This list is in order, and is written about four hours before I’m due to watch The Avengers for the first time. I admit that I come at this list as mostly a beginner as a reader of comic books (I’ve only read about twenty comic books or graphic novels), so mostly these films are being judged on their own merit rather than on the merit of their successful adaptations of what they were based on. As always, your comments are not only appreciated but encouraged.
1.) The Dark Knight.- This choice will be obvious to prior readers of my blog, as it’s quite easily one of my twenty favourite films ever. It’s so because it places its comic-book heroes-and-villains characters in a very realistic/contemporary universe, and does so with the panache of a great big-city crime action film like Michael Mann’s Heat or Scorsese’s The Departed.
2.) Persepolis.- Because it’s every bit as emotionally and intellectually probing as the previous entry on the list, in a completely different yet just as stylistically groundbreaking way.
3.) Ghost World.- As with Persepolis, it’s not on a good vs. evil plane, but rather the real world of non-superheroes, and it’s a very affecting, well-acted tale of teenage outcasts.
4.) Unbreakable.- Absolutely fascinating attempt to create a real-world story with subtle comic-book stakes, without any comic-book material to adapt it from. Its writer-director, M Night Shyamalan, has become infamous in recent years for making several notoriously bad duds, which has led his good films to be under-discussed lately, which is a shame.
5.) The Mask.- Did not know this was based on a comic book? Me neither, at least until I watched it recently and noticed a little blurb to that effect written in the credits. One of the few great comic-book hero movies that show that it’s possible to have fun being such a hero, it showcases Jim Carrey at his elastic-face-wearing, up to many shenanigans best.
6.) The Incredibles.- Because comic books are a natural fit when portrayed in big and small-screen animation, and this is the best animated feature-length rendition of a comic-book universe. One of Pixar’s finest films.
7.) Hellboy II: The Golden Army.- Other than Persepolis and Ghost World, by far the most touching film on this list; Writer-director Guillermo del Toro portrays these guys as real people, superheroes that embrace that status without much complaint even though the world around them sees them as circus freaks; Moreover, this film showcases the surprisingly wholesome and affectionate family values they share towards one another.
8.) V for Vendetta.- I thought of putting Watchmen over this, and though they’re both very successful at situating heroes and villains in a somewhat realistic and contemporary world, this film gets my vote over the other because it’s a little more playful, a little more fun.
9.) Hulk.- I’m quite aware that this is a very unpopular film for many aficionados of the comic books, and many film fans in general anyway, and I do agree that when the Hulk appears the cgi renders him a mostly indistinguishable green blob, but when this film works, as it does throughout the vast majority of its running time, it works in two distinct forms, whereas most of the other superhero films on this list choose one form or the other: in several of the Hulk scenes, especially when he is chased into the desert by some Black Hawk helicopters and is able to dodge or simply swat away their missiles on the way to destroying all of the helicopters, the Hulk, while clearly very angry and not exactly in control, palpably shows me how much fun it would be to have such superpowers; Also, in the scenes depicting Bruce Banner, the film shows, in what was at the time of its release startling detail and emotional accuracy, what negative effects those superpowers and the lack of control that comes with them have on his relationships with others such as his girlfriend and father. Take this layered look at the inherent dangers as well as pleasures of having superpowers and add the way the film is shot, in little panels sharing the screen depicting different scenes, thus resembling reading an actual comic book, one has a very underrated film that pulls off a difficult balance between superhero and art movie.
10.) Iron Man.- Even more so than the cgi scenes in the previous film, Iron Man’s main achievement is in making the audience feel how much fun it would be to fly and have other superpowers that come from a bionic heart that you created yourself, because even before you made yourself a superhero you were a good-looking, rich playboy. Iron Man might be the biggest fantasy on this list because it shows saving the world is not only fun but is made to seem relatively easy by Robert Downey Jr.
Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.- Basically a feature-length episode of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series of 1992-1995, with Mark Hamill providing the voice for his initial, and very memorable, portrayal of The Joker.
Watchmen.- This one was very close to being on the actual list, but isn’t because it’s quite dark and hard to watch, and with Dark Knight, Persepolis, Unbreakable, and V for Vendetta, I have enough ultraserious films on it.
A History of Violence.- Even more so than Ghost World, doesn’t have a whiff of comic book about it, but it’s an amazing film nonetheless; I just haven’t seen it enough, or recently, to put it higher.
Spider-Man 2.- Along with “Hulk” and, to a less self-obsessed extent, Reed Richards of Fantastic Four, this film came out at a time that comic-book heroes on the big screen were sensitive males having trouble communicating with women due to being very ambivalent about themselves as men and as superheroes. This film does a very good job of bringing such emotions to the forefront while still having great special effects, exciting action scenes, and an accomplished character actor slumming as an over-the-top, megalomaniacal villain; I just think Hulk is better at using the same template, mostly because it’s less ponderous and more fun.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.- This film has a headlong energy that is matched, of the films on the list, only by The Mask, and a very lovingly nerdy sensibility that marked it from its inception as a movie you were either going to like or not like a lot.
Special Prize bestowed by me: Waking Life.- This film is not based on a comic book or placed in a comic book context, but it looks and sounds like a very special kind of comic book: free-flowing, philosophical, playful, thought-provoking, without a specific genre. I know that if more films were like this they would seize by definition to be special, but what a glorious cinematic world we would be living in if more cultural creators took as many risks as this film does. If you haven’t done so already, please check out this very hidden gem.