Ever since the 18th Century, comics, manga, cartoons and graphic novels have been a part of public storytelling. Taking us to new and existing worlds through art and words. While equally challenging political figures and institutions as they reflect and dissect our human journey.
From Japan to Europe and the America’s the use of images in storytelling has a long tradition of engaging a wide and diverse audience. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the western comic book as we now know it, came into being. And while the popularity of the comic grew, it took Hollywood some time to catch on to the potential success of the comic/movie crossover. With The Adventures of Captain Marvel hitting cinema screens in 1941, based on the Fawcett comics creation (Shazam).
Since these tentative steps into film, the comic book world has expanded, delving into more than just its 1930s superhero themes. From serial killers to film noir and coming of age, comics have given birth to some of the best films of the 20th and 21st Century. So Join us as we explore our list of essential comic book movies. From stories that exude wonder and imagination, to journeys that challenge human perceptions and social barriers. With each film proving that both comic’s and graphic novels are one of the most important forms of creativity and art in modern storytelling.
Superman the Movie (1978) Superman II (1980/2006) & Superman Returns (2006)
Richard Donner’s superhero epic not only provided the cinematic template for everything ‘super’ that came after it. But also redefined the role comic book movies would play in each generation since its release. Taking the superhero from low budget matinees to spectacular event driven cinema.
Created by childhood friends Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both of whom were classmates at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio. Superman was born into a world where fascism was marching across Europe. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that the characters creators were both Jewish young men. Their creation of hope and justice jarring with the post depression world of turmoil and hate surrounding them. With Superman’s origin story echoing that of Moses. While his name Kal-El was based on a Hebrew suffix for God.
Superman the Movie offers a sublime coming of age story, dovetailed with a reflection of American freedom based on its history as country of immigrants. One that lights up the screen with hope for a better world. As an orphan from a distant star, finds himself loved unconditionally by his adoptive parents despite his difference. While equally never shying away from the quasi religious themes originally envisioned by Superman’s creators. Placing the powers of a god in the hands of man still finding his own place in the society that surrounds him.
But in translating the Superman story to the screen, Donner surrounds these themes with the energy and adventure of the classic Children’s matinees of his childhood. Threading humour, charm and excitement into every scene. While Christopher Reeve seamlessly portrays both the human and alien side of his character. Ultimately creating a defining on screen representation of Clark Kent and Superman that has never been equalled.
This love and affection for the character, coupled with the delicate and beautiful cinematography of the late Geoffrey Unsworth. And the pure magic of John William’s powerful score, ensure that Superman the Movie soars with sincerity and love. While the late Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder steal our hearts with performances that echo the wonder of a comic book world.
Superman was not without its trials and tribulations. Notably the sacking of Richard Donner as director before the sequel was completed. Even through Donner had already filmed a large part of Superman II. Ultimately leading to the films completion laying in the hands of veteran director Richard Lester. Who duly altered many aspects of Donner’s original vision, bringing a lighter tone to Superman’s return in 1980. But while highly successful and enjoyable, this also led to Superman II feeling remote from the epic start made in 1978.
However, in 2006 Warner Bros gave a green light for the release of Richard Donner’s Superman II. Finally joining both chapters together with original footage and screen tests. While also demonstrating what could have been back in 1980. And while Lester’s film is impressive, it is the Donner cut that truly shines in showing the power of the directors vision.
Superman Returns (2006)
Of course Superman II was not the last film to star both Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. With both Superman III and the lacklustre Superman IV ending their time as the man of steel and Louis Lane. And while Superman III was entertaining, it would be fair to say the franchise fizzled without Richard Donner at the helm. However in 2006 hope was reborn in the hands of the unknown Brandon Routh. A man who embodied the style and panache of Christopher Reeve.
