Graphic/Novels Roundtable: Best (and Worst) Comic Movies
By CM Team | CultureMass Staff Published: 08/26/2013 10:00 am EST
Comic movies dominate today’s cinema screens. From obvious four-color choices like The Avengers to “Hey, that was based on a comic?” fare like A History of Violence, the proliferation of film adapted from the comic page is inescapable. Naturally, some of these films are more successful than others. In the first of a series of Graphic/Novels roundtable discussions, the CultureMass team looks at the broad spectrum of comic-to-movie adaptations (and a few inspired by comics) and picks their favorites (and, yes, their least favorites).
Superman Returns: I know that it was considered a failure, but it’s one of my absolute favorites. Brandon Routh nailed both the Supes and Clark Kent elements of his role, and Kevin Spacey was delicious as Lex. The scene with Superman flying through the city at super speed to catch the Daily Planet globe right before it crushes Perry is iconic in my mind, and perfectly captures the heroism that I love so much about Superman. Man of Steel was great, but I don’t think they’ll ever beat this in my book.
The Crow: I freely confess that the last two Crow movies were travesties, but the first movie in the franchise (and even the second, to a lesser extent) was a defining moment in my adolescence. There’s such a wealth of great dialogue and action in this film, it’s hard to narrow it down to one particular scene, but the confrontation with Tin Tin is a highlight. It’s also worth mentioning that the soundtrack has some genuinely great stuff, and does nothing but enhance the moody atmosphere throughout the film. Here’s hoping the upcoming reboot does justice to J. O’Barr’s classic revenge epic.
V For Vendetta: I’ve probably seen this movie twenty times, and every time it still evokes a broad spectrum of powerful emotions. Yes, it’s different from the book, but show me any film adaptation that doesn’t vary from its source. What works here are some fantastic performances, and a timely message about a nation’s relationship with its government. This is such a complex film that I could write several articles about it, but I’ll limit myself to telling you that as awesome as the scene in which V takes over the TV station is, it only gets better from there. Amazing stuff.
Jonah Hex: Aside from some interesting casting and decent performances, this was a disappointment on nearly every level, from the script to the directing to the effects to the editing, just…ugh. It feels like everyone involved had a different vision for this movie, and it ended up a mess of completely incompatible styles. I think the moment at which I gave up was the scene that introduced Megan Fox’s character. It had potential for some fun and camp, which wouldn’t have been out of place in a movie like this, but instead fell flat. Such a letdown.
The Dark Knight: In no way a perfect film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight may be the best blueprint for constructing a comic book film with memorable characters, appropriate tone/atmosphere, and a realistic dynamic that blended the comic book world with a grounded and believable plot. It produced one of the most solid representations of Batman since the animated series. The film is not only memorable for its amazing cast and incredibly quotable dialogue, but even its mistakes are explained away as stylistic art by ravenous fans. This interpretation of the caped crusader has set the bar for all films that follow.
Blade: One of the first successful Marvel films featuring an African American lead, Blade captured the dark and dangerous world of a non-traditional hero with a sword and a bad attitude. Wesley Snipes fit the role of the vampire hunter perfectly, with Stephen Dorff playing the ambitious villain Deacon Frost brilliantly opposite him and Kris Kristofferson giving a memorable performance as Whistler. The music was a perfect soundtrack for the time and helped express the underground feel of the unnatural blood-sucking world, set against incredible fight scenes that showcased Blade’s violent nature, accented by spectacular CGI vampire destruction.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Though the film piggybacked on the success of the cartoon, it took several things from the comics and gave a new form of life to the powerhouse franchise in the medium of live action awesomeness. Each of the turtles is voiced well and featured puppetry from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This movie is not only is it chock-full of memorable dialogue and one of the most tense fight scenes at the end with Shredder, but it is why I love the character of Casey Jones.
Elektra: Even Ghost Rider, Catwoman, and Green Lantern had a reason I could talk myself into watching them again, but not Elektra. There are a lot of things wrong with this film, too many to list in fact, but Elektra’s most heinous crime is being so boring that it hurts. Not only are the almost interesting parts of the film over too quickly, but the script was so bad that Ben Affleck turned down his guest appearance in it. This film is only memorable in its failure.
The Incredibles: The older I get, the more I love it. Besides the unbridled creativity and big laughs, we get an amazing voice performance from Holly Hunter, who has to be a superhero, a mom, and an angry wife all at the same time. Plus, a really nice shout-out to The Spirit and the best Wallace Shawn sighting since The Princess Bride. Extra snaps for the Innocent Bystanders drinking game and, of course, a guest appearance from the great Edith Head.
