(This is a guest post by writing & literature faculty member Vittorio Carli. To see more of Vittorio Carl’s writings go to www.artinterviews.com.)
Recently there has been an increasing amount of comic book based films released, and some have achieved great critical and financial success (such as Captain America Winter Soldier and Dark Knight Rises.) Avengers (which joined together the Captain America, Thor, and Ironman franchises) is one of the five top grossing films ever. There are also countless comic or graphic novel based films that are being planned such as Antman, Dr. Strange, and Justice League of America (though some of these might stay in development limbo.)
Some of the comic/graphic novel based films (such as Jonah Hex, Ghost Rider, The Spirit, and Green Lantern) failed miserably. The Jonah hex film was so bad that it might have actually helped bring down the excellent Western comic series.
Some of the effects of comics tuned into film have not been positive. Since comic based films have become more popular, comics have tended to come out as five or six issue story arches so that they can be adapted into films better, and comics are now often seen only as potential storyboards for films rather than an independent, worthy art form.
There are other reasons why some comic writers and artists sometimes hate comic films. When the money is divvied up at the end comic creators’ inevitably get the short end of the stick. Classic comic writer, Steve Englehart claims the DC bought one of his comic series, and then they never published. it. Then they supposedly used huge chunks of his story in The Dark Knight without giving him credit. The writer of the comic series that the last Hercules film (which I have not seen yet) was based on also received no money.
One of the greatest of all modern comic/graphic novel writers, Alan Moore sees film itself as a lower art form. He loathes ALL of the films based on his comics, and indeed none of the movies based on his work have been as good as the texts they were based on (although I think The Watchmen and V for Vendetta worked well as films too). Before the Watchmen film opened, Moore said, “I will be spitting venom all over it.” (See http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/alan-moore-on-w/)
Although superhero comic films tend to earn more, most of the adaptations of shorter Indy graphic novels tend to work better. Some of the superhero films (including Xmen the Last Stand and Spiderman 3 have a tendency to cram too much plot and too many characters in movies that would worked better as miniseries.
Here then are my rankings of the best comic and graphic novel related films in order of quality. In order to include more variety, I generally included only the best film in each series (I cheated on Superman because I couldn’t pick between the first and second film.) I’m sure some of these films will be discussed in the upcoming comics and graphic novel symposium on September 18-19 (http://www.morainevalley.edu/comicculture/).
1)Spirited Away (2001)
Sorry, Disney and Pixar, but Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, is the greatest living animation genius on the planet, and this Wizard of Oz influenced fantasy is probably his most imaginative work.
2) A History of Violence (2005)
A courageous, edgy and intellectually ambitious film about a seemingly ordinary small town dad who discovers that heroism can have negative repercussions. Director, David Cronenberg masterfully demolishes the wall between genre movies and art films. Supporting actor, William Hurt has not been this good since “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” (1985), and Maria Bello is marvelous. Based on a somewhat obscure graphic novel by John Wagner and Vincent Locke.
Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi directed one of the most impressive and imaginative animated film explores that explores the hurdles that a young woman must face when she is torn between modernism and traditionalism.
Engrossing documentary about Robert Crumb, one of the greatest comic creators to emerge from the 1960s underground comic scene (he created Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural). The iconoclastic artist is known for his eccentricity, but believe it or not he’s he normal one in the family.
5)Ghost World (2001)
Dan Clowe’s brilliant, almost colorless graphic novel is turned into a riveting drama about the hypocrisy of art school. Steve Buscemi (who I once met at a party in Pilsen) is always great, but I was very surprised that the great leading lady (playing an art school misfit), Thora Birch did not go on to many good things after this film. This also includes one of Scarlet Johansson’s (of Her and the Avengers) first substantial parts (she went on to do a series of marvelous art films as well as some recent more mainstream cinematic manure. )
6) American Splendor (2003)
Well acted biopic (with the late great in the lead role) about a cranky and uncompromising underground comic creator.
