Hollywood knew comic book characters could be profitable after Superman the Movie brought them to the mainstream, and then Batman changed the game a decade later by cementing the notion. Suddenly, every studio had to have a superhero property they could turn into a money-making franchise. The 90s became a period of high hopes but immense trial and error when it came to making the transition from a paneled page to the big screen.
What and what not to do when translating comics and graphic novels was writ large by ‘99. Batman’s sequels experienced controversy but rode high until 1997’s debacle, Batman & Robin. Spawn became such a sensation that the feature seemed inevitable. Marvel languished through stalled and cheap productions before Blade and X-Men straightened the imprint’s path to glory.
In the middle of it all, producers were culling ideas from indie publishers and newspaper strips for a hidden gem that could give them their piece of the action. Some attempts impressed while others flopped, not that it makes much difference to movie buffs looking for something to either kill time or defy their expectations. So then, what follows are five films, superlative in their own way but barely mentioned today.
Who can forget the classic line, “I’m on my way,” recited as Tracy looks into his watch? Quite a few, turns out.
Tracy (Warren Beatty), the classic comic strip character, springs into action in his signature yellow hat and coat to take down gangster Big Boy Caprice (Al Pacino), who’s muscled in on the city’s mob scene. A faceless wraith-like figure named The Blank shows up too to complicate matters even further (as does Madonna, and there might be a connection there).
When Dick Tracy hit theaters, it was a big deal. Marketing for it — promotional tie-ins, Halloween costumes, toys — was everywhere, and it did very well (making over $162 million on a $46 million budget). It even won Oscars for Best Makeup and Best Song (credit to Madge there). The film is unique, certainly one of the more surreal entries on this list between its character designs and noir German Expressionist tendencies.
Beatty and all involved do a wonderful job synthesizing the look and feel of a Warner gangster movie with the flair of a comic strip. Often acting against type, Pacino perfectly sends up the roles he is known for. A shame this groundbreaking would-be classic is not talked about much anymore, because it should be.
Taglines: “Slam evil” and “The Phantom is real.”
Legend has it an immortal “Ghost Who Walks” protects the jungle. In truth, it’s Kit Walker (Billy Zane), the latest in a long line to inherit the guns, skull ring, and purple mantle of The Phantom. As both Walker and The Phantom, Kit is hot on the trail of the Skulls of Touganda, an artifact of tremendous power he has to keep out of the hands of megalomaniac Xander Drax (Treat Williams). He also seeks to put an end to old enemies the Singh Brotherhood and avenge the death of his father, the last Phantom, whose spirit guides him.
The Phantom originated in the strips with Lee Falk in the 1930’s. Better-known abroad (especially Australia), his popularity dwindled in the States. The ‘96 film was an attempt to change that. Like other entries on this list, it has an affinity for the character’s era of origin and charming camp. Treat Williams, in particular, is gloriously over the top, and Billy Zane has the type of aw-shucks charisma that Reeve brought to Superman and Val Kilmer brought to Bruce Wayne.
Containing action aplenty and moments that are quintessentially comic-booky, The Phantom is a selection more fans of the genre deserve to see.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”
The Shadow (Alec Baldwin) enlists his network of agents and ingenue Margot Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) to stop Shiwan Khan (John Lone), last living descendant of Genghis, from detonating an atom bomb in New York. In the process, he develops a bond with Lane through his civilian identity, Lamont Cranston, and confronts his dark past.
The Shadow was directed by Russell Mulcahy of Highlander fame, and true to form, it’s high on visual style and FX. Mulcahy does a masterful job recreating the 1930s, rivaling Dick Tracy in production design. However, the film’s quotient of special effects is much higher, employing Shadow’s abilities, including invisibility and phasing in and out of the darkness. He also fights a possessed golden dagger which turns into a fanged CG creature.
Back in the day, when serials and radio dramas were all the rage, The Shadow was part of the elite alongside Batman and Superman. Box office business for this one was so-so, but that there hasn’t been another crack at a film adaptation of such a legendary character since 1994 is disappointing. Here’s hoping Sam Raimi puts the rights to good use soon.
“Never let it be said Neville Sinclair failed to bring the house down.”
Based on the Dave Stevens graphic novel, Rocketeer features the adventures in 1938 of pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) who finds an experimental rocket pack stolen from Howard Hughes. Cliff dons it to take on the dual identity of the title hero. Also seeking the rocket is devious swashbuckling actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a secret agent for the Nazis. Sinclair goes to any lengths to get his prize, including wooing and kidnapping Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connolly).
Before Disney acquired Marvel, this and Dick Tracy were their attempts at big-budget comic franchises, but it had a lukewarm performance at the box office. Joe Johnston directed (there he is again), bringing his touch for the period decades before Captain America. And the film has parallels with Iron Man, specifically the geopolitical angle of keeping technology out of the hands of literal bad actors and using it against them.
Rocketeer is a forebear to modern superhero epics in many ways. It’s slickly produced and can be appreciated as a prescient foreshadowing of Marvel films to come.
Jim Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a meek bank clerk whose life becomes a real tempestuous tornado when he discovers a green mask in a heap of garbage that gives him the power to become a living cartoon, which he uses to get even with everyone who bullies him. That works out well enough until his animal attraction to a sultry nightclub singer, Tina (Cameron Diaz), puts him in the crosshairs of mobster Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene).
Unthinkable as it sounds, the public largely forgets Son of the Mask was preceded by a great movie that cemented the antics of Jim Carrey among the Hollywood heavyweights and introduced Cameron Diaz to the silver screen. Based on a series by Dark Horse, The Mask, at the time, was the highest-grossing comic book adaptation since Burton’s Batman. Between such a pedigree and the numbers, not to mention how well it holds up, The Mask is one audiences ought to reconnect with.
RIP Reg E. Cathey, “The Doctor”.