Sky High: Yes, it’s a PG movie, and a “Teen Disney” kind of PG. All the in-jokes (Ron Wilson—Bus Driver) display a genuine affection for comics, and it is the fun (but never campy) self-awareness that makes the movie hum. Every time I watch Sky High, I want more stories from this delightful universe. This is the perfect first superhero movie for the young’uns—and unlike most super-movies, Sky High is aimed at girls as much as boys.
Spider-Man 2: The subway train scene—“We won’t tell nobody.” Hell yes, I teared up. And that beautiful and open-ended final scene— “Go get ‘em, tiger.” The parting look on MJ’s face speaks volumes. I am reminded of the great uncomfortable last shot in The Graduate.
Unbreakable: M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s follow up to The Sixth Sense. Obvious and heavy handed. There is no joy in any of these super-heroics. The sequences in the comic book shop were embarrassing. Maybe if they had used real comics? And just too much of the story and pacing were used to set up the patented M. Night twist ending. Then again, Unbreakable was better than Signs, but that’s not saying much.
Hulk: This is a film that I’ve loved since its theatrical debut but found myself constantly defending. I’m not arguing that everyone should like this movie, but it did some things right. Ang Lee was able let us examine the humanity in Banner and allowed us to relate to him, as the Hulk was presented more as a condition than half of a character. This is why a lot of fans weren’t as pleased with Lee’s interpretation, but I enjoyed the fact that his film focused on Banner and told a thoughtful origin story.
V For Vendetta: James McTeigue was able to keep all the important themes from the graphic novel and still give it his own directorial touches. It couldn’t have been easy to make a hero to uses two daggers fit into a near future world loaded with guns, but he made it work. He kept the costume intact and the characterizations spot on. The cherry on top has got to be the onscreen magic that occurred between Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman, who brought these two characters to life in tremendous ways.
Hellboy: This was the first time I had seen the movie that made me want to read the series. After finally catching up on the pages, I was able to see why the movie was so successful. Hellboy is a darkly fun character and the Guillermo del Toro was the perfect match to bring him to the big screen. The movie was every bit as fun as the comics. The following the main character as he enters this new world of the paranormal and the extraordinary translated beautifully to the big screen.
The Wolverine: I had almost no expectations going in and was still disappointed. What got me into the theater were the slightly promising premise and the Silver Samurai, but the plot fell apart as the writers kept backing themselves into corners nearly every other scene. The main villain was predictably disastrous and the other villain was a terrible choice as she presented almost no threat but somehow gained the upper hand way too often. I think this movie would have benefited from better villains and stretching the original premise to its full potential, and it would still require some major overhauling.
Batman Begins: This may not even be the best movie of the Dark Knight Trilogy, but for me, Batman Begins showed us that a comic book movie doesn’t have to be Jim Carrey running around like an idiot and Halle Berry taking Catwoman to the most literal meaning possible. Superheroes for adults. Given the reviews of the new Superman, it’s hard to say whether this was to the ultimate benefit or the detriment of the genre, but it certainly changed the game, and that trilogy is something I can watch over and over again.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze: Any article about comic book movies that influenced you should include something you hold warmly in your memory from childhood, and for me, that will always be TMNT II. The number of times my brothers and I made our father take us to the dollar theater to watch this movie was utterly ridiculous. I love this for the exact opposite reason as Batman Begins. Comic books (and comic book movies) can and should strive to spark a child’s imagination, to make our innocent hearts believe in heroes, the ability of small good to triumph over big evil.
The Avengers: What can I say? I’m a sucker for Joss Whedon. This movie really had everything you can ask for in a comic book adaptation: laughs, big interesting fight scenes, a disparate group of talented yet haunted superheroes assembling for the common good, someone finally getting the Hulk right, and BOTH Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, sometimes shirtless. It’s the epitome of a summer blockbuster, and even though I already said I love TDK trilogy, this one had an adultish plot but remained fun with just the right amount of campiness. Like how I hope stepping into a comic would feel.
Watchmen: Though some insist this movie works as a companion to the graphic novel, watching it was a test of both my endurance and my gag reflex. Overall, it was stylistically confusing and mind-numbingly boring. The worst part is, as a casual purveyor of graphic novels (meaning I read the ones my well-versed friends encourage me to), it convinced me, utterly and completely, to never EVER give the graphic novel a chance. Which is a shame, because I hear the series revolutionized the genre. My loss, I guess. Or maybe not?
