My Favorite Pulp Superhero Movies of All Time

The 1990’s were weird when it came to superhero movies. Studios weren’t willing to invest in actual movies starring mainstream characters from Marvel or DC Comics. And in 1989 after the success of Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie, studios left the financial success with the wrong idea. Rather than opting to take a shot on other big line superhero movies, they chose to instead aim for the pulpy nostalgia that the film brought audiences. So they mined the comic book world and began adaptation pulp superheroes from the 1930’s and 1940’s, all of whom were very popular in their time.

Only a few them took off, while sadly many failed to translate in to humongous success. That said, the pulp superhero movie era of the 1990’s was a great time for fans like me that just adored pulp superheroes. I don’t care. I loved pretty much all of it, and I still do. In celebration of the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” I compiled a list of my absolute favorite pulp movies of all time.

Honorable Mentions: Darkman, Dick Tracy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Disney’s Tarzan, Barbarella, The Mask of Zorro

Flash Gordon (1980)
True story: As a kid I originally tuned in to “Flash Gordon” assuming I was going to see a movie about DC Comics’ “The Flash.” I was disappointed for a bit. Then the theme song Queen blew my six year old face off, and I was hooked. This adaptation of the classic movie serial hero is a marvelous action movie adventure filled with flying hawk men, and Max Von Sydow, and seductive gorgeous women, and—the insanely sex Ornella Muti. “Flash Gordon” is a bonafide childhood favorite, and I love to re-visit it whenever I can.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Intended as a dedication and tribute to the classic serial movie heroes of the thirties and forties, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a wonderful, stellar adventure that introduces us to none other than Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford, fresh off of “Star Wars,” re-invents himself as the cunning, resilient and intelligent archaeologist turned adventurer. With the help of his patented whip he races against time to stop the Nazis from opening the ark of the covenant. “Raiders” is still a bang up action film, and Ford is timeless. 

The Rocketeer (1991)
I love the Rocketeer. I have the comics, I have a statue I proudly display and I even have some of the figures. Joe Johnston’s adaptation of the comic book is meant to be seen on the big screen and still works today as a wonderful action adventure. This is a movie that still doesn’t quite get as much love as it deserves, as Johnston creates a marvelous epic which is surprising considering the special effects limitations. With a cast like Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, the late Alan Arkin and Billy Campbell in the lead, this is a movie that you can watch on repeat and never get bored with.

The Shadow (1994)
In the development process for “Batman,” Alec Baldwin was a strong contender for the role of Bruce Wayne, but he lost out to Michael Keaton. As something of a consolation, Baldwin took the lead role as one of “Batman’s” predecessors, “The Shadow.” I love this movie, I love the camp, the aesthetic, the direction from Russell Mulcahy, and the performances from Baldwin and folks like Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen and Penelope Anne Miller. I love this movie so much I own a vintage chapel radio with a small collection of The Shadow radio plays on cassette that I bought off Ebay.

The Phantom (1996)
Billy Zane really was a great choice to play the superhero “The Phantom,” it’s just sad that the movie wasn’t all that appreciated upon its initial release. The mix of camp and epic action is wonderful and Zane plays wonderfully off the late Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson and Catherine Zeta Jones, respectively. Zane fits the guise if the Phantom very well and I think there was real potential for a sequel. The only real follow up was “The Phantom 2040” which is a solid animated series in its own right.