March 5 2009

Hellboy Vs. Superman: The Battle For The Best Comic Book Movies

watchmenIt may be hard to believe, but there was once a time where a movie based on a comic book being released was like some sort of weird dream.  It was rare, and it was even rarer that they were actually good.  Luckily all of that has changed over the years, and the rule of thumb now seems to be more towards actual quality and care being put into the productions based on the comic book art form.

With the new Watchmen movie being talked about by every one, it seems like a good time to discuss what some of the best comic book movies are up until now.  The question is do you judge them solely as a movie or how faithful they are to the source material?  I think this is one of those instances where you have to do a little bit of both.  Some succeed as movies in spite of a total difference from the books that spawned them, and others are so dead on faithful that it almost feels like you watched the artwork come to life.

In case you were wondering what qualifies me to speak on this subject the answer is  33 years of comic book collecting, 15 & 1/2 years managing a comic shop and a well-known harsh eye for movies.  So go ahead and click to find a list of what I find to be the best movies based on comic books, and then let me know what your top choices are.
heath ledger as the joker

Batman Begins & The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale series of Batman films have been interesting for their ability to portray a more realistic look at the world of the caped crusader.  Sure there have been some silly moments (we are talking about a man fighting crime who dresses like a bat after all), but. in general, the villains have felt very realistic, and not as over-the-top as they have been portrayed at other times.  The plot of The Dark Knight was a tad weak, but you are so swept up in Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as the Joker that you just don’t care.  (You can hear the world’s longest review of The Dark Knight in Scattercast episode 2)

Do they stick close to the source material? – Yes and no.  Batman’s origin is pretty much left alone, but Ra’s Ah Ghul was significantly changed in the first film.  The Joker has had so many origins that there is no “true” back story for him.  The fact his white face was make-up as opposed to stained flesh was new, but it very much works with the “real” world these films are set in.

Blade & Blade II

I feel the first Blade film had a lot to do with making comic book movies “cool” for the first time.  From the opening “Blood Bath” scene in the first film, you were experiencing something very different when it came to comic book films.  Overall the first one is entertaining (minus the large plot hole in the third act that I won’t bore you with), action packed and just a very generally entertaining film.  The second film greatly upped the creepy factor with a new breed of vampire, but it was still cool in its own way.  As for the third film… there’s a reason I didn’t name it in the title.

Do they stick close to the source material? – In broad strokes, yes.  Blade is half-vampire, can walk in the daylight, has a helper named Whsitler, etc, the rest, such as the plots, are for the films, and that’s fine.

Hellboy & Hellboy II

Ron Perlman is always a fun actor to watch in just about anything he does, and a lot of it is because when he dons heavy make-up, he disappears entirely into the character.  I first noticed him when he was in the television series Beauty and the Beast, and I have followed him since.  I am thrilled to tell you, though, that it wasn’t just because he was in these two films that I liked them, they are just plain entertaining.  I enjoyed all of the cast, especially Selma Blair as Liz, and the stories are just fun to watch.  Sure, they are a bit derivative (the first one felt very much like H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods were going to pop up at any moment), but they are solid action films with a surprising amount of character exposition.

Do they stick close to the source material? – I honestly couldn’t tell you. I am not a fan of series creator Mike Mignola’s artistic style, and so I have never been able to read them as his artwork drives me insane.
iron man

Iron Man

Iron Man is one of those characters that could have come off as incredibly cheesy, but under the care of director Jon Favreau and actor Robert Downey Jr. he actually came off fairly well.  He was perhaps a bit too glib, but that could have been a difference in written word to the spoken word.  This film did feel very much like the first issue of a comic series, though.  You are left wanting more, and you feel slightly cheated by the length of time it takes him to develop the armor, but on the other hand it felt like that was more of a way to make sure you would come back for further isntallments of the series.

It did also have the burden of having to deal with the idea it is technically the first movie in a multi-film, multi-franchise series of Marvel Comics movies.  Even with that added weight it came out as a decent film, and did the perfect job of leaving you wanting more.

Does it stick close to the source material? – Yes and no.  The basic origin is the same, but the people who kidnap him at the beginning were slightly changed to set up a future story.
sin city

Sin City

This was probably one of the most striking films visually I had seen in a long time, and by golly it worked.  It probably wasn’t for everyone, but it certainly did the film noir style justice, and it was just beautiful to watch.  All of the actors did amazing jobs playing characters about as removed from anything you had seen them do before.  Comic book movie or not, it can be enjoyed by just anyone as it is mainly stories about humanity, good vs. bad, overcoming your own limitations and so on.

Does it stick close to the source material? – Probably the closest any movie ever has.  They actually cut up issues of the comic and taped panels to the cameras to make sure they were even getting the same angles.


Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2

The first movie was mind blowingly engaging and fun.  I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than I expected to.  I thought the second was a bit weaker, but still really good.  The third one… doesn’t make this list by a longshot.  The first two are really well done, and really get a sense for the trials and tribulations of an everyday kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider.

