In anticipation of this week's release of Marvel's The Avengers, I thought I'd compile my list of greatest comic book movies ever made. We are currently living in a golden age of films based on comics, which started in the early seventies when Ilya Salkind had the insane idea to make a serious adaptation of DC's iconic Superman. It has taken some time, but comic book films are finally starting to get recognized as an artistic medium for storytelling, as exemplified by Tom Hiddleson's recent defense of them in The Guardian. The archetypal potential for this kind of popular narrative is getting tapped more heavily than ever before, but only a handful of the dozens made every year are worth your time. These ten are the ones everyone should be familiar with.
A few rules, as always. 1) The movie has to have been a theatrical release; no direct-to-video or television miniseries. 2) No animated movies--I'll save those for a future list which will no doubt be populated by a lot of manga--but movies with animated scenes are okay. 3) I have to have seen the movie. 4) Only one film per series; reboots count as separate series.
#10. Tank Girl
This is probably the silliest film on the list, but it's endearing. I don't claim to know what it feels like to be a teenage girl, but I imagine Tank Girl captures some of that manic energy. The movie embraces the absurdity of its story and universe, tones down some of the seedier elements, and unleashes itself at you in a relentless stream of consciousness that doesn't try too hard to make sense or be more than what it is. Granted, the filmmakers look at their final product as a total failure, it bombed at the box office, and much of the film's crazy editing and handful of animated scenes only exist because of a sloppy, unfinished production schedule. However, the film has developed a huge cult following, has inspired dozens of successful people, and stands as a mid-nineties manifesto for geeky girl rockers the world over. (Full disclosure: I may be a bit biased here, as Tank Girl is one of my wife's favorite movies--I've only seen it because she made me.)
#9. Batman (1989)
Nowadays, if you were to ask the average geek who is the grittiest mainstream comic book superhero, you'd get "Batman" about 90% of the time. However, before Tim Burton took a crack at the dark knight, Batman was, to the non-comic-reading public at large, the schlockiest, campiest, and most ridiculous comic book superhero of all time. This is largely due to the Adam West television show, of course, but Burton made the wise decision to ignore that in favor of his own vision. Batman manages to bridge the gap between the goofy Batman of the sixties and the intense Batman of today by being both serious and quirky. It's difficult to overstate this accomplishment, and it's impossible to imagine anybody but Tim Burton in his prime pulling it off.
#8. The Crow
Like Tank Girl, Alex Proyas' The Crow is a mid-nineties adaptation of a relatively obscure comic book. That's where the similarities end, though, as The Crow is incredibly dark, brutal, and violent. Whereas Tank Girl is the template for the manic teenage girl of the time, The Crow is a magnet for angsty goth kiddies, teenage boys who wore dark clothes and listened to Nine Inch Nails. Yeah, back then, I kinda fit that description, so it goes without saying that I couldn't get enough of the movie. Though it has spawned several terrible sequels and has a reboot in the works, The Crow is a confluence of unique factors--such as Brandon Lee's unfortunate death while making a film in which his character is dead--that are unlikely to manifest in quite the same way again.
For years, many comic book snobs told us that Watchmen is the greatest comic book (though they of course prefered to call it a "graphic novel") ever written and that it would never make a good film. Even Terry Gilliam, the man who succeeded in adapting the chaotic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, called Watchmen "unfilmable" after trying for years to make it work. That didn't stop Hollywood from pushing it, and after many failed attempts and false starts, Watchmen finally reached the silver screen in 2009. While the film, by necessity, omits a great deal of detail from the book and changes around some major plot points, it manages to capture the unique feel of the story, which is simultaneously gritty, psychologically dense, surreal, and absurd. Zack Snyder, fresh off his success with 300, managed to solve the problems that Gilliam could not, and though the film isn't considered a critical or box office success, he has been propelled as Hollywood's latest comic book adapting wünderkind and is currently working on a new Superman.
