10 great comic book films

With Tom Cruise roaming a depopulated, post-apocalyptic Earth in the latest graphic novel-derived blockbuster, Oblivion, we offer 10 movies that reveal the ever-popular comic book film at its finest.

Paul O’Callaghan
Updated:

Oblivion (2013)

Oblivion (2013)

The development history of Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion is indicative of how closely aligned the film and comic book industries have become in recent years. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 2007, Kosinski took his film treatment to Radical Comics, who embarked on producing a graphic novel based on the material. While promoting his debut feature Tron: Legacy (2010) at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2010, Kosinski took the opportunity to present a preview chapter of the book. This caught the attention of Tom Cruise, who requested a meeting with the director and signed on for the lead role in a film adaptation before a script had even been written.

In a world in which Hollywood’s biggest stars actively scour fan conventions in search of future projects, it’s all too easy to forget that the comic book movie’s dominance of the multiplex is a very recent phenomenon. Glancing at a list of the comic-derived films on the immediate horizon – Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, and Thor 2: The Dark World among them – it’s equally easy to forget that there’s far more to the medium than overexposed superheroes. The 10 titles that follow offer a reminder of the breadth and diversity of comic book films at their finest.

Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Director Mario Bava

B-movie maestro Mario Bava’s psychedelic crime caper is in many respects a companion piece to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). Producer Dino De Laurentiis set in motion these two Euro trash comic book adaptations in the wake of the phenomenally successful Batman TV series. The films are cut from the same kitsch cloth, share a star in John Phillip Law, and were released in the same year.

Yet while Barbarella enjoys the stronger cult following, Danger: Diabolik is the superior offering. Its high camp flourishes are offset by a gleefully amoral sensibility – our protagonist is a nihilistic supervillain who barely utters a word on screen, yet we find ourselves rooting for him as he faces off against idiotic government bureaucrats and crass opportunist criminals. Bava borrows heavily from the Bond series to craft a series of increasingly outlandish action set pieces, but offers the viewer a chance to delight for once in the bad guy emerging victorious.

Superman (1978)

Director Richard Donner

The original comic book blockbuster is not without its flaws – the slapstick bumbling of villainous henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) grows tired almost immediately, while a scene in which Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) recites love poetry mid-air is simply excruciating. Younger audiences raised on Christopher Nolan’s hyper-realistic Batman films might also scoff at our hero’s ability to conceal his identity simply by donning a pair of oversized glasses.

But none of this can detract from the fact that director Richard Donner effectively mastered the superhero origin film on first attempt. The pacing is measured and deliberate, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is exquisite (particularly in the early Smallville sequences), and Christopher Reeve succeeds in bringing a modern mythical figure to life, imbuing the Man of Steel with charm and vulnerability.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Director Hayao Miyazaki

Credit: © 1984 Nibariki - GH

Hayao Miyazaki’s second feature film, an adaptation of his own manga series, is a landmark in Japanese animation but remains under-appreciated outside its home country. This wistful post-apocalyptic fantasy introduces many of the tropes that Miyazaki would explore throughout his distinguished career – its giant creatures, fascination with flight, strong female protagonist and environmentalist stance would all become hallmarks of Studio Ghibli, which the director co-founded on the back of the film’s success.

As the princess Nausicaä embarks on a quest to save a jungle from eradication at the hands of an invading human army, Miyazaki admittedly lays on the anti-war and pro-nature messaging a little heavy-handedly. Yet while the film has been surpassed by later Ghibli efforts like the similarly themed Princess Mononoke (1997), its scope and ambition remain remarkable.

Akira (1988)

Director Katsuhiro Otomo

The film that brought anime to the attention of the west, Akira is a visually arresting and conceptually audacious treat. Set in a dystopian near-future Tokyo, this tale of a teenage biker coming to terms with remarkable psychic abilities has proven one of the most influential animated films of the past 30 years, becoming synonymous with the cyberpunk genre, and serving as a key inspiration for The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).

The film’s intricate hand-drawn animation still dazzles 25 years on – Neo-Tokyo is a joy to behold, and the filmmakers take advantage of the limitless possibilities afforded by the medium to deliver an eye-popping, head-scratching climax.

