The top 10 greatest comic book movies of all time
Bringing our hand-drawn heroes to life has never been so popular. Derek O'Connor looks at some of the best Hollywood offerings.
This year alone, we've already had Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 300: Rise Of An Empire and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with many more in the pipeline. In the digital era, comic books are a hotter ticket than ever. Hollywood loves a recognisable property with franchise potential, and TV is getting in on the game big time, following the success of The Walking Dead.
Now X-Men: Days Of Future Past promises to be the most epic comic book adaptation to date; it's the most expensive movie 20th Century Fox has produced since all-time box-office champion Avatar.
No better time, then, to count down the 10 finest comic book adaptations thus far. Geeks out there should have fun furiously debating our choices, while it should be noted that our actual favourite superhero movie of the past decade – Pixar's wonderful The Incredibles – wasn't based on a comic book, so remains ineligible for this list. Oh, and we'll spare you the turkeys, save to say that Ryan Reynolds' Green Lantern still haunts our dreams.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
The undisputed pinnacle of comic adaptations thus far, and arguably one of the defining movies of the 21st century, it brilliantly tapped into our collective post-millennial anxieties to deliver a subversive blockbuster that elevated the comic book movie to brave and bold new heights. While Christian Bale's conflicted caped crusader gave director Christopher Nolan's film its skewed moral compass, it was the late, great Heath Ledger's incandescent turn as anarchic sociopath The Joker that burned its way into our collective pop cultural psyche. It remains the only comic book movie to win a major Oscar, a posthumous Supporting Actor gong for Ledger.
IRON MAN (2008)
The inaugural release from Marvel Studios – the first comic company to produce its own properties for the big screen – perfectly set the template for the modern comic book movie. The formula: find an inspired film-maker (in this case, Elf director Jon Favreau), cast proper actors, treat the source material with love and, above all, do the comics justice.
It's easy to forget that a mere six years ago, Robert Downey Jr was still considered a serious liability, thanks to a long history of substance abuse, not to mention box office poison. But Downey's performance as billionaire playboy turned heavy metal hero Tony Stark gave him a defining role, creating an unlikely megastar in the process. The prospect of replacing RDJ (who turns 50 next year) in the Iron Man suit remains unimaginable.
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
While last year's reboot Man Of Steel erased the memory of the deeply peculiar Superman Returns, it still couldn't hold hold a kryptonite candle to the definitive screen Superman, Christopher Reeve, who played (and owned) the role four times – his first outing remains the standard for classy superhero flicks. Director Richard Donner gets everything right, helped by megastars (Gene Hackman as the villainous Lex Luthor, and an eccentric Marlon Brando as Superman's daddy), a love interest that more than holds her own (Margot Kidder's sassy Lois Lane) and that unforgettable John Williams theme. In the end, however, the film belongs to the late, great Reeve, who became a real-life superman, showing bravery beyond belief following a tragic accident that left him paralysed. All these years later, you'll still believe a man can fly.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
As is often the case with comic book movies, the sequel tends to improve upon the original, once they get the boring origin stuff out of the way and get on with the awesome heroics; case in point, director Sam Raimi's second instalment of his still-definitive Spidey-saga, a rollercoaster ride from one of cinema's supreme showmen. Another recurring mistake that super-sequels make is to pile on the baddies – current reboot Amazing Spider-Man 2 serving as a vivid case in point. Not here: in the original Spider-sequel (not an oxymoron), Tobey Maguire's wall-crawler faces off against his most truly iconic nemesis, Doctor Octopus, for a twisted thrill-ride that plays like a PG version of one of Raimi's classic Evil Dead movies.
Sure, the first X-Men (2000) showed promise, but Bryan Singer's sequel pushed the envelope further. Here, the travails of genetically mutated human beings become a vivid metaphor for prejudice and the struggle for equality. However, it is a powerful pme all the same, suggesting that comic book movies can touch upon real world issues in an inspired fashion. That said, the movie also makes sure to feature Hugh Jackman (who has now played Wolverine in all seven X-movies) running around shirtless, laying waste to a gazillion baddies in an extremely cool fashion. Never gets old.
AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012)
The Marvel machine kicked into maximum overdrive with this box office giant, the most successful comic book movie to date and a critical darling, uniting their greatest heroes (and three different movie franchises) and making it all look rather effortless. Shot by Armagh's own Seamus McGarvey, The Avengers could have been a hectic mess; kudos to writer/director Joss Whedon, applying the ensemble-wrangling skills he'd mastered overseeing 144 episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for finally figuring out how to make The Hulk cool. Now bring on that sequel.
SIN CITY (2005)
Frank Miller's black and white crime saga was the comic book equivalent of a very cool indie flick. Wisely, director Robert Rodriguez lifted the approach wholesale, enlisting Miller (who also created 300) as a co-director and recreating the original comic in ultra-stylised live-action form, frame for frame when possible. What truly brought Sin City to life, however, was a series of game performances from a killer cast: you'll never think of Elijah 'Frodo' Wood the same once you've seen him play a cannibalistic serial killer, and Mickey Rourke's anti-hero Marv is the coolest, craziest, comic-book character ever.
Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr's controversial – and ultra-ultra-violent – mini-series, Matthew Vaughn's willfully provocative comedy pulls no punches when it comes to showing how self-proclaimed superheroes might fare in the real world – it ain't pretty. Amping up the bloody farce to 11, however, he deftly offers a wry critique that also works as an audience-pleasing comic book flick, aided by breakthrough star Chloe Moretz as prepubescent mayhem-maker Hit-Girl. Director Vaughn was promptly snapped up to direct X-Men: First Class. Last year's Kick-Ass 2 is underrated.
What's a Top 10 list without a controversial choice or two? The future law-man (from UK comic institution 2000 AD) had already been brought to the screen back in 2005, with Sylvester Stallone in the role – it remains a textbook example of how to get it all wrong. Omagh director Pete Travis enlisted Kiwi legend Karl Urban (Doc McCoy in the Star Trek reboot) for an intense back-to-basics exercise that pulled no punches, and thrilled devoted Dredd fans. It promptly tanked at the box office, although rumours of a sequel persist.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010)
Another financial disappointment upon its initial release, filmmaker Edgar Wright took a break from his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy to bring Bryan Lee O'Malley's cult comic to the screen, creating a deadpan pop-culture masterwork that almost perfectly channels the joys of the comic book experience. Scott Pilgrim's cult following grows by the day.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent