Comic book film fans are very vocal about what they like and don’t like. You could even accuse them of occasionally being a little extreme in their opinions. In these cases, the word ‘hyperbole’ generally comes to mind. “Spider-Man 3 is the worst movie ever made!” followed by “Iron Man is the best comic book film EVER!!!”. It’s interesting how quickly people swap out the number one spot on their best comic book film lists and quickly forget those gems that started it all. Having said all of that, even though I know 89% of you have already skipped this write up and jumped right to my list, I thought I would start things off by attempting to address a few concerns you may have regarding my top ten comic book films list. You know, just to cover my ass a little here. After all, this isn’t really my genre. I’m not a hardcore comic book fan like you are, but I can honestly say that I do really love the films on my list. Anyways, here we go:
First off, if this were a top 11 list, Blade 2 would be on it. Unfortunately, a top 11 list simply isn’t socially acceptable in this list-making era of the internetz. I struggled between Blade 2 and X2: X-Men United. In the end, I went with X-Men 2 simply because it’s the only ‘team’ superhero film on my list.
Second: Although I didn’t mind Iron Man, I really didn’t think it was anything new or special. How many times can I watch a superhero fight a bigger and badder version of himself?
Third: I’m trying to focus on somewhat traditional comic book heroes here. (I suppose there are a few exceptions on my list.) Trust me, I have some weird gauge in my head that decides what counts and what doesn’t. Some films that didn’t ‘count’ for this particular list include: Ghost World, A History of Violence, American Splendor, Road to Perdition…you get the idea.
FOURTH-LY, as of the writing of this article, I have NOT seen Hellboy 2 or The Dark Knight. And even though I loved the first half of Batman Begins, it just wasn’t strong enough as a whole to make it on my list.
Having said all of that, let’s jump right into it. The following is my own personal list of what I consider to be the top ten comic book films of all time. Enjoy.
10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a pretty big part of my childhood. Mainly due to the fact that it was the last cartoon I became really attached to before ‘growing up’. GI Joe was off the air and The Transformers turned to shit after the movie, but the Ninja Turtles were weird and fresh and had some pretty awesome toys. Needless to say, I was very excited by the idea of a live action movie adaptation. I remember standing in line for what seemed to be hours at a now defunct local theatre, and actually NOT getting in. It was THAT popular at the time.
I suppose looking back on it now, it might be a little dated. It’s drenched in early 90’s rap, full of frizzy hair-do’s and relies on some somewhat childish humour; but there’s one element that this film has that pretty much secured its spot on this top ten list; the Jim Henson Creature Shop. (I bet you thought I was going to say Corey Feldman.) The film came out the year of Henson’s death, which means the costumes were built during the true Henson-helmed era of the studio. Man do I love me some man-in-suit action.
I guess this would be one film on my list that might be coasting on some old-fashioned nostalgia. On the other hand, I can honestly say that upon recent viewings of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I hold strong to my opinion that this is a fun film that keeps things refreshingly simple in a time where most films in this genre feel the need wedge in a more serious, adult element. (Perhaps a valid complaint for fans who didn’t think the film stuck closely enough to the somewhat adult oriented original comic book.)
9. X2: X-Men United (2003)
Although I didn’t mind the first X-Men film, I thought it fell victim to a common problem faced by comic book movies; the origin story is always more interesting than the final battles. Bryan Singer did a great job introducing the characters, but sort of squandered the final thirty minutes. It was a little anti-climactic, and the choice of a Statue of Liberty battle seemed a little TOO clichéd.
Thankfully, X2 opens with a pretty massive blast, giving us one of the greatest character introductions in comic book film history. All of the original X-Men are also back, only this time Storm isn’t Jamaican. (Or whatever that accent was suppose to be. It certainly wasn’t Kenyan.) We also get an all too-short introduction to Colossus, my favourite X-Man! I do think the whole weapon X thing seemed a little muttled, but Brian Cox was awesome as Stryker. Overall, the cast has been pretty strong throughout this entire franchise.
8. Sin City (2005)
Maybe this entry is a bit of a cheat in terms of the guidelines I set out at the start of this post, but it just doesn’t feel right doing a top ten comic book films list without acknowledging Sin City as a sort of trend setter, jump starting the ‘frame by frame’ approach to adapting comic books/graphic novels for the big screen. (Not that there’s many examples thus far, but just you wait.) It’s also single handedly responsible for making Frank Miller a bankable name in Hollywood. As for the film itself, it’s a visual accomplishment simply due Robert Rodriguez’ success in bringing Miller’s drawings to life. He still manages to maintain his do-it-yourself approach, this time bringing BFF Quentin Tarantino along to guest direct a scene, giving him a taste of life in the digital world. In the end, Rodriguez would fail in converting him.
