Comics have been a source for movies since the days of the Saturday serials. Kids thrilled at the weekly exploits of Superman, Batman, and Captain America and wondered just how their heroes were going to escape death this time!
Unfortunately, the quality of comic book movies really didn’t change in the next forty-some-odd years. When I was a boy I used to get excited around Thanksgiving because USA would rerun the old 1970s Spider-Man television show starring Nicholas Hammond. At the time the show was a marvel (get it?) of special effects wizardry, but by the eighties it was enjoyable only as kitsch; unless, of course, you were a young boy with a mad-on for all things Spidey, and just the thought of a live-action Spider-Man was enough to make you blind to the many, many flaws.
It wasn’t until Tim Burton came along with his version of Batman that movies based on comic books began to be considered a serious source of revenue for movie studios, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that this genre would come into its own as a source for mature, layered stories.
Like comics, the movies based on them grew up. Sure, the majority of comic movies featured spandex-wearing supermen and women fighting other spandex-wearing supermen and women, but slipped in between these blockbuster action flicks are horror stories, science fiction allegories, and simple human, down-to-earth dramas.
While I’m practically giddy for seeing my childhood heroes flying across the big screen, I’m equally glad to see the more experimental and literary works get their time, too. I’m not entirely convinced that all comics can be translated to film—there are some things that a comic book can do as a genre that a film can never replicate—I’m glad to filmmakers try, and I’m hoping that this decade is just the beginning of a fruitful relationship between comics and movies.
Watchmen has long been considered unfilmable. The Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons opus was too long, too layered, too sophisticated to translate to screen. Moore and Gibbons utilized the strengths of the genre: the ability to fully get into a character’s head, the ability for multiple narratives to exist simultaneously, and the crafting of iconic images that a reader can take the time to fully absorb. It’s an absolutely brilliant comic (I refuse to use the term “graphic novel” for two reasons: 1. It was produced serially just like issues of Batman or Spider-Man, and 2. The term tends to be used by people who are secretly ashamed that they’re reading comics) but no one thought it would make a brilliant movie.
And they were partly right.
It’s amazing how much Zac Snyder was able to bring to the screen, and his ability to craft a coherent film out it makes it worth inclusion on this list. But it’s not perfect. Oddly enough, he was too slavish to the source, making the movie boring by the sheer fact that you’ve seen it all before if you had read the comic. There’s also his odious love of shooting entire movies in front of green screens, and bizarre wirework kung fu fight scenes. For all his success, Snyder ended up proving that this really was unfilmable.
9. Sin City
This movie makes the list on sheer visual chutzpah. Robert Rodriguez took Frank Miller’s stark, razor-blade beautiful black and white style, loaded it into a gun, and shot you in the face with it. With Watchmen you could hold up pretty much any scene to its corresponding comic panel and think they were identical, but with Sin City, you know it’s identical. And if you say otherwise you’re in for razor wire castration.
But this amazing visual style is also its biggest flaw. I had read every issue the stories in the movie were based on, and once the novelty of seeing the comic brought pretty much verbatim to the screen wore off, I found myself growing bored because I had already seen the exact same person in the exact same pose perform the exact same action. The addition of movement and sound did little to dispel that feeling, which was a shame because I really wanted to like the movie more than I did. But I find that when I want to revisit those stories, I go to the comics, and not the movies. Still, the movie’s big, bold, and sporting steel-plated balls the size of ostrich eggs. And it’s still amazing to look at if only from a technical standpoint.
8. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The first Hellboy did a great job of introducing Mike Mignola’s stone-fisted paranormal detective and deserves mention just because it proved that a character I thought would never translate to film not only could, but in an incredibly entertaining way.
But as good as the first one was, the sequel blew it out of the water. It was a huge, globe-trotting fairy tale loaded with the most imaginative locations and characters I’ve ever seen on screen. Like all truly good sequels it took what made the first Hellboy so successful: the chemistry between the characters, Hellboy’s bravado, foundation-shaking action scenes, and heavy doses of history and mysticism and ramped them up to eleven.
7. V for Vendetta
Consider it a given that Alan Moore hates every adaptation on this list based on his work with every fiber of his beardy, mystical soul, but that doesn’t mean that we have to. V for Vendetta takes some liberties with the source material, but it remains true to its heart: that governments should be afraid of their people, and that the masses can only be cowed by prejudice and fear for so long.
Besides being a great comic book movie, V for Vendetta is just an all around great action movie. The dialogue is peppered with wonderful allusions to Shakespeare, Dumas, and probably a hundred other writers and poets I just didn’t catch, all wonderfully delivered by Hugo Weaving who had the unenviable task of performing behind an inarticulate Guy Fawkes mask. And did it exceedingly well.
Add to the mix wonderful performances by Stephen Rush, Natalie Portman, and John Hurt—to name a few—and an arresting visual style, and this movie is a joy to watch. I could have done without the obviously Matrix-inspired action scene in the third act, but that’s a minor quibble in what is overall a fabulous movie.
6. X-Men 2
X-2 exponentially improves on the first X-Men movie. Make no mistake, this is still the Wolverine show, but this time it’s the Wolverine show with a stronger story and stronger acting
The sequel really ratchets up the core conflict at the heart of X-Men: prejudice. While the first movie set the stage well, the second really shows how deeply ingrained it is in the human race. The scene where Bobby Drake’s mother says, “Can’t you just try not being a mutant?” is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.
