I grew up a comic book fan, falling in and out of the habit as I got older. The times in my life where I stopped reading comics didn't have too much to do with the comics themselves (although they probably did at times parallel a downturn in quality in the X-Men, the primary series I collected), but more to do with a lack of funds or my other entertainment options taking up my time. But then they started making movies about comics — more specifically, they started making GOOD movies about comics — and I decided to start reading comics again (albeit in much smaller doses).
So I write this list both as a fan of movies and a fan of comics. Thus, I'm also a big fan of movies based on comic books, when I'm not busy being a big critic of movies based on comics that fail to live up to the source material. This is a list I've been meaning to write for a few years now, and in that time, the list of candidates has only grown. Because the world of comic book adaptations has grown to encompass a nice variety of of genres and types, I felt a bigger list of 20 would lead to a more diverse and interesting collection than would a traditional list of 10. I'll admit, I haven't seen every comic book movie released, but I have seen every one that's been released that I plan on seeing (meaning that if I haven't seen a movie by now, I probably never will, because I've heard it sucks).
But first, I'll clarify what I mean by "comic book movies". For the purpose of this list, a comic book movie is any feature length film whose story and/or characters originally appeared in a comic book (and a comic book includes comics, comic strips, graphic novels, or manga). So films with comic book themes that didn't originate in the world of comics, such as The Incredibles, Unbreakable, or Hancock, don't qualify. Nor do sci-fi-ish properties that originated elsewhere but have since become comic books, such as Transformers.
The other thing I should clarify is what I mean by "top". In this, I'm mostly judging the films by the quality of the films themselves, and less so by how strong they are as adaptations, although that will obviously come into play. The reason this isn't simply a list on the best adaptations is twofold: one, I haven't read all the source material for every comic book movie, and two, some movies don't necessarily adapt one source as much as they borrow from several (that said, if I have read the source material, it would obviously affect my opinion of the film). Other than that, "top" is an amalgamation between "best" and "favourite". And now, on to the list…
20. Superman: The Movie (1978) – Some might see this as sacrilege, ranking the original comic book movie so low. But the truth is, the only reason I'm ranking it at all is to acknowledge the debt owed to it by the rest of the superhero movies on this list. Otherwise, it's basically unwatchable unless the nostalgic pull one gets from it is too much to resist. Christopher Reeve is great as Clark Kent, but pretty much everything else sucks, from the plodding origin story to the ridiculous plotting to a bumbling Lex Luthor to Lois Lane's "Can you read my mind?" monologue. If you haven't rewatched it lately, do yourself a favour and don't. The movie in your memory is better than the one that exists on celluloid.
19. Ghost in the Shell (1995) – I've seen a total of three anime movies in my life, two for the purposes of this list (Akira was the other), so I'll admit right now that I might be missing another great manga adaptation for this list (like, for instance, the sequel to this film). I enjoyed both Akira and Ghost in the Shell for what they are, but its not a medium that I completely embrace (or understand for that matter). Still, you have to admire the ambition of each film, with Ghost in the Shell's cyberpunk themes resonating a bit more for me than Akira's… uhh…. whatever that movie was about.
18. Road to Perdition (2002) – This was one of the first mainstream non-superhero graphic novel adaptations to come out, expanding the types of stories that could be adapted from the comics medium. There's a lot to admire about this film, including Tom Hanks playing against type as a hardened hitman, Paul Newman as his amoral boss, and the moody cinematography of Conrad L. Hall. It's a solid film, but a little too sombre to the point of dullness at times.
17. Hellboy (2004) – This is a very enjoyable movie, but I still consider it to be merely above average overall. In fact, it's probably not as good as Road to Perdition, but I enjoy it more. Despite the imagination and talent of Mike Mignola and Guillermo del Toro, the only thing that keeps the film from being a mere pleasant distraction is Ron Perelman as Hellboy, and the attachment the viewer gets for the character. This is why the more visually compelling and ambitious sequel The Golden Army doesn't make this list, because it didn't give us enough of Hellboy being Hellboy.
16. A History of Violence (2005) – It took me a couple years to finally see this (don't ask me why, there is no good reason) and in that time, all I read about it was ebullient praise. So it's entirely possible that my lukewarm reaction to it has more to do with my unreasonable expectations than anything else. But for me, it was a solid genre flick with a few really excellent scenes, but not anywhere near as special as I was led to believe. And William Hurt dragged down the film a bit for me.
