Films based on comic books have been around for at least half a century but have become both a lot more common and popular in the last twenty years. So many have been made in this period that there is now a measurable decline in interest; though there are still plenty getting released. I have never been a big comic book reader but I have read one from time to time and loved X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman when I was growing up — especially through their respective television shows. I have also been interested in the various film adaptations starting most memorably with the 2000 X-Men film. This film is where I would date the beginning of the widespread adaptation of comic book films though you could easily quibble with this as for example: Blade predated this by a few years.
This post is going to cover eight films based on comic books that I really enjoyed. I am putting them in order of release and am only including one film from each franchise to avoid doubling up. I am also strictly choosing films based on comic books and not films based on franchises that have also been comic books or any other variation like that. The origin of the character or franchise must be originally from a comic book to be included and I don’t think I’ve made any mistake in the ones I’ve chosen.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The reason I associate the 2000 X-Men film with comic book adaptations despite seeing this ten years earlier was because I didn’t think of it a a comic book franchise as a child. My first introduction to TMNT was through the cartoon series which had a much more light-hearted tone than its source material. This had me confused when first seeing the film though I really enjoyed it at the time and it holds up much better than a film with such an odd premise could expect. To this day, I’ve not read the original comics but I understand the film does an admirable job of being faithful to the source material while still including some of the light-hearted humour found in the cartoon. I wrote about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from a different perspective a number of years ago and it is a film I associate strongly with my childhood and going to see it in the cinema was a major event of my early years.
The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer has the aesthetic and setting of pulp era comic books but was actually a product of the 1980s created by Dave Stevens. It is a testament to how well Stevens nails this aesthetic that I had no idea it was a fairly recent creation until a few years ago. I remember seeing the film on VHS after its theatrical release but only read the comic last year. Starring the lesser known Billy Campbell as the bumbling but earnest Cliff Secord, the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly as the damsel and Timothy Dalton as the dastardly villain Neville Sinclair; the film keeps surprisingly close to the the source material and remains a fun and entertaining film to this day. Though it wasn’t a box office success, it has lingered on through video rentals and word of mouth and is considered an underrated classic today.
The Phantom (1996)
Similar to The Rocketeer, The Phantom was a financial disappointment but still a great film that was true to the spirit of the original comics. I did read a good number of these comics growing up so I was familiar with the source material when I first saw it. This has the perfectly cast Billy Zane as Kit Walker and his alter ego, the Phantom. It also has Kristy Swanson as his love interest, Diana Palmer and Catherine Zeta Jones as the femme fatal sky pirate, Sata. Along with the Rocketeer, it is a shame this didn’t see more success at the time. This and the previous movie a notable for not forgetting that most comics are supposed to be colourful and fun which was somewhat lost in many comic book films produced over the last twenty years especially.
The Punisher (2004)
Thomas Jane’s turn as Frank Castle was let down more by a limited budget than any effort by the actors and filmmakers but at the time it was a massive improvement on the horrible Dolph Lundgren film from fifteen years earlier. It will be immediately noticeable that this does not take place in New York but in Tampa, Florida where I assume it was much cheaper to shoot. It is also an origin story but one that incorporates elements of the Welcome Back, Frank comics by Garth Ennis. I should add here that the Punisher is one of my favourite characters but I much prefer the earlier appearances of the character in Spider-Man to the rather sadistic and gratuitously violent comics that followed. The difference between The Punisher and most other comic superheroes was he sought to kill criminals which was more than enough to distinguish him and didn’t necessitate filling panels with violence and gore. Still, this film straddles the line nicely and isn’t anywhere near as gruesome as the later Punisher: Warzone starring the late Ray Stevenson was. I will add that this is one of John Travolta’s best turns as a villain who struggles against one man single-handedly destroying his criminal empire.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
If X-Men started it, the original Spider-Man directed by Sam Raimi saw comic book films really hit mainstream success more than ever before. It was the sequel though that was the best of the three films Raimi eventually directed. Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, neither are perfectly cast but they were still very likeable in their respective roles. Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus though, could not have been better chosen and rivals Kelsey Grammer as Beast for the “best casting ever” category. Bruce Campbell also makes his second (of three) cameos in the series as the snooty usher who is the only character to defeat Spider-Man by refusing him entry at a theatre. If I had a criticism it would be that there is a little too much melodrama and this is true of all three films but this is one of the few sequels in film that outdoes its predecessor.
Batman Begins (2005)
After my brief complaint about comic book films taking themselves too seriously, it might be a bit much to go on to say that this is one of my favourites but there are exceptions only prove the rule. Batman Begins was the first and I would argue the best of the three Christopher Nolan Batman films though I enjoyed all three. I consider this the best overall because it is the most tightly scripted as the success of this I believe allowed the director to over-indulge in the two sequels. I think what had me enjoying this the most at the time was I wasn’t expecting much and was blown away by just how much I enjoyed it. I notice there has been a bit of a reaction against these films in the last few years but I think they all remain great films. As mentioned, I can only include one from each franchise but I did also like the Michael Keaton films and thought Ben Affleck did a good job — though I didn’t like the films he appeared in.
Iron Man (2008)
One might consider me a contrarian for only including one film from the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” but this is not the case at all. I have enjoyed quite a number of these films but I don’t believe any bettered the original Iron Man. The basic formula of all the Marvel origin stories can be found here and that is not an insult as it worked well for the majority of others too. I only had a few Iron Man comics growing up but I also remember him in the Marvel Action Hour animated series (which was hosted by Stan Lee himself). I can’t say I was a big fan of the character but Robert Downey Jr. did such a fantastic job playing Tony Stark and I think this more than anything is what made Iron Man and the many films that followed so successful.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Most of the X-Men films are good but if I can only pick one, Days of Future Past comes closest to capturing everything good about the series. For a start, this has Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine as the lead and he is as close to perfect casting as you can get. I know this has been repeated about a number of actors previously but the casting is a big part of what made all these films work so well. This one adapts a famous comic book story arc which was also in the animated series I am more familiar with. Most of the characters at least make an appearance and the film is just fun from start to finish with a typically visually stunning climax. I will add that the firs two films along with X-Men: First Class are great too but this is easily the best film in the series.