Do they stick close to the source material? -Yes and no.  The fact that his body produces his webbing is new, but I actually think it works a lot better than the old concept of him making it up with a chemistry set.  There were lots of little changes (the most annoying of which was in #3, and part of why it doesn’t make the list), but they were negligible.
Christopher reeve superman

Superman & Superman II

The first two movies in the Christopher Reeve series of Superman movies were excellent, especially the second one.  The third and fourth films?  Not so much.  I have to say the origin portion of the first film has to be one of my all-time favorite versions of his origin.  Beautifully filmed, shows you a lot of info in a fairly short amount of time and gorgeously designed.  (I always liked the weird spikey version of Krypton and his ship for some reason)  While I like these movies, and I recommend them, I never thrilled to the Gene Hackmen version of Lex Luthor, but oh well.

Do they stick close to the source material? – Like so many others on this list, yes and no.  Honestly, his origin story has been redone so many times, who knows how faithful it is any more.  It doesn’t really matter with Superman so long as you capture the spirit of the character, and these films did.
superman returns

Superman Returns

This, I can almost guarantee you, will be the most controversial selection I make on this list.  In general this movie was panned, but I enjoyed the heck out of it for its quiet moments, especially once he is in the hospital.  To me, almost this entire movie revolves around that hospital scene.  The shot of his costume laying over the chair, and him in the bed, as if almost to say “He may be Superman, but he is still a man”.  The shot of Lex Luthor finding Lois Lane on his yacht not by some evil cunning, but by pure chance… the henchman playing piano with her son, and the menacing look he gives her.  This movie says the most when it isn’t talking, and for that alone I love it.

Does it stick close to the source material? -Like the other films, kinda.  I think the spirit of the character is there, and that’s enough in this case.
tank girl

Tank Girl

This is another one a lot of people will disagree with, and I don’t really care. It’s fun, it’s quirky, it makes me belly laugh a couple of times each time I see it. And come on, a movie with talking kangaroo men can’t be ALL bad, can it? The story is a bit weak, but passable, and it’s just a good time movie, not something you watch to have a long intellectual debate about when the credit roll.

Does it stick close to the source material? – No and yes, don’t really care, still fun to watch.

the crow

The Crow

This is actually a difficult movie to judge because a part of you wonders if the death of actor Brandon Lee on the set of the film influences your feelings towards the movie.  Honestly, I don’t think it does in this case.  There are some slight continuity problems with what days certain events happen on, but that is a direct result of Mr. Lee’s death and you just have to ignore it.

The movie is a lot of show over substance, and it borrows heavily from the John Woo School of Directing, but it is still an enjoyable film, just too bad that none of the sequels lived up to it, though they did try.  The first in this series will always be the best and is well worth a look if you have never seen it.

(One disclaimer on this one, I was heavily influenced on my thoughts on this one due to me getting see a very early screening of the film before its release with the director and creator in attendance.  So, yeah, my opinion is probably slightly colored by that)

Does it stick close to the source material? – Pretty much.  Again, it is a situation where you really don’t care as the movie is just so entertaining.

v for vendetta

V For Vendetta

This is another film that met to really mixed reactions, but I was absolutely enthralled with it in the theater, and it stands up to multiple viewings.  It is based on an Alan Moore series, the same man behind Watchmen, but like the other projects based on his work, his name does not appear on it.

There are two things that I love about this movie:

Does it stick close to the source material? -Ouch, this is a tough one.  The aspects of the series it kept, yes, but it also cut out a tremendous number of sub-plots from the source material.  As much as it would probably anger Alan Moore to hear someone say this of his work, I think it tightened the story up immensely.  One or two things are missing that I really wish they had included (like the fact V caused the explosion at the prison leading to his escape), but in general I think the film did a good job.

x-men logo

X-Men & X-Men 2

This is yet another instance of the first two movies in a series being really good and entertaining, and the third one being a steaming pile of… something. Though you are thrust into a world filled with super powered mutants, it doesn’t feel that off from reality.  They perhaps focus the stories a little too much on Wolverine, but that really isn’t that surprising since he is the best known member of the team even to those outside of the comic book reading community.

Do they stick close to the source material? – Like Superman, there have been so many versions of the X-Men over the years, it just doesn’t really matter so long as you keep the general spirit of the property.  The first two films do this fairly well, and you don’t feel lost at all in their version of the team.  In general they are fairly accurate.

What Didn’t Make The List

Why isn’t Road to Perdition on this list?  I haven’t seen it yet.  Pretty much anything else that didn’t make it I just felt wasn’t worthy.  You can see that there have been a ton of English language movies based on comics, but a lot of them have been just utterly horrible.  I’ve only seen the first two versions of The Punisher, and from what I understand the third version still didn’t get it right.  Daredevil?  Sorry, I don’t include movies that made my eyes bleed.  As for 300, well, it was okay, but it added a really horrible subplot to the story that was so ill fitting and distracting that I just couldn’t forgive it.

As you can see from I did include, there are good ones out there, you just have to not equate “Comic book movie” with “good” automatically as many people in Hollywood do.  It isn’t even a certainity that Watchmen will be good, but I’m certainly hoping it is.

So, what say you, what are your favorite comic book related movies?

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