When the film history books are written, the first decade of the 21st century will be considered the decade of the comic book movie. While comic books had been turned into movies before the 2000s, never before had they been such an integral part of Hollywood. Studios were in a mad dash to option almost every single comic book on the stands, to the point that some people were making comics not as an ends to itself but as a way of getting a deal. And it wasn’t just superheroes – every genre of comic book was getting pounced on by Hollywood.
But the superheroes held a special place. In the 2000s the superhero movie became something like westerns and musicals in the past – Hollywood’s default setting for blockbusters. The tropes of the superhero movie even began bleeding into non-comic book films by the end of the decade. What was once a derogatory term – saying a film felt like a ‘comic book’ had been a major put down for critics once – became a marketing plus. The 00s was truly the decade when comic book conquered cinema.
You could definitely make an argument that this was a bad thing, but I’d rather look at the bright side of it, so here is a list of the ten best movies based on comic books. There are a couple of ground rules we should establish going in:
- These are comic book movies, not superhero movies.
- Fidelity to source material is not really the criteria here. There a couple of films on this list for which the source material remains a huge mystery to me – never read a word of it. That said, capturing the essence of the source material may be a criteria for some of these films making the list. Yes, I am having it both ways.
- I’ll tell you in advance: The Dark Knight is not on this list. I briefly considered putting it in at the ten spot just to keep people from complaining but then I realized this list wouldn’t be true to my feelings in that case. This list is a work of opinion, not a mathematical proof; as such there is no wrong or right answer. The Dark Knight simply is not, in my opinion, one of the ten best comic book movies of the last ten years. Your mileage may vary, and you’re welcome to list your own ten best comic book movies in the comments or on our message board.
Directed by Takashi Miike
Based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto
I’m not a particularly big fan of anime or manga, so I’ve never read the original Ichi the Killer. But that said, I do have my own gaijin skewed perspective of what Japanese cartoons and comics are like, and Takashi Miike’s adaptation of Ichi really fits into it. Weird, retarded sexuality? Check! Splattery hyperviolence? Check! People shouting? Check! Exaggerated cartoonishness suddenly juxtaposed with gritty realism? Check! Some otaku may take offense at the way I characterize anime and manga, but I know I’m not alone. And Ichi the Killer, which is a truly mad movie no matter the source material, is like our thoughts on the matter come to life.
9) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Based on the characters created by Mike Mignola
I wasn’t a major fan of the first Hellboy. I thought it had its moments but on the whole didn’t move me. Hellboy II was a lot different for me. Look down the page and you’ll see that it’s superhero sequels that I’ve listed more than anything else, and Hellboy II is a prime example of why. With the first movie the filmmakers are tasked with establishing the world and the characters and trying to make something that will appeal enough to guarantee a sequel (ie, they’re trying to not make Daredevil), but once the second movie comes along there’s more freedom. The characters are established and can now be played with; the tone is set and can now be fucked with. And most importantly the filmmaker is able to really bring themselves to bear, and that’s what del Toro did here. This film – a weird fantasy adventure whose basics wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1930s magazine – has the stamp of Guillermo del Toro all over it. While the first film felt like del Toro playing in someone else’s sandbox, this time it’s all his own sandbox. From the aggrieved monsters who may actually have a point to the wonderful, tactile creature design, Hellboy II is a great comic book movie because, like the original medium itself, it’s bound only by the artist’s imagination. And Guillermo del Toro has an expansive imagination.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Based on the comics by Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics blur the line between reality and fiction and the genius of the movie version is that it does the same. While Harvey is telling stories from his own life in the pages of the comic, he’s also putting them through his own personal filter, as well as potentially gussying them up to be funnier or work better. It’s the basic tension that exists in all non-fiction, but there’s something about comic book non-fiction that makes it all the more obvious. So the film version went one step further and, in addition to great actors like Paul Giamatii and Hope Davis playing Pekar and his wife, the real people show up in the movie to comment and add their own voices. It’s a great device that makes American Splendor not just a terrific comic book movie but also a real part of the 21st century’s faux-doc movement; many movies this past decade were trying to blur the lines between reality and fiction, and none did it this successfully.
Directed by Zack Snyder
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller
Like it or not, Zack Snyder’s exacting adaptation of Frank Miller’s take on the tale of the 300 Spartans really informed cinematic language in the last half of the decade. There’s an argument that could be made that Robert Rodriguez did it all first two years earlier with his slavish take on Miller’s Sin City, but I would say that Snyder did something Rodriguez couldn’t: he made his film live. Sin City is like a book on tape version of the comic, and it’s stagey and stilted in equal measure. 300, though, feels complete on its own, and it is undeniably purely cinematic. It’s also totally insane – Snyder has kept Miller’s neanderthal political ideas in the film, and he’s created nothing short of a paean to fascism. But it’s also completely gorgeous, a painterly vision of over the top, bloody mayhem. And most of all the movie is kick ass, an adrenaline rush on film. It’s like a testosterone overdose fever dream and a meathead masterpiece.