The stories are dark and exceedingly violent, but completely old fashioned. The heroes are weathered and gruff men, all over the age of 30. A rarity nowadays, considering the recent trend in casting only the young and attractive in the hero roles. I love the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy approach to the action, indulging in brute force, blunt trauma and unadulterated revenge. There’s rarely a graceful or honourable death in Sin City, and I love it.
7. Hellboy (2004)
Let’s face it; Guillermo Del Toro has been giving Peter Jackson, George Lucas and Tim Burton a run for their money over the past few years. His love of monsters and fairy tales has given us some pretty unusual imagery and his dark sense of storytelling has managed to challenge typical summer blockbuster audiences. Hellboy was actually his second comic book adaptation, the first being the AWESOME Blade 2. (A movie that, as I mentioned, I really wanted to include on this list.) It’s pretty clear that he respects Mike Mignola’s original source material, making use of some great practical make up effects to recreate his strange set of characters.
It’s no wonder Del Toro was drawn to this material, considering the opportunities to exploit the idea of a crew of monster fighting…monsters. I love the entire subway sequence. (I thought the tunnel exploration is actually quite reminiscent of Blade 2.) The Lovecraft inspired Sammael’s are a formidable opponent, multiplying by two every time they’re killed, creating a cane toad-esque infestation underneath the city. They’re also a great example of a successful combination of man-in-suit and CG effects. I also love the iconic design of Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, the Nazi assassin built out of complex clockwork.
Not unlike Spider-Man 2, I think Hellboy has a great way of mixing the fantastic with the dramatic. The character of John Meyers gives us that relateable ‘in’, making the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense a little easier to swallow. Also, the jealousy Hellboy feels towards Liz Sherman is actually quite charming.
6. The Crow (1994)
Obviously inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s dark take on Batman, Alex Proyas decided to take things one step further, adapting James O’Barr’s bleak graphic novel ‘The Crow’ for the big screen. Like Burton, Proyas makes inspired use of miniature cityscapes, matte paintings and old-school compositing to bring to life his seemingly timeless, morose universe. Proyas visually tips his hat at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, showing us what that unique vision of the future may have looked like in the 1990’s.
Of course it’s almost impossible to discuss The Crow without mentioning the on-set death of Brandon Lee. His untimely passing almost seemed to have mythic consequences, adding an extra level of power to his performance. It’s interesting to compare this to the recent death of Heath Ledger, and the resulting effects it’s had on people’s seemingly idealistic perception of his performance as The Joker. Who knows, maybe he is THAT good. We’ll see.
5. Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Mario Bava’s 1968 adaptation of Angela and Luciana Giussani’s Italian comic book ‘Diabolik’, is considered by some to be the first comic book to film adaptation. In a way, that’s not really true. As you’ll see on my list, I’ve included the big screen adaptation of William Dozer’s Batman television series, filmed and released in 1966. Two years previous to Bava’s Danger: Diabolik. I suppose you could say that Batman: The Movie is simply an extension of the television show, whereas Danger: Diabolik is the first pure comic to film adaptation. Just one of Mario Bava’s many innovations.
The movie is drenched in style, celebrating the colours and composition of the original comics. Ennio Morricone provides one of his finest and most sought after soundtracks, mixing his trademark unusual vocalizations with a swinging score rooted in the 1960’s pop and surf elements associated so closely with the spy genre. Check out my video review below for expanded thoughts on this classic.
4. Batman: The Movie (1966)
Seeing as just last week I reviewed the blu ray re-release of Batman: The Movie, I’ll just reprint what I wrote there, here:
Although William Dozer’s production of Batman was a hit when it aired on television in ’66, it certainly polarizes today’s fans. Some appreciate the campy take on the caped crusader, recognizing the fact that the show is a great example of some intelligent, satirical humour. Others prefer their costumed super-heroes a little more dark and disturbed. Personally, I see merits in both representations of Batman, but I certainly have more fun watching Adam West and Burt Ward strapped to giant, ill-conceived, impractical death machines. There’s also a lot to be said about a hero who carries an assortment of aerosol Bat-sprays to combat multiple types of dangerous aquatic life forms.
This feature film spin-off, directed by Leslie H. Martinson, stays true to the spirit of the original series, but like any big-screen adaptation, slightly enhances the scale. Rather than a single villain, Batman: The Movie features the entire ‘Rogue’s Gallery’, including The Penguin, (the “pompous, waddling master of fowl play” as played by Burgess Meredith) The Joker, (the “clown prince of crime” as played by Cesar Romero) The Riddler (the “count of criminal conundrums” as played by Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman, (the “fiendish feline” as played by Lee Meriwether). The film also raised the overall stakes as the fiendish four turn the members of the United Nations into piles of coloured dust, thus threatening the ENTIRE WORLD! The exploding shark is pretty terrifying as well.
