Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last time: V for Vendetta)
There are loads of different kinds of comic books out there, so there are lots of types of comic book movies, too. Some are direct adaptations of their source material, following each panel from the page. Others are new stories told with the same characters and world, but maintain accuracy to those traits. So what makes a comic book movie great? How much accuracy needs to be kept, and how much is too much? Both the silver screen and the printed page have their own advantages and limitations, but some adaptations rise above and make the most out of the medium. Here’s a look at our choices for some of the best comic book movie adaptations, along with what we think makes them so great.
The Dark Knight
The words “gritty” and “realistic” get thrown around a lot when talking about comic books movies. However, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight truly is gritty and realistic. So much so, in fact, that any comic adaptation since that tries feels like a mimicking attempt at recreating the real world depth and heft of this crime drama. No one comes close so why even bother?
The odd thing about TDK is that it’s not even a true adaptation. It toys with origin stories, creates new characters and isn’t even based on a real Batman comic arc. Yet it truthfully captures the spirit of the characters and injects the gravity of true crime, tragedy, and drama. It’s a perfect mix of reality and comic book magic. So many others have tried but nothing nails it like The Dark Knight. All these unwieldy elements come together to craft a truly epic masterpiece and one of the best comic book films of all time. [Brandon Marcus]
Little Nemo is an imaginative and fantastic cartoon. It’s also certified nightmare fuel and kindertrauma for anyone who grew up with the film. The animated version of this beloved children’s comic is a fun and exciting trip through Slumberland that turns into a nightmarish fight for survival. The cartoon does a great job of appealing to younger audiences through sequences of light comedy and adventure, but when the story gets dark it almost becomes unbearable for small children.
The comic this movie was based on is a surreal, highly detailed trip through imaginative realms that easily rival anything that bears a resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Windsor McCay was a master craftsman when it came to drafting comic strips for publication in the New York Herald, and his work has gone on to inspire generations of creators that have work in the field. Little Nemo may not entirely capture the essence of what made the comics so unique, but as a film, it is very entertaining and the classic NES game is pretty great too. [Andrew Hawkins]
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the greatest flop movies ever made. Edgar Wright released his adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-part graphic novel series in 2010. Unfortunately, audiences six years ago were far more interested in nostalgia for 80s action movies than they were in a generational statement for kids of the eighties and nineties, and The Expendables tore it apart at the box office. What audiences were missing was a film that still ranks as one of the best films of this decade. Scott Pilgrim is one of the best comic book adaptations ever made.
The Scott Pilgrim comic books are a surreal mixture of anime, video game, and romantic comedy tropes. It is the worldview of one Scott Pilgrim, a slacker twenty-something whose life is filtered through video game rules. When he hooks up with his newest girlfriend, Ramona Flowers, her romantic baggage becomes a series of Seven Evil Exes that he must defeat. Essentially they are bosses and levels in an old NES game. The books work on a manic energy of nerd references, clever dialog, and the youthful angst and confusion of people lost after college. Imagine St. Elmo’s Fire only with kung-fu fights, awesome bass riffs… and being, you know, good.
Edgar Wright’s version manages to capture that energy perfectly. The casting is flawless, with Michael Cera as the somewhat dopey lead, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the girl of Scott’s dreams. The rest of the comic’s cast are brought to life by an amazing ensemble of Brie Larson, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Schwartzman, and plenty more. Thanks to fast-paced editing, even the hundred pound shrimp Michael Cera is made into a badass martial arts hero. Wright throws in the comic’s art style for cartoon moments, making the film a collage of references and styles. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a film dripping with color, comedy, and humor, encapsulating all the best parts of its source material into two hours of cinema. [Eric Fuchs]
Robert Rodriguez‘s 2005 film Sin City is about as accurate a comic book movie as a fan could ask for. Based on Frank Miller‘s comic series of the same name, Sin City is a (mostly) black and white noir saga told in four intertwining stories. The movie has the exact dialogue and shot composition as the comics it’s based on. It’s possible to sit and watch Sin City with copies of the comics open and see that it’s as close to identical as Rodriguez could get. It’s visually impressive, and was quite a shock when it came out 11 years ago. Rodriguez even went as far as to leave the Director’s Guild of America in order to have Miller co-direct, which the DGA forbid. This movie was Rodriguez’s passion project, and the attention to detail and love of the subject help a lot.
