It’s that time of year again. The approach of summer brings the hype of the superheroes. It seems like its been going on forever, but it hasn’t really. Hollywood blockbusters have gone comic book with the advent of convincing CGI technology. This year, the X-Men are back with a new director, and the X-Men’s old director is back with an even older superhero. Not all comic adaptations are superheroes, however. In fact, some of the movies on these lists you may be surprised to find out were actually graphic novels first. With Charles Burns’ “Black Hole” and two more volumes of “Sin City” in the works, there are a lot more non-superhero movies on their way. Hell, when you adapt a comic book, half the art design is already done for you. (Although skin-tight red outfits sometimes look better in print than traslated into saggy leather onscreen; just ask Ben Affleck!)
- Spider-Man 2 (2004) : Sam Raimi is responsible for, hands down, the best superhero movie ever. Since the first “Spider-Man,” the “Evil Dead” director has more confidence, more humor, a better grasp on the character, and more general swagger. Balancing multiple storylines and tones, but keeping Peter Parker’s crisis of responsibility in clear focus for the entire film, Raimi has evolved into a master filmmaker and this film proves it. The bar is set very, very high for any film in this genre.
- American Splendor (2003) : Paul Giamatti is heartbreaking and hilarious–finally put on the map as something other than a bit part actor, and directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring the life of bitter sad sack comic book author Harvey Pekar to life in a movie that cleverly blurs the line between an artist’s life and work. Who’d have thought that a hospital clerk “from off the streets of Cleveland” would be the subject of such a rich movie. If you don’t think it sounds interesting, see it anyway. You will be surprised, I guarantee it.
- X2: X-Men United (2003) : Since when are sequels better than the originals? Since the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” series began. Brett Ratner has a lot to live up next month with “X-Men 3.” Hell, so does “X2″ director Bryan Singer, for that matter. Why would he leave this consistently interesting franchise for “Superman”? “X2″ is better than “X-Men” because the mutant struggle is taken to a new level, and since Singer has the main characters introduced, he’s able to focus on the film’s central ideas about racism and bigotry. Still, some new mutants are also introduced, and he juggles the dark overtones and misfit humor expertly.
- Ghost World (2001) : Speaking of misfitsâ€¦No stranger to comic books, having directed the amazing documentary on comic legend Robert Crumb, Terry Zwigoff took a spare, existential series of stories from Daniel Clowes’ excellent “Eightball” comics and brought it to feature-length life. The movie fleshes out outcast Enid (Thora Birch), features Scarlett Johansson in her first major role, and captures the listlessness of post-high
school/pre-real world life in both a cynical and touching way. Bonus points for featuring Steve Buscemi in his best role ever; a stain on the Oscars for not nominating him!
- Sin City (2005) : Robert Rodriguez took the words “comic book adaptation” literally last year when he took Frank Miller’s violent,hard-boiled black-and-white “Sin City” and translated the very same images; panels even; straight from the comic. Miller’s attitude oozes through every scene, and the hard edges aren’t ever glossed over. The fact that almost none of the backgrounds were real and there are unreal splashes
of color here and there accentuates the theatricality of it all. I am so ready for the sequels.
- A History of Violence (2005) : David Cronenberg drew upon the spare, sketch-like drawings of this graphic novel to create a subtle, funny, and terrifying look into the human psyche. It may look like a suspense thriller on the outside, but “A History of Violence” is a serious examination of what we all have within us and what happens when we know what we’re capable of. Can a movie be graphic and subtle at the same time?
This one proves that the answer is yes.
- Spider-Man (2002) : The first time I saw Spider-Man swinging between two New York City skyscrapers, I felt like I was a kid again. When I saw the Green Goblin flying around on his sled, I almost peed myself. Then I immediately went to the rock show my band was playing with J.D.’s band, and spooged all over this film for hours, while he politely listened. The origin story is told perfectly, and Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire
have so much chemistry it should be illegal. Raimi gets all the details right, and only in the second half does it lose any steam. Peter Parker’s campy Spidey-talk is pitch-perfect, and his regret is palpable as well. There’s a reason this is the top-grossing superhero movie of all time.
- Road to Perdition (2002) : Sam Mendes follows up Best Picture winner “American Beauty” with this dark, wrenching tale adapted from Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel. Released in the summer and starring Tom Hanks as a mob hitman, this disturbing film was a kick in the gut to many moviegoers. Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig get ugly with Hanks, and Mendes films it all with a kind of lyric beauty. This is an underrated and stirring tale of loyalty that will have its due one day.
- X-Men (2000) : A quick look back at my list and I see that this is the oldest movie on it! Wow. I guess you could credit director Bryan Singer with kick-starting the trend of quality comic book adaptations that don’t buckle under the weight of their own responsibility. By introducing the mutant X-Men to the world with the utmost respect for the material, and framing the story with Magneto’s Holocaust experience, Singer establishes a tone that others will use in years to come. The superhero fantasy genre is truly a 21st century art form.
