Monday, December 28, 2009

The 10 Greatest Comic Book Movies Ever Made

As I've said before, the bad thing about a decade coming to a close is the surplus of all the "Best of the Decade" lists. As I said before, the catagory of "Best movies of the Decade" is so broad that it's almost impossible to come up with a fair list, so I've decided to limit myself to subcatagories where I've reasonably seen most films that fall into them. This started as a list of the Top Ten Comic Book Movies of the Decade, but I soon realized that it was perhaps more fitting to do the Best Comic Book Movies of All-Time.

10) Superman Returns - This might be a controversial pick. It was released to strong critical reviews and generally positive fan reaction, but as time has passed, those fans have turned on it. I think it's a rather well-done movie that occasionally goes too far in its worship of the Donner films. (There was no need to make Lex's plot a "land scheme" again. If he'd just been obsessed with getting the Kryptonian technology, that would have been motive enough and it would barely have required changing anything major.) The script's biggest weak link is that it posits a thesis in Lois's article "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman," then never really tells us what Lois's argument was. Thus, in the end, that position isn't debunked as effectively as it could have been. I know many take issue with the super-kid, and I could probably spend a whole blog post on that. Here's what I said at the time - thematically it works for this movie, and though I can see it being a problem in the sequels, I'm willing to wait to see how those future stories handle it before fully condemning it. Of course, now it looks like we'll never know.

9) Sin City - Based on co-director Frank Miller's graphic novels, this film is more a translation of the comic than the adaptation. Most shots directly duplicate frames from the various comics, and Robert Rodriguez's decision to use green screen to isolate the characters and put the environments in during post-production might be the most successful use of "green-screen filmmaking." The film looks unlike any other film out there, and though the ultra-violence might be a turn-off to some, the dark noir tone really works. Impressively, the directors not only managed to pull off the stylistic choice to include all the voiceover from Miller's comic - they got great performances out of actors who had been uneven in earlier roles. This was the start of Mickey Rourke's comeback, and the first time that Brittany Murphy didn't actively annoy me. On top of that, it was the first time Rosario Dawson impressed me, and even Jessica Alba does a good turn as stripper Nancy, bringing real vulnerability to the character. And those are the WEAKER actors in a cast that boasts Bruce Willis, Nick Stahl, and Clive Owen.

8) Spider-Man - At the time of its release, it was probably the best comic book movie since the original Superman film 24 years earlier. X-Men had already shown that it was possible to take comic book heroes seriously again, but Spider-Man goes one better by being remarkably faithful to the tone and look of the comics. The Spider-Man suit shows that superhero outfits don't need to be made out of black leather in order to look cool, while Sam Rami's direction evokes the feel and the composition of the comics. The second half gets a little goofy.. Willem Dafoe commands the screen with his over-the-top performance whenever he's out of costume, but the Green Goblin supersuit looks like something from a Saturday morning live action kids show.

7) Superman II - There are two versions available, the 1980 theatrical release mostly directed by Richard Lester, and the recently restored 2006 release directed largely by Richard Donner. The backstory: Donner shot 75% of this sequel while shooting the first film, but a dispute with producers over many issues led to his replacement and the reshooting of many parts of the film to the point where only about 30% of his material remains in the theatrical version. Though it still feels unfinished in spots, I prefer the Donner Cut for the faster pacing, the removal of many campy elements, and the restoration of some powerful scenes with Marlon Brando as Jor-El. However, in any incarnation, Superman II is a great film.

6) Batman Begins - The Batman series needed an enema after Joel Schumacher's wretched Batman & Robin in 1997, and this Christopher Nolan reboot certainly fit the bill. The hook: telling the early origins of Batman piece-by-piece, answering the questions of how he trained, where the Batmobile came from, the functionality of the costume. It's a testament to the power of this film that I've seen many, many different tellings of Bruce Wayne's parents' murder, but this was the only time that the murders hurt. It's brutal and powerful. Also, for the first time, there's a sharp distinction between how the lead actor plays Bruce Wayne and Batman.

5) Spider-Man II - The Spider-Man series gets its best villain in the form of Alfred Molina's Dr. Octopus as the continuing soap opera of Peter and his love Mary Jane develops. Though portions of the plot are reminiscent of Superman II, this is a fast, fun film that feels true to the comic. More than that, the ending makes it clear that makers saw this as a continuing story - not just an episodic series of action films.

4) X2: X-Men United - Finally! A superhero film with seemingly non-stop action. Despite the parade of characters the screenplay has to accommodate, the story never feels over-crowded. With all the exposition out of the way in the first film, director Bryan Singer is free to just tell an exciting story at breakneck pace. There are several great action scenes but standouts are the opening siege on the White House, Magneto's incredibly awesome jailbreak, and the attack on Xavier's School for the Gifted.