Just as solid as the story and characterization is the action in this movie. The opening scene where Nightcrawler attacks the president is incredible, seamlessly blending CGI with acrobatics, martial arts, and wirework. And Wolverine’s fight with Lady Deathstrike is great, bloody fun.
My only complaint with the movie is a minor one, but I hate how Cyclops gets constantly downplayed in these movies. I know he’s not everybody’s favorite character, but he deserves more screentime than this. At least James Marsden had enough dignity not to bitch about it, unlike Halle Barry.
5. Spider-Man 2
This is damn near the perfect Spider-Man movie. It has just about all of the elements of a classic Spider-Man story: Peter’s famous Parker luck, the tension he feels between his life as Peter and his life as Spider-Man, his pain at the negative perception of his friends and family, and a visually dynamic villain who is fully realized as a character and provides a dark mirror for Peter.
Spider-Man 2 is better on just about all fronts with a stronger story, better acting, greater action scenes, and better special effects. If I really wanted to I could quibble on some points, such as Kirsten Dunst’s acting, the continued lack of Spidey’s snappy patter, or the hokeyness of the elevated train scene (not to mention that New York does not have elevated trains), but I have no desire to because the movie in whole feels right and gave me, as a Spider-Man fan, everything that I wanted to see in a movie about my favorite character.
4. Iron Man
Not only is this an incredibly good, incredibly entertaining movie, but it also launched what I hope to be a renaissance of Marvel movies. Unlike the other Marvel-inspired films on this list, Iron Man is owned by the company. The X-Men franchise belongs to 20th Century Fox and Spider-Man to Sony. Iron Man stood as a gamble to Marvel: by keeping it owned in house, they retained creative control over content, but without the weight of a big name studio behind them, they stood to lose a fortune. The gamble was even greater considering that Iron Man was not as well known as Spidey, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four. This was the equivalent of sending in your second-string quarterback in the last play of the Super Bowl.
Thankfully it worked out better than I think Marvel ever dreamed. Iron Man raked in tons of cash and tons of critical acclaim, catapulting the Marvel brand to greater name recognition and jump starting Robert Downey Jr.’s stalled career. The funny thing is that this movie is really about Tony Stark, not Iron Man. The people involved understood that Tony is what mattered, not the armor, and the movie thrives because of that.
3. Batman Begins
In 2005 Batman as a movie franchise was dead in the water thanks to the Mephistophelean machinations of Joel Schumacher, aided by his hellish imps Jim Carey, Val Kilmer, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A reboot was desperately needed and fanboys and girls thank Thor, Cthulu, or whoever they pray to that Christopher Nolan was in charge.
Nolan promised to ground Batman in reality (or as much as you can a man who is mentally and physically at peak human performance and is an expert in every form of combat known to man, forensic chemistry, computer science, and, well, I could go on), and in doing so brought back the grim, gritty Batman of Frank Miller. As with other successful comic book adaptations, Nolan understood that the goal wasn’t to make a good comic book movie, but a good movie. And Begins is just that: a very good movie. In it he examines the core of Batman and builds the hero from the ground up. It feels completely honest to the character in a way that the other movies didn’t (except for the Adam West Batman, which was actually highly faithful to the comic as it was at that time).
2. The Dark Knight
Before The Dark Knight I would have said that Batman Begins was not only the best Batman movie so far, but the best superhero movie ever made. Well, The Dark Knight did the impossible and blew Begins out of the water.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this movie is an example of filmmaking at its finest. It’s intelligent, nuanced with layers of subtexts and allusions to heroism, history, and fiction. Here Nolan continues his examination of heroism, this time by focusing on the toll it takes on Bruce and the city’s reaction to Batman. It’s the kind of movie that you have to watch several times to pick up on all of the nuances, which can’t be said of other comic book movies.
Of course one can’t talk about this movie without mentioning Heath Ledger’s incredible performance as the Joker. Space doesn’t permit me here, but I could write whole academic papers on the nuances of his performance. Really, though, that’s not needed if you’ve seen the movie. Ledger’s version has become The Joker for a whole generation of Batman fans, and that is high praise indeed.
1. American Splendor
It may seem odd to end this list with a non superhero movie, but for my money American Splendor is the best comic book adaptation so far. Based on the selfsame titled comic written by Harvey Pekar, Splendor is a wonderful biopic of Pekar that examines both his life and the medium of comics in general.
One of the aspects that makes Splendor stand out is the way it breaks conventions. It jumps around in time, it mixes comic panels with live-action scenes, and it breaks the narrative for little mini commentaries by the real Harvey Pekar. The movie’s metafictive qualities imitate some of the best aspects of the comic genre. Time and action are illusions in comics; moments stand in stasis on the panel, and many times the action depicted are commented upon by the author or editor, and this movie takes those conventions and translates them incredibly well to the language of film.
That is why this movie takes the number one slot in this list, because unlike the other selections, American Splendor takes the elements that differentiate comic books from other genres, and approximates them on screen. It’s a hybrid of film and comic and a highly entertaining film that is wonderfully acted, scripted, and directed.