Superman Returns dismissed the failings of both Superman III and IV by continuing the story from Superman II. In turn resurrecting the style and scale of Richard Donner’s vision. Ultimately providing us with a film that stands on its own feet while also rejuvenating the Superman franchise. However, further films were not to be as Warner Brothers decided not to progress with a sequel. A huge mistake that left Brandon Routh’s Superman sidelined just as he soared into people’s hearts.
It is more than fitting that Shazam! made our essential list. After all in many ways this is where the film journey of the superhero began in 1941. With the low budget but creatively important The Adventures of Captain Marvel.
Created in 1939 by Fawcett Comics as a response to the success of the Superman character. C.C Beck and Bill Parker’s hero (originally titled Captain Marvel) had the power of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus and Mercury. Playing with ancient mythology alongside the childhood desire to obtain superpowers. However since 1972 the character had sat under the DC Comics brand with limited fanfare in the wider media. And it is for this reason that the characters rebirth on screen in 2019 was so welcome.
Thankfully Shazam! did not disappoint, lighting up the cinema screen, while also reinventing the genre. With writers, director and cast playing homage to the teenage longing, fun and excitement of the comics. Accompanied by heartfelt and engaging performances from Asher Angel, Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan-Grazer.
Starting his career working for both DC Comics and Marvel, Scottish writer Mark Millar launched his own comic book world in 2004. Creating stories and characters that took the audience into a far more urban, edgy, diverse and darkly humorous world. A world that gave birth to Kingsman, Nemesis, Kick-Ass and Hit Girl. And in 2010 Millar’s Kick-Ass characters finally found their cinematic voice in the hands of director Matthew Vaughn. Who not only brought the characters to life in blaze of colour and violence. But also created one of the finest comic to film adaptations of a generation. Echoing the mayhem and dark humour of Millar’s books while injecting a fresh approach to comic book adaptations. Ultimately delivering a film that has gone on to earn cult status while also ushering in a series of alternative takes on the hero in both film and in TV.
The unlikely triumph of Kick-Ass is that, for a microsecond, it presents a plausible scenario in which an amateur superhero might somehow actually succeed, and like Galaxy Quest with its collision of phoney and real space aliens, Kick-Ass fantasises about a meeting of wannabe and real superheroes.Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) 31st March 2010
My Friend Dahmer (2018)
You would be forgiven if My Friend Dahmer had passed you by on its release in 2018. But Marc Meyers film version of John Backderf’s 2012 autobiographical graphic novel is both chilling and fascinating in equal measure. Charting John’s brief time with Jeffrey Dahmer during the final months of high school. Before Dahmer went on to become one of America’s most notorious and cruel serial killers. At this point you may be wondering if Meyers film glamorises or makes excuses for Dahmer’s eventual killing spree. But the answer is a categorical ‘no’ as we explore the outsider, loner and damaged teenage personality of a man who would go on to kill. His festering obsessions with animal cruelty interfacing with a dysfunctional home life, and desperate need to find a place within his peer group.
This complex dynamic is mixed with scenes where Meyers film is designed to make you laugh and reflect on your own teenage life. Creating an uncomfortable atmosphere, where the viewer can’t help but feel sorry for the perpetrator. For some this may prove too confusing and too much to handle. But for those willing to look deeply into the realm of adolescent psychology, identity and belonging. My Friend Dahmer offers a film experience unlike many others within the genre.
Hugh Jackman embodied the role of Marvel’s Wolverine in a way few other actors could have managed. However, apart from a few stand out cinematic performances, Wolverine struggled to find a film that truly reflected the brilliance of Jackman’s portrayal. Therefore when his final outing as the character was announced, with James Mangold in the directors chair, hopes were high. And Mangold did not disappoint a legion of fans. With a film that reflected the isolation, fear and grit of Jackman’s Wolverine in a style no previous film had managed. Unapologetically steering the character towards a far more adult world, while wrapping his final journey in a tale of heroism and mortality.