I’d have to say my favourite scene in the entire film is the giant bomb sequence. Batman and Robin infiltrate the villain’s secret hideout, which happens to be located on the second floor of a saloon.
Robin: When you think, Batman, with those 4 supercrooks hangin’ around, it’s amazing somebody hasn’t already reported this place to the police!
Batman: It’s a low neighborhood, full of rumpots. They’re used to curious sights, which they attribute to alcoholic delusions.
Robin: Gosh, drinking is sure a filthy thing, isn’t it? I’d rather be dead than unable to trust my own eyes!
They quickly discover it’s a trap when Batman comes upon a giant, fizzling bomb waiting to blow them all away. He decides to dispose of the bomb, alerting the patrons of the saloon of the impending danger. (Watch as the two heavy set women in the foreground ignore his warnings, deciding instead to continue eating their chicken wings.) Batman runs along a populated pier, bomb raised above his head, looking for somewhere to throw it. As time runs out, he encounters every imaginable obstacle…a nun, a marching band, a woman pushing a baby carriage, baby ducks…until finally he mutters the line, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”. Trust me, it’s classic. It’s all about the delivery. You really had to be there.
3. Superman: The Movie (1978)
Richard Donner’s Superman may not be the first comic book adaptation, but it’s certainly the first comic book blockbuster. It clearly set the standard for super-hero movies to come, and featured some state-of-the-art special effects that, to a degree, still hold up today. (Maybe?) An argument could also be made for Christopher Reeve’s take on The Man of Steel/Clark Kent as being the best super hero performance in the history of comic book films. (Perhaps slightly hyperbolic, but definitely worthy of consideration.)
It’s pretty normal for comic book films to inject moments of humour, but Superman is genuinely funny. It’s an early sign of Donner’s ability to mix humour and action, as demonstrated later in his career with films like The Goonies and Lethal Weapon. It’s also interesting to note the A-list talent and character actors assembled for this film. Just look at the list; Gene Hackman, Terrance Stamp, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford and of course, Marlon Brando. That’s a pretty solid line up considering this was years before comic book films were bankable.
So before you ask, I did consider Superman 2 for this list. In some ways, I think it’s better than the first. I even considered listing this spot as ‘Superman/Superman 2’, but decided against it. I went with the first one simply because of its importance as the first real comic book blockbuster, and without part one, there wouldn’t have been a part two!
2. Batman (1989)
This was my first theatrical comic book film experience, and I remember being totally blown away. I was completely caught up in the Batman hype, reading the novelization in advance of the film, accidentally buying the Prince version of the soundtrack thinking I was getting Danny Elfman’s score, and yes, I even had those giant Batman buttons that everybody used to wear. It’s also the first movie I recall having a bit of a pre-release backlash concerning the casting of Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne. This is obviously before the internet, so I assume this info circulated in issues of Starlog Magazine or episodes of Entertainment Tonight. I don’t know what’s better, getting your movie news from anonymous, fanboy bloggers or John Tesh.
I remember being really weirded out by Tim Burton’s use of animation in the first ten minutes of the film. (An overhead shot of a silhouetted Batman, completely hand animated.) Ssetting Batman in a timeless, noirish universe was also an interesting choice. You have to remember, previous to this, all we had was Adam West’s portrayal of the caped crusader. (Which I love.) Not to mention, Tim Burton’s only previous film was Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, so it seemed only natural that Burton would take the campy approach. (Could’ve been interesting.)
1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
I’m thinking this might be a controversial choice for my number one spot, but I can honestly say I don’t understand how it could be. Spider-Man 2, in my opinion, is the perfect mix of comic book action and human drama. Most comic book films seem to have problems handling overall tone, trying too hard to mix the serious and the silly, and failing miserably. Spider-Man 2 does this with grace, riding a fine line between a character drama and goofy action film. I think that’s what makes this film so re-watchable.
Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock works both as a character and a super-villain, making good use of his mechanical arms in some pretty creative action sequences. The first Spider-Man seemed to lose a bit of it’s steam once The Green Goblin entered the picture, but Doc Ock manages to celebrate the villainous melodrama while still retaining a sense of character, rather than resorting to a caricature. By this time, Peter Parker is a little more complex as well, having spent a good chunk of time fighting crime without any real benefits.
Spider-Man 2 is one of only comic book films to satisfyingly achieve a sense of the fantastic while grounding itself in thematic elements that are completely relatable. It’s one of the only comic book films that has me empathizing with its superhero. A rare accomplishment.