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August 13, 2009

The Best Movies Based on Comics

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They're the movies we anxiously await, the movies we talk about years before they even come out. Movies based on comics are an endless source of debate among fans. Do they live up to the originals' status? Are they faithful adaptations? Do they take comics seriously, or do they treat them as inferior? The best ones pay due respect to their sources while taking on new life onscreen. Here are our picks for the ones that did it best.

 

American Splendor

Harvey Pekar’s brilliant autobiographical series was as compelling onscreen as it was on paper. Harvey takes the simple and mundane and mines it for pure gold. In the hands of actor Paul Giamatti, that became a treasure trove of material to work with, and he used it for all it was worth. And Hope Davis brought life to Pekar's wife, Joyce, in a winning manner. Seeing the real Harvey and Joyce in the film was a comic delight as well.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Batman Begins,

The Dark

Knight,

and Batman

Tim Burton created a new Batman vision in 1989, when he took Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and the music of Prince and combined them all to make…something completely unexpected. In the months before the movie’s release, fans were up in arms. Keaton was primarily known for Mr. Mom-type comedic roles. Fans wanted a serious Batman to match the serious comics that they were reading. They got one. Burton’s vision was respectful of the Batman legacy and not campy at all. Better yet, it restarted the superhero resurgence in film and proved that the genre can be viable and successful—and the model it created can even be seen influencing later movies like Spider-Man.
 
More than a decade and a half after Batman, the franchise was relaunched with Batman Begins, this time with Christian Bale taking on the cape and cowl. A Batman for a new generation was born, this time taking the superhero with no special powers and planting him firmly in the “real” world. While still relying on gadgets, cars, and electronics to foil crime, Batman became grittier, harder, and more violent. And with the cinematic masterpiece of The Dark Knight, he got the visionary gift he deserved.

Director Christopher Nolan brought blockbuster-action-style fight scenes and human struggle to the screen. Perhaps why this Batman hit so close to home is because we could all feel how human, how normal, he was at times…and we related to that before we noticed the giant bat ears.
 

Ghostworld

Like the comic on which it was based, Ghost World explores teenage angst and disapproval of the world with dark humor and mildly tragicomic effect. Enid and Rebecca, the two protagonists of the film, which was written by Daniel Clowes based on his own comic, are disaffected youths trying to figure out what they're going to do post-graduation. When a prank on a middle-aged record collector, Seymour, turns into something more than they intended, Enid develops a friendship and a relationship with him. Meanwhile, her relationship with her best friend Rebecca begins to deteriorate. The result is a slow and methodically paced character study, one that gets better (and funnier) with repeated viewings. Clowes used the same ear for authentic teenage dialogue in the movie that he did in his comic.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Hellboy

While not exactly taking the world by storm, Hellboy was enough of a hit to inspire a sequel, and deservedly so. Perhaps some people were put off by the oddness of the story, but no matter. This movie was true to the spirit of the source material and was a whole lot of fun too. A demon who comes through a dimensional portal and turns out to be one of the good guys? And a movie that doesn't turn that whole scenario into a camp disaster? Yes, please. That's what made Hellboy one of the great adaptations: It got both the look and the humor right.
 

 

 

 

 

A History of Violence

Didn’t know this was based on a comic? You’re forgiven. But check out the original, which came out from DC’s Paradox Press in 1997. Written by John Wagner and drawn by Vince Locke, the book featured a Michigan diner owner who becomes famous for foiling a robbery, attracting the unwanted attention of the Mafia he crossed some 20 years before. The movie version took some big liberties with the original, but it still executed the primary theme of how well we know those we love and the histories we all try to live down when making a new life.
 