#6. Men in Black
I bet you didn't know Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black is a comic book adaptation, but it is. The comic, The Men in Black, is indeed about a secret organization of agents--most notably Zed, Jay, and Kay--that work behind the scenes to deal with the paranormal. The movie does make some significant alterations, however, the most notable being a dramatic shift in tone. In the comic, for example, the agents heartlessly murder witnesses rather than simply erasing their memories. Still, Sonnenfeld's film is a wild success, a fun ride that manages to have some surprising subtexts between all the goofy one-liners and Will Smith antics. Sonnenfeld is a master of satire that is somehow subtle despite being right in your face, and Men in Black is arguably his magnum opus.
#5. Iron Man
The verdict is still out about what Marvel Studios has accomplished with The Avengers, but when its ambitious plan was kicked off with Iron Man, moviegoers were put on notice: Marvel was about to attempt something truly unprecedented. Iron Man wasn't obscure the same way The Crow or Tank Girl were, but it also wasn't as iconic as Batman or Superman. For this reason, Iron Man was already a gamble, a big-budget adaptation that didn't have a guaranteed fanbase and rested largely on the performance of an aging, quirky Robert Downey, Jr. Needless to say, Iron Man succeeded in every way possible, and even on its own, it stands as an amazing comic book film that manages to be relevant, slyly poignant, and a whole lot of fun. The only people who didn't seem surprised by this were the masterminds at Marvel, whose confidence only made fans more excited for what would come next.
If there's a big budget adaptation that feels more like a comic book than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, I haven't seen it. The movie doesn't just adapt the story or tone of the comics, but it actually adapts the sensation of reading a comic unlike any other movie on this list. The music, the editing, the effects, and the acting all coalesce on the screen like frames of a Spider-Man serial, and its thematic focus on Peter Parker's coming of age speaks to the adolescent part of many fans' psyches that made them love comic books in the first place. It's not a perfect movie--the Power Ranger look of the Green Goblin alone keeps it from being in the top three--but it does something special that deserves recognition and is certain to be missing from the upcoming franchise reboot.
Bryan Singer is one of the greatest directors alive today, and when he moved from doing dark, artsy masterpieces like The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil to doing The X-Men, a lot of film critics were worried. The X-Men is an important evolution in comic book movies, because it is the first film to succeed in bringing multiple beloved superheroes and supervillains to the screen at once. With well-respected Shakespearean acting talent like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, along with the heavyweight talent behind the camera, the movie demands to be taken seriously and, in many ways, it proves that it should be. As a story, The X-Men is a timeless Rorschach test, with multiple interpretations out there that are all valid and important. As entertainment, it is full of thrills, action, and adventure. While The X-Men paved the way, its sequel X2 is unquestionably a better movie, which is why it makes this list.
#2. Superman II
Superman II is an almost perfect superhero movie. It has everything you could want: a moral and awesome hero, iconic villains, a quest for humanity, a big love story, epic battles, a good twist, high stakes, and a clever narrative that never falls victim to pretentiousness or ludicrousness. Indeed, combined with the original Superman, this film is the standard by which all other comic book movies are judged. It is a template that has become an indelible part of our collective unconscious, and I don't believe anybody can ever do Superman better. If it weren't for Superman and Superman II, we probably wouldn't have as many comic book movies today.
#1. The Dark Knight
I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes seeing The Dark Knight at the number one spot, but I don't care. As I predicted, the immense popularity of the film has caused something of a snobbish backlash among fans, but just because it is predictable to call The Dark Knight the greatest comic book movie ever made doesn't make it any less true. I never thought a comic book movie could be as relevant, as important, or as well-made as Christopher Nolan's film, and I never thought anybody could make a better Joker than Jack Nicholson. This movie taps into current events and asks all sorts of uncomfortable questions, but it does it through giant action set-pieces, larger-than-life characters, amazing cinematography, and a respect for the source material that is unmatched. If it weren't based on a comic book, I have no doubt that The Dark Knight would have won Academy Awards. Still, it has set a new standard, dethroning Superman as the superhero template, and it is a direct rebuttal to anyone who argues that comic books can't be taken seriously. When the aging elitists who currently run the Oscars are finally replaced by a new generation of film critics, I have no doubt movies like The Dark Knight will get the critical respect they deserve.