Right from the start, it’s clear that Jackman’s Wolverine is a fading man. The wise-cracks are gone (Logan is a movie with barely any zingers). His body bears the scars of his life’s scrapes, and his wounds no longer instantly heal. His mentor, too, is in a worst state. Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier is in his 90s, his brain fading, his body not far behind. Logan himself relies on his assorted addictions just to get through life. Charles needs medication to try and scrape together what’s left of his, nursed as best as he can by Stephen Merchant’s Caliban.Simon Brew – Den of Geek (2017)
Road to Perdition (2002)
Long before his foray into James Bond or his BAFTA winning success with 1917. Director Sam Mendes helmed one of the finest comic book movie adaptions of the 21st Century so far. With many viewers remaining unaware of the films graphic novel roots. From writer Max Allen Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner.
Road to Perdition takes us on a devastating journey into revenge, father-son relationships and life choices. Echoing the family based drama and tension of The Godfather and Goodfellas, while equally lacing its narrative with a rare emotional intelligence. Ultimately delivering one one of the finest Depression-era crime drama’s ever made.
It’s on the personal level that Road cuts deepest. “We are all murderers in this room,” says Rooney to Sullivan. Even the last words we hear — “He was my father” — evoke feelings too complicated for tears. Like all films that count for something, this stunner gets under your skin. Put Road on the short list for Best Movie of 2002.Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) July 12th 2002
When the Wind Blows (1986)
There is certainly no shortage of TV and film adaptations exploring a possible nuclear holocaust. But Jimmy T. Murakami’s adaptation of Raymond Briggs graphic novel is something rather unique. As Murakami dutifully brings Briggs story to screen while also layering it with a deep and emotive character study. Mixing the use of traditional animation with stop motion work. While reflecting an almost childlike innocence in the retired couple at its heart. As we journey with them through the horror of a Nuclear winter in rural England.
Murakami maintains an uncomfortable ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach to narrative even when the viewer realises all is lost. Ultimately delivering an emotionally devastating film that rightly earns its place in the comic book movie hall of fame.
Batman (1989) & Batman Returns (1992)
Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. Echoing the characters of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, while mixing in a dash of Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracey. Batman was created as a wealthy playboy aristocrat by day, and crime solving masked hero by night. Adapting and growing over time to become the dark knight we now know and love.
Batman took a long time reaching the silver screen, hampered by previous adaptations that had stripped the character of his darkness. But with graphic novels slowly taking Batman into ever darker corners of Gotham. Tim Burton’s Batman not only re-invented the public image of the character for a new generation. But also enabled the character to once again take his rightful place on the big screen. In creating the 1989 Batman film, Burton borrowed the ingenuity, passion and excellence of Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie. While allowing for a darker and more nuanced hero.
Following the success of Batman, Tim Burton’s sequel remains one of the most underrated comic book films of the past 25 years. With Batman Returns delving even deeper into the gothic fairytale horror of Burton’s Gotham. While bringing together the Bat, the Cat and the Penguin for a nightmare Christmas in DC Comics darkest city. Providing not only a visually stunning landscape, but also a range of deliciously dark performances. With Keaton building on his debut outing as the Batman. While also relishing the opportunity to play alongside Pfeiffer’s psychotic yet sensual Catwomen and DeVito’s damaged and dangerous Penguin. Consequently creating a film of pure comic book fantasy, as the Christmas lights of Gotham sparkle against the darkness of Burton’s vision.
Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse (2018)
In recent years there has been no shortage of Spider-Man adventures on the big screen. With each outing providing a mixed bag of quality and innovation in the development of Stan Lee’s 1962 character. From Sony’s original trilogy through to remakes and the latest Sony/Marvel partnership. However in 2018 the Spider-Man universe finally recieved a powerful shot of innovation and difference. As the story of Miles Moran found a voice alongside a multi-verse of creativity and artistic excellence. Providing us with an animated adventure that surpassed many of the live action outings. Rightly earning an OSCAR for its sheer innovation and entertainment.
