Not long ago the comic book world was a domain one would only dare venture into if they had a burning desire to find out what the inside of a packet of bacon-rasher crisps smelt like. Or at least that was the popular opinion; hordes of thirty year old virgins confining themselves to the arrogance of their own comic book stores and toy encrusted bedrooms. This being the commonly held belief, Hollywood looked upon comic book franchises with disdain. Just about all comic book adaptations up until the late nineties were awful. Just stick a handful of pretty looking Z-list actors in some lycra and hey-presto, movie magic would be yours. What the studios behind Spiderman Strikes Back (1978)
and The Fantastic Four (1994)
failed to realise was that there were just as many discerning fans of the comic book as there were nerdy aficionados. The movie making world just failed to grasp the challenging tales that were behind the be-costumed heroes on the covers of DC and Marvel Comics biggest sellers. One of the first comic series to up the intellectual anti was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men; its tale of outcast mutants turned upon by humans that refused to recognise their standing in society was a perfect allegory of the race struggles that were ripping apart the United States at the time of its launch in 1963. Fittingly, it was the first big screen outing for the X-Men that helped turn the tide for the comic book movie. The film was launched thirty seven years after Lee and Kirby first put their mutants onto paper. Once Twentieth Century Fox had shown how a comic strip adaptation should be done an army of faithful yet cinematically superior comic book movies marched onto screens, much to the delight of comic and movie fans alike. With the horrors of Swamp Thing (1982)
and Howard the Duck (1986)
behind us we are left to revel in all manner of comic book films from the big sellers Men In Black (1997), Iron Man (2008)
, the dark, From Hell (2001), A History of Violence (2005), 30 Days of Night (2007)
, the arty, Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003), 300 (2006)
, and even movies that pretended to be comic book movies Mystery Men (1999), The Incredibles (2004)
. Here are ten of the most stupendous.
- SUPERMAN II (1980)
Any comic book list should start with the daddy of them all, the one who calls himself Clark Kent. Various television and low budget movie versions of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation had been attempted prior to 1978, most notably with George Reeves bearing the big "S” in the nineteen fifties. Director Richard Donner felt that by the end of the seventies filming technology had finally developed to where he could make the audience believe a man could fly. It was a cinematic trick he pulled off with nary a wrong foot placed. Key to the film’s success was Donner’s controversial choice for the lead, an unknown stage actor called Christopher Reeve. He imbued the part with just the right combination of humanity and other-worldly power, creating a movie imprint so strong it left Reeve type cast for the rest of his career. But there were few other actors that could have portrayed Superman’s inner struggle to fit into a world that was not his. In retrospect the moments with Reeve in spectacles outlast the moments when he is with cape. The first film Superman (1978) had a relatively straight forward storyline which saw Superman tangle with Gene Hackman’s wonderfully hammy Lex Luthor, before reversing time to save his beloved Lois Lane from an earthquake in the finale. But it was the tender interplay between Reeve’s Kent and Margot Kidder’s Lane that drove the sequel Superman II (1980), along with the introduction of three top drawer villains from Krypton for Supes to battle; despite Supes' all-encompassing powers for once it looked like the Man of Steel might have met his match. Unfortunately part three Superman III (1983) and four Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) mired the series before Superman Returns (2006) sensibly picked up from where part two had left us.
Tasty Morsel – Actors considered for the Superman included Warren Beatty, James Caan, Kris Krisofferson, Nick Nolte, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jon Voight. It was Sylvester Stallone that lobbied hardest for the part however. His inclusion was apparently vetoed by Marlon Brando, whose own over priced and frankly baffling performance in the movie is itself questionable.
