3. Blade (1998)
After his mother is bitten when she is in labour, Erik/Blade (Wesley Snipes) is born a daywalker (a vampire without any of their normal vulnerabilities except for the thirst for blood) and begins a quest to rid New York from its plague of vampires.
Blade doesn’t often get the respect it deserves in terms of the seismic impact it had on the blockbuster landscape. Everyone points to X-Men and Spider-Man for kick-starting the modern superhero movie craze, but you arguably wouldn’t have either of them if Blade hadn’t taken the risk with a Marvel comics property and achieved success first. While Warner Bros and Joel Schumacher had just wrapped up their colourful, kid-friendly take on DC’s Batman to limited success, the first Marvel hero in the spotlight brutally dispatched vampires with edged weapons, fire, bullets… and trains.
Wesley Snipes is perfect in the title role; a cool and calculated hunter of the undead in constant battle with his darker side. Strong supporting performances come in the form of Kris Kristofferson’s pragmatic and grizzled mentor Whistler, and from Stephen Dorff’s chilling, deceptively boyish vampire villain Frost who had an influence on charismatic and good-looking antagonists going forward.
The film still largely holds up as director Stephen Norrington handles violent action well and seems to get the best out of his cast, while David S. Goyer’s screenplay is far sharper and no-nonsense than what he wrote for the sequels and keeps things moving along nicely. Some of the special effects haven’t aged particularly well, but they’re used sparingly until the slightly overblown finale so this hardly matters.
2. The Crow (1994)
Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) lived a happy bohemian life with his girlfriend before they were both brutalised and killed by a gang looking for a kick on Devil’s Night. But Eric’s spirit isn’t letting go of his grip on the world of the living without a fight, at least not until justice is done…
Still as thematically satisfying and character-driven as ever, Alex Proyas’ cult masterpiece The Crow packs a punch to this day, even without the unexpected real-life tragedy of Brandon Lee. It has influenced the look of every neo-blockbuster from The Matrix to The Dark Knight, and though it was never more than a sleeper hit on release (beyond morbid curiosity) it has had a lasting impact.
The Crow is seriously dark stuff but it has got a big heart to it, particularly in Eric’s tender relationship with lonely surrogate sister Sarah (Rochelle Davis), and it is wickedly funny in its deft deployment of gallows humour (“Somebody stuck his blades in all his major organs in alphabetical order”). Brandon Lee relished Eric’s mischievous side and played a captivating, unhinged agent of chaos in makeup long before Heath Ledger. Michael Wincott’s foul fencing fanatic gang boss Top Dollar is a memorable antagonist, entertaining in the way film villains used to be – simply enjoying being nasty in the days before every bad guy had to have a sympathetic streak. Add to this a killer goth rock soundtrack, and you’ve got the makings of an enduring cult classic.
It’s surprising that the avenging angel as superhero movie hasn’t been attempted more since this. It’s the perfect excuse for your movie to be cool and moody, and allows for the exploration of grand, complex pseudo-religious themes and the unapologetic punishment of bad people.
1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Years into his battle against criminals in Gotham City, the emergence of a new masked vigilante taking revenge against top level gangsters causes Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) to look back on his early years as Batman and remember his short-lived relationship with the love of his life just as she returns to his orbit.
It’s frankly appalling that Warner Bros wanted this to go straight to video. Made while ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ was at its popular and critical height, this animated film among the many Batman movies over the years gets not only into Bruce Wayne’s complex and contradictory psychology but into his very soul.
The best Batman stories tend to be about him grappling with the implications of breaking his one ironclad rule and feature a villain who disturbingly mirrors him in one way or more. There are plot twists and surprises aplenty here, and equal weight and interest is given to both aspects of the Caped Crusader’s personality, giving Conroy space for the most delicate and nuanced work in his distinguished career in voice acting.
In addition to faultless vocal performances from, among others, Conroy and Mark Hamill’s definitive Joker turning up for the film’s final third, compared to the TV series the quality of the noirish animation is that bit smoother, feels that bit richer, and the late great Shirley Williams’ moodily operatic score makes this stunningly well executed comic book adventure/character deep dive feel just as grand and epic as it needs to be.
When it comes to 1990s superhero movies, nothing can really compete with Mask of the Phantasm, but because it was animated and the marketing was mishandled, Hollywood learned more wrong lessons than right from this decade of comic book adapting blockbusters – you always need to to get the characters right first and foremost otherwise none of your technical innovations or trend-chasing will count for squat.
Recommended for you: Live-Action Batman Movies Ranked
What do you think of the order of our list? How would you rank 1990s superhero movies, especially if you grew up with them? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.