In honor of Saturday's Free Comic Book Day and the release of Thor continuing the onslaught of comic book properties adapted for the silver screen, Cinema Sentries takes a look at their favorite movies based on comics.
Batman Returns (1992) by El Bicho
Before 1989, the majority of the general public used to think of Batman as the camp character played by Adam West on the TV series. Tim Burton, along with his talented cast and crew, changed that. Burton's vision of the caped crusader was dark, similar to both the character's first appearances as well as his portrayal in late '80s comics. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) was a brooding figure, Gotham looked like an extension of Blade Runner's Los Angeles, and Jack Nicholson's Joker had a sinister streak within him. Batman was a worldwide smash that led to a four-film franchise.
Burton's second Batman film was Batman Returns and I enjoy it slightly more than the first because it has much more of a comic book feel, from its storyline with multiple villians to the active camerawork and the images of rocket-carrying penguins. Plus, Batman is the main character as opposed to the support role he played in the first, which was much more a stroy about the Joker.
American Splendor (2003) by Dusty Somers
Not all comics are about superheroes. The decidedly ordinary Harvey Pekar found narrative gold in his stories about his own life, including his work as a file clerk and dealing with a diagnosis of cancer. Pekar, who couldn't draw at all, worked with a number of artists to create the series, including Robert Crumb, himself the subject of the essential comics documentary Crumb.
Husband-and-wife directorial team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini bring Pekar's tales to the big screen, with Paul Giamatti giving one of his best performances to date as Pekar. The film retains the kind of self-awareness that the comics featured, with self-reflexive moments that feature the real Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, talking about the experience of being portrayed by actors in a movie.
American Splendor finds poignancy in the commonplace, making it kind of the antithesis to the bombastic nature of most comic adaptations.
Sin City (2005) by El Bicho
Robert Rodriguez took the great stories and artwork by Frank Miller, which is set in the world of hard-boiled pulp detective novels and has the look of 1940s film noir, and transports them to the big screen without losing any of the magic. Yet, it's not just the look of Sin City that is captured; Rodriguez used Miller's drawings to frame the shots, basically using Miller's work as his own storyboard, a sheer stroke of genius. It's no wonder that Miller is co-director. It is his vision on the screen and Rodriguez just moved it from the page to the screen.
It might be hard to see through the uniquely stylized look and the gruesome, violent subject matter, both pervasive throughout the film, but the motivating force behind each main character of the film's three storylines is love. Marv from Sin City, the one that started it all, is seeking revenge on the people who caused the death of Goldie, a young woman he met, made love to, and awoke in the morning to find dead beside him. She showed the grizzled Marv something he didn't know existed; Dwight from The Big Fat Kill is trying to protect Gail, an old flame, and her friends from the mob who have plans to take over Old Town and the women in it; and Detective Hartigan from That Yellow Bastard, he once saved the life of a young girl named Nancy from a child molester/serial killer. Years later, he must save her again when the killer reemerges and finds her. Love triumphs over evil even though the participants don't always.
300 (2007) by El Bicho
300 is an adaptation of the graphic novel written and drawn by Frank Miller, with colors by Lynn Varley. Miller was inspired to chronicle this historical event after he saw the film The 300 Spartans as a young boy. From his vision, co-writer/director Zack Snyder has created a magnificent ballet of violence and bloodshed that is truly exquisite to behold. It's not a glorification, but rather a hyper-realistic representation of a necessary evil that good men are forced to practice to live free. Not since the films of Sam Peckinpah has killing looked so good on the big screen. As brilliant as all the effects work is, the story and performances are what lift the film into rarified air.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a fantastic film that has raised the bar on what superhero movies could be, much the same way Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen did for comic books over twenty years ago. While the film has the familiar elements of a superhero movie (costumed characters, action-packed scenes, futuristic gadgets), it rises above that usual box-office fare into a serious work of art by dealing with substantial themes without sacrificing the summer-movie fun.
The Dark Knight grabs the viewer right from the get-go and never lets go. Nolan and his team really excel in their fields. The stunt work is impressive, the cinematography is sumptuous, but the element that makes the whole project such a success is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. It is well structured as pacing of the action and the drama both build throughout the film. They have a great sense of who these characters are and they remain consistent. Also, rarely a word is wasted. Alfred tells a story about his military service where he and his men had to deal with a jewel thief, who stole just for the sport of it. The only way they could catch the man was by burning the whole village down, which foreshadows the events to come: Batman has to decide if he is willing to stop being a hero to beat the Joker, to lose a battle to win a war.
Iron Man (2008) by Ron's Reviews
Jon Favreau directs Robert Downey Jr. in this well-paced adventure written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway and succeeds where many have failed in the past when it comes to superhero films, by keeping it simple. Introduce us to the character, show us how he became a superhero, and have him fight a bad guy. Simple. You would think, but when looking back on the multiple villain blockbuster disasters of the past, there is always some concern going in.
Here we get some great insight into Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) the billionaire playboy and genius head and chief weapons developer for Stark Industries. Not only is Downey perfectly cast, but displays wonderful comedic timing reminiscent of the sarcastic characters of his youth. This is 126 minutes of popcorn fun that is sure to leave you wanting more Iron Man. The story is well paced, the dialog is well crafted, the special effects are not obvious, and the music compliments the story.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) by Dusty Somers
Most comic book adaptations these days go to great lengths to assure the audience that we're still in the real world, albeit one with technologically advanced iron suits or radioactive spider bites. Not Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which thrills in flouting any notion of reality along with plenty of mainstream cinematic conventions.
Adapting Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-volume graphic novel series about a mild-mannered slacker who must defeat his girlfriend's seven evil exes, director Edgar Wright has made what might be the most formally audacious comic book movie yet -- complete with editing that elides time in bizarre ways, aspect ratio musical chairs and a fluid membrane between reality and fantasy.
Maybe that makes the film sound like a lot of work. Hardly. Like in his previous films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright is just as eager to gleefully embrace genre conventions as he is to deconstruct them, and the result is a pure jolt of fun. And Wright's not just working with the comic book genre here; he also infuses the film with heavy doses of 8-bit style video gaming and DIY garage music in a cultural mishmash that is packed to the brim with references and in-jokes. Even the Michael Cera-allergic (and I hear there are a lot of you) shouldn't shy away from the fantastically fun Scott Pilgrim.
Did your favorite make the list? If not, feel free to name it in the comment section below.