- THE CROW (1994)
Out of great tragedy can often come great art; such was the case in 1989 when James O’Barr created the comic book The Crow as a way of coping with the sudden death of his girlfriend. The comic was a cult hit. It told the story of Eric Draven, a man resurrected by a crow after witnessing the brutal murder of his own beloved. After his reincarnation he seeks revenge on those responsible for the death of his beau. Retrospectively, the film is remembered in reverent tones for the death of Brandon Lee, son of legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, who was killed when a gun firing stunt went wrong. With only eight days of filming left the decision was taken to finish the movie as a tribute to the young actor. The films story is both a bitterly ironic and fitting tribute to Lee who it appeared had a very bright future ahead of him. Tonally, the film is draped with all manner of gothic ambience from the nigh-on pitch black lighting, wardrobe, set dressing and story undertones. The real life tragedies behind the film’s making and its original concept weigh heavy on the proceedings. The film was received well by the press, one of the first comic book movies to satisfy both the popular reviewers and the arty critics alike. It was a niche comic book that showed the bigger boys at DC, Marvel and Dark Horse how it should be done. Four sequels followed, The Crow: City of Angels (1996), The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998), The Crow: Salvation (2000), and The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005). Director F Javier Gutierrez is said to be working on a re-imagining of the original Crow story for future release.
Tasty Morsel – It is stated in the biography of Bruce Lee that the martial arts expert, whilst emerging from a coma, had visions of his son’s untimely death. This was many years before his son even began his acting career.
- X-MEN/X-MEN II (2000/2003)
By the end of the twentieth century X-Men had secured the spot as America’s number one comic both with fans and critics. Key to its popularity was its substantial cast of lead characters. Rather than one key protagonist X-Men features a legion of major players. The problem movie wise was which ones to throw at the big screen and which era of the mountainous X-Men mythology to crib from. At the turn of the twenty-first century Director Brian Singer handled these major issues with a cool hand, creating a picture that swiftly dealt with the substantial back-story of all the key mutants from the series without intruding on the flow of the story. He also ensured that the serious tone of traditional X-Men storylines was not lost in the transfer to the big screen, the X-Men’s world looking utterly plausible and realistic to the uninitiated viewer. Singer also made some excellent casting choices. Patrick Stewart was a shoe-in for Professor Xavier but Singer cleverly brought in Stewart’s old stage buddy Sir Ian McKellen to play the part of Magneto, Xavier’s former best friend and nemesis. The relationship between the two formed a solid base for the movie. The X-Man casting that fans watched with the greatest interest was Wolverine, the team’s resident Dirty Harry. Australian thesp Hugh Jackman absolutely nailed the role and launched his own A-list career off the back of the movie’s success. An even more accomplished sequel followed in 2003, with Singer, no longer burdened with origin tales, left free to tell a fantastic story of his own. Part three arrived in 2006, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and though it took a few wrong turns it boasted a healthy propensity for offing many of the series’ lead characters. X-Men: First Class (2011) arrived as an excellent back story five years later.
Tasty Morsel – Dougray Scott was originally hired to play Wolverine but had to quit the project to work on Mission: Impossible II (2000). Aaron Eckhart, Mel Gibson, Edward Norten, Keanu Reeves and Viggo Mortensen had also been considered for the role. Michael Biehn, Vince Vaughn and James Caviezel were in line to play Cyclops before the part went to James Marsden, whilst Sarah Michelle Geller and Natalie Portman had shots at Rogue, and Christopher Lee was carefully considered for Magneto.
- BLADE II (2002)
Before X-Men (2000) shook up the film world a lesser Marvel Comic hero had made a sizeable cinematic splash. Blade was introduced as a minor supporting character in 1973 before gradually clawing his way to his own mini series in the mid nineties. The vampire hunting hero caught the eye of director David S Goyer who joined forces with Wesley Snipes for Blade (1998). The film surprised both critics and fans with its slick vampirism and adult content. The storyline was slightly jumbled but sold the Blade mythos well enough to ensure a sequel would follow. Maverick director Guillermo Del Toro was on board second time around and infused the film with his own unique brand of mythic horror. He also tightened the story to ensure a much smoother viewing experience. Surrounding Snipes with an excellent supporting cast, including Ron Perlman, former member of boy-band Bros Luke Goss, and the gruff Kris Kristofferson, Del Toro spun an intriguing story concerning "Reapers”. The clever twist here was that these particular vampires had tendencies so strong they even feasted upon their own kind, leading to a vampire civil war. All combined it made for a movie that more than met the promise of the first film. The momentum was not carried forward to part three, Blade: Trinity (2004) which saw Snipes giving up far too much screen time to his two new vampire hunting partners, the Nightstalkers, played by Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds. Snipes has stated that providing contract disputes can be solved he would be willing to come back for a part four.
