Comics are among the most dynamic and immediate forms of storytelling. And movies have been trying to capture some of the energy and imagination of comic-book worlds for decades now. But a handful of great films have both done justice to their graphic origins and created something new and splendid.
Lately, people have been debating whether Avengers is the best comic-book film of all time. Which started us wondering: What are the best comics-to-screen adaptations of all time, in general? We debated amongst ourselves, and here's what we came up with: Our picks for the 10 best comic book movies ever. So far. Warning: There are spoilers for old movies, but none for The Avengers.
We argued over this list a lot, but there's still plenty of room for debate — feel free to take up the argument in the comments. We sacrificed for diversity a little bit, so there's only one Nolan film and one del Toro film on this list. And of course, Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises could muscle their way into this list later in the summer — although we're kind of betting they won't be better than Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively.
10. Superman: The Movie
People credit this movie with creating believable superheroic visual effects on the big screen for the first time. But Richard Donner's real achievement was making you care — in between some undeniably campy scenes, there are moments of real emotion that still burst out of this movie. Like the scene between Clark Kent and his adoptive mother after Pa Kent's death. And some of the Lois/Clark scenes. The "all seems lost" moment is as much about Superman struggling with the agony of failure, in a swimming pool, as it is about whether some bad thing happens. To this day, few superhero films have packed this much emotional punch.
9. X-2: X-Men United
You'll notice a lot of second movies on this list. Maybe because so many of these series start to breathe a bit more once they get past telling the all-important origin story, and start breaking some different ground. In any case, this is still a great template for "hit the ground running" superhero storytelling, with the X-Men under attack from early on. The addition of William Stryker as a villain who's determined to wipe out mutants heightens the theme of anti-mutant prejudice considerably, and makes Professor X's contrasting responses to that prejudice seem that much more vital. Plus it's amazing just how much fun this film manages to make brooding angsty mutant suffering appear.
Guillermo del Toro made three of our favorite comic book movies of all time, but this one is probably still his best, as he takes Mike Mignola's idiosyncratic world of monsters and brings it to vibrant life. There's just so much wonder in Hellboy's horror, and it's one of the best overall pieces of comic-book storytelling ever captured on the big screen. We asked on our Facebook page, and it seemed to be about 50-50 whether this film or Hellboy 2 was better, but people made a strong case that the first movie comes closest to capturing the horror feel of the comics — plus Hellboy's "snarky but loyal" personality.
7. Spider-Man 2
Even though Sam Raimi tarnished his legacy with the third Spidey movie, he still showed just how far you could go with themes of sacrifice and heroism with this one. Being Spider-Man is such a strain on Peter Parker, it literally makes him sick, to the point where his spider-powers go on the fritz, and then he realizes that people need him and regains his sense of purpose. Second superhero movies are often the "hero tries to quit being a hero" installment, but it's seldom been done more compellingly than it is here. And Alfred Molina is magnetic and fascinating as a version of Dr. Octopus who's driven insane by his own cyborg body. Finally, even though the Raimi films unmasked Spidey way too often, the scene where a whole train full of people promise to keep his secret still gets you right where it counts.
6. Scott Pilgrim
This is one of the purest comic-book adaptations ever — the first half of the movie is like reading the books unfold right there on screen. And it takes the stylized, comic-booky panel-on-screen effect that other films like Wanted and Kick-Ass also employeed to their absolute extreme. It's so hyper-stylized, it feels like you're being transported to a world with its own set of rules. Plus this film is just insanely fun, and it pinpoints perfectly the intersection between comics, video games and movies. With romance!
Not really a genre film, per se, but the main character does see a vision of God and Karl Marx at one point. Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novel about a girl's coming of age in revolutionary Iran became an intense, touching film. A film that's still making waves, as one Tunisian TV station owner has been hit with fines, death threats and fatwas after airing it on Tunisian television.
4. Iron Man
While basking in the glow of The Avengers, it's easy to forget the movie that started the whole thing. But even leaving aside the fact that Iron Man made the whole shebang possible, it's also a powerful, clever movie that found a new spin on the central concern of superhero films: How you get powers, and what you do with them. Using a potent mixture of body horror, improv comedy, cybernetic shoot-em-up action and sheer personality, this movie told a memorable story of Tony Stark confronting his mistakes and reinventing himself, literally. And it greatly improved on Tony's comic-book origins in the process. Finally, the fact that Tony wins in the end because he thoroughly tests the limits of his tech, to the point of insanity, is kind of beautiful.
This landmark film is right up there with Blade Runner in its depiction of a cyberpunk, noir future city, in this case Neo-Tokyo. This story of bosozoku gang warfare and teens with massively destructive psychic powers is so iconic, its title has become shorthand for a whole kind of intense dystopian/apocalyptic storytelling. And it's still so fucking kick-ass.
2. The Avengers
This movie feels like a super-intense, concentrated dose of everything you love about superhero comics, from the Silver Age right up to today. It's taken decades to get a superhero team-up movie that captured the interpersonal dynamics between heroes, and managed to pack in enough action and character and humor and pathos to do all of its heroes justice... but it was worth the wait. This movie proved a shared superhero universe wasn't just something that works in the comics — it's the prerequisite for taking superhero films to the next freaking level. Hopefully we won't wait more decades for another film that pulls off this feat.
1. The Dark Knight
But no, Avengers isn't the best comic book movie, or even the best superhero movie. There's just something so... indelible about Christopher Nolan's IMAX-sized vision of a one-man apocalypse setting fire to Gotham City. From Bruce Wayne's dilemma over whether he's doing more harm than good as Batman to Harvey Dent's journey into darkness to the Joker's endless psychotic mind games, this movie keeps you fascinated, and thinking about big heady questions too. Nolan manages to take a whole strand of comic-book storytelling, often dismissed as "dark 'n' gritty," and converts it into a series of morality plays. With huge, massive explosions and stunts.
Thanks to Lauren, Cyriaque, Meredith and Garrison Dean for the feedback!