Sin City: As far as comic-to-screen adaptations, I don’t think another film has been as spot-on in capturing the source material as Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. Frank Miller’s pages were very obviously used as storyboards, and the digital effects (and some flawlessly over-the-top performances) perfectly realized the hard-boiled world of Miller’s series. There are two ways to make a film adaptation: 1) To turn a comic into a movie, and 2) To make a movie out of a comic book. This movie, an onscreen comic, is the best example of the former that I can think of…
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: …and this movie is a great example of the latter. Edgar Wright’s adaptation hits most of the right narrative beats found in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series, but never forgets that it is a movie first and a comic second. The heart, the tone…the core of Scott Pilgrim are all here, but the strengths of the film medium (pacing, effects, and, first and foremost, flawless editing) are used to make this movie a unique experience in and of itself. It may not have found much traction at the box office, but I am beyond thankful for this movie’s existence.
Captain America: The First Avenger: Hokey? Yes. Silly? Sure. Old fashioned? To quote S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, “People might just need a little old fashioned.” Marvel has been on a winning streak with their films, but none of them captures the spirit of comics quite like Captain America. It’s fun, colorful, and teeming with heart; and I don’t care what anybody says about the prosthetics and makeup, Hugo Weaving was a great Red Skull. Virtually devoid of the cynicism found in today’s movies (even Marvel’s output), Captain America appropriately feels like the product of a bygone era.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: So many bad comic movies to choose from, but which one took the richest source material and did the least with it? Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series is an engaging, literate adventure—a reward for people who either enjoy the classics or, at least, managed to stay awake during British Lit. The film adaptation squanders every ounce of the concept’s potential, re-RE-imagining the characters from the series (and tossing in a few for the sake of an audience that only has a passing familiarity with literature) and shoving them into a big, dumb, loud mess of a movie.
The Shadow: “The Shadow knows” that he is one of the most exciting characters in pulp history ever. From the radio show to pulp novels, he lends himself to mediums across the spectrum. If Batman is the action of might for right, the Shadow is the spirit. I just love him. I like Alec Baldwin too. I just feel like this character could be done better service than the 1994 film by Russell Mulchay, which milked the pulp and came off as terribly hokey. Granted, the pulpiness is part of the appeal, but it isn’t everything.
Persepolis: This 2007 film depicts a young girl growing up in war-torn Iran in the midst of revolution, only to be cast into a culture she doesn’t understand but wanted to love. I adored it. It was fun, funny, gut-wrenching, and bittersweet. I related to a character from half a world away, cried with her family and felt all of the loss of innocence in the film adaptation. With the recent revelations of CIA involvement in Iran during the 1950s, it becomes even more relevant to the context of U.S. relations in the region.
Kick-Ass: An ode to the hapless fanboy, who takes his starry-eyed naiveté to the next level and gets “Ass Kick” for it, this film had the bare-knuckle fun that defines the comic genre. It was absurdly joyful in its bloodshed. Sure, an 11-year-old vigilante girl with Nicholas Cage for her father…it’s stretching, but from villain to hero, spoiled boy wannabe to the boy who is (no matter how many times he has to be saved from certain death) a hero, this film was fun and took its cinematic licenses with style.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine: Watch Logan chop wood while wearing flannel! Watch Wolverine have heavy doubts about his role in William Stryker’s death squad! Watch Ryan Reynolds kill every superhero or villain you ever loved through bad acting alone! As much as I wanted to like this film (yes, even like) I watch it with clenched fists, feeling that Gavin Hood is trying to kill every shred of the franchise I adore. I even liked X-Men: The Last Stand better than this. Bad writing, bad plot development, and poor execution. I love the X-Men but if you’re going to do it, do it right.
Ghost World: Every time I watch Ghost World, I feel my body slowly morph into its awkward sixteen-year-old self. I grow impatient with adults. All music isn’t cool enough for my ears. Terry Zwigoff’s film is one of those rare teenage angst comedies that never seems to grow out of style with me, even as I grow more and more frustrated with Catcher in the Rye.
American Splendor: How often do we see a man like Harvey Pekar as the protagonist of his own adventure? How often do we see the inner-workings of a man who is so anti-social, so cynical, so purposefully abrasive, starring in a film about himself? The answer is once.
Hulk: Ang Lee’s bizarre dissection of a father-son relationship using psychoanalysis just happens to feature the big green guy in its third act. People often criticize this one for being boring, slow, methodical, tonally strange, and abusive to its source material. I often wonder why they chose the director of The Ice Storm to make a Hulk movie, only to be surprised that it’s artful and totally uninterested in (physical) violence.
The Spirit: The least fun I’ve ever had watching a comic book movie is the time I spent with The Spirit. I say “the time I spent” because I’ve not even seen the whole movie. Everything is so disconnected and weirdly dry that I can’t even force myself to be interested in a single scene.