Note: I've decided for the purposes of this week to have the titles lead to their Amazon pages. So if you're interested in buying a movie, just click on their respective titles. -Duy
The Ten Best Comic Book Movies of All Time
I was presented with a question, nay, a challenge. A challenge that would reverberate throughout all time, eventually hitting the end of existence with the force of an atom bomb, and catapulting backwards through the time stream and smacking me square in the face, like a plate of old fish. That challenge… i’ve already forgotten. No, wait! Duy (editor-in-chief emeritus of the Comics Cube) wanted me to do a list of my ten favorite superhero movies, which will be a theme all week (so prepare yourself mentally for that). We then later decided on comic book movies, because he doesn’t have the fortitude to stick to his own criteria.
Let us begin!
X-Men: First Class – This could have been a spectacular movie if they had just focused on Xavier and Magneto, as played by McAvoy and Fassbender. Instead they added the garish costumes (sorry, Beast will never not look laughable on screen, not until they go CGI), the ridiculously corny superhero aspects, and some Dark Knight Rises–sized plot holes. Half a great movie, half one of the worst.
The Dark Knight – An unbelievable performance by Heath Ledger as a character calling himself the Joker, in a movie named after (and presumably focused on) Batman. Unfortunately, Batman gets the short shrift, as he probably should, because the Joker is a more interesting character (even this non-version of him), but the performance was indeed remarkable. The story makes little to no sense, but it was dark and violent, so that makes it good. (Let’s go ahead and mention the first half of Batman Begins too, which is the best part of the entire Nolan trilogy.)
Superman and Superman II – Completely horrible writing with ‘60s Batman levels of camp, that are covered up by the transcendent performance of Christopher Reeve as Superman and Terrance Stamp as General Zod in part 2.
Amazing Spider-Man – Again, two great performances by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy. The two had a real chemistry together on screen. Unfortunately, the rest of the story outside of those two together was average to below average.
Iron Man 2 – not for the movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I could watch the Black Widow beat-down scene in the climax on repeat.
With those near-misses out of the way, now let’s get to the real list.
We’ve just started and already I can see a fight brewing. Look, I didn’t know or care about the character of John Constantine before this movie (and despite the movie inspiring me to buy some of the comics, I still didn’t care much about the character after reading those comics) but the movie is pretty entertaining as a movie on its own, no matter how big a failure it might be as an adaptation. I loved the “doomed to Hell” aspect of Constantine, and his trips around the seedy, supernatural underbelly of the city. Keanu Reeves is Keanu Reeves, but I’ve never hated him as much as others seem to. (Say what you want, but he picks good movies.) The closing scene with the Devil, is pretty fantastic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the twist. (In hindsight, having since watched Buffy and Angel, James Marsters would have been a pretty perfect Constantine.) It may be sacrilege to fans of the character, but I still think this movie is pretty darn good. Therefore, it’s on the list.
9. FROM HELL
Another prime example or a horrible adaptation of the source material, but once again, I think it makes for a good movie anyway. I’ve been a big admirer of the work of Johnny Depp for years, way before it was cool to do so (pre-Pirates, to be specific). I’ve also long been fascinated with the legend of Jack the Ripper, as I apparently was a little twisted as a younger lad. You put those two together, sprinkle in a little Roller Girl, and you make for a good time at the local Cineplex.
I’ve actually heard and read people complain about Natalie Portman for her performance in this movie, and that completely flabbergasts me. I think the chemistry between her and Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) could only be described as adorable. Hemsworth takes what could have been a very tricky character to adapt to live action (especially with that character’s traditional dialogue) and absolutely nailed it. Tom Hiddleston was impressive as Loki (yet not quite as impressive as he would be later). That moment in the climax, where Loki and Thor are facing off, I could feel the emotion and pain of Loki, which is not a character that I have ever cared about one bit. Superb job by all. (Plus, Hawkeye cameo!)
