred Darkman! Darkman isn’t quite like the others; he’s a sick puppy gone mad for revenge against the criminal scum who took his face and left him for dead. So he’s not so much your standard vigilante type; he’s just a pissed off doctor with a flair for the dramatic…and who, unfortunately for those criminal scum, was played by the 6’4” Neeson in his first leading role.

Unsurprisingly the concept came from a Sam Raimi short story, and the film even features Bruce Campbell of Raimi’s campy Evil Dead films (and current TV series). Raimi wanted to film Batman or The Shadow but couldn’t get hold of the rights, so he brought his own character to the big screen. It became a minor hit, and even featured a Danny Elfman score. But clearly Raimi made an excellent casting choice when looking for his "monster with the soul of a man.”

Blade was total 90’s, an action flick starring a sword-carrying, trench-wearing, total badass vampire half-breed…as interpreted by Wesley Snipes. I do not remember or care about the plot, but I can assure you of two things: 1) Snipes massacred dozens of vampires in a multitude of ways, many involving him kicking and spinning; 2) he looked amazing doing it. Here’s a one-off which still holds a place in everyone’s heart, especially those with a weakness for Jim Carrey’s rubbery face. Taking his frantic antics to the extreme, The Mask was the perfect venue for an oddball like Carrey, featuring a somewhat forgettable plot but an incredible concept—an ancient mask transforms its wearer into a freaky green superhuman with a penchant for zoot suits and an unspecified assortment of reality-warping abilities.

Now give that concept to someone like Jim Carrey and say, “Run with it,” and you get one of the strangest films of the decade!

Love it, hate it—in Mega City, there’s no stopping the law and in this over-the-top gem, Sly Stallone IS the LAAAAW! Sometimes criticized by hardcore Dredd Heads because the character kept taking his helmet off (in the comic, Judge Dredd never does), for me that was the least of the film’s issues. The largest was probably the inclusion of comedian Rob Schneider, but then again he did add a surrealist element to a very surrealist film based on a totally surrealist comic series from alt-publisher 2000 A.D. Overall it’s still a highly watchable and entertaining movie, with many memorable scenes and some of Stallone’s most epic overacting ever caught on film.

Sometimes it is all too easy to gaze back at the blockbusters of yesteryear without a slight scowl of cynicism. I wish that were not the case. The swashbuckling vigilante Diego de la Vega, or Zorro, has a history stretching back to 1919. I felt he was given a proper treatment with Mask of Zorro, and it was a surprise to learn that Antonio Banderas was indeed not starring as de la Vega, but as his successor. Thus the film was not a reboot of earlier films from 1920 and 1940, but instead a sort of continuation. The legend of Zorro already exists in the movie Banderas’ bandit Alejandro Murrieta takes up the mask and mantel.

It’s a fun film with a stellar cast, a homage to earlier films which laid the tracks. Like The Rocketeer, Zorro doesn’t try to go dark, yet it doesn’t devolve into cheap theatrics either. I guess the word I’m looking for is wholesome. That’s not the type of movie modern audiences have a taste for, but for those of you who appreciate clean, light-hearted action and adventure movies, The Mask of Zorro is arguably one of the best from its era. And don’t forget, it introduced us to Catherine Zeta-Jones!

And the Unmentionables...

I know I just ripped into these in no set order, but I thought maybe you were one of those readers who just skims the list to look at the pics anyhow… But here you are, still reading. Sorry if I misjudged you!

I considered mentioning Austin Powers up above, but I wanted to shy away from comedies...which is why I also didn't mention Mystery Men. But for Austin Powers fans, you might like my article "Dr. Evil's Greatest Frickin' Hits!"

Also, there were a ton of others movies I didn’t mention because I do NOT think they are worth another watch. But you might disagree. There's: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Meteor Man, The Phantom, Tank Girl, Power Rangers, Steel, The Guyver, Spawn (oh, Spawn, what happened?)… There was even a Captain America, and yes I watched it. It was bad. Oh, and Disney’s Inspector Gadget even managed to squeeze into the late 90’s roster, ruining my childhood memories of the animated show. Ughh...

Some things should remain buried in the past.

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About the Creator

Matt Cates

Freelance writer and owner of Cates Content and Copywriting; retired Air Force Veteran; former administrative assistant at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman, the greatest sci-fi novel in the multiverse.

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