3) Iron Man - The best superhero movies know how to make the hero interesting rather than taking the lazy route of making the villain broad and colorful and just using the hero as a straight man to play the villain off of. (See: any Batman film produced between 1989-1997.) Iron Man is much more about Tony Stark in a way that recalls Batman Begins. Robert Downey Jr. carries this movie and even if you're not into superheroes, you'll find him entertaining. The lone weak spot might be the lack of a truly intersting villain, but when Downey is chewing the scenery, you won't care.

2) The Dark Knight - One of the few comic book movies that can be called a "film" rather than a "movie." Aside from the animated series, this is the first time that the modern Joker has truly been captured in an adaptation. Jack Nicholson was fun to watch in the 1989 Batman, but one never believed his Joker was truly insane. Heath Ledger pulls that off and gives a truly chilling performance. Christian Bale more than holds his own, but the story really belongs to Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent - Gotham's "white knight" - who pays the highest price of all.

1) Supeman - The Citizen Kane of both comic book and superhero films, and the one without which there were be no others. The best-known comic book adaptation before this was the campy 60s Batman series, whose legacy was convincing audiences and filmmakers alike that superheroes couldn't be taken seriously. The slightly less-campy Wonder Woman series in the 70s did little to change that. It wasn't until Richard Donner came along and told Superman's origins with all the seriousness of a Greek myth that the stigma was broken. I've raved about this film elsewhere, and any praise that doesn't go to Donner surely goes to Christopher Reeve for creating a Man of Steel who can be earnest without sacrificing any of his presence. Without this film, there would be no Batman series, no Spider-Man series, no X-Men and probably no Iron Man either.


  1. Any reason why you skipped over Ghost World and American Splendor? They're based on comic books and are great films.

  2. Well American Splendor is sort of half-biopic/half-adaptation, so the judgment call was that it didn't really fit on that list.

    As for GHOST WORLD, I haven't seen it, but I did confer on this list with a friend of mine (who hopefully will contribute to a post tomorrow on the Worst Comic Book movies of all time) and the decision was that it wasn't quite enough to crack the top ten. For what it's worth, he advocated WATCHMAN for the number 10 slot over SUPERMAN RETURNS.

    A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and ROAD TO PERDITION also came very, very close, but I weigh "rewatcability" as part of my criteria and both of them took a hit there. (SIN CITY lost a few points on that too, but it was stylistic and unique enough to maintain its position in the top 10)

  3. Good list:

    Take Superman Returns off that list and replace it with one of the following:

    Oldboy (adapted from the original Manga)
    Addams Family (1991) (adapted from the strip)
    Flash Gordon (1980) (adapted from the strip)
    Blade (1998) (adapted from the comic)

    At least one of the above four movies blow away "Stuperman Returns, or how to make a boring-ass movie"
    Mars Attacks (based on the trading card series)
    Batman (1989) Don't pretend you didn't like Tim Burton's Batman when it came out.

  4. In my book, any comic book best-ofs without WATCHMEN in it is a flawed list indeed. Other notable misses: the original 1989 Batman and 300.

  5. OLDBOY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and ROAD TO PERDITION are far better films than any of the ones listed above.

    Not that I don't enjoy SUPERMAN or THE DARK KNIGHT, 'cause I do. But if we're really weighing the "best," they aren't the top of the list.

  6. Comic strips and trading cards don't count.

    And the 1989 Batman probably wouldn't make my Top 20 list. Yeah, I loved it when I was really young, but it ages badly - BADLY - and if you take Jack out of it, the whole movie becomes a bore. Even as a kid, I was aware that Batman himself wasn't that intersting here and he WAS interesting in the comics.

    The Batman movie that ALMOST made the cut? Mask of the Phantasm.

    WATCHMEN came close, and while I liked it a lot more than many of my friends did - and it is incredibly powerful on a visual level - I didn't connect with it emotionally. Rorschach alone nearly pulled the script into my Top 10, but in the end, it had to settle for 11.

  7. "Well American Splendor is sort of half-biopic/half-adaptation, so the judgment call was that it didn't really fit on that list."
    The American Spendor movie is based on the comic books and graphic novels - the main one being "Our Cancer Year", which are all autobiographical. It's also a great example of how to adapt a film from any book, while keeping true to the source material.
    Watchmen, Sin City and 300 were great examples of how to use a graphic novel as the storyboard and production design for a film.
    And Superman "told Superman's origins with all the seriousness of a Greek myth" - last time I saw that it struck me as being extraordinarily camp and comical.