7. V FOR VENDETTA
A case of the movie not being as good as the book, but considering the book is arguably one of the best graphic novels of all time, it wasn’t a goal they were likely to meet. The politics may not have been the same, but the performances by Agent Smith as the voice of V, and Natalie Portman (once again, I enjoyed it while others seemed not to) were glorious (I’m trying out new adjectives). I love a good old fashioned rabble-rousing monologue, and there’s quite a few great ones in this movie, courtesy of Agent Smith (who can make me believe just about anything with that voice and delivery, I’m still pretty convinced that humanity is a disease because of The Matrix). I’m a sucker for a good action-packed beat down, and the one V delivers in the climax is legendary. What can I say, sometimes I just like a good fight scene.
Unlike the previous entry, this is a case where the movie was much better than the source material. It stripped away some of the cruelty and sarcasm of the comic book (which is prevalent in Mark Millar’s work, albeit unintentional, I believe) and added a little bit more fun. Big Daddy was given motivation that was a little less cynical, and the ending wasn’t such a downer for the hero, as far as getting the girl. Chloe Moretz was obviously the star of the show as Hit Girl, which is most evident in the bloody but fantastic fight scenes. This is one of the comic book movies that non-readers have enjoyed the most (a friend told me it was his favorite movie period, after I made him watch it one night while we were in Korea) in my experience.
5. BATMAN ‘66
For lifelong comic book readers, there was probably a time in your teenage years, and on into your 20s, when you were really convinced that grim and gritty is what made some comic books better than others, and validated your continued appreciation of them. Killing Joke, and the collected works of Frank Miller were your weapons against any ridicule you may receive. “Look, see how violent, and therefore adult these are.” This was also a period when you may have hated the original Batman TV show and movie from the ‘60s, despite probably loving it as a kid. It wasn’t serious enough. It was campy. It was an insult to how serious comic books are. It made comic books, and by proxy you, look juvenile. If you’re like me, and eventually grew out of this ridiculous phase, you’ll appreciate the ’66 Batman movie for what it is, a fantastically crazy good time. Exploding sharks, bombs you can’t get rid of, and “Sea..C…C for Catwoman!” Only the most cynical of people can’t find enjoyment in something so silly. (I look forward to your angry comments.)
4. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
After years and years of tortured heroes in these superhero movies, with complex and often violent motivations for their heroism, it was just refreshing to watch a hero that wanted to do good simply because it was the right thing to do. (Superman should follow this approach. Unfortunately, Superman is owned by DC and Warner Bros…) Chris Evans went from a puzzling casting choice, to becoming the only person I can imagine playing the character for the foreseeable future. The decision to set the movie entirely during World War II was a brilliant one, and essential to the development of the character going forward. That’s not a facet that should be undervalued. I feel like the pressure at any other studio to get him to present time as fast as possible would be tremendous. Doing that would cut down the time spent building the characters around him, making their loss to time that much less impactful. The tearful goodbye between Steve and Peggy Carter is that much more heartbreaking, after an entire movie of that relationship being developed. (Not to mention the screen time given to Bucky, destined to return as the Winter Soldier in the upcoming sequel.) Captain America, as a character and as a movie, isn’t about the hero we relate to because he’s like us. He’s the hero we should all hope and strive to be.
3. IRON MAN
This was the defining moment and movie in the evolution of the superhero genre. Gone were the silly supervillain plots to mutate the human race, or blow up the city. This is when the superhero movie replaced the action movie, and the threats graduated from the somewhat insulting schemes of evil supervillains twirling their mustaches. The story was more serious, sometimes dark and violent, without being overwhelmingly so. It doesn’t revel in its violence to show you how “adult” it is, or explain how realistic it is (I’m looking at your Nolan). It accomplishes that level of sophistication through the performances and emotions of the actors, while still remaining a fun and satisfying movie. Specifically Robert Downey Jr, who delivered a performance that is rightfully praised, pretty much universally. (He was so good as the character that it even made the comic books better.) It certainly helps that the Iron Man armor itself is infinitely more cool in live action than it could ever be in a comic book. It just looks cool, and I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of that in a motion picture. This is the superhero movie that made all the other movies that came before it pale in comparison.
2. SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD
If you’re a regular reader of this column, something that may surprise you, is that I am a sucker for a well-done star-crossed romance. The boy getting the girl will get me every time. It can’t be some cheesy chick flick though, you have to sneak it into something like The Office, or a movie where the hero has to fight the seven deadly exes of the girl he seeks if he wants to be with her. I think most of us can relate to the search for that special someone in your life. Scott Pilgrim’s quest may have more punching and kicking than most, but the feeling is the same. Speaking of, the action is very good. Once again, I have simple tastes. Plus I just really like Michael Cera going back to Arrested Development and he’s good here too (even though he basically plays the same character in every project). And I just have a fascination (not sexual) with people with crayon color dyed hair. Must be the lifelong comic book reader in me, all those primary colors. Anyway, I saw this movie, and I liked it so much that I wanted to go to the very next showing immediately after that one. I went home and went to sleep instead, but don’t let that be a condemnation of my enjoyment of the movie.
1. GREEN LANTERN
What’s so underrated about this movie is the performances, specifically Ryan Reynolds as hotshot ace fighter pilot Hal Jordan. Probably my favorite part about the movie is how all the characters just talked and talked and talked, explaining all the complex back story about the Corps, and Paralax, and fear, and…
After the incredible success of individual Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America movies (and the Incredible Hulk is an underrated movie in my opinion as well) next came the time to put them all together in one blockbuster feature. Fans like me had been waiting for a big time superhero team like this to show up in a movie for our entire lives. Add in fan-favorite writer and director Joss Whedon (a personal fave as well) and you make for one monster project with high expectations. It’s easy to forget now that the movie has been a critical and commercials smash, just how easily it could have gone wrong. Too many stars, not enough action, not enough money left for action and effects. These all could have been problems for the movie. (As an example, look at any X-Men movie that should really have been called “Wolverine and Friends.”) Instead, every star got a moment to shine, an interaction with another member of the cast that highlights that pitch-perfect characterization the movie excelled at so well. The action scenes were wonderful. Coulson’s “death” was heart-breaking. The battle in New York has to be one of the greatest action scenes in the history of movies (I get chills every time that portal opens and Iron Man looks up in dread). I’m pretty sure my fan heart exploded as Captain America laid out the plan to the rest of the team (Hulk…smash). In the scene during the end credits, my jaw dropped to the floor when Thanos appeared. It hit every, single, note.
I went in to Avengers with the highest of expectations, and yet driving home after the movie, I felt like I needed to cry it was so good. There was no other method for my mind or body to express the level of joy the movie brought to me. (Make fun of me if you wish.) It’s rare that a piece of entertainment can deliver with that level of success. For that, there can’t honestly be anything else in the top spot for me.
There you have it. I know some of you out there may accuse me of recency, but I believe in this case comic book movies (in particular superhero movies) have only gotten better as time goes by. Each one seems to learn from the last, and the actors involved have steadily taken the material more seriously. (I’m sorry, but there is no way I can watch the old Superman movies, with him clearly flying on wires, and not get completely pulled out of the experience. It’s like watching a middle school play at this point.) Especially with the creation of Marvel Studios, and the direct involvement of comic book creators in the films, have you seen some truly great adaptations unfold. They may not adapt any one storyline completely faithfully (and thank goodness for that) but they get the spirits of the characters and their world completely right, so far.
That’s why you see movies like X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2, which at one time would have topped my list, not even on it now. As groundbreaking and entertaining as those first two X-Men movies were, you have the bad costumes, the bad lines, the sketchy acting in places, the B-movie super villain plots. The first Spider-Man movie actually inspired me to start reading comic books again (after a lengthy break), but as time has gone on, I have found I have many of the same problems with those films that I do with the X-movies (plus, Kisten Dunst). (Spider-Man 2, as a co-worker once told me, is almost completely about Peter Parker quitting and sulking the entire movie. That may make for a great story in Amazing Spider-Man #50, but not so entertaining over the span of a 2-hour movie.)
Anyway, there it is, the world of comic book movies as I see it (at least until Guardians of the Galaxy is released). You’re free to disagree, but please know that you’re wrong, and I am right.
Until next time!