Once upon a time, superhero movies did not dominate the Hollywood blockbuster landscape. They certainly weren’t the most popular and profitable film genre on the planet, nor were they the go-to click-bait discussion topic for hack film journalists to bring up while interviewing well-respected directors. Hollywood had been obsessed with genre trends before – Westerns in the 50s and disaster movies in the 70s, for instance – and had even had brief dalliances with comic book adaptations with Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies and the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films. Despite this, in the 1990s the capes and spandex obsession had yet to take hold.
The superheroes that did emerge on the big screen in this time period (especially those who weren’t the Boy Scout or the Bat) tended to be strange and less well-known; they represented filmmakers, studios and stars experimenting to find out what the winning formula would eventually prove to be and, more often than not, failing to find their own success along the way.
Don’t know your Shadow from your Spawn, your Mystery Men from your Mask? (And while we’re on the subject, what the hell is a Guyver anyway?) Well, we at The Film Magazine are here to help. We’ve ranked all the major superhero movies released in the 1990s from worst to best based on critical and box office success, as well as whether the films have had any lasting influence on Hollywood. These are: 1990s Superhero Movies Ranked.
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18. Batman & Robin (1997)
With the help of some new allies, Batman (George Clooney) tries to thwart supervillains Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) from using diamonds to freeze Gotham City solid (it makes no more sense in context).
This was the first but certainly not the last superhero movie with far too much crammed into its runtime: multiple villains, too many sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, and a shudder-inducing amount of ice puns. A completely miscast Clooney is restricted by a comical super-suit but looks even more embarrassed with his face fully exposed as Bruce Wayne. Schwarzenegger and Thurman do little if anything to justify their stunt casting, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman doesn’t seem to have noticed that Ivy’s stake in the plan makes absolutely no sense (a new ice age will help plants how?).
It might not be entirely technically incompetent – it looks exactly as expensive as it was to make ($150 million+) – but this remains a monumentally miscalculated, franchise-killing misfire; an amusement park ride with a tone-deaf script and sinful performances.
Recommended for you: Live-Action Batmen Ranked
17. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
Six teenagers are chosen by the immortal Zordon to protect their home town of Angel Grove and the wider world from evil. As the Power Rangers they are sent on a quest to find a mythical power source to fight back against ancient shapeshifting despot Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman, Raiders of the Lost Ark).
‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ from Saban Entertainment was the show for a lot of children who grew up in the 1990s, but this movie seems to have primarily survived in the public consciousness over the last few years because of how much Oscar Isaac’s villain in X-Men: Apocalypse supposedly looked like Ivan Ooze. This is a mostly forgettable extended episode of the popular kids’ martial arts/superhero series with an even more ridiculous than normal plot involving parents being possessed by purple goo and the Rangers travelling to a distant world that looks suspiciously like a beach in Australia, but at least Freeman looks like he’s having a lot of fun prancing around like a pantomime villain under heavy prosthetics.
This was the first time in the ‘Power Rangers’ franchise where existing Japanese “Super Sentai” footage wasn’t re-purposed, making the pretty huge action finale with the Rangers in their new Zord suits fighting giant mechanical insects over a city skyline rather impressive. Everything else looks pretty cheap though (it did only cost $15 million), and you can’t really be expected to get much out of this if you’re not already heavily invested in these characters or you’re watching it with your sense of irony and nostalgia working overtime.
16. Judge Dredd (1995)
Judge Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone) is the street judge in the dystopian Mega City One tasked with eliminating criminality without prejudice, but when he is framed for murder he finds himself an outlaw on the run in a desolate wasteland.
The film has a decent stab at recreating the dystopian aesthetic of Mega City One from the 2000 AD comic and the money is definitely on screen, but it brings next to nothing else from its pages. There is a Judge called Dredd, he has an evil clone half-brother called Rico (played here by Armand Assante) and that’s about it. Studio meddling and Stallone’s misguided intentions for what he thought a Judge Dredd movie should be (funnier and less violent) helped deliver a pretty toothless final product.
It should have been obvious something was wrong when in the opening scene Dredd, who famously in the comics is the faceless, incorruptible symbol of absolute justice, first stomps onto screen in his iconic armour and immediately takes off his helmet. Completely wasting Max von Sydow and giving Dredd a comedy sidekick played by Rob Schneider just about puts it down for the count.
15. The Shadow (1994)
After spending years as a morally reprehensible warlord in China, playboy Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) returns to New York with dark new superpowers to fight a descendant of Genghis Khan hellbent on bloodshed.
An over-stuffed plot and over-cooked presentation with leaden performances and admittedly striking visuals makes The Shadow a bit of a disappointment overall. Taking the title character as he appeared in radio serials and later comics and adding a weird supernatural twist could have made this really unique, but anyone without at least some knowledge of who the Shadow is and what he can do will be left bewildered and frustrated because nothing is adequately explained.
You can see Alec Baldwin would have made a decent Bruce Wayne as he is strongest in smug millionaire-with-a-secret mode, but elsewhere looks somewhat unengaged or lacking in useful direction. Ian McKellen somehow manages to keep a straight face as a hypnotised scientist and Tim Curry hams it up as well as ever, but everyone involved should be doing stronger work when you get to this level of filmmaking.