The year is 2011, and the comic book hero has become such a blockbuster staple we're seeing Thor and The Green Lantern get huge-budget releases. Marvel Studios is underway in producing a starting film for each Avenger, which is funny considering many comic book movies from the past decade follow an identical formula: Our ordinary man encounters an unfortunate encounter which renders him super, but with great power comes great responsibility. And a great deal of exposition that bogs down nearly half of each film, though it's usually pretty much the same story. They encounter some mini-bosses before having to accept a weakness and save the universe.
This isn't to say that minor heroes are all that is left, or that the genre is played out (I have to remind myself we're rapidly approaching the ten-year anniversary of Daredevil), only that I think it's reached its point of saturation and will ebb as far as blockbusters go. DreamWorks, Disney, Warner Bros., The Weinstein Company and even Marvel Studios' Avengers sat out San Diego's Comic-Con this year, and the less than stellar performances by (honestly dark horse candidates) Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, Sucker Punch and even Kick-Ass probably should have studios pumping the brakes a little bit. Not every 300 will find its cult in college dorms.
Despite these downward tendencies, it has been a very fertile time for the comic book amid this meta culture. And as someone who has been accused of condescending in favor of older pictures (and hates when other people are guilty of the following), I was a little surprised to see how many of my favorites are from the past ten years.
This is a list of my 30 favorite comic adaptations for the screen: book, strip, or graphic novel. For the sake of diversity (sorry, Raimi, Nolan and Mamoru Oshii), I have limited each director to one film per franchise. This does not mean that each world is limited to its definitive film, or that each director is limited to one franchise (congratulations, Bryan Singer and Guillermo del Toro).
30. Annie (1982, John Huston)
John Huston (mis)directs a strange amalgam of things I'm not too convinced he cares about: musicals and Little Orphan Annie. Carol Burnett steals the show as a selfish wench and FDR even makes a singing appearance, the circumstances I can't remember for the life of me, with a winning song that undermines the depression. Annie is one of those movies that was a cornerstone of my childhood: I don't really want to revisit it, but it's something I wouldn't want to do without.
29. Li'l Abner (1940, Albert S. Rogell)
It's hard to even call this an adaptation. Al Capp's intentions are nowhere in this piece, but the inanity remains highly enjoyable due to the cast. Nearly forgotten stars of the silent era run a gerbil cage here, and Buster Keaton makes an appearance as Lonesome Polecat. The plot is best summed up by IMDb user gftbiloxi: "Daisy Mae loves Abner, Cousin Delightful wants him for herself, and Abner prefers pork chops." What more do you want?
28. Art School Confidential (2006, Terry Zwigoff)
A lot of people hate this movie, even more forgot about it. Zwigoff frustrates the audience to no end with a dramatic shift in tone halfway through in this scathing look at the art world. Bravo for a film that suggests there is such a thing as objectivity in art. Also, a pitch perfect wiener joke.
27. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000, Curt Geda)
Of the DC Universe/Warner Bros. Animation collaborations I enjoy (and I enjoy a great deal, including Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the difficult to adapt All-Star Superman), Return of the Joker is the finest. Gotham is a dark, dark place and the cartoon isn't afraid to show it. In a brilliant flashback sequence, we see the Joker (Mark Hamill(!)) at his sadistic best.
26. Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)
For all the comic book adaptations surrounding Nic Cage (he'll never get a shot at his beloved Superman, and instead resorts to things like Ghost Rider), one of his finest roles has him channeling Adam West. With many of the best comic films (no, any films) Vaughn goes beyond the source material to create a kinetic love letter to John Woo. Oh yeah, and people are really into a little girl in this also.
25. Blade II (2002, Guillermo del Toro)
Giving Wesley Snipes's Blade a fully realized duality while at the same time never skimping on the FX is what we've learned to love about the Guillermo del Toro touch. Blade II goes beyond the simple blockbuster with a rare depth in a project from which most people expected none.
24. V for Vendetta (2006, James McTeigue)
Before Natalie Portman was winning awards under Darren Aronofsky, it should be noted that V for Vendetta is what pulled her career out of the dregs of chick flicks, feminine (Anywhere But Here) and masculine (Garden State) and proved she could act as an adult. The film is a timely critique that suggests that perhaps people weren't too happy with the Bush Administration.
Robert Altman's Popeye is close to insane. It bears little resemblance to E. C. Segar's original strip nor Max Fleischer's long-running cartoon, but instead is inspired enough to cast Shelley Duvall as a perfect Olive Oyl and Robin Williams (with leg-of-lamb forearms) in his best-ever performance: a musical.
