The Absolute 10 Best Comic Book Movie Adaptations
The American comic book has seen many transformations since its birth around a century ago. The subject matter and thematic tendencies of comic books have ranged from war-time propaganda to pulp entertainment, fantastic escapism and social commentary. Comic books have been denounced throughout the decades as a lesser art form by many, but this rushed analysis overlooks their cultural significance and the medium’s ability to express distinct perspectives on the human condition.
Over time, the moral and physical struggles of comic book characters became more widely accepted as a noteworthy vessel for the expression of emotions. Cinema, America’s more glamorous storytelling medium, has not always had success in adapting comic books to movies, often failing to capture their source material’s essence. While the makeup of a good comic book movie remains highly debated, it is the common consensus that an adaptation should remain true to the thematic, graphic and mythological styling of the comic, while utilizing elements singular to cinema to create an original, free-standing work of art.
In keeping with that criteria, the following is a list of the absolute 10 best comic book movie adaptations.
Guillermo Del Torro’s adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic book masterpiece retains all of the original work’s playfulness and deep sense of mythology while staying true to it’s somber character driven storytelling. Makeup artist Jake Garber’s work on the titular character combines with a powerful performance from Ron Perlman to imbue the movie with touching fantasy realism. Del Torro feels the most “at home” amidst heavy fantasy and excels at making extraordinary creatures feel human and relatable. Hellboy earned its place in this list because it displays mastery over the film medium while seamlessly incorporating the graphic poignancy of the comic book.
What could have easily turned into, and still is erroneously dismissed as, an inconsequential kid flick managed to execute on all of the elements of a successful comic book movie adaptation. Steve Barron is not the most heavily lauded filmmaker, but his vision of a very humanistic and individualistic crime fighting group of mutant turtles surpasses even the source material by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. In between the slapstick humor and well-paced martial arts sequences, audiences are treated to a nuanced story about a group of outcasts who each cope with their precarious position in different ways. Great set pieces, impeccably designed animatronics, breathtaking costumes and a touch of grit add substance to the story and leaves you begging for more.
Tim Burton’s signature neo-gothic style and penchant for dramatics was a perfect match for this groundbreaking realization of the seminal comic book crime fighter. Burton’s dark and gritty vision of Gotham city was brought to life by an amazing production design team and set the stage for what is still widely considered the finest telling of the Bruce Wayne story. Michael Keaton delivered a multi-faceted and nuanced performance that garnished believability and emotion while his counterpart, Jack Nicholson as The Joker, was equal parts outlandish, entertaining and haunting. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale served as the audience’s vessel into this demented but exhilarating world. Tim Burton’s Batman not only helped set the pace for a decade of super stylized thrillers, but also had an indelible effect on the Batman comic series as well.
As the only movie from the Marvel cinematic universe on this list one may ask the question, “What did Guardians have that The Avengers did not?” The answer to that question is breathing room. While the Avengers flicks seamlessly interweaves the story arcs of epic and legendary characters, Marvel cinematic universe story development quotas often make the movies often feel like history lessons on red bull and the action sequences feel cluttered. As one of the lesser known of Marvel’s super-teams, Guardians director James Gunn was under a lot less pressure from the studio and was able to imbue the movie with nuanced sentiment, bold visuals, light-heartedness and epic moments.
Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy was an irrefutable catalyst for the super hero movie boom of today. The second entry in the series is widely held as the perfect superhero movie employing equal parts colorful wonder, exhilarating action sequences and irrefutable emotion. Tobey Maguire hits his stride as the titular superhero with a charismatic performance that demand a large emotional range and grueling physicality. Every good superhero tale needs a super-villain, and Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus more than delivered. Molina’s finely tempered yet brutal dramatics elevated the villainous character from comic book antics to cinematic legend. Stunning visual effects and an unforgettable action sequence featuring a runaway elevated train complete this timeless achievement.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of the autobiographical comic books of Harvey Pekar elevated the comic book movie genre to the level of high-art. The comics featured a variety of artist’s, most notably Robert Crumb, and revolve around the engagingly uneventful, yet heavily philosophical life of the author. The film adaptation lacks none of the book series’ signature wit and is perfectly complemented by a stellar performance from Paul Giamatti and lush cinematography from director of photography Terry Stacey. American Splendor matches the tone and cultural importance of it’s source material while adding perspective and nuance to the story.
Fresh, stylistically bold and unbelievably entertaining, Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley is a nearly flawless comic book to movie adaptation. On point performances by Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead highlight an uncommon love story that is saturated by Millennial and Generation X cultural references that carve away at the film to uncover a brief glimpse at what it means to be young this day-in-age. Dynamic animated effects and cinematography honor its source material’s edgy graphic style for a thoroughly innovative cinematic experience. The final product stands on its own as a great film all the while paying homage to the comic book series.
That tragic death of lead actor Brandon Lee early in the filming process could have derailed any production, but director Alex Proya’s vision and the talents of an excellent cast and post-production crew combined to make The Crow a stylistically innovative and emotionally dense masterpiece. The comic book’s creator James O’barr was a champion of the Gothic neo-noir art movement of the late 80’s and, together with others like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, helped to create a new genre of art. What little performances Proya’s filmed of Lee before the tragic incident are filled with emotion, physicality and stunning expression. Emotionally textured supporting performances by Ernie Hudson, Rochelle Davis and Michael Wincott help drive the story in Lee’s absence but don’t overshadow it. The Crow’s signature gritty style and dark vision has inspired a generation of filmmakers.
Heath Ledger’s haunting and masterful performance as The Joker had audiences holding their breath throughout this entire movie, hanging on his every line like a deer caught in the headlights who can’t look away. Director Christopher Nolan hit his stride during this second entry in his Dark Knight trilogy, and together with Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and director of photography Wally Pfister provided the deeply layered and multi-textured backdrop for Ledger’s legendary Oscar winning performance. The film is profoundly cinematic, but it manages to tap into emotions and scenarios that only the comic book medium can. The quintessential moral struggles of storytelling are here framed in such a skilled manner as to make the film one of the very best.
Fresh off of an academy award win for directing American Beauty, Sam Mendes turned his sights to the critically acclaimed comic book series by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner for what would become a piece of cult-classic cinema brilliance. Spearheaded by haunting performances from Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig and young Tyler Hoechlin, Road to Perdition is an emotional tour de force that tells the story of mob hit-man Michael Sullivan, who must flee from his employer and father figure alongside his son under tragic circumstances. Oscar winning cinematography by Conrad L. Hall make every scene a painting in this film while the struggle of father trying to instill ethics in his son amidst murder and chaos brings the movie to an unforgettable climax. Impeccable costume design, music and editing bring the already masterful source material to ultra-vivid reality.
These 10 movies have excelled in the comic book movie adaptation genre by creating singular cinematic experiences while staying true to the thematic, graphic and mythological aspects of their source materials. Comic books and movies work best as companion pieces, wherein each medium’s adaptation unveils perspectives within the same story in respects to its own technical faculties. The filmmakers of these 10 masterpieces understood that synergy and tapped into its ability to create hitherto unexplored perspectives of the human condition.