How the Pulp Boom of the ’90s Led to the Superhero Movies of Today

This year we’ll be getting seven superhero movies. Seven. For reference, that’s how many Superman movies have been made in the last 40 years. (If that seems low, fret not – two of 2017’s super-films will include the Man of Steel.) We’re living in the golden age of caped crusaders, but what brought on this mania in the first place?

Iron Man in 2008, Spider-Man in 2002, X-Men in 2000, Barb Wire in 1996. There are plenty of easy answers, but none conclusive. The movie that established superhero cinema as an inescapable part of pop culture, however, is much simpler to spot. Its hero will also be appearing on the big screen twice this year.

In the summer of 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t open – it arrived. The striking update of the famous logo, etched in bronze and black, adorned every product worth selling — video games, Taco Bell cups, Prince albums, cereal boxes, coin banks attached to cereal boxes. Batman merchandise racked up $750 million, most of it before the movie even opened. When it did finally reach Bat-crazed audiences, it made history. The opening weekend broke four box office records, and Batman soon became the first movie to gross $100 million in ten days.

The public wanted Batman. Studios wanted the public. Almost overnight, any project with a passing resemblance to Batman was granted divine salvation from development hell and hustled into production. The obvious push, in hindsight, would be comic book movies. But in 1989, producers couldn’t ignore the desolate landscape in the rear-view mirror. 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had done what so many villains had failed to do and killed the Man of Steel. The only other big-budget superheroics of the decade, Superman III (1983), Supergirl (1984), and Howard the Duck (1986), earned bad box office and bad reputations.

So the powers that be decided the public didn’t want comic books – they wanted pulp. Black-and-white comic-strip worlds of shadow and secret. Hard-edged heroes more likely to stop the bad guy with a bullet than brute force. Pulp magazines were the rough-hewn, ramshackle and revolutionary forebears of comic books, and Batman is a purer descendant than most.

The pulp cycle of superhero cinema would last less than a decade, each of its five films following the same pattern – promotional assault, underwhelming box office, dead franchise, cult fandom on home video. Every time, the promotion pulled back to compensate for the flop that came before, only for the latest attempt to flop harder. But the first blockbuster pulled from the Batman mold had no failure to temper its expectations.

Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy received the full Bat-treatment and then some. Batman had two soundtracks. Tracy would get three. There were only three Batman action figures for kids to break; Dick Tracy would have fourteen. Batman got a roller coaster at Six Flags; Tracy would receive industry-changing thrill rides at Disney parks around the world.

Dick Tracy was Edward Hopper with a Crayola 8-pack. The ultimate pulp fiction Fantasyland, where cash is covered in dollar signs, wise guys wear their souls in paint-pot suits, and morality is dictated on a sliding scale of ugly. But the action is mostly kept to Madonna-sung montages, and the rest of the picture pays more attention to the hero’s love life than his one-man war on crime. There was plenty to like in Dick Tracy – an overqualified cast, unsettlingly realistic make-up effects, songs by Stephen Sondheim – but not much for the kids. Which is why it won more Oscars than The Dark Knight while the toys warmed pegs well into 1991. Dick Tracy grossed less than half of Batman’s $400 million worldwide haul, and the sequels and theme parks died painless deaths.

The next pulp hero would provide even less family-friendly entertainment. Hot off the success of his transcendent and gruesome Evil Dead II, Sam Raimi knew exactly what he wanted to make next. But nobody would let him near Batman or The Shadow, so he invented his own pulp hero. 

Darkman hit theaters two months after Dick Tracy, with a third of the budget and only one soundtrack. There were no action figures or breakfast cereals or banks attached to breakfast cereals. The mysterious promotions centered on a single question – Who is Darkman?

Raimi’s homegrown hero, a disconcertingly young Liam Neeson, is a volatile cocktail of The Shadow, Batman, and the Universal Monsters of old, shoved into the plot of RoboCop. A brilliant scientist on the verge of perfecting synthetic skin is deep-fried and presumed dead when gangsters come calling for an incriminating MacGuffin that his girlfriend (a game Frances McDormand) left in his lab. He’s scarred beyond recognition, unable to feel pain, inhumanly strong, and prone to fits of rage — so he dresses like the Invisible Man, disguises himself with his faulty faux flesh, and exacts bloody revenge all while trying to maintain a healthy relationship. So pulpy it should’ve come in a carton.

Despite mild success and two direct-to-video sequels, Darkman vanished within a few years. So totally, in fact, that Universal forgot it owned the merchandise rights.

Meanwhile, Disney had higher hopes for a pulp hero hand-me-down of its own, and 1991 would be the year of The Rocketeer. Created by Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboard artist Dan Stevens in the early ‘80s, The Rocketeer was a tribute to the jet-powered serials of the 1940s and 50s. Considering the Indiana Jones influence, Disney hired another Raiders alumnus, Joe Johnston, whose directorial debut just happened to be the company’s highest-grossing live-action feature ever made at that point – Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

With a slightly scaled-back promotional push that included cups shaped like the hero’s helmet and nightly blast-offs at Disney-MGM Studios (freshly cleaned of all Tracy traces), The Rocketeer landed in the summer of 1991, almost a year to the day of Disney’s last pulp blockbuster.