But not only is Spider-Man into the Spiderverse one of the finest comic books movies of the past decade. It is also an important step forward in diversity on screen. Finally bringing us a big screen outing for Marvel young black hero, while surrounding him with a joyous and fresh urban beat.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse is outrageous fun, with an endlessly imaginative script and animation to match. It’s the first superhero film in ages to truly feel without limits and full of surprises – and yet, the (large) team of writers and directors bring things back to the central idea of the character that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko envisioned all those years ago.Kambole Campbell – Little White Lies (December 2018)
Based on the comic-book series by the Franco-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is dedicated to reflecting Satrapi’s work with exquisite simplicity and power. As we journey with Marjane through her childhood growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran during the 1970’s. Creating a truly groundbreaking, humour driven and powerful exploration of coming of age in a time of social change. Where an individuals journey can be directly effected by the political and religious change of the state surrounding them. Ultimately delivering one of the finest explorations of political change in the life of a single family ever committed to screen in animated form.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Created by comic book writer and artist Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer first flew onto shelves in 1982. Providing a mix of serial adventure nostalgia and Indiana Jones inspired action. However, despite its comic book success the film version struggled through production. As disagreements between director Joe Johnson and Disney saw the film constantly held in a production void. And this may explain why Johnson’s film never received the praise it duly deserved on its final release.
Inhabiting the same world of 1930s inspired adventure seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Rocketeer is as stylish as it is different to any other comic book movie of the 1990s. Deliciously bathing the viewer in a homage to Saturday afternoon serials of the late 1930s and 1940s. While also delivering a rip roaring adventure. And while The Rocketeer may not have soared at the box office. It is a wonderful family movie that not only honours its comic book roots. But also lavishes its narrative with an energy worthy of the best superhero movies.
Avengers (2012) Avengers Infinity War (2018) & Avengers Endgame (2019)
Nobody can dispute the cultural significance and importance of the Avengers films in redefining superheroes on screen. While equally bringing together the diversity and brilliance of Marvel’s characters within one action packed journey.
The Marvel cinematic universe began in 2008 with Iron Man, where Robert Downey Jr pulled off a rare feat in cinema. By successfully bringing to life a Marvel hero who had largely disappeared from public view. This miraculous rebirth paved the way for a return of Captain America and the eventual birth of The Avengers franchise.
Arriving in 2012, The Avengers linked together a range of solo adventures and origin stories into one cinematic journey. Smartly insisting that audiences watched each previous film before entering the cinema for the team up they so desired. In turn heralding a new cultural force in event cinema. One where every film was interlinked, with the audience buying into a whole franchise rather than a single picture.
However, Disney also understood the comic book formula built by Superman, Spider-Man and Batman. Feeding off the structural composition of its predecessors in creating a tour de force of modern event cinema. While equally surrounding its characters with sublime performances, engaging screenplays and heart stopping action. Ultimately creating a franchise that not only put Marvel comics back on the film map. But also gave millions of children and adults a reason to step back into the cinema.
A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s powerhouse adaptation of John Wagner and John Locke’s 1997 graphic novel is one of the finest adaptations ever committed to the screen. However, it is equally one of the loosest in terms of its reflection of the original source material.
Viggo Mortensen plays small town family man and restaurant owner Tom Spall. However, after becoming a local celebrity by killing two robbers who threatened the life of one of his waitresses. Tom is hailed as a local hero on television, leading to a visit from an organised criminal gang who believe him to be missing hitman.
Cronenberg revels in the exploration of violence and its connection to emotion, place and belonging. Traversing the narrow gap between morality and power in protecting everything we close. Ultimately delivering a powerful and complex portrayal of the sleeping rage that exists in everyone.