The cast of Sin City elevate it, each bringing their own take on classic noir to the twisted tales. Mickey Rourke is a particular stand-out as Marv, an ex-convict with a strong sense of justice. Clive Owen and Rosario Dawson are also great as Dwight and Gail, who have to deal with a car full of dead cops in prostitute territory. The movie is violent as hell, has dialogue that harkens back to the silver age of film, and is simply a lot of a fun to watch. It’s a shame the sequel isn’t better. [Danielle Ryan]
Before bringing Captain America: The First Avenger to the screen in 2011, director Joe Johnston committed another comic book to celluloid back in 1991: The Rocketeer. Based on Dave Stevens’ 1982 comic creation of the same name, the Rocketeer is Cliff Secord, a daring stunt pilot who comes into possession of a rocket pack that allows him to fly. Along the way he battles a Nazi agent posing as a famous Hollywood actor for both the affections of his girlfriend and possession of the rocket pack.
The Rocketeer adapts the basic source material of the original comic with changes to avoid licensing issues. (The original comics featured unnamed cameos from the likes of Doc Savage). The movie also featured changes to avoid some of the comic’s racier elements; for example,Cliff’s girlfriend was a nude model named Betty, changed to an actress named Jenny in the film.
The main allure of the film is that it revels in its 1930s setting and pays homage to the Republic serials that inspired the creation of the comic in the first place. The Rocketeer is what comic book movies should always aspire to be – a fun, adventurous romp that pays tribute to its origins but carves its own place in cinema history.
The Rocketeer was released at a time when comic book movies were an exception and not the norm. It underperformed at the box office, although it built a cult following in the years after its release. Despite a sequel hook, none were made. However, with the (relatively) recent resurgence of the comic book movie, a “sequel-reboot” is in development. The Rocketeers will be set six years after the original Rocketeer has disappeared, featuring an ace African-American female pilot to take up the mantle of the Rocketeer. [Mike Delaney]
Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods
Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods is a computer animated movie based on the identically named 1971 comic book by René Goscinny. Even if you weren’t born in the age of the Asterix comics, the movie is made for families and covers humor, action, and adventure during a fight between the rebels of a Gaulish village and Caesar’s Roman army. While the Romans are trying to build a village based on their own lifestyle, the residents of the village have to accept their new neighbors and their culture. With the struggle, trouble is guaranteed.
There are a few more Asterix movies out there, but The Mansions of the Gods is one of the best. As a fan of the French superheroes, you can follow the plot in your head and know exactly what might happen in the next scene in the movie. It’s very well written and is a generally accurate adaptation. It follows the actions of the comic, rather than only be inspired by the book. In addition, the animation style allows the characters to express themselves in a manner faithful to the original art style of the comic, something that could not be achieved in a live-action movie.
On the one hand, kids can enjoy the fights between the magic-potion strengthened warriors and the Romans, and on the other hand, adults can see the moral of the story between the lines: two cultures clashing together over a small spot of land and trying to find common ground. It’s an essential lesson for our troubled times. [Cyanide]
The Avengers is a great comic book adaptation for many reasons, but one of the reasons that it is so great is because it is accurate. The first villain the Avengers go up against is Loki, just like the first issue of the comics. It is also accurate because the different characters are brought together in a believable way, just like they are in the comics.
The Avengers also nails the team dynamic. Some of the members of the team don’t want to work together at first, but in the end, the team is brought together and they save the world. An important aspect for any comic team-up movie is that the movie has the same team as the comics, and The Avengers has (mostly) the same team as the comics. Like all comic book adaptations, there are some exceptions and in this case, Ant-Man (who is introduced later) and The Wasp (who will be introduced) do not appear. However, the rest of the core team is the same.
This adaptation is one of the few adaptions that has the same tone as the book. Even though the movie and the comics are meant to be a bit darker they still find time to add humor the doesn’t feel out of place. [Ryan C.]