22. Weird Science (1985, John Hughes)
Weird Science is of the same ilk as those strange coming-of-age adolescent fantasies that tread ground of voyeurism, sexual frustration and social inadequacy (Zapped!, Mannequin) that fueled drive-in theaters for ages. Only in the hands of an auteur like John Hughes, he respects his characters enough to give us a situation in which our characters understand the dilemma they're in, go further than we know they should (without condescending interference from the director) and somehow has us learning life lessons along the way. It was the sort of thing Hughes was a master at.
21. Superman II (1980, Richard Lester)
About as close as you can come to breaking my one-film-per-franchise-per-director rule as you can get, Lester's adoption of Richard Donner's Superman II is a fantastic and fantastical romp that should have been a train wreck. Superman must battle three hilarious, cartoonish villains (Sarah Douglas, Jack O'Halloran and Terence Stamp) set on taking over the world. Also, time travel.
20. Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence (2004, Mamoru Oshii)
At its core, a film not all too unlike Malick's The Tree of Life in that it explores the weight of adulthood. And like the trees of both life and the knowledge of good and evil, it explores the costs of both knowing and not knowing.
19. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Hayao Miyazaki)
Even more potent after Japan's recent nuclear scare, Nausicaä set the precedent for all Miyazaki's lifelong themes, not the least of which, the struggle between civilized man and pure, majestic, even obscene nature.
18. Josie and the Pussycats (2001, Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan)
Possibly the most unfair entry on the list, 2001's Josie and the Pussycats shares little with its source material outside of its name. It's a ludicrous movie of subliminal messages and product placement (worlds ahead of Morgan Spurlock) featuring Parker Posey as a villain, Rachel Leigh Cook as our gorgeous lead and one of the best soundtracks (courtesy of Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and executive production by Babyface) of the least twenty years.
This 15-episode, pre-television serial is the best superhero serial I've seen. Perhaps, this was the truest form to film a comic book in a complete arc with fourteen cliffhangers. Cinematically, it's a format successful since The Perils of Pauline through "24", and though television took over the Saturday morning trips to the cinema, Atom Man Vs. Superman isn't merely a subject for kids. The chemistry between Clark and Lois is genuine and truer than many later adaptations. Luthor's maniacal plan is something only of the comic book, but the serial plays it straight. Animation is used cleverly and effectively to mask the serial's fiscal constraints.
16. Sin City (2005, Robert Rodriguez)
Frank Miller is credited as a director, and it's only fair. Rodriguez, normally a director unfairly given wild, free range on every one of his projects, elected to allow every last frame of comic book serve as storyboard. The results are often a matter of style over substance, but its treatment of the antihero has had me return to it more than anything else. Note, before Mickey Rourke was winning awards under Darren Aronofsky, it was Sin City that resurrected him from the grave.
15. Persepolis (2007,Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Like Sin City, Persepolis mimics the look of its source material (Marjane Satrapi's autobiography), but to a different end. Where Sin City's stylization strives to romanticize a mis-remembered era, the overtly simple drawing of Persepolis brings the humanity of a much disdained nation to the Western world. The film purposely tones down the politics, instead showing us a longing for a free world and a love for Michael Jackson. Don't sleep on it.
14. Superman (1978, Richard Donner)
I suppose in a decade people will still refer to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but no one really owned a role quite like Christopher Reeve did Superman. Few films evoke the wide-eyed wonder of being a child, and Superman reminds us of what we loved about superheroes in the first place.
13. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
Darker and more violent than Burton's original, Batman Returns is something I return to because Burton's two greatest gifts are utilized to their fullest: eccentric characterization and visual atmosphere. Of the many Batman incarnations, this one seems to strike the balance of humor, depravity, action and loss that is at the heart of Gotham City.
12. Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi)
The seminal film in a franchise that disappointed early before growing into its shoes, Spider-Man 2 is rife with real world examples of its cliché: with great power comes great responsibility. Peter is lost: he loses his job, his girl, his grades. He must even come to terms with his continual search for a surrogate father. Spider-Man 2 is a painful movie, but one with great humor (of the Raimi variety) as well. As a summer blockbuster, it's the complete package.
11. Oldboy (2003, Chan-wook Park)
Not to unfairly stereotype a nation, but judging from what I've seen over the past ten years, what the hell is going on in South Korea? Making their presence known on the world stage, Chan-wook Park, Jee-woon Kim and Joon-ho Bong are leading the nation in film innovation, and there's an awful lot of vengeance going on. Oldboy, the second installment in Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy, comes from the Japanese manga by Nobuaki Minegishi, but I'll be damned if it isn't a little Greek. Oldboy is a difficult, harrowing picture that strips its characters bare and asks for more.
