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Comic Book Movies: Top 10 Comics to Film Adaptations

Friendly neighborhood Spider-ManFriendly neighborhood Spider-Man

In 2010, Kick-Ass swept cinemas across the nation and now Iron Man 2 is set to take over the box office. It’s historically been an uneasy relationship between comic books and movies, with the film adaptations often falling short of the mark. But we’ve recently turned a corner and entered the glory days of comic book movies.

Whereas in the past, maybe one out of every ten films based on a comic book turned out to be watchable, comic book movies these days are a ton of fun more often than not. Here’s a look at ten of the best films based on graphic novels and comics.

10. X2: X-Men United

Nightcrawler made his first appearance in X2Nightcrawler made his first appearance in X2

The original X-Men movie was a gem and helped usher in an age of exciting and smart comic book adaptations that were dynamite at the box office. Longtime fans and newcomers alike were intrigued with the adventures of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and Storm (Halle Berry).

In X2, the story is smoother, and the tone is a little darker as the racism metaphor of the maligned mutants is ramped up. (With the origin story taken care of in the first film, comic movie sequels often find themselves with more room for plot and character development.) The action is also crisper, making X2 an undeniable success.

Too bad the final installment in the X-Men Trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, couldn’t sustain the momentum of the first two films, and lost the emphasis on character development that helped make the first two pictures so amazing.

9. V For Vendetta

Natalie Portman learns about subversion in V For VendettaNatalie Portman learns about subversion in V For Vendetta

Alan Moore is one of the most renowned comics creators in the history of the medium, but has never had a happy relationship with Hollywood.

Moore was rightly disappointed by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was an abomination compared to his exquisite comic of the same name. He also had a case where From Hell is concerned, which bastardized much of Moore’s original vision. But with V For Vendetta, you get the feeling that nothing is really going to please Moore.

Starring Natalie Portman, the film is action-packed and filled with intrigue. The movie’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future also raises some interesting socio-political questions.

The world of the film, the plight of the characters, and the incredible scenarios that play out are awesome in both their conception and execution.

The latest adaptation of Moore’s work, Watchmen, had a big impact at the box office, but despite being a solid movie, failed to capture the grimy essence of Moore’s original miniseries. Needless to say, Moore refused to allow his name to appear anywhere in association with the film.

8. Superman: The Movie

Christopher Reeve brought Superman to life in the '70sChristopher Reeve brought Superman to life in the '70s

This is the movie that proved super heroes could be big business in movie theaters. Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, Superman, presented a complex and visually stunning film.

Christopher Reeve became the face of the hero from Krypton as well as his alter-ego, mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent. The film’s combination of action, special effects, and a character driven story with a religious subtext kept audience enraptured.

The heyday  of comic book adaptations was yet to come, but Superman got the ball rolling three decades ago.

Unfortunately, the Man of Steel was never again treated so well on the big screen. Donner was taken off the production of Superman II, leaving a compromised final product, which is nevertheless quite good.

Superman III and Superman IV were miserable failures by most accounts, and 2006’s Superman Returns was passable, but failed to live up to the potential let loose in the very first film.

7. Road to Perdition

Tom Hanks got gritty and grim in Road To PerditionTom Hanks got gritty and grim in Road To Perdition

Sam Mendes’ 2002 adaptation of the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Road to Perdition, is a grim and haunting story of love and violence.

The film examines the role of violence and loyalty in the life of men. Tom Hanks plays a mob enforcer and devoted family man who ends up on the wrong side of a vendetta.

Road to Perdition is challenging and nuanced, and good enough to overcome the mild miscasting of Tom Hanks as a tough guy. It is absolutely essential in the comics-to-film canon. Addtionally, Paul Newman in his final screen appearance is incredible as an affectionate and brutal head of an organized crime family.

Road to Perdition was at the forefront of adapting lesser known, non-super hero comics to film.

In a similar vein, 2005’s A History of Violence draws from another non-super hero graphic work and addresses many of the same themes. It’s a fine film that could probably have filled this spot on the list just as well as Road to Perdition.