Directed by Bryan Singer
Based on the Marvel Comics characters from the X-Men comics
Another sequel! X2 may actually be the quintessential example of the sequel being better than the first film. Singer’s X-Men feels like a TV movie at best but X2 explodes as cinema right from the first scene, with Nightcrawler’s exhilarating attack on the White House. Singer and his cast and crew have figured out the characters and the tone of their adventures and relationships, and this time they really nail it. Characters who felt like placeholders in the first film come alive in the sequel, and the scope of the story went from being cartoonish (Magneto’s plan in the original is truly one of the worst villain plans in all of superhero cinema) to being plain old awesome. And most importantly the film understands how to balance its huge cast while still keeping the spotlight on fan favorite Wolverine. I still maintain that X3 isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be, and that if it had been the film to follow up X-Men we would have thought it was incredible. But X2 raised the bar very, very high, and the second sequel couldn’t clear it.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes
Zwigoff’s Ghost World is probably one of the first movies where people realized that a comic book film didn’t have to be about steroid cases in spandex punching each other. Arising from the then-thriving alternative comics scene, Ghost World is an ironic, melancholy look at the teen-age years of two misfit girls. Brutally honest while also being incredibly funny, Zwigoff’s take on Clowe’s black and white stories marries indie comics and indie movies perfectly. It’s also filled with great casting, although I wonder if anyone in 2001 would have guessed that it was Scarlett Johansson who would go the farthest out of the main three kids. Zwigoff got much more aggressive in his next film, Bad Santa, and he failed to recapture the magic in Art School Confidential, but rewatching Ghost World you see a filmmaker hitting all the tonal spots perfectly. Silly and sad, sweet and bitter all at once, Ghost World feels like a great coming of age story first and foremost, no matter the story’s origin. And it contains one of my favorite ambiguous, symbolic endings, one that sends some viewers into an apoplectic rage but that feels absolutely right.
Directed by Jon Favreau
Based on the Marvel Comics characters from the Iron Man comics
There were a lot of Marvel movies in the 2000s. Most of them stank. Some of them were great. One of them was made by Marvel themselves and proved that the House of Ideas really understood their own characters better than anyone else. That film was Iron Man, a movie that took a second tier character and elevated him to leading man status and that took a leading man trying to claw his way out of the third tier and returned him to the spotlight. But more than that they made a really great, really fun superhero movie. Yes, the final battle is lackluster, but what works in Iron Man isn’t what works in your standard big studio shoot em up. It’s a movie that’s all about the characters, and the characters are brilliantly realized. On top of that Jon Favreau’s decision to work with practical effects as much as possible means there’s a real, working (sort of) Iron Man suit in the movie, making you feel like the Armored Avenger has stepped right off the pages of the comic book and into reality. The folks at Marvel Studios understand that fidelity to the source material can actually be a major boon when your source material is good. And they may have made a decision that will impact the face of superhero movies in the 10s – they opted to set Iron Man in a larger continuity, and they have promised to bring their heroes together to form a big screen Avengers.
Directed by Zack Snyder
Based on the mini-series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a remarkable feat by any measure. I think that Snyder adapted the original book as well as anyone could have, and I also think that some of the changes that were made to the story were for the better, but it’s also a film that is trapped in the shadow of the original. It’s telling that the very best part of the movie – the truly brilliant opening credits – is also the most original thing in the film. But setting aside comparisons to the graphic novel I think that Snyder achieved something incredible here, which is that he made a very serious, very earnest, mostly unironic film about adult issues and subjects featuring people who dress up as superheroes. Personally I think he also made a damn good movie in general, and one whose impact won’t be felt for a number of years. And I look forward to spending those years talking about the intricacies and details of this deep, often amazing but also very wounded film with those who have already figured out its greatness. For those coming to it the first time: the Director’s Cut is the only version to watch,
Directed by Sam Raimi
Based on the Marvel Comics characters from the Spider-Man comics
I’ve said it before and I bet I’ll say it again and again - Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie ever made. It’s a sequel, so it has all of what we’ve already discussed going for it, especially a Sam Raimi getting more into his own mode. The origin scene of Doc Ock is grand guignol filmmaking, the sort only Raimi can bring, and the rest of the film is a kinetic blast. Doctor Octopus was always one of my least favorite Spider-Man foes, but somehow Raimi elevated him here, giving the villain a tragic dignity that the Roy Orbison lookalike rarely had in the comics. And then Raimi pulls out the stops with characters and set pieces, leading to a thrilling train battle that brings together all of Spider-Man’s thematic elements. When the passengers take care of their fallen hero despite the Daily Bugle’s smear campaigns I have to admit I get a little verklempt. Spider-Man is the most New York City of all superheroes, and that moment is the best side of New York City that rarely comes out. I love this movie so much.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook
Based on the manga by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya
I read the first issue of the original manga on which Oldboy is based. It was okay. My understanding is that the comic doesn’t contain some of the more… provocative elements that Park Chan-Wook puts in this film, his masterpiece. A searing tale of revenge and its price, Oldboy is also bravura filmmaking, a dense and wild exploration of what cinema has to offer. It’s a movie that hits on so many levels, from the visceral to the intellectual, that you can keep coming back to it again and again. At its heart is a brave and almost superhuman performance by Choi Min-Sik as a man who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years without ever knowing his crime. When he is finally released he goes on a whirwind tour of violence, seeking vengeance on those who put him away for a decade and a half. The genius of Park Chan-Wook is that he can make a movie that is both incredibly stylized but also emotionally honest at the same time; you’ll be wowed by the sidescrolling hammer fight but also laid low by the film’s last act revelations. And it’s a movie that you can enjoy with or without subtitles – as pure visual filmmaking Oldboy offers dozens of iconic images and clear storytelling that blows through language barriers. Oldboy isn’t just the best comic book movie of the decade, it’s one of the best movies, period, of the 2000s.