10. A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez)
You know what I hate about goddamn Eeyore? He doesn't have the humility of Charlie Brown. Don't get me wrong, Charlie Brown is one mopey dude, but his lovable loser always seems a little bit of a front, because his unblemished optimism is always just beneath the surface. Here Charlie Brown loses a spelling bee and has to accept that, not only does life go on, but maybe people like him in spite of his failures. This, the first of four theatrically released Peanuts films, has a spark in the animation that disappeared by some of the lesser television specials. It is a joy to see the imaginings of day-to-day events through the eyes of childhood: Schroeder's piano recital of Beethoven's "Pathetique Sonata (2nd movement)", the kids singing "The Star-Spangled Banner", a baseball game: Peanuts isn't an internalized Hundred Acre Wood, it's a beaming, humanistic Americana.
9. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991, Ngai Kai Lam)
Riki-Oh AWESOME Fight scene by MrBeuheuFail
8. Superman Returns (2006, Bryan Singer)
Blasphemy that I consider Bryan Singer's Superman Returns to be the Man of Steel's finest hour? Possibly. Granted, I had to forgive Kevin Spacey, but Singer's eye has me returning to a scene over and over again. The scene-- reminiscent of the best parts of Spider-man 2 and Superman II-- presents Superman with a longing in his eye, but an almost creepy, omniscient one as he must accept Lois making a life of her own. I can't shake it.
7. X2: X-Men United (2003, Bryan Singer)
If the X-Men have always been a metaphor for homosexuality, X2 forces us to ponder, like Steve Zissou, supposedly everyone is part gay.
6. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972, Kenji Misumi)
The first installment in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Kenji Misumi's Sword of Vengeance is the kind of hyperstylized violence it took him years to cut his teeth with in the Zatoichi franchise, but with greater stakes. Nothing seems mystical about our hired assassin's powers, and the strings of fatherhood avoid cliché in their effective pathos. It's hard to pick just one film in the series, but this is as strong a starting point as any.
5. A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)
I feel like this is a misunderstood film and, perhaps had more people known the source material of David Cronenberg's A History of Violence was a graphic novel, it would have found its audience. Perhaps the barbs wouldn't have been so sticky, perhaps the satire more easily digestible. Perhaps we would have been more willing to root for our tortured, vilified everyman. Of course, its barbs are the point, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
4. Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)
Man, the Zwigoff touch is weird. In Bad Santa, he has Thurman Murman offer the gift of a blood-stained wooden pickle to Willie, since no one gives Santa any presents. Ghost World gives Zwigoff the Daniel Clowes platform in which he can flourish, giving screentime to an R. Crumb record and making a grotesquely racist poster for Coon's Chicken a plot-changing prop. Ghost World retains a Zwigoff bite and a Clowes aimlessness, but resonates deeply.
Beyond the "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" sequence from Spider-Man 2, I'd like to point out the single moment of Hellboy II in which Guillermo del Toro had the guts to do something deliberately corny that managed to speak volumes about pathos. Hellboy and Abe Sapien drink some cheap beer and sing along to Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You". The moment is perfect in its ache and understanding of what draws people to bad songs (and drinking) in the first place. And it's pure del Toro. An instance of a great director understanding the source material so well that he can insert something of his own and doesn't skip a beat.
2. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
If there's one thing Inception taught me from the nausea that followed every Facebook status in July 2010 which stated "just had my mind blown," it was that I really am a much bigger Batman fan than Christopher Nolan fan. Accuse Nolan for relying on source material too much (even Inception was an adaptation of a Scrooge McDuck comic, right?), but there's is something to be said for reading it well. The Dark Knight posed the real threat of the hero becoming the villain in his own moral code better than Spider-Man 3 (which, still, is better than people give credit for), and is possibly the single greatest popcorn thinker.
1. Danger: Diabolik (1968, Mario Bava)
If the movies are (and God knows the comics are) a form of pop-art, you can aspire no higher than Danger: Diabolik. It's a film daring you to call it tongue-in-cheek, if it weren't so sincere. It begs to be mod kitsch, but then what does that make of your beloved James Bond? Danger: Diabolik is made of the things that made us love movies and throws them together in such a nutso fabric we don't have time to catch our breath. Ennio Morricone's score alone is worth the price of admission.