Tasty Morsel – Rap star LL Cool J was considered for the role of Blade though New Line, the studio behind the series, only considered three actors for the part; Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and the aforementioned Snipes.
- SPIDERMAN (2002)
The one comic book hero that was crying out for the big-screen treatment was young Peter Parker. Unlike the millionaire Bruce Wayne or the well muscled Clark Kent, Parker the geeky college kid was someone that similar nerdy teens across the globe could identify with. It took a mammoth effort to get Spidey into theatres though with every director, screenwriter and his dog taking a swing at the project. Most infamously action maestro James Cameron wrote a treatment for the film which unfortunately never saw the light of day. Eventually the film rights landed in Sony Pictures lap who took the bold decision of hiring one time Evil Dead (1983) helmer Sam Raimi to take a stab at directing. It proved to be an excellent choice, with Raimi allowed to bring much of his horror-movie quirkiness to the party. The director chose his players well, particularly the hiring of Tobey Maguire and Kirstin Dunst for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson respectively. The pair had instant chemistry which carried the crux of the movies will-they-won’t-they plot, the peak of which was a gratuitous rain-soaked upside down kiss between our hero and MJ. Raimi entrusted the main villain Green Goblin to the safe hands of William Dafoe, and dodgy Power Rangers face mask aside he suited the role perfectly. In a welcome change to the usual "comic book hero saves the planet” storyline screenwriters David Koepp and Alvin Sargent kept the climax on a local level with Spiderman forced to save a tram car full of citizens. Spiderman II (2004) built upon the excellent work of the first instalment providing all the plot developments we were itching to see in the sequel, mostly involving Spidey’s best mate and son of the now deceased Green Goblin, James Franco. Sadly part three released in 2007 suffered from messy writing, lack of direction and too much Maguire jiving.
Tasty Morsel – Ever wondered how Spiderman attends to bathroom duties in his all in one suit? Maguire asked the same question and had to have a special vent installed in a re-designed costume to allow him to answer those tricky calls of nature.
- HELLBOY (2004)
By the mid noughties the comic book movie invasion was at full power. Studio bosses had seen box office records smashed by Spiderman (2002) and were now eager for a piece of the pie. Studios began commissioning all and any comic inspired movie project that came their way. This led to a good few stinkers crowding the summer release schedules, Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003), The Punisher (2004), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), Ghost Rider (2007), but also allowed some excellent movies to slip through the cracks of mediocrity. One of these was the pet project of director Guillermo Del Toro, the adaptation of Dark Horse big seller Hellboy. The character in question is a demon brought to Earth by Nazi occultists who is subsequently rescued by US Army forces. Once fully grown Hellboy joins the US government to fight paranormal forces that threaten the security of the nation. Del Toro dreamed of filming the movie for a good number of years before he finally got studio backing. He only ever had one name in mind for his Hellboy and the director finally gave a big screen lead role to Ron Perlman, something the brilliant journeyman actor had been deserving of for many years. It is difficult to picture anyone else bringing the right mix of laconic laziness and grumpy energy to the part. Despite the movie’s fantastical premise Del Toro managed to compliment Perlman’s down-to-earth approach with a story and filming style that is at once visually absorbing and emotionally weighty. It helped that Perlman had some first class support from John Hurt, Doug Jones and a brooding Selma Blair. It is a joy that despite Hellboy’s starling appearance one never questions the validity of his fractured relationship with Blair’s Liz Sherman. An equally fascinating sequel was released in 2008, Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) which saw Hellboy do battle with the entire mythical underworld.