Despite Disney’s contentiously close eye on the production, The Rocketeer doesn’t show any signs of interference. Instead, it’s an old-fashioned, high-flying good time, a charming, optimistic postcard of old Hollywood, dusty and gold with age, and inescapably romantic. The hero, played with gee-whiz honesty by Billy Campbell, is nothing more than a hotshot stunt pilot who pays more attention to planes than his girlfriend, an effervescent and spunky Jennifer Connelly. Fate and a two-bit thief drop an experimental jetpack into his cockpit, but the second he makes headlines, everyone from Howard Hughes to the third-biggest matinee star in the world wants that rocket.

It barely earned back its $40 million budget. Some even blamed the glorious art deco poster for making kids think it was an animated movie/baby stuff. Disney buried plans for a trilogy and Joe Johnston provided the eulogy, vowing never to work with the studio again.

That didn’t stop Universal from reaching for the blockbuster brass ring again, and this time with the hero that gave Batman everything but his ears.

The Shadow was the original millionaire playboy with an identity crisis. By day, the dashing Lamont Cranston; by night, the boogeyman under every bad guy’s bed. His big-budget debut got the action figures, the lunchboxes, the E.L. Fudges, the works, all of it calling the same bold shot – “The Movie, Summer ’94.” 

The Shadow would be the 43rd movie of 1994, judging by box office, falling behind two Van Damme vehicles, Beverly Hills Cop III, and the City Slickers about Jack Palance’s evil twin. 

The Shadow opens with the hero as a bloodthirsty drug lord until a magical dagger repeatedly stabs him onto the path of righteousness. Seven years and a text crawl later, he can turn himself invisible, perform Jedi mind-tricks, and extort the assistance of every poor sap he saves. It’s a strange adaptation of a strange character, and the tone tilts from disturbing (a dream where Lamont rips his face off) to near-parody (when told he has issues, he says, “I’m aware of that”). Alec Baldwin in his prime and the music-video pedigree of director Russell Mulcahy gave it style in spades, but like Tracy before it, The Shadow was more tone poem than tentpole.

The box office was bad enough to cancel a completed video game tie-in before it could reach stores. But it didn’t stop the final film in the pulp cycle, appropriately based on one of the last pulp heroes before comics took over.

According to lore and legend, The Phantom roamed the jungles of Bangalla for hundreds of years, an immortal figure of justice. In reality, he was just the latest in a long line of Phantoms, each gifting the mantel and purple tights to the next of kin.

1996’s The Phantom was an unfiltered update of the overblown adventure serials that inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark in the first place. The hero’s jaw is square enough to teach geometry class, and the villain’s mustache almost twirls itself. The plot is just an excuse to show pirate ships, rope bridges, laser beams, and a cannonball skipping a gangster across water like a flat stone. The defining difference between The Phantom and its contemporaries is silliness, intentional or otherwise. An unmoving mummy chokes a grave robber to death. The mano-a-mano showdown at the end owes something to the Schwartz-measuring contest from Spaceballs. There’s a ghost dad involved.

The Phantom opened in sixth place and only fell from there. The thin, muddled marketing certainly didn’t do it any favors. A Got Milk ad and a dumb tagline that better belonged in a rap song — “SLAM EVIL!”– couldn’t coax audiences. 

The Phantom only made back a fraction of its budget. Whether or not evil was sufficiently slammed, the franchise was down for the count. The age of the pulp hero closed with the credits.

The pulp cycle has been relegated to the same fate as its heroes — a nostalgic memory, fading fast. But these movies had longer legs than anyone at the time could’ve realized.

In 2002, Shadow scribe David Koepp, Darkman director Sam Raimi, and Batman-Dick Tracy-Darkman composer Danny Elfman would collaborate on Spider-Man, the first movie to ever earn $100 million in its opening weekend, the same amount it took Batman a record-breaking 10 days to reach. The Raimi-directed, Koepp-rewritten sequel, Spider-Man 2 often makes appearances on lists of the greatest superhero movies ever made.

After the Phantom failure, it took Paramount 12 years to gamble on another superhero, distributing Marvel’s first self-financed feature, Iron Man, and ushering in the age of Cinematic Universes. Three entries later, the nostalgic-yet-timeless action of The Rocketeer earned Joe Johnston the director’s chair on Captain America: The First Avenger. Twice-burned Disney would buy the entire Marvel company in 2009. Darkman deserves a reverent nod in the R-rated renaissance of Deadpool and Logan. The living comic book design of Dick Tracy paved the way for the similarly stylized likes of Sin City and The Spirit.

If not poetry, it at least rhymes. The dime-store pulp novels of the 1930s laid the groundwork for the superhero comics to come, just as the big-budget pulp movies of the 1990s sowed the seeds of our modern mega-budget cape-and-cowl revival. With the Avengers constantly assembling and Batman’s parents dying almost annually, it’s only a matter of time before these pulp heroes return, with origin stories, CGI, and sequels built right in. But it’s worth remembering those earlier attempts, when they set the stage with shadows, phantoms, and Sondheim numbers.


 Jeremy Herbert lives in the shadowy edges of Cleveland.