6. Spider-Man 2

Does whatever a spider canDoes whatever a spider can

One of the most beloved characters in the history of comics had to wait a long time to get his own movie, but in 2002, after over 15 years of complications and legal troubles, Spider-Man hit the big screen.

The first in what would become a trilogy, Spider-Man was a smash at the box office. However, its sequel would surpass the original in every way other than gross revenue.

Spider-Man 2 saw the return of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, and introduced classic Spidey villain, Dr. Octopus, who was played by the spot-on and darkly sympathetic Clive Owen.

Spider-Man 2 upped the ante all round, and without an origin story to get in the way, focused on story and character, generally raising the bar for what a comic book movie can deliver.

In light of the brilliance of the first two films, it’s a shame that Spider-Man 3 devolved into a smash bang popcorn fest that included a bafflingly campy dance number from Peter Parker. It has its moments, but just as with the X-Men Trilogy, Spidey’s third entry was easily the weakest.

5. Oldboy

Bad hair day? Don't fix your 'do with a hammer.Bad hair day? Don't fix your 'do with a hammer.

Park Chan-Wook made an international splash with his 2003 South Korean tale of vengeance, Oldboy. Park took some liberties with his source material, the Old Boy manga series, but his twisted vision of the story made for compelling viewing.

Oldboy is the story of a man who is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for 15 years. One day he is released without knowing why he was held there or why he was released. He embarks on a quest to discover who his captor was and take revenge.

Comics have been a fine source of revenge-themed stories and characters driven by a thirst for retribution. Old Boy is just one example that made it to the big screen.

Other vengeance fueled film adaptations include 2004’s gritty and worthwhile The Crow, which was Brandon Lee’s final film.

Less of a sure thing were the three films Hollywood produced based on Marvel’s Punisher. 1989’s abortive The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren, is to be avoided at all costs. The 2004 version was a huge improvement, not perfect, but earns a pass.

And then there’s Punisher: War Zone, one of the most misunderstood comic book movies of all time. It’s a highly kitschy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, splatter fest that is gorgeously shot and rendered. It’s a much maligned film, but is not to be missed by those in the know.

4. Ghost World

Johansson and Birch come of age in Ghost WorldJohansson and Birch come of age in Ghost World

Daniel Clowes’ underground comic Ghost World made for undoubtedly one of the best film adaptations of any kind. Clowes himself co-wrote the script with director Terry Zwigoff, which ensured that the tone and spirit of his work remained in tact.

Ghost World follows two misfit high-school girls, played by Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch, as they attempt to alleviate their boredom with creative mischief.

This intelligent and sincere movie was a favorite of critics and has gained a cult following, but remains largely ignored by the mainstream movie-going public.

Clowes and Zwigoff teamed up again a few years later to adapt another Clowes comic, Art School Confidential, this time less successfully. The film is not without it charm, but falls well short of what was accomplished with Ghost World.

3. Iron Man

Iron Man was one of the truest comics-to-film adaptationsIron Man was one of the truest comics-to-film adaptations

Iron Man was the first film produced by Marvel Studios and marked the beginning of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which will see a number of movie characters crossing over into each other’s films a la comic books.

That was exciting news for fans of comic book movies. Iron Man was not only a fantastic high-energy flick with compelling characters and a stellar cast, it was one of the most faithful comic book adaptations ever.

The new era that dawned with Iron Man continued with Marvel Studios’ reboot of The Incredible Hulk, which was another success all around. (In 2003, a previous Hulk film made it to the silver screen, but Ang Lee’s gorgeously edited vision for the ever-lovin’ green-skinned brute was met with a lukewarm response.)

Marvel Studios continues to forge ahead with the recent release of Iron Man 2, and three more movies in the works – Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers, which will feature all of the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one film.

The future is bright for comics fans.

2. Sin City

Sin City was a triumph of aesthetics and storytellingSin City was a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling

Frank Miller, like the aforementioned Alan Moore, is one of the most influential comics creators in history, and along with Moore is one of the big reasons that comics enjoyed a surge in popularity that began a couple of decades ago.