- Hulk (2003) : It is with much vim and vigor that I sit here at the computer, snarl on my face, anticipating that most people disagree with me on this choice. I humbly ask you to watch “Hulk” again. Oscar winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) took tons of chances on this film, from the one-of-a-kind comic book editing style (which got virtually no recognition!) to the psychological depths he was willing to plummet the audience into. On both counts, he alienated fans who wanted their hero less brooding, and their storytelling less showy. Fuck ‘em. I got a great movie to watch whenever I want on DVD. They’ll come around some day.
- X-Men (2000) : Director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) surprised even an old fussy X-Men fan like me when he nailed the style and essence of Marvel’s best ensemble. Without question the first X-Men film came out swinging and with extraordinary casting, namely Patrick Stewart as Xavier, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Ian McKellan as Magneto. The X factor (wink, wink) in this adaptation is the cautious but assertive choices of the filmmakers to mix and match characters and story lines from the extensive history of the comic. The only thing missing from the first film was Nightcrawler and we only had to wait three years for the sequel and Alan Cumming to do justice to my favorite teleporting mutant.
- X2: X-Men United (2003) : As good as the first film and it utilized an ever widening palette of X-Men heroes and villains. Brian Cox was a brilliant addition to the cast as William Stryker. Jean Gray’s disappearance and a wispy shadow of the Phoenix at the films end has had me chomping at the bit for “X3″ ever since. The preview looks amazing I’m keeping my fingers crossed that “X3″ director Brett Ratner can fill Singer’s rather large shoes. It is really too bad Singer felt the notoriously unhip Superman and his ridiculous tights would be more of a notch on his directorial belt than finishing what he so triumphantly started.
- V for Vendetta (2006) : The best film of 2006 so far, “V for Vendetta” is tight as a drum. This film is a powerhouse of style and story. I can’t say enough about Natalie Portman or Hugo Weaving in this adaptation of an Alan Moore (Watchmen) graphic novel. Despite Moore’s public disassociation from the film “Vendetta,” unlike the previous cinematic mishap “Extraordinary League of Gentlemen,” will definitely be driving some traffic towards his undeniably interesting books.
- Sin City (2005) : I hope and pray that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller will team up again. This time, to do Miller’s classic “The Dark Knight Returns.” “Sin City” is a masterpiece and the best example of a direct translation from graphic novel to film to date. “Sin City” is one of the most innovative examples of film making in the last decade. It would be a shame if these guys didn’t try it again.
- Road To Perdition (2002) : I was unaware when I saw “Road to Perdition” that it was based on a graphic novel. I only new it was the new Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) film and that it starred Tom Hanks as a hit-man. That was really all I needed to get me through the door. Anyone who doubts Hanks’ range need only look as far as “Perdition” to realize the depth of his acting abilities. Opposite Paul Newman, Hanks gives a killer performance full of subtlety and nuance. Daniel Craig plays Newmans nuisance of a son. Since then he was a standout in “Munich” and landed the role as the new 007, but “Perdition” announced his presence as he threw down with the big boys.
- Men In Black (1997) : “MIB” was pure entertainment plain and simple. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are superb together and everything else just worked. The dry humor and gadgets mixed with an intergalactic crisis and Rip Torn added up to a perfectly charming two hours of my life. The sequel failed to be anywhere near as good as the first, but the original movie kicked a wee-bit of ass.
- Batman Begins (2005) : Love the origin story stuff, I can’t help it. This is the best example of the “mortal man scarred by personal tragedy turned crime fighter saga” captured onscreen yet. In fact, “Batman Begins” is so good, it has allowed everyone to forget Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl. Now we can all go back to remembering her as “that other girl” from the Aerosmith videos, as we were meant to in the first place.
- Spider-Man (2002) : Here’s another origin story. Some people were probably sitting in the theater just waiting for something to explode, but not me, I think the first hour of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” was spectacular. Willem Dafoe is too good for his own good and the mirror scene as his dual identities do battle is comic book perfect. The second film was as good or better, but the foundation of the character in “Spidey 1″ lands it on my list.
- Batman (1989) : See Tim Burton. See also Jack Nicholson. My favorite visual filmmaker with one of Hollywood’s honest to goodness legends turning in one of the most unbridled roles of his career. The Bat franchise lost its way many times post Burton, but unlike the flimsy “Superman-style”
avengers, Batman has always had that vigilante cool that’s missing from other superheroes. Like those whose power is totally awesome… unless if by some chance he’s anywhere near a particular type of rock.
- The Crow (1994) : This dark tale of vengeance from beyond the grave was overshadowed by the tragedy of star Brandon Lee’s death during the filming. The story is deep and aside from some cheese associated with the musical aspects of its main character, overall “The Crow” is pretty tough. What’s not to like about a really creepy ghost who is good with guns?
Eric’s Runners-Up: V for Vendetta (2006), Batman Begins (2005), Hellboy (2004), Superman II (1980)