15. V for Vendetta (2006) – I should probably stop talking movies down, and start talking about why these movies are GOOD enough to make the list. I tend to do that with every bigger list, I guess to justify why something near the bottom isn't ranked higher, which is silly, since 19 of these are pretty good. So now to justify why I think V for Vendetta is a very good movie, despite what Alan Moore fanboys might think. It's true that the film trades away some of the nuance of the book, but here's a sacrilege opinion: I think the movie might've succeeded in improving on the conclusion from the book. Instead of another Moore anti-climax, we got an exciting climax worthy of the story. Bring on the flames!
14. The Incredible Hulk (2008) – This character just can't win. Marvel grabs back the character, gives everyone the movie they wanted to see full of big smash action without coming off as completely stupid, and no one cared, and after The Dark Knight, fewer people remember. I guess that's why you don't try to reintroduce failed franchises after a mere five years (I'd say that at least they've revived the character for sequels or an Avengers movie, if I believed for a second that Edward Norton would come back to do the character again).
13. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) – As much as I love Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (and as you'll see I LOVE them), I'm still not sure if they're the best Batman movies in terms of truest adaptation of the character, because this film exists. It's not a top ten movie (mostly because it was originally designed to be a straight to video release, and despite its definite quality, it shows), but it's a FANTASTIC Batman movie, with all the hallmarks of the superb animated series.
12. X-Men (2000) – This is the movie that kicked off the recent explosion in comic book movies after disasters like Batman & Robin killed the genre in the 90s. Marvel dipped its toe in the water after years of development hell and straight to video releases with Blade, but Bryan Singer's X-Men was the blockbuster that led to those that would follow. As a result, it isn't a perfect film, as they didn't have the time or budget to do everything as well as one would like (as studios didn't yet have the confidence to spend the same kind of money they do now on comic book films), but it still holds up fairly well. Hugh Jackman made the character of Wolverine his, while the film admirably squishes 40 years of continuity into a comfortable 90 minutes.
11. Hulk (2003) – There's basically two schools of thought when it comes to 2003's Hulk: those who rank it amongst the worst comic book adaptations for turning the Hulk into a quiet exploration of fathers and sons instead of the explosive Hulk movie they were expecting, and a vocal minority who think the film a hidden success with Ang Lee, who took a summer blockbuster and decided to do something more conceptually ambitious. Given that I rank it #11, I obviously fall into the second group. Not everything Lee tries is successful, but I gotta admire him for his efforts. The sequel/reboot was undoubtedly more exciting, but this was the better movie.
10. American Splendor (2003) – One of the more unique comic book adaptations, the film managed to take Harvey Pekar's autobiographical musings, added about five levels of meta, and created a quiet indie that is far more entertaining than you'd expect the life of a gruff, shlubby iconclast would be. What surprised me about this film is how it managed to find the real heart and sentiment behind Pekar's story, while I was expecting a film that kept everything beneath a few layers of irony (although there's plenty of irony here as well).
9. Oldboy (2003) – Not the sort of film I usually check out, I did so in part because of its growing cult status and even more for the purposes of this list. So yay listmaking! Oldboy is a graphically violent, highly stylized, utterly twisted, operatic tale of revenge that needs to be seen to be believed. I'm not even sure that I liked it, but damn if it didn't stick around in my brain for weeks afterwards. Even if you might end up hating Oldboy, you should probably watch it anyway. Easily one of the most unique films on this list.
8. Spider-Man (2002) – The first great superhero blockbuster, I met Spider-Man with wide-eyed wonder when it was first released (even moreso than with X-Men two years previous). While subsequent viewings take a bit of the shine off the movie (it drags a bit in the origin section), it's still a fun movie that proved what the genre could do, bringing in the average moviegoer alongside the fanboys. For a long time, comic book fans were weary of big screen adaptations because budget restrictions would prevent directors from achieving even a fraction of what comic book creators can with their budget-free worlds. Spider-Man changed that, not only with its wisely spent $140 million budget, but more with its $400 million plus grosses that encouraged studios to invest in comic book movies, leading to some of the great films that top this list.
7. Persepolis (2007) – Not that one needs a big budget to make a great comic book adaptation. Persepolis was made for just over $7 million, or slightly less than what was probably spent on craft services for Spider-Man 3. One of the problems with adapting graphic novels for the screen is that they lose the visual flare that is an essential part of the story (as the comic book medium is more than the written story). Persepolis didn't have that issue, as the animation matched Marjane Satrapi's art, which was a large part of the film's charm. Without the art, the story still would have been affecting, but it wouldn't have been so special (which is, of course, also true of comic books themselves in comparison to books).