That surge also inspired the public to take the medium more seriously, and led to the current environment of film producers scouring the pages of graphic novels and comics for a new source of box office gold.

Miller’s Sin City is a stylistic triumph. It is faithful to the noir vision of the comic, and plays out in a deadpan style. The huge cast carries the film off brilliantly, and as a visual experience, Sin City is unforgettable.

The violence is unflinching, and the heroes are rough around the edges, to say the least. But there is still a warmth in the tales of lone justice and revenge, one without sentimentality or a happy ending, but warmth all the same.

Miller had a hand in the adaptation of another work of his, 300, about an epic battle between the Spartans and the Persians. 300 is a compelling action-packed popcorn flick, but draws from weaker source material than Sin City. That combined with Miller’s reduced role contribute to it falling short of the mark set by Miller’s greatest Hollywood outing.

1. The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger's unforgettable portrayal of the JokerHeath Ledger's unforgettable portrayal of the Joker

The best comic book movie of all time is, like a few others on this list, a sequel. 2008’s The Dark Knight is the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, which started with Batman Begins in 2005.

The Dark Knight deals in madness and moral ambiguity, creating the darkest and most disturbed vision of the iconic Batman ever to hit a screen. Heath Ledger’s turn as Batman’s most notorious foe, The Joker, was legendary and good enough to earn him a posthumous Academy Award.

Batman has traditionally fared better on the big screen than many comic book heroes. Tim Burton’s 1989 movie, Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson was one of (if not the) best comic-to-film adaptation to that point and went a long way to popularizing the image of the lone and gloomy Batman.

That film series delivered an adequate sequel before beginning its descent into inanity and disgrace.

Nolan’s Batman films set a new precedent for comic movies, one that proves audiences can handle and even desire complex and challenging stories rather than cut-and-dried Technicolor morality tales.

Honorable Mention

Paul Giamatti as Havery Pekar, comic book autobiographerPaul Giamatti as Havery Pekar, comic book autobiographer

There are some damn fine comics-based movies that didn’t make the cut for our discussion here, but deserve mention anyway.

The most grievous omission from this list is American Splendor. There just wasn’t room to bump one of the other titles, so let’s call the biopic about the life of autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar one of the 11 best comic book movies of all time.

This was also arguably the film that put Paul Giamatti on the map. Its blend of actual appearances by Pekar and Giamatti’s portrayal of the notorious author is daring, effective, and reminiscent of the ever-changing cast of artists recruited to illustrate Pekar’s comics.

On a completely different note, vampires have enjoyed some shining moments in comics, and some of those have translated well to cinema.

Most notably, 30 Days of Night, a film about vampires who descend on a far north town in Alaska to victimize the population during the portion of the year without sunlight, was a thrilling and novel take on everyone’s favorite bloodsuckers.

Also, the Blade Trilogy, especially Blade 2 (this “awesome sequel” thing is getting predictable, huh?), combined super heroes and vampires to great effect. The original Blade movie was at the forefront of the current era of comic book movie success in terms of both quality and gross revenue.

We'd be remiss not to mention that director Guillermo Del Toro delivered big time with his film version of Hellboy, based on the Dark Horse comics by Mike Mignola. Del Toro deftly captured the difficult tone of a story and characters that are kind of silly, bordering on camp or satire, but whose dilemmas and adventures are deadly serious. The sequel was similarly action-packed and worthwhile.

And finally, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles deserves mention, not because it was a great film, but because it accomplished something remarkable in its adaptation. The movie combined elements of the very popular cartoon series, which is largely responsible for the success of the Turtles franchise, and the original, edgier comic book series.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles attempted to please everyone and, despite a too-wide reach often being a recipe for disaster, was an above average kids action movie. Consider also the fact that Jim Henson’s work to create the Turtle costumes represented an enormous technical leap forward in the world of puppetry and creature making, and the movie really deserves more credit than you might think.

by Harold Lawrence
© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2010

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A good movie that didn't make this list.
Last modified on Thursday, 28 July 2011 18:43

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