With the North American release of one of the most anticipated comic book adaptations of all time, The Avengers (review) looming, a poll took place among the users of WorldofKJ to determine WOKJ’s very own Top 10 of the best comic book adaptations ever made. Any kind of comic book or graphic novel adaptations was eligible, starting with the obvious ones like the X-Men or the Spider-Man series, but also the lesser known properties like Ghost World and American Splendor. With The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises hitting the silver screens this year, the lists are bound to change for most users by the end of the year. However, even now there is already a great wealth of movies to pick from. Without further ado, I present you the results of the voting.
X-Men: First Class – Last summer brought us several comic book adaptations, some good ones (Thor), some not so much (Green Lantern). However none of them stood out as much as X-Men: First Class. After the severely disappointing X-Men: Last Stand and the critically maligned X-Men spin-off Wolverine, the expectations were at a low for a new X-Men film. Afterall, who is interested in seeing the origins fo the characters and have kid mutants battle each other? However, director Matthew Vaughn (whose Kick-Ass also barely missed the final list) didn’t disappoint. He returned the franchise to where Bryan Singer left off – a great ensemble piece that is not short on either great action sequences or character development. In the original X-Men series, Ian McKellen’s Magneto became one of the most memorable and well-acted comic book adaptation villains. Michael Fassbender fully lives up to the legacy, making the character his own and combining the charisma with vulnerability. James McAvoy’s Professor Charles Xavier is not far behind, though with both having true friendship chemistry. The stylish 1960s setting and the great ensemble of young mutants complete the experience which went down as one of last year’s most enjoyable blockbusters. After a long slump, the X-Men are back and stronger than ever.
10. V for Vendetta – It is a statement to Hugo Weaving’s acting ability when the most intriguing performance in a film with such a formidable cast as V for Vendetta (John Hurt, Natalie Portman) comes from someone whose face you never get to see throughout the film. As one of the few comic book adaptations, the Orwellian ideological message is front and center, but there is no shortage on action scenes either. V for Vendetta is a visually striking and smart allegory that doesn’t glorify its main character’s actions (essentially he is a terrorist), but presents them as a bitter necessity. Sure, it is a bit heavy-handed at times, but it is still a movie that sticks with its audiences.
9. Sin City – Robert Rodriguez’ filmmaking career reached its peak with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel. Sin City boasts a colorful cast with Mickey Rourke standing out in a role that marked a huge comeback of his career. The real stars are the visuals here. For the first time ever, a movie didn’t just feel like an adaptation of a comic book, but like a comic book just come to life. It’s pure pulp, complete with over-the-top violence and insane cruelty. This way it presents a stark contrast to most major comic book adaptations which have been squarely aimed at the most widest audiences. Sin City is a movie for adults and adults only. It’s post-neo-noir and visually incredibly inventive. Without Sin City we might have never seen 300 or Watchmen coming to life the way they did.
8. Batman Returns – Tim Burton’s first Batman movie set the scene and his vision of Gotham, but it wasn’t until the sequel, Batman Returns, that his Gotham became a fully realized gothic fairy tale. It is far removed from Nolan’s realism, but deserves to exist on its own right. Moreover, it gave us one the Batman films’ most iconic characters – Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman whom Anne Hathaway will have a hard time topping in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. Returns suffers from the usual problem of the early Batman films – villains to interesting and colorful that Batman is outshined. However, Batman Returns fully lives that with Christopher Walken, Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito all turning in impressive turns as the movie’s baddies with the film showing itself more than capable to handle several villain characters, something that many films in recent memory failed to achieve. Batman Returns feels more like a Tim Burton movie than the first film ever did.
7. Spider-Man – Probably the single most-anticipated comic book adaptation ever as far as origin stories goes (as evidenced by the film pulverizing the opening weekend record in 2002). Sam Raimi gave the audiences and, in particular, Spider-Man fans everything they wanted to see from this adaptation. Finally, a comic book movie had a relatable character with Peter Parker’s hapless student as opposed to a superhuman, a mutant or a billionaire. Tobey Maguire easily made the role his own, just as Willem Dafoe chewed the scenery as an over-the-top Green Goblin. Spider-Man is a crowd-pleasing as summer blockbusters can get without sacrificing any of its heart. It is exuberant, visually dazzling and ultimately just a whole lot of great fun which, together with X-Men a year prior, started the new era of comic book movies.
