Best/Worst Of The Decade: Comic Book Films

We continue our look back at the Cinematic decade just passed with a round up of the best and worst the comic book adaptation genre had to offer.

Best:

Batman Begins (2005)

The sequel, The Dark Knight, might get more accolades for its tragic and brilliant performance from Heath Ledger, but this first film in the revitalization of the Batman franchise is just as good if not better. The film traces the first days of Batman, and Bruce Wayne begins to employ the training he received at the hands of Ra’s Al Ghul to become a vigilante in Gotham City. This is the origin story, but one that fleshes out the by now universally known Batman origin.

This is an ambitious project, trying to revive the stalled franchise that was on life support after the abysmal Batman & Robin. But Christopher Nolan and David Goyer succeed by taking a grittier, more realistic tone to the franchise and filling the cast with some of the best actors of the 20th Century. It was a more faithful adaptation than any other Batman film that had come before, yet written and directed to please the mainstream audience as well.  – William Gatevackes

Cutie Honey (2004)

I’ve never read the original manga or seen the anime that this live-action film is based on, but I have to wonder if they equal the sheer delirious exuberance of this film. (And in rewatching this I have to wonder if the Wachowski’s had seen it before they embarked on Speed Racer.)on Cutie Honey is a cyborg who can transform from bubbly office worker to an equally effervescent superhero who fights the machinations of the nigh immortal “Sister Jill” and her minions in the Panther Claw clan. Dialogue like, “I’ll walk. Investigation is based on legwork!” – delivered by Cutie Honey to a potential ally – demonstrates that the movie has no intentions of taking itself too seriously. Fortunately, it never reaches for any level of post-modern irony or camp, which would only diminish the proceedings. Cutie Honey is pure cinematic popcorn, served in a big bucket with a highly caffeinated drink to wash it down. – Rich Drees

Ghost World (2001)

I honestly wish that more people realized that Ghost World was based on a comic book. While I think that the general public is aware that comics aren’t just for kids anymore, I’m not sure that they realize that comics aren’t just superheroes. While the decade also saw the graphic novels The Road To Perdition and A History Of Violence being adapted to the big screen, director Terry Zwigoff’s realization of Daniel Clowes’s indie comic blazed their way. Thora Birch (What happened to her career?) and Scarlett Johansson are great as quirky, artistically-bent, high school graduates trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives while those around them try to figure out them. Pulling a hapless record collector (Steve Buschemi) into their orbit, the girls slowly discover that their lifelong friendship is starting to dissolve. Clowes’ story rings emotionally true at every beat and is a great testament that a good story is a good story no matter what medium it is being told in. – RD

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man is one of the lesser known heroes in the Marvel pantheon, which provided a challenge to Jon Favreau. Yes, there are less casual Iron Man fans around to get upset if he screwed up, but he also has to sell a little known property to the non-comic buying American public. I think he nailed this part quite nicely. Of course, if it wasn’t for a bravura performance by Robert Downey, Jr., perhaps he wouldn’t be quite as successful. But Downey was a perfect match for the character, and his charisma made the character almost jump off the screen. All the elements were there, but Downey brought them to life. He added humor to the character, and provided the definitive version of Shellhead to a generation that might not have known anything about him. Iron Man is quite the accomplishment by all those involved. – WG

Spider-Man (2002)

The secret to a great comic book film is to remain faithful to the spirit of the original character. It is nigh impossible to do a word for word, issue for issue adaptation of a 40+ year old character, but if you get the important stuff down, comic fans will follow. Sam Raimi gets this, which is why the Spider-Man franchise is one of the best comic book adaptations of the decade.

The Spider-Man mythos is changed quite considerably from the comics (for example, Mary Jane enters Peter parker’s life much later in the books) but the tortured hero that the web-head is captured completely. The “with great power comes great responsibility” line has been used so much in the series that it has become a punchline, but that is the most important aspect of the character. And the scene that drives this point home to Peter, the death of his Uncle Ben is one of the most powerful scenes in this film. This shows Raimi’s skill as a filmmaker and gives us the reason why he is the perfect director for this hero. – WG

Worst:

Catwoman (2004)

I have to admit it. I saw Catwoman in the theaters, but I didn’t pay. With the incredible negative buzz circling the movie, I decided to avoid it altogether. But then, the Saturday of its opening weekend, I found myself at the local Cineplex seeing something else when curiosity got the better of me. Following the end of the movie I was seeing, I slipped in to the theater showing Catwoman, only to have my worse fears confirmed.

Not since Kenneth Johnson’s Steel (1997) has a comic book adaptation ejected so much of its source material in an effort to strike out in its own direction. And much like Steel, this was a horrible creative decision. Star Halle Berry found herself lost amongst some nonsense about cat totems and a banal plot about some chicanery at a cosmetics company. And to further complete the parallel to Steel, I found myself loudly booking at the movie at points. Don’t worry, there was barely anyone in attendance to be disturbed. Those who were there were probably in agreement. – RD

Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)

Rather than go the anthology route of the original Heavy Metal, this animated film serves as both sequel to the 1981 cult classic and an adaptation of Kevin Eastman, Simon Bisley and Eric Talbot’s graphic novel The Melting Pot. The story does manage to pick up a few storylines from the original, but manages to completely miss its moments of sly humor. The result is a grim story about some miners mutated into marauders scouring the galaxy for the secret of immortality while the lone survivor of one of their raids follows after them to extract revenge. There is also something fundamentally icky in the fact that Eastman designed the lead female character after his then-wife, b-movie actress and model Julie Strain (who voices the character in the movie) and then repeatedly placed her in situations where she is nearly raped. – RD

Hulk (2003)

If this film ended when the Hulk surrendered to Betty in San Francisco, then it would only be known as an ambitious disappointment. There are a lot of positives to the film up to that point—Ang Lee’s inventive split screen/comic book panel style, the performances of Eric Bana Sam Elliot, and Jennifer Connolly, the final fight between the Hulk and the military, the exploration of the psychology of the character. But there was also the lack of humor and the overacting of Nick Nolte as Bruce Banner to bring it down.

But the film didn’t end at the San Francisco scene. There was a tacked on CGI fight between Nolte’s character and the Hulk that seemed rushed to be included because a studio exec didn’t like a comic book movie to end without a big fight. The scene was murky and dark, so much so that it was hard to follow the action. It served no point and was confusing to boot. It was that last scene that knocked the film down to absolute failure. – WG

The Spirit (2008):

Frank Miller was riding a wave of popularity before this film came out. The adaptation of his Sin City, which he co-directed, was an innovative success and the adaptation of his 300 was a surprise hit. You could almost understand if his ego caused him to think that he could do no wrong. Hopefully, this film cured him of that fault. Between this film and his recent comic book output, his skills are in decline just as he is reaching the apex of his influence. This is a bad combination.

This film is an abomination in the eyes of all that is holy. Miller wrote and directed this adaptation of the Will Eisner hero. He also acted in a small cameo in the film, ensuing he accomplished the trifecta of suckage on this project. The plot was meandering and ill-defined. The dialogue was a series of hard-boiled noir-speak with failed attempts at humor sprinkled in. He presented some of the sexiest women in the world as femme fatales, but made them as alluring as moldy plywood. And he allowed Samuel L. Jackson to chew so much scenery that he was picking slivers out of his gums for weeks. It was a case of a man totally outclassed by the project at hand but blinded by his own ego so he could never realize it. This is not a film for going and seeing. This is a film for lying down and avoiding. – WG

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