6. Iron Man (2008) – This one surprised me. Before the movie, I'd have ranked Iron Man as the top B character in the Marvel comics stable. His stature in Marvel Comics (and especially the Avengers) lore always gave Tony Stark the feel of an A-lister, but the reality is that his comic has never been a top seller, disappearing at times only to be resurrected in a new form, hoping to bring him into the A-list once and for all. So it surprised me that this is exactly what Robert Downey, Jr and Jon Favreau were able to do, successfully bringing a less famous character to the general movie-going public, and making him more popular than he ever was in the original medium. Given their iconic place in our popular culture, it's not as surprising when a Batman or Spider-Man or even an X-Men movie makes a tonne of money. But when Iron Man breaks box office records, that says something about the movie itself.
5. X2: X-Men United (2003) – With the basic origin story out of the way, and budget less of a concern, Bryan Singer was able to build on the promise of his first movie in the series to deliver a movie closer in spirit to the comics. Easily the best superhero team adaptation (not that there's been a lot of competition), X-Men United delivered the big action and epic moments familiar to a life-long fan of the characters, managing its multitude of characters more effectively than some solo character sequels that get filled with supporting cast and villains. It's a little hard to watch this now and not think about what a lost opportunity X-Men: The Last Stand was, but that's hardly the fault of this movie, which has earned its spot in the top five.
4. Sin City (2005) – If this list were strictly judging the movies on how well they adapted the reference material, Sin City would win hands down. As faithful an adaptation as you'll ever see (and perhaps a bit more faithful than you'd ever want to see), Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's collaboration oddly did more for me than Miller's original, 2D creation. Odd, because they're basically the same thing (other than the odd splash of colour, the combination of three stories into one, and of course the participation of actors), but what felt a little flat and graphic-for-its-own-sake on paper came alive on screen as an audacious piece of pop art. I think a lot of what was so thrilling about the movie was how it used fresh technology to so closely realize the visual style of the book, opening up new possibilities for the medium of film in how it can adapt the medium of comics. Either that, or the simple fact that it all simply felt so cool. Sometimes it's as simple as that.
3. Spider-Man 2 (2004) – The first GREAT superhero movie, Spider-Man 2 took everything that worked with the first movie, and improved on it, taking out some of the duller stretches of origin-building, while heightening the action and melodrama that is signature to the series. Throw in an action-sequence (on the train) that might be the best of any film on this list, and you have the best movie offering from Marvel Comics to date. So far, it seems that the template for superhero films are solid first offerings that set up the movie universe, followed by superlative sequels, and then, thus far, followed by disappointing-to-downright-awful third entries. Here's hoping the next series on this list can break the trend.
2. Batman Begins (2005) – Despite the fact that I grew up a Marvel guy, I've always thought Batman was the coolest character in comics, and with Batman Begins, I finally had a live action movie that showed why. Christopher Nolan's reboot was the first live-action Batman adaptation to show what made the character great, as opposed to a mere outlet for the stylistic choices of its director, and it had me completely geeked out from beginning to end. What's unique about Batman Begins is that its one of the few superhero movies that succeeded in making the origin story portion of the film as compelling as, if not more than, the superhero action that follows it.
1. The Dark Knight (2008) – The Dark Knight is such a stunning achievement that not only does it top this list, it makes the rest of this list look a little weak in comparison. The gap between 1 and 2 is considerable, as The Dark Knight managed to improve upon its predecessor in every conceivable way. The story is more complex and immense, the effects are more eye-popping, and of course, the villain is far more interesting. We'll be lucky if any comic book adaptations even approach the level of quality in The Dark Knight, much less surpass it.
But what about… ? (taking a look at the titles you may think I missed)
Batman (1989) or Batman Returns (1992)? Tim Burton is easily my least favourite director-who-people-think-is-good (as opposed to the terminally shitty directors whose work I never see), so there was no way these films, which are more about Burton's eccentric style than they are about Batman, would ever get a sniff of this list.
Superman II (1980)? There are those who say the sequel to Superman: The Movie was the best of the series, and again, I can only assume those people are drunk on nostalgia. Cause what I see is a movie featuring even dumber powers than time travel via the reversing of Earth's axis (the amnesia kiss? a removable, expandable logo-trap?) with wildly differing tones depending on who was directing what scene.
Ghost World (2000)? I'm obviously a fan of indie movie comic book adaptations, so where's Ghost World, the film of choice for hipsters everywhere, you may ask? Buried deep within the recesses of my brain, since I HATED that movie.
300 (2007)? A visual delight on par with Sin City (another Frank Miller foundation), 300 was just too dumb to make the list. This made it another fairly exacting adaptation of Miller's work, since the original graphic novel was plenty dumb all on its own.
Watchmen (2009)? If you're asking about this one, then you must have stumbled upon the archives, as it hasn't yet been released at the time of writing (hey, glad to know my post is still being read). It also suggests that the movie is good enough to be up for consideration, which is heartening, I must say. I've got one question, random future person: who won the election? And just how small are iPods now?