Joker is not only a masterclass in filmmaking, it is a conversational piece of cinematic art. Taking one of the most sinister comic book characters ever created, and layering what you thought you knew with nuanced social commentary. This is a film which does not encourage violence anymore than a whole host of horror films in recent years. With media scrutiny and criticism seemingly aimed more at a concept that all comic book films should inhabit a happy Marvel style universe; a subversion of the depth and diversity of the comic book world. A literary world where many characters are adult and not child focussed.
Joker never makes any attempt to dovetail itself into the wider DC Comics universe. Director Todd Phillips choosing to allow his film the fly free of restrictions. As a result creating links to the Batman origin story that while clear are also gloriously different to anything we have seen before. While Joaquin Phoenix is truly astonishing. Giving us a character study of layered emotion, devastating sincerity, anger and humility. The mask of comic book evil removed for the world to see the man beneath the makeup. While the complexity, danger and isolation of sitting on the fringes of society are laid bare. This is Phoenix not only giving an award winning performance, but also reinventing a character who first appeared in 1940. Any comparisons to previous incarnations redundant as Phoenix focuses on Arthur, not the ‘The Joker’ of comic book legend.
Spider-Man (2002) & Spider-Man 2 (2004)
One of the unfortunate side effects of Sony’s constant need to reinvent Spider-Man, is that earlier versions are quickly replaced and forgotten. This is highlighted by the delightful and truly groundbreaking debut films directed by Sam Raimi.
Before Raimi’s vision was brought to the silver screen. Spider-Man had languished in a world of TV animation and less than flattering live action shows. But in 2002 Spider-Man finally swung on the big screen in the form of Toby Maguire with an origin story that shines with love for the original source material. While finally allowing Spider-Man to step from the shadows of TV into the bright lights of Hollywood.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man not only honours the comic books, but also the classic template set by Superman the Movie. Providing the audience with a coming of age story wrapped in the adventure and discovery of superhuman powers. The geeky Peter Parker and the smooth and confident Spider-Man coexisting while also creating a similar dynamic to Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent and Superman.
In 2004 Maguire returned to the role in Spider-Man 2 delving deeper into the character he established during the first outing. While also achieving a sequel that soared higher than the first outing. Cementing Spider-Man as box office success.
Spider-Man 2 played homage to the narrative template of Superman 2, by stripping Peter Parker of his powers. His desire to live a normal life clashing with the responsibility of his alter-ego. However as a dangerous yet amazing scientist is changed forever, Peter must put aside his own ambitions for the good of the city. Ultimately creating what is arguably still the best live action Spider-Man movie to date.
Batman Begins (2005) The Dark Knight (2008) & The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
When Warner Brothers mistakenly sacrificed Tim Burton and Michael Keaton after Batman Returns, the opportunity for a Burton led trilogy was lost. While the preceding films descended into the realms of humour, poor scripts and tongue in cheek acting.
Therefore when Warner Brothers decided to reboot the entire Batman franchise, the choice was either to play things safe. Or to allow creative freedom in plotting a new direction. Thankfully Warner took the latter path in allowing a director know for films like Insomnia and Memento to fly free in creative choices. The result being three films that not only reinvented Batman for a modern age. But also allowed the superhero movie too transcend the limited labels it had been given. Becoming Oscar worthy in every aspect of its delivery, from story to visual effects, acting and direction. While also squarely aiming at an older audience by reflecting an increasing darkness in the reality of 21st Century life. Seizing on the increasing social fears of crime, disconnected communities and terrorism in a post 9/11 world. Ultimately delivering three of the finest comic book movies ever committed to celluloid.
Each film in Nolan’s trilogy provides nothing short of a masterclass in direction and vision. With The Dark Knight standing tall in the middle, glowing with a pure yet dangerous beauty. Delivering a film that not only sings with divine performances from Christian Bale, the late Heath Ledger. But also burns itself into your mind and soul with a pace and style that echoes the very best the action/thriller genre has to offer.