7) Sin City (2005)
Gripping neo noir features exciting interlocking stories that take place in the same vicinity (which makes Gotham City seem like Disneyland).. One of the most faithful and visually striking comic adaptations ever benefits from the participation of comics great, Frank Miller. Mickey Rourke’s turn as a tough guy is worthy of Ralph (“Kiss Me Deadly”) Meeker. I taught this in my lit class for many years. I have not seen the sequel which was generally panned (although I tend to like anything Rodriquez does.)
8) Chasing Amy (1997)
Kevin Smith’s charmingly offbeat three-way romance was not based on a comic or graphic novel but it involves two comic creators and it humorously delves into comic and geek culture. This may be Ben Affleck’s most memorable role.
9.) Hugo (2011)
Scorsese’s delightful Speilbergesque family film was based on an obscure French graphic novel. . The plot involves an orphaned boy who runs afoul of a cranky merchant who turns out to be the great director George Melies (he made the iconic “Trip to the Moon,” which even inspired the “Tonight, Tonight” video by Smashing Pumpkins). See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiDWmXHR3RQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOG3eus4ZSo&ob=av2e.
But the real villain was a mean policeman with an artificial leg (played by “Borat’s” Sacha Noam Baron Cohen who manages to transform utterly transform himself in every role he does.) There’s only one problem. The film may be the best family film of the year, and it’s definitely the best Speilbergesque film of that year, but it is not one of the greatest Scorsese films. His works over the last decade have been enjoyable to make some of my top 10 lists but they pale before his earlier classics such as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Good Fellas,” and even the brilliant but maligned “King of Comedy. ” In his old age, Scorsese has retained his technical skill, and his breath taking grasp of film visuals, but he has grown increasingly mainstream and less edgy
10 The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger gives a mesmerizing performance as the maniacal Joker in this stylish, morally ambiguous action film (Ledger’s so good that the best scenes in this blockbuster action film are of him merely talking). Aaron Eckhart is almost as good as a tragic DA, Harvey Dent. Director, Christopher Nolan outdoes himself creating a visually arresting Gotham City. Sorry Tim Burton, but this is the definitive Batman film, and it may be the high point of the whole superhero film genre. Who would have thought that a franchise film would be a worthy project for Christopher (“Memento”) Nolan? Comic writer, Steve Englehart claimed that the film’s writers stole huge parts of the script from an unpublished comic series he wrote.
11)Southland Tales (2006)
I’m part of the .0006 of the population that thinks this is a worthy follow-up
to the brilliant Donnie Darko. This was one of the few films I ever saw Sarah Michelle Gellar in that did
not squander her talents. Southland Tales was an “interactive experience”, with the first three parts
published in graphic novels that would be released before the film’s release, and the film captures the
final three parts of the experience. The writer/director, Kelly said that the whole project pushed “me to
the edge of my own sanity.” I loved the radical slam poets who shoot people as they recite, and this is
one of the few films I have seen that is as absurb as the real world.
11) Blue is the Truest Color (2013)
Long but engrossing film about a popular school teacher who falls for a more literate older female artist (she has blue hair hence the title). This won the 2013 Palm d’Or, and it had some of the strongest acting of that year. Based on a graphic novel. In French with English subtitles.
12) The Avengers (2012)
Three super powered beings team up with two super spies to stop an alien invasion led by Thor’s devilish brother Loki. This is a highly amusing superhero film, and some of the best scenes come from the character interplay and friction between very different heroes). But the script is not half as impressive as most of Joss Whedon’s scripts for the Buffy show or Serenity.
13) Oldboy (2003)
This South Korean film about a recently released man who seeks revenge on the people that framed him murder is the best one in the trilogy. The octopus eating scene is impossible to forget. I have not seen Spike lee’s remake which was considered a flop
14.) Tie between Superman the Motion Picture (1978) and Superman II (1980)
I usually don’t pick two films from the same series but both of the first films are too close in quality to choose. The first film is able to capture a sense of wonder through Lois Lane’s eyes. Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were so perfect as Superman and Clark Kent that all future versions would be compared against them. Superman III and later sequels in the series were so bad that a later sequel, Superman Returns (2006) ignores all the events after the first two films and it works as an alternate sequel to the second film.
16) Battle Royale (2000)
Fukasaku Kinji’s horrific and hyper violent action film is like an Asian update of “Death Race 2000,” mixed with “The Most Dangerous Game,” but the sequel should be avoided. Much better than the similar and more mainstream Hunger Games (although no one in this film can act as well as Jennifer Lawrence).
17.) Snow Piercer (2014)
After the world freezes, a bunch of survivors struggle for supremacy aboard a train that never stops. The poor are mistreated and they rebel: they struggle to go forward and overtake the decadent rich people in front of the train (it’s a neat microcosm for society as a whole.) These brutal, edgy, smart and uncompromising films may be one of the best pictures of the year. Tilda Swinton is remarkable as a keeper of the corrupt order/ villain with false teeth. I had trouble deciding whether I should put this higher than the Guardians film, but this one got the nod because Snow Piercer is a better work of art (although guardians is more entertaining.)
18.) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
This is the summer’s perfect escapist/popcorn film and it expertly combines comedy with galactic sci-fi with comedy. It’s like a cross between Star Wars and The Avengers with a colorful cast of characters (including a human, two green aliens, a raccoon like creature and a talking tree) fighting each other than teaming up to save the world. Also stay for the extra credit clip to see the most delightful cameo yet in a marvel film. I even like the way they used the mostly bad ‘70s songs (context is everything and they serve an important purpose in the film.)
19) Cemetery Man (1994)
Rupert Everett, in one of the most memorable roles, stars as a cemetery employee who must dispose of the corpses that keep rising up. Like many giallo films this film has twisted humor, gross out violence, fantastic lighting and attractive shot composition. This Italian horror/comedy classic was based on a comic series by the author of Dylan Dog (avoid the American film with that title). Not for the squeamish or easily offended, but that’s also true of many of the films on this list. This comes in both Italian and dubbed in English versions.
20) The Incredibles (2004)
It’s odd that this film captures some of the humanistic charm of the early Fantastic Four comics when the FF films utterly failed in that regard
21) V for Vendetta (2005)
This dystopian film which was based on an Alan Moore comic is about a masked outlaw that fights against a fascist state (which can be seen as the US or Britain). This was a tremendously influential film which inspired some members the occupy movement and the hackivist group anonymous (many ended up wearing the Guy Fawkes masks like the film’s protagonist.
M. Night Shyamalan’s brainy and philosophic film (these words don’t apply to most of the Marvel adaptations) sneaks in a superhero plot structure and offers a meditation on what it means to be a hero and villain. One of the most unjustly underrated films on this list.
23) The Watchmen (2009)
This film could not possibly capture the greatness of Alan Moore’s comic series (which was perhaps the best hero comic series of the last 25 years), and it really needed to be a miniseries to capture the epic sweep of the comic, but it does a surprisingly good job for a two and a half hour film. In comparison the same directors other comic film 300 is lame and shallow.
24) Road to Perdition (2002)
This film casts against type and features one of Tom Hank’s few villainous roles. He plays a not completely evil gangster who tries to protect his son.
25.) The Crow (1994)
This Goth action film about a hero who rises from the grave to avenge the death of his girlfriend at the hand of an evil land lord is wonderfully atmospheric and stylish. Also Brandon Lee who plays the film’s lead anti-hero showed great promise (this was his only major role before his death.) This is a much better supernatural action film than Spawn or Ghost Rider.
26) Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
This exciting thriller plays like a cross between a superhero film and a Bourne like spy flick. It deals with a World War 2 era hero who must confront the cold reality of the modern espionage world. It features a great villain, the winter soldier, an assassin who is somehow connected to Captain America’s past. There are many great stunts and action scenes plus a fine supporting cast. Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as the black widow (who for some reason has no Russian accent). Samuel Jackson is the Nick Fury, and Anthony Mackie is the Falcon (this character is supposed to become a new Captain America in the comics). Emily Van Camp (from Revenge) is introduced as a suspicious neighbor and potential future love interest. This also ties into the Shield TV series, especially the ending.
27) Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)
A wandering assassin struggles to survive along with his infant son that he brings around in a baby carriage. This was the first of six films that were based on the popular manga series. The rest of the films are also worth checking out and the manga comics are classics.
28) Steamboy (2004)
This is one of the best examples of steampunk cinema which often presents alternate realties in which the world has made tremendous strides in steam-powered technologies (Its followers often wear Victorian style clothing.) This fascinating retro science-fiction epic takes place in Victorian England. Steamboy . An inventor named receives a mysterious metal ball containing a new form of energy capable of powering an entire nation, the Steam Ball. He tries to use the energy to redeem his family honor. This underrated film was directed by the great manga artist/film maker, Katsuhiro Otomo, who also did Akira. It took over ten years to make, and it was one of the most expensive animated films ever made. This imaginative well reviewed film lost money in America (which am I not surprised?)
29) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2005)
We enter a fantasy world imagined by a Canadian rock musician who is pursuing his dream girl. In order to win her he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends. I have not read the comic, but the film is colorful and dazzling thrill ride through one character’s imagination. One of the most whimsical and fun filled films on the list.
30) Stardust (2007)
Touching, elegant and surprisingly romantic animated film about a man who has various adventures and finds true love while searching for a fallen star. This is a bit of a cheat since it was not technically based on a comic, but it was adapted from a novel by one of the greatest comic writers, Neill Gaiman, which is usually published with illustrations by comic artist, Charles Vess,
31) Ironman (2008)
The film is well cast (Robert Downey Jr. is actually too good for the role), and the CGI special effects are more than impressive. The only thing the film lacks is a great villain (none of the sequels have one either). Also Gwyneth Paltrow is mostly wasted as the loyal Pepper Potts, and it’s hard for me to fully buy the idea as a millionaire arms manufacturer (or former arms manufacturer) as being so completely noble.
32) Creepshow (1982)
This gory and wickedly funny horror anthology film was not based on a specific comic series, but it was done in the style of EC comics such as “Tales from the Crypt,” with lots of puns and shock endings. All of the episodes except for the Stephen King one are very good, but I particularly liked “Father’s Day,” and “They’re Creeping Up on You.” Although many people thought this was below the talents of George Romero, this might be his most successful l film apart from his zombie films and “Martin.”
33) Nausicaa and the valley of the Wood (1984)
The film tells the story of a young princess who gets involved in a struggle a kingdom that tries to use an ancient weapon to destroy enormous insects. Nausicaä must stop the Tolmekians from enraging these creatures.
34) Spiderman 2 (2004)
Spiderman faces his greatest challenge yet when he takes on the multi armed Dr. Octopus. Well cast film does a good job capturing Spiderman’s movements using computer technology, and Toby Maguire is perfect as the web slinger. As much as I like this film I still prefer Sam Rami’s evil dead flicks.
35) Blade 2 (2002)
The half vampire, Blade (he was human in the comics) teams up with vampires to fight a deadlier menace, the reapers. The film series actually made the blade character more interesting and powerful than his comic book counterpart.
36) Thor (2011)
The title thunder god is exiled to earth by his father Odin, and he must battle the destroyer, an indestructible metallic being. Chris Hemsworth is a good Thor but Tom Hiddleson is unforgettably sinister as Loki. Most of what’s right about the film is because of the considerable talents of Kenneth Branagh. The sequel was a dark dud.
37) Wanted (2003)
Hyper violent action film about a man who joins an assassin’s league to get revenge on his dad’s killer. Angelina Jolie is both good and seductive as his mentor/love interest.
38.)Tamara Drewe (2010)
Gemma Arterton is delightful in Stephen Frears’ whimsical romantic drama about a journalist whose life drastically changes after she gets a nose job. The film follows her romantic misadventures after she comes back to the small British town she grew up in. This film is based on a graphic novel that was adapted from Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
39) Tank Girl-(1995)
Tough punk girl in the future befriends a mutated talking kangaroo. Based on the popular British comic series. A guilty pleasure for sure. My favorite scene is when Ice-T (dressed as a kangaroo performs at a beat poetry reading) I’m the only person I know of that actually likes this film.
