The sun sets on another summer movie season, a year that’s brought us three comic book movies that were received with varying degrees of success. Most consider the focus on comic book movies a modern phenomenon, but 25 years ago studios had already begun testing the financial and creative limitations of the genre.
In 1990, one year after the smash hit release of Tim Burton’s Batman, producers were scrambling to replicate the Caped Crusader’s success. The result was the release of three films that in their own way tried to follow in the footsteps of Batman, but each left their own unique marks on cinema in what ended up being a pretty good year for comic book movies, long before they were ever a trend.
Let’s start with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was technically released in the spring on March 30, 1990, but as we’ve learned, the calendar doesn’t mean much when a movie is huge. The success of TMNT was not a forgone conclusion. Despite the triumph of the toyline and the animated series, the major studios bulked at taking it on as a project out of fear of a Masters of the Universe level disaster. In the end, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became one of the most successful independent movies of all-time.
The Turtles are now wholly owned subsidiaries of one of the six major media companies in the Unites States, Viacom, hence last summer’s big screen reboot of the franchise, and its sequel, which will be in theaters next year. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, and produced by Michael Bay, the new Turtles represents everything that is achievable with modern visual effects: the performances are motion captured, the set pieces are huge, and a carefully laid out mythology makes sequel creation easy and inevitable. With all that calculation, you’d be forgiven if, as a moviegoer, you wanted something more quaint.
For the cost of Liebesman’s 2014 Turtles, you could have made eight of the version created by Steve Barron in 1990. With a budget of almost $14 million and no one using the letters “CGI” as a way to make six-foot talking ninja-fighting turtles a reality, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael were all brought to life practically. The results from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop were, as Henson himself put it, some of the most complicated ever created. Looking back 25 years later though, the stitches definitely show, despite the Creature Shop’s best efforts. Including, infamously, a scene where Donatello smiles so widely that you can see face of the human actor inside the costume.