Cast Includes: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Six years before South Korean director Bong Joon Ho received worldwide acclaim for Parasite, he brought us one of the finest comic to movie adaptations of recent years with Snowpiercer. However, you would be forgiven if Snowpiercer passed you by. As the director found himself in a clash with the films distributors The Weinstein Company. As disagreements on potential cuts and the introduction of an opening and closing monologue led to the film all but disappearing from American and British cinema’s.
Based on the french graphic novel series ‘Le Transperceneige’ by Jean-Marc Rochette. Snowpiercer takes us into a post apocalyptic world where climate change has all but eradicated the human race. The lone survivors trapped on a train speeding around the world. It’s carriages reflecting the segregation and class separation that human society was built on.
Not only is Snowpiercer an audacious rollercoaster ride of pure action. It provides an intelligent and complex commentary of class, poverty and social divide. Delving deep into social constructs with a darkly humorous undertone only Bong Joon Ho could construct. While leaving its audience with a feeling of exhilaration and reflection on the dystopian world created. Ultimately delivering a Science Fiction epic within the claustrophobic confines of a perpetually moving ark. One that reflects the best and worst of humanity in a visual and intellectual feast of filmmaking.
Ghost World (2001)
Based on the comic by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World provides us with a masterclass in screen adaptation. Lovingly and assuredly translating the themes of the comic book to the screen. While equally ensuring its reflection of teenage female experience is never lost or watered down.
Following the lives of two teenage girls across a summer of change in an unnamed American city. Ghost World perfectly encapsulates the fire and passion of youth, while also tapping into the exclusion young people feel. Ensuring it never succumbs to easy stereotypes by brining us characters that still speak to the love, loss and excitement of the journey into adulthood.
There comes a point in most teenager’s lives when you open your eyes, look around at the world and realise that the transition from childhood to adulthood isn’t as easy as you’d imagined. In fact, it is often underscored by doubt, anxiety and a daunting pressure to define yourself. Daniel Clowes, the creator of the comic on which the film is based, has said of Enid’s character: “When I started out I thought of her as this id creature… Then I realised halfway through that she was just more vocal than I was, but she has the same kind of confusion, self-doubts and identity issues that I still have – even though she’s 18 and I’m 39!”How Ghost World inspired me to leave my quiet suburban town – Georgina Guthrie (Little White Lies May 2018)
Charlie Brown and Peanuts
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) Charlie Brown’s All-Stars (1966) The Peanuts Movie (2015)
First published in 1950 across various American newspapers. Charles M. Schulz’ Charlie Brown and Peanuts has become one of the most famous comic strips in popular culture. Mixing intelligent comedy with the inner most fears, joy and anxieties of childhood. While challenging old fashioned views of psychology, development and acceptance. Ultimately creating characters that have burned themselves into modern pop culture. With 18,000 comic strips translated into over 21 different languages in 75 countries. And while some argue that many of the films listed are ‘TV Specials’. Cultural impact alone ensured Charlie Brown and Peanuts made our list.
Feature length TV specials based on collections of comic strip material began in 1965, with 45 specials having been produced since then. However, while every single feature length Peanuts adventure offers a delightful mix of culture, comedy, commentary and music. It’s the first three specials that truly shine in bringing the world of Charlie Brown to life in glorious technicolour.
Out of the three amazing TV specials that aired during 1965 and 1966. A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a quintessential reflection of Shultz at his best. Celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday that relates to all no matter of their religious beliefs. As Charlie Brown searches for the perfect Christmas tree, while also struggling to find meaning in the holiday season. The divine and highly intelligent script surrounded by the beautiful jazz inspired score of Vince Guaraldi. This is the TV film that set the template for Charlie Brown on screen. A template that led to another 44 specials up to the year 2000.