Batman (1989)

Director Tim Burton

While Richard Donner’s Superman remains influential, the superhero film as we now know it began to take shape with Tim Burton’s altogether darker vision of the caped crusader. The casting of Michael Keaton in the lead role, known at the time as a quirky character actor, proved controversial in the era of the chiselled action star. But Burton’s ambition was to explore the tormented psyche of Bruce Wayne, and Keaton rises to this task admirably. As the Joker, Jack Nicholson turns in a performance which is wildly unrestrained even by his standards, and steals the show in doing so.

Tonally, Burton hit on a winning formula, serving up enough mature content to satisfy an older audience, while keeping things sufficiently gentle to allow Warner Bros to aggressively market the film to children – it became the first title to receive a 12 certificate in the UK. Danny Elfman’s stirring score, meanwhile, established the composer as the go-to guy for comic book adaptations. His subsequent work on the likes of Dick Tracy (1990), Men in Black (1997) and Spider-man (2002) all owes a striking debt to his Batman themes.

American Splendor (2003)

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

This portrait of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar blurs the boundaries between drama and documentary to disorientating effect. Paul Giamatti stars as Pekar, a Cleveland file clerk who turned his own mundane existence into profound popular art through a series of autobiographical comics.

The film’s masterstroke is that Pekar and his wife Joyce narrate, wryly commenting on the dramatisation of their own lives. Hilarious, poignant, piercingly insightful and formally dazzling, American Splendor warrants comparison with Woody Allen at the height of his powers.

Oldboy (2004)

Director Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook’s breathtakingly stylish, coruscatingly violent tale of revenge, loosely based on a manga series, received its world premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. One can imagine Park squealing with delight on learning that the festival’s jury president that year would be Quentin Tarantino – it’s hard to conceive of a film more closely tailored to the personal predilections of the Kill Bill (2003) director.

Tarantino and his fellow jurors awarded Oldboy the Cannes Grand Prix, making it the first comic book adaptation to win a major award in the festival’s history. From there it went on to enjoy widespread critical acclaim, surprising perhaps for a film that features the consumption of a live octopus, eye-watering scenes of DIY dentistry, and a shockingly transgressive sexual relationship at its core.

A History of Violence (2005)

Director David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s most commercially successful film to date is also one of his most fully realised achievements. Viggo Mortenson stars as Tom Stall, a wholesome family man in a small town who skilfully defends his diner from an attempted armed robbery. The press declare Tom an American hero, but his newfound fame brings with it less welcome consequences, as it gradually comes to surface that he is a man with a dark and chequered past.

Cronenberg’s adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel superficially resembles a generic pulp thriller, but offers a profound psychological depth to viewers willing to scratch beneath the surface. Where Hollywood conventionally uses sex and murder as titillating window-dressing, here each explicit act is loaded with meaning and consequence. The result is a haunting meditation on violence, voyeurism, the nature of personal identity and the myth of the American Dream.

Persepolis (2007)

Directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi

This adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel is a triumph of lo-fi animation. Using crude, hand-drawn, black-and-white imagery, Satrapi recalls her privileged childhood in Iran, which is profoundly disrupted when Islamic revolutionaries come to power in 1979. Hers is a complex, sometimes tragic story, told here in a beautifully simple and immediately accessible way.

The young Marjane is as beguiling a protagonist as you’d find in any Disney film, and her child’s-eye view of Iranian society presented in the early part of the film is frequently hilarious. Though the focus is very much on her coming-of-age, the filmmakers provide broader historical context in the form of exhilaratingly paced puppet show sequences.

The Avengers (2012)

Director Joss Whedon

The staggering commercial success of The Avengers took Hollywood slightly by surprise. Of the Marvel Studios films leading up to this ensemble piece, only Iron Man (2008) had established itself as a top tier blockbuster franchise. Quite how Robert Downey Jr’s suave industrialist Tony Stark would fare on screen alongside the likes of Norse god Thor and The Incredible Hulk was tough to envisage – how would director Joss Whedon satisfy devoted comic fans, while ensuring his film remained even vaguely coherent and intelligible to the casual viewer?

The answer was simply through good old-fashioned storytelling. The writer-director’s background in fantasy television prepared him well for handling the film’s multiple protagonists and plot threads. The opening hour is a masterclass in elegant exposition, providing the viewer with just enough back story to feel invested in each member of the team. The ensuing spectacle is more than competently handled, building to a suitably outlandish climax. But it’s the perfectly pitched humour that elevates The Avengers above the comic book pack – Whedon revels in the inherent ludicrousness of the film’s premise, and frees up space for his characters to engage in some delightful verbal sparring.

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