6. The Mask (1994)
Mild-mannered nice guy Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) is liberated from the drudgery of his job as a bank teller when he finds a magical mask in the river which transforms him into a mischievous cartoon-powered superhero.
Over two decades before Deadpool we had The Mask to unleash a little childish anarchy on comic book movies. Toned down a fair bit from the dark and depraved satirical comic book it is loosely based on, the film is one of the best examples of Jim Carrey on overdrive, and completely appropriately considering he’s playing a living cartoon character.
The visual effects used to bring the Mask’s otherworldly transformations to life, heavily influenced by Tex Avery and ‘Loony Tunes’ cartoons, are still jaw-dropping today and most of the jokes (aside from some slightly iffy issues of consent) remain really funny. The film is less interesting when it nearly becomes your standard superhero shootout towards the end, and it’s really telling that the standout set piece is not a fight but a dance between the Mask and instant-star Cameron Diaz in her film debut.
5. Darkman (1990)
In his breakthrough role, Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist horrifically burned when he is the victim of a mobster’s shakedown. Now immune to pain and highly mentally unstable, he shrouds himself in bandages and becomes Darkman, a good-hearted monster determined to finish his work creating a synthetic skin and driven by regret, love and revenge.
Darkman is a long-standing template for dark superhero movies. It’s the only original superhero (not adapted from a pre-existing comic) on this list, and that’s only because Sam Raimi couldn’t secure the rights to the superhero he really wanted to use (The Shadow).
This isn’t just a Sam Raimi film but one that shows his career progression in microcosm: the editing and cinematography is flashy, bordering on manic; he brings the mischievous comedy-horror moments from the Evil Dead films; and he is just starting to move towards the more mainstream crowd-pleasing fare later epitomised by his Spider-Man trilogy. He also pays affectionate tribute to the Universal Horror movies in the way the film looks, and what is driving it underneath. Darkman himself looks like the lovechild of antagonists of The Mummy and The Invisible Man, with a dash of Phantom of the Opera.
Despite the horror and superhero elements, like a lot of Raimi films you have to be able to stomach a certain amount of camp to really enjoy this one, and the action set pieces are looking a little more threadbare than some other early 90s genre movies. The special makeup effects are still fantastic though, and it’s fun to watch Neeson deliver a really over-the-top (though still poignant) performance for a change.
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4. Batman Returns (1992)
Batman (Michael Keaton) faces the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) as they put into motion a plot of revenge on Gotham City at Christmas.
Tim Burton wasn’t especially interested in fidelity to the comic book source material in Batman (1989) so he sure as hell wasn’t going to start with its sequel where he was given carte blanche to make exactly the kind of kinky superhero movie he’d always wanted to make.
You’d happily pay to be in the room when Warner Bros execs realised their toy line based on their biggest property really wasn’t going to fly with these character designs featuring deformity and what looks a lot like fetish gear, not to mention the morbid subtext and innuendo present throughout.
Like often happens with Batman films, the title character struggles to compete with his more interesting antagonists, particularly Pfeiffer’s formidable and instantly iconic S&M Catwoman, and both her and DeVito’s monster penguin are given memorable character themes from Burton’s go-to composer Danny Elfman. Gratifyingly though, Keaton as the Caped Crusader and especially as Bruce Wayne never forgets the humour and heartbreak inherent, but rarely brought out in the character; he’s a sad clown in a cowl.
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