6. Iron Man – Unlike most movies on this list, not many expectations were tied to the first cinematic outing of Iron Man. Certainly, he is still an A-list heroes, but not quite in the same cultural league as Spider-Man, Batman or X-Men. That was until Iron Man came out to stunning reviews, singlehandedly revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career and made him one of the world’s biggest stars and readied the path for The Avengers. Iron Man became a phenomenon and finished ahead of the same month’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at the box-office. The reason is struck the chord with the audiences and critics alike was simple – Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He is to Iron Man what Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Even if the movie isn’t great (case in point: Iron Man 2), the actor is still a major highlight. Thanks to his sarcastic, witty turn and his palpable chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man, despite riffing on themes we have seen before multiple times, still always feels fresh and exciting.
5. Batman – Christopher Nolan reinvented the series, but Tim Burton set the stage and he did it quite impressively so. Michael Keaton was perfectly cast as Bruce Wayne and Batman, but it is Jack Nicholson’s Joker stealing the spotlight here with his over-the-top turn – the nutty stuff that many thought only Nicholson would be capable of (until Heath ledger came along). The movie is as far removed from any sense of realism as possible and in Burton’s universe that is perfectly fine. The film is a terrific fun ride set in a world much different than ours. Tim Burton's film brought comic book adaptations to a whole new level, unreached until X-Men kicked off the new wave in 2000.
4. Spider-Man 2 – Sam Raimi got the characters and the setting spot on with the first movie. Only this time, Spider-Man gets a better and more fully developed villain to deal with. Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius is a menacing presence post-transformation, but also a fleshed out human figure and a great match for Spider-Man. The visual effects are dazzling and the action scenes (most notably the subway train fight scene) are electrifying. However, amidst all the spectacle, Raimi never loses sight of Peter Parker and the toll his superhero life takes on him and his relationships, just like the toll the science took on Dr. Octavius.
3. X2: X-Men United – Spider-Man 2, however, wasn’t the film that set the precedent for great sequels in the subgenre of comic book adaptations. That honor goes to Bryan Singer’s X-Men follow-up. Everything in the sequel is a notch above the first film. It is bigger, better, bolder and smarter. The first film introduced us to the great cast, but it is not until the second movie that the franchise really used the entire cast. Each character gets a moment to shine and the chemistry between them all is great. McKellen and Stewart once again deliver top-notch performances, but it is up to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and the newcomer to the X-Men ensemble, Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, to steal the show. This movie set the bar for all superhero movie sequels to come.
2. Batman Begins – As mentioned above Christopher Nolan reinvented the Batman franchise. However to say that this is all he has done would be an understatement. With this movie and its follow-up, The Dark Knight, he redefined the entire subgenre of comic book adaptations and their perception by general audiences and critics. By rooting Bruce Wayne/Batman in the real world he was able to explore modern day themes. At the same time, his great eye for scene set-ups still allowed for well-executed action scenes. However, by far the biggest achievement of this origins story is that, for the first time ever, it was Batman that was the focus of the movie and he was not overshadowed by the villains. For the first time, the persona of Batman was grasped well enough to make him way more intriguing to the audiences than his adversaries. That is not to say that Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow didn’t leave an impression, but this is Batman’s film from start to finish. On top of that, it features what might very well be the best closing scene of any comic book adaptation ever made. Never has a sequel been set up this perfectly…
1. The Dark Knight - …which leads us to the obvious and unchallenged #1 of the list. Batman Begins has shown the genre a new direction, but The Dark Knight went well above that. The movie is grand drama on. Bale’s Batman still has enough room to develop, but it’s the late Heath Ledger’s movie now. His interpretation of the Joker seems so definitive that it is hard to imagine anyone attempting to take on the part in the next decades. Unhinged, unpredictable and maniacal, his performance was awarded a well-deserved Academy Award. Nevertheless, the fact that despite such a monumental turn, the rest of the cast gets a chance to shine (with Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman particularly standing out) is just a testament to the crisp screenplay and Nolan’s terrific directing skills. Batman Begins was terrific, but The Dark Knight topped it in every way imaginable.