Tasty Morsel – Del Toro had to fight to secure the lead role for Perlman. The studio wanted Vin Diesel to take the part but the director managed to convince them to let Perlman have a shot at Hellboy after screening footage of Perlman’s grand work in Blade II (2002).
- THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
One of the most retooled characters in the comic book industry is Bob Kane's Batman. The millionaire crime fighter has gone through a number of transitions during his seventy year history, none more dramatic than the Frank Miller’s work in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. This 1987 tale reinvigorated what was a tired formula by injecting more adult ideas. Unfortunately, the book bared little influence upon Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the neo-realism of its subsequent sequels. The over stylising we could forgive; the main sticking point was that Batman just wasn’t Batman enough, despite the efforts of Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney. Thankfully Christopher Nolan was presented with the opportunity to reinvent Batman for the big screen in 2002. The director went for the darkest, most troubled man he could find, the actor behind the über shady Patrick Bateman himself, Christian Bale. The resulting Batman Begins (2005) was a tremendous movie and left audiences begging for a second romp around Gotham, particularly as Nolan teased us with a hint of The Joker in the final scene. Three years later the wait was over, and The Dark Knight (2008) was unleashed upon screens. Nolan reassembled the top notch cast from Begins including such experts as Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine, each actor seemingly tailor made for the roles they played. Added to this was yet another inspired casting choice. Many critics balked when it was announced that the palpably good looking Heath Ledger would be taking on The Joker role. Boy, were they ever wrong. What Ledger did with the part few could have anticipated, and fewer still could have matched. It was a real tragedy that Ledger’s passing meant that he wasn’t able to collect the Academy Award he so rightly won for the performance. Most importantly though, Ledger’s Joker for all its brilliance did not push Bale’s Batman off the screen, the key mistake Burton made in 1989. Full credit must go to Bale, easily the equal of Ledger and as much a part of the reason for The Dark Knight being perhaps the greatest comic book movie of all time.
Tasty Morsel – After Batman & Robin (1997) there was to be a fifth film in the series entitled Batman: Triumphant. The story was to feature Scarecrow as the main villain, utilising a series of toxins to resurrect The Joker. The character of Harley Quinn was also set to appear.
- WATCHMEN (2009)
By the time the supposedly unfilmable comic masterpiece Watchmen made it to the big screen, most cinema goers had already been wooed by the delights of the "darker" comic book tale. What many failed to realise though was that Alan Moore's 1986 epic was the comic that kick started the reality tinged darkening of the comic book world. Before Watchmen Batman wore his pants outside his tights, afterwards he was "The Dark Knight". Some therefore assumed that Zack Snyder’s film was merely copycatting those more adult themed comic book movies that preceded it, The Dark Knight (2008) in particular. Watchmen was the originator though and its adaptation was long over due. Considering it was said to be impossible to condense its multi-layered story into a two hour film of reasonable budget, Snyder worked minor miracles. It is a total ode to Moore's story and Dave Gibbons original design, with only a smattering of story tweaks to ensure its reasonable running time. No other comic movie has worked so hard to marry up the on screen visual with actual frames from the comic itself. You can literally marry the two mediums together seamlessly in most places throughout the film. Thankfully the movie didn’t wimp out on the adult content, both in terms of graphic contents and in terms of story complexities. For all The Dark Knight's comic-film-for-adults posturing it really only toys with the concept. Watchmen goes the whole hog, the full "18" rating, box office profits be damned. It was that sort of pioneering spirit that drove Moore in the first place, an ideal Snyder carries forward in every aspect of the film, in particular the genius use of soundtrack throughout the movie. To fill the many Watchmen roles Snyder wisely chose to employ a cast of unknown yet accomplished actors. So good is their work right across the board, you’d swear Rorschach and co walked right off the page and straight into Snyder’s camera.