 

 

 

 

Iron Man

In the summer that everyone knew would belong to The Dark Knight, Iron Man came in and stole our hearts. Thank you, Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau, for taking one of the most durable yet not too well known comics characters and making him so exciting to watch. Tony Stark was well-played by Downey, who took the cocky, suave, hard-drinking billionaire inventor and gave him a heart (literally). After being captured by terrorists and somewhat implausibly left to build his own escape suit, Iron Man is born, and our hopes for a string of Marvel-based movies was born with it (the after-credits ending with Nick Fury promising an Avengers Initiative had some audiences cheering). For pure escapist fun, it might have been the best time at the movies during Summer 2008.

 

Persepolis

Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical work, this animated film explained life in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah in the early '80s better than any history lesson. Satrapi cowrote and codirected the film too, which told her own story as a young girl growing up in Iran and watching what her family went through while doing it. Marjane's life as she grows disilusioned with the Islamic leadership and their sexist regime is mesmerizing to watch and an ultimately uplifiting and positive message to cherish freedoms and not take them for granted. Marjane's unique outlook on foreign cultures, even as her attitudes toward her own country's leadership make her more and more of an outcast, create a chilling vision of isolation in a world that is nowhere near as modern as we like to think. Persepolis provokes all of those emotions brilliantly.
 
 
 
 

The Road to

Perdition

Tom Hanks proved once again why he’s the most bankable actor in Hollywood when he joined forces with the redoubtable Paul Newman for Road to Perdition. Many moviegoers had to learn what perdition meant, but comics readers had long ago figured it out from the work of Max Allan Collins, a name synonymous with quality comics. Road to Perdition was an epic crime drama that put Michael Sullivan (Hanks) on the run from crime lord John Rooney (Newman), Rooney's son, and a hitman hired by Rooney (played by Jude Law). Sullivan loses most of his family, except for his son Michael Jr., in the Capone mob era. As the two Michaels take to the road, we witness a beautiful story unfold against the harsh cinematic landscape and harsher still crime backdrop. Both are mesmerizing and serve to highlight the wondrous skills of the acting talent onscreen.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Spider-Man and

Spider-Man 2

These two raised the bar on superhero films forever. This is the essence of what the genre is about: courtly love, tragedy, redemption, comedy, action, adventure, and the ultimate nerd who finally gets revenge and kicks some butt. Peter Parker is the nerd in question, desperately in love with the knockout next door, Mary Jane. Bitten by a radioactive spider, he develops great powers that bring great responsibility, including fighting his best friend's father (and later, his best friend) and trying to protect a world that pretty much hates and mistrusts him. Director Sam Raimi infused both films with classic Spider-Man comics imagery while making gigantic morality tales. Here's a question worthy of a great comic debate: Which would win in a fight, The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2?
 
 
 
 
 
 

X-Men and X2

How do you take one of the most successful and popular comics franchises of all time and convert it to the big screen? Quite well, it turns out. Most praise gets heaped on X2, and it certainly deserves it—how cool was it to see Nightcrawler bamfing through the White House in the opening scene? But X2 was built on the foundation that the first X-Men built, and let’s recognize that first. Here’s why: Without X-Men, Spider-Man may very well have not existed, at least not in the blockbuster form we know it as. X-Men started off with a small budget, and it shows. Essentially, the film had enough money for two big fight scenes and not much else in the way of special effects. Still, it packs in the mutant angst that the comic made famous and it looks cool while doing it. It should be an object lesson on how to make a huge action flick on a shoestring. Patrick Stewart is pitch-perfect as Professor Xavier, and his institute is captured wonderfully. Sure, the less said about Halle Barry’s accent the better, but even so, this is the movie that kicked off the superhero film renaissance. Without its success, would the first Spider-Man movie have received the high budget that elevated it to superstar status?
 
All stops were pulled for X2, of course. Once producers saw the success of the first film, they packed on the financing, which gave way to a mammoth film. There was some talk of the film being based on Chris Claremont's incredible graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, but other than a general nod to the main villain's name (Stryker), not much of that book's plot made it into the movie. Even so, the movie got busy with its cast going in separate directions to take on a madman set to end mutantdom.