40) Mystery Men (1999)
When Captain Amazing, a successful square jawed superhero is defeated a group of third string heroes try to rescue him from the clutches of the Disco loving arch villain Casanova Frankenstein. The terrific cast includes Hank Azaria, William Macy, Janeene Garafalo, and the former Pee Wee Herman, Paul Reubens. This riotously funny superhero spoof works for the first two thirds, but it loses its direction when the mock heroes suddenly become competent. Based on Bob Burden’s characters that originally appeared in Flaming Carrot comics. The Specials (2000) was similar but not quite as good.
41) The Mask (1994)
A normal loser (played by Jim Carey) finds the mask of Loki, the god of mischief. When he wears it, he finds he can transform his body, and the way he uses his body sometimes make him look he came out of a Frank Tashlin cartoon. This was one of Carey’s big break through roles and one of his first good films. You can’t go any lower than Dumb and Dumber or Ace Ventura.
42) Xmen First Class (2011)
This film explores the history of Professor’s X’s Xmen and Magneto’s Brotherhood. The thing I liked most about the film is that it was one of the only Men films that could not have been called Wolverine Saves the Team with the Help of his mutant Buddies. The plot development is a little better than the other films in the series, and the visualization/ characterization of the beast is improved. Plus the film has the always impressive Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.
43) 30 days of night (2007)
A swarm of vampires attack a small town, and the humans struggle to survive. This film features amore animalistic, less human type of vampire than usual (Bella from Twilight would not go near them). This film has more in common with Night of the Living Dead than Dracula.
44) The Men in Black (1997)
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play two heroic government agents who combat aliens and wipe the minds of all witnesses. In the original Aircell comics the protagonists hunt also hunt paranormal creatures such as zombies and werewolves in addition to aliens.
45) Akira (1988)
Violent and exciting cartoon made for adults. It’s about motorcycle riding youths that struggle against a telepathic motorcycle gang in the Tokyo of the future. Brilliant visuals but the storyline may be hard to follow for some. Based on the manga book (Japanese comic) with the same name
45) Batman Mask of Phantasm (1993)
This stylish animated feature completely captures the flavor of a children’s comic. It also works much better than Tim Burton’s films. Believe it or not Mark Hammil (from Star Wars) does the Joker voice.
46) Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Visually dazzling Japanese anime film about a female android who goes against a super criminal that is usurping information highways in the future. Definitely not for kids.
47) Heavy Metal (1981)
Juvenile but engaging sci-fi action film is made up of little vignettes adapted from the fine European mature comic series. There’s even a fine South Park episode that parodies the movie which has lots of stoner appeal.
48) tie between Mirrormask (2005)
this direct to DVD fantasy film is about a circus girl who retreats into a fantasy world. The visuals are dazzling but I found the story confusing. Based on a Gaiman penned text.
48) with Coralline (2009)
This universally acclaimed animated film was based on Neil Gaiman’s popular fantasy novel.
49) Kickass (2010)
Violent film satirizes buddy comics and presents a batman and robin like team that are actually horribly injured in fights as if they were real. Most critics just did not get this film.
50) Weird Science (1985)
Kelly Le Brocque plays the artificially created “perfect woman” who befriends two science geeks and teaches them about life. John Hughes’ entertaining but forgettable film was based on a short story from the EC comic that gave the film its name.
Honorable Mentions: Art School Confidential, Barbarella, Batman (Tim Burton version), Black Mask, Blood the Last Vampire , Dr. Mordrid, From Hell, Hellboy, Ichi the Killer, Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Rocketman, Tales from the Crypt
Worse Comic Films: Barb Wire, Batman and Robin, Blade Trinity, Captain America Made for TV film (1979), Cat Woman, Fantastic Four 2 Rise of the Silver Surfer, Jonah Hex, Judge Dredd, Nick Fury Agent of Shield (Dave Hasselhoff), Punisher, The Spirit, Vampirella, Wonder Woman 74(Cathlee Lee Crosby)
To see more of Vittorio Carl’s writings go to www.artinterviews.com.