Tasty Morsel – Some big Hollywood names were bandied around before Snyder got his choice of a more low-key cast. Robin Williams was lined up to play Rorschach, Jamie Lee Curtis mooted as Silk Spectre, Ron Perlman and Gary Busey as The Comedian, Tom Cruise and Jude Law for Ozymandias, and Kevin Costner and Richard Gere considered for Nite Owl.
- KICK ASS (2010)
The concept of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s hit comic book Kick Ass was so brilliantly obvious you wonder why no one attempted it before. The pair took a nerdy teen a la Spiderman and set him up as a super-power-free crime fighter a la Batman. But unlike the Dark Knight Dave Lizewski doesn’t have a bottomless bank account or the easy ability to dish out beatings. Matthew Vaughn’s movie adaptation was a faithful tribute to the original comic and wisely left all the hyper violence and blue language in place. Aaron Johnson makes for a superb Lizewski, whilst Nicholas Cage and Chlöe Grace Moretz are a revelation as the father daughter crime fighting team of Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Cage hilariously aped Adam West as his Batman-esque hero while Moretz caused much controversy by uttering "cunt” during proceedings (though no one seemed to mind the fact that she was slicing people to death with swords). Lizewski names his alter-ego Kick-Ass and despite his ineptitude gathers quite a following. But when the local Mafioso mistake him for the vigilante Daddy-Girl duo he is thrown squarely into the crime fighting deep end. New Hollywood bad-guy extraordinaire Mark Strong has a wonderful outing as gangster boss Frank D’Amico, and the usually geeky Christopher Mintz-Plasse as D’Amico’s son and eventual costumed villain The Red Mist is impressively intense. Around the wonderful performances is an excellent tale for those that ever wondered what it would be like to slip into some spandex and get their Superman on. As Lizewski’s hilarious scrapes show it probably won’t go half as well as you dreamt it would.
Tasty Morsel – Cropping up even in comic movies that he didn’t even have a hand in creating, watch out for yet another Stan Lee cameo as a man watching news footage.
- THE AVENGERS / AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012)
The comic movie death knell is the too many cooks philosophy. That American belief that more is more has derailed a good few comic projects, the likes of Batman & Robin (1997) and Spiderman 3 (2007) crumbling under the weight of too many heroes and villains stuffed into two hour running times. The shadow of Arnie’s Mr. Freeze and Topher Grace’s Venom loomed large over The Avengers (2012) as Marvel Entertainment crawled towards their first superhero team-up film one movie at a time. Things started well enough, Ironman (2008) the first prequel movie reaping box office rewards, critical thumbs-up, and fandom approval. But the second Avenger lead-in, The Incredible Hulk (2008), hit problems. Viewers were unimpressed and the Hulk himself, Edward Norton, stomped off in a strop growling "never again”. Ironman 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) steadied the ship but fans still wondered if a single film would be roomy enough for all of these heroes and stars. Sci-fi go-to-guy Joss Whedon made his task even harder by chucking Hawkeye and Black Widow into the mix, but despite the cavalcade of characters the director kicked the doubters into touch and turned in 2012’s biggest movie. It helped having a whooping 143 minutes to play with, but Whedon showed a veteran hand juggling all the main players and ensuring that even the minor characters had stand out moments. Downey Jnr was still at his sardonic best, Hemsworth made the otherworldly Thor relatable again, Pine continued the out-of-time old school manners act, and Mark Ruffalo one upped Norton with the definitive Bruce Banner performance. But it was the spectacle we all turned up for and boy did the movie deliver. Despite Loki’s army being cardboard cut-out alien beings more suited to a straight to dvd cheapy, the climatic showdown was the perfect example of the on-page explosiveness of a comic book finally realised on the big screen. DC looked on and bellowed "JLA” at its film department.
Tasty Morsel – Alien (1979) fans got a little treat with a cheeky cameo for Harry Dean Stanton in Brett attire asking a crash landed Hulk if he’s an alien.