Superhero movies are big money these days. This is understandable because, well, they’re super good! Well, most of the time, anyway. But even when we do get a stinker of a superhero film *cough* Suicide Squad *cough*, they are still spectacular stinkers where you can see that everyone is, at least, trying to make a good movie. This was certainly not the case a couple of decades ago when most superhero movies were almost sure to disappoint.
For me, the turning point came with the 2000 X-Men film. It may not be a spectacular film now but, when it came out it was a marvel (pun intended). After that, superheroes just started getting better with the likes of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and, of course, practically every movie that’s under the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In retrospect, not every superhero movie before 2000 were all bad. In fact, some of them can be said to have inspired the superhero films of today to be better than the dregs of the past. So, with that in mind, let’s go look as the five best superhero films… before superhero films started to get good.
Oh, for this list, I will be restricting myself to one film per franchise because, if I didn’t, this list would be dominated by a couple of franchises that were even notable for being excellent for their time. Also, they should have had a comic book series so, sadly, no Toxic Avenger or Darkman entries here. With that in mind, on with the list!
#5 Superman II (1980)
The only movie where the sequel is better than the original.
That’s not to say that the first movie is bad. It’s just that the second movie starring The Man of Steel is just a smidge better for the simple reason he has to take on General Zod and two other supercriminals from Krypton! This does make things seem a little more dire, especially when you’re a kid watching this for the first time. The special effects are, well, passable but they were a triumph for it’s time. It certainly helps that Christopher Reeves played Superman and Clark Kent very well. He carried his Superman with incredible demeanor and straightforwardness and his bumbling Clark Kent is still tops in my book.
However, as groundbreaking Superman II is, it does have a lot of issues as the story feels a little like an Elseworld story with Superman giving up his powers for a while to be with Lois Lane. Also, since these are only including movies before 2000, I am referring to the original theatrical release of the film and not the Richard Donner Cut that was released on 2006. If I could include the Richard Donner Cut, Superman II would be, at the very least, a notch higher up the list.
Even so, the original version of Superman II is still a worthwhile watch, especially for young children and adults who grew up watching it.
#4 The Rocketeer (1991)
It’s not a popular comic series. But it is still based on a comic book series!
The Rocketeer is based on a series that, well, was bounced around various publishers. The story is set during just before World War II and has stunt pilot Cliff Secord discovers a rocket pack made by Howard Hughes. When an accident sends a plane into a tailspin, Secord uses the jetpack to save the pilot and is dubbed The Rocketeer.
This is one of the more underappreciated superhero films ever made. While there aren’t that many fight scenes, maybe because it was made by Walt Disney Studios, it’s still a fun, rollicking adventure film in the same vein as the Indiana Jones movies, thanks to the time period it’s set in. The characters are all likable and, while the story is very simple, it’s the execution that makes it enjoyable. The special effects may look somewhat dated but, hey, it was the ’90s!
The Rocketeer is still a really fun flick to watch and I still recommend it to this day.
#3 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Fun Fact: none of the big studios wanted to make this film. Really stupid of them, huh?
Even though the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the biggest cartoon of the era, it was still a huge risk to make a live-action version. There were a lot of things that could go wrong. The costumes were going to be difficult to make so that the people in them can actually do martial arts moves in. It was going to be a much darker and grittier story than the lighthearted adventures from the cartoon as it was based on the first few issues of the Mirage Comics. The biggest concern was, well, a lot of live-action films based on movies were big flops. Yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beat all the odds!
You want to know how good the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie is? Well, I was never into the cartoon nor the comic book. Yet I still think that this movie is one of the best movies based on a comic book. There is a childish nature to the fights; no one actually gets sliced by Leonardo’s katana blades or anything like that. However, the actual martial arts action is really good and the story, while rather simple and somewhat padded, is still touching.
Even though there have been other movies based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I still think the 1990 live-action film is the best one.
#2 The Mask (1994)
Somebody stop me!
Usually, a bad comic book movie is made when the producers and writers don’t take the source material seriously and change too many things that the film doesn’t have any semblance of the original. The Mask is the exception to the rule as the original Dark Horse comic is brutal, gory and kind of sick, while the Jim Carrey film is a silly goofball story about a hapless loser of a man named Stanley Ipkiss who finds a mask that allows him to bend reality to his whim in cartoony ways.
The Mask came out when Jim Carrey was one of the biggest comedic star on the planet and, honestly, this was perfect casting for the tone they were going for. The special effects still hold up today and there was even a twist that caught me off-guard because of how it subverted my expectations. The way they used The Mask’s abilities to change reality is also still super entertaining. The Cuban Pete musical number still puts a giant smile on my face because of how well it works in the context of the film.
This was also the feature film debut of a 21-year old Cameron Diaz, who immediately became one of my biggest crushes of all time. I just had to put that little factoid in because, wow. Teenage me thanks you for so many happy memories, Cameron Diaz!
The Mask may not have taken the source material to heart but they managed to produce a movie that is super entertaining for the kid at heart. Definitely give this a watch, even if it is more than a couple of decades old.
#1 Batman (1989)
“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Never understood the quote but, man, I still remember it to this day!
Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the Tim Burton Batman movies to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. It’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges. Michael Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne/Batman is different than Christian Bale’s take but they both work. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is less zany than Heath Ledger’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime but they still work. They both do their own thing but they both do their own thing extremely well. Tim Burton’s idea for Gotham City is more gothic than the more realistic version seen in Christopher Nolan’s films but they still work!
However, I will say that I like the 1989 Batman almost as much as I like The Dark Knight. It’s still a fun story about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime and strike fear in the hearts of evil men. I guess you can say Tim Burton’s film is less serious and realistic but the silliness and bombastic style will appeal to the child in you.
BONUS: Flash Gordon
What’s not to love about Flash Gordon?
Cheesy special effects? Check. Over the top acting? Check. Really silly story and dialog? Check. Max Von Sydow as an alien despot? Check. An unknown actor in Sam Jones playing the main character? Check. An awesome theme song composed and performed by Queen? Double check!
Flash Gordon is a film that’s good enough to be both enjoyed ironically and unironically. Honest!
What’s your favorite superhero film before 2000? Let me know in the comments section below!