By 2015 Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang had finally made their way to the big screen. Lovingly brought to life by Blue Sky animation, as they tackled Snoopy and Red Barron. With a screenplay written by Charles M Shultz son and grandson. Ultimately creating a beautiful homage to the energy, love and character development of Peanuts in a film dripping with beauty.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) & Captain America: Civil War (2016)
After the success of Iron Man, it was only logical for Marvel Studios to bring their 1941 character Captain America to the big screen. While furthering developing the road map that would eventually lead to The Avengers, and a whole cinematic universe.
After the success of Superman, writer Joe Simon originally conceived the character of the ‘Super American’ back in 1940. Clearly offering a Marvel variation on the themes present in DC Comics Superman. However, ‘Super’ was quickly dropped during the creation process, with Captain America duly born in a homage to the military power of the USA and its increasing place as world power. With the first issue landing in American stores less than a year before Pearl Harbour.
Unlike Superman (an alien from a distant star) Captain American is a pure reflection of American superiority. A product of the time and place that saw his birth, therefore, his translation to film came with significant risk. After all, how do you recreate the all-American hero for a new age, and a different cultural landscape? The answer was nothing short of a complete reinvention, softening the character in the hands of Chris Evans. While equally allowing for a historical origin story that led to a modern-day role in Marvel’s new landscape.
Over the course of three films Captain America was transformed into a relatable superhero for the 21st Century. While also delivering an intelligent conversation on the notions of American power that gave birth to the character.
Cast Includes: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Hugo Weaving, Richard Armitage, Hayley Atwell
Weird Science (1985)
Over the course of four years in the early 1950’s the weird science comic book series brought science fiction and fantasy to America. Dovetailing its fresh style with an American society obsessed with UFO’s, conspiracy theories and scientific advancement. While also giving birth to a range of TV and film ideas, despite its short-lived run.
However, despite the cultural impact of the comics, many are unaware that the classic John Hughes film of the same name was inspired by issue number 5 ‘Made of the Future’. Taking a 1950s sci-fi story and updating it for a 1980s landscape of teenage wish fulfilment, subculture and growing materialism.
A box office success on its release, Weird Science has largely slipped into the mists of time. With Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Hughes late 80s comedies dominating public attention. However, revisit Weird Science and you will find a movie that wears its comic book roots with pride. And while some aspects of its narrative may now jar with the sensibilities of a modern audience, especially around female representation. This is a film that laughs far more at the teenage male obsession with female perfection and status than women rights.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)
La vie d’Adèle
Based on the 2010 graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. Blue is the Warmest Colour has earned its well-deserved place as classic of modern LGBTQ cinema. Delivering a beautiful snapshot of first love in all its complexity, while dovetailing this with the emotional rollercoaster of ‘coming out’. However, this is also a film that embraces female sexuality, while being unafraid to explore the interface between sex and love. While equally exploring themes of public acceptance and belonging in the arms of another. With the changes of growing maturity and social confidence impacting the long-term feelings of love and sex on the journey to womanhood.
It’s a simple, even predictable story, yet textured so exquisitely and acted so forcefully as to feel almost revelatory. Always persuasive as a dreamy object of desire, Seydoux nonetheless surprises with the depth of her control; she has moments of stunning ferocity here, revealing Emma as a generous, open person whose hard, judgmental streak is inextricable from her artistic temperament. But the picture belongs to Exarchopoulos, completely inhabiting a role aptly named after the thesp herself; with her husky voice and sweet, reluctant smile, she plays virtually every emotion a director can demand of an actress, commanding the viewer’s attention and sympathy at every minute. Taxing as the 175-minute running time will be for some audiences, those on the picture’s wavelength will find it continually absorbing.Variety ‘Cannes Film Festival Review’ – Justin Chang (May 2013)
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
No article covering essential comic book films would be complete without Tintin. A true legend of the graphic novel world brought to life by Georges Prosper Remi (Hergé) in 1929. His beautiful artwork coupled with adventure and crime solving stories full of energy, invention and intelligence. However, the characters journey to film has provided a mixed bag in terms of quality. From the truly disappointing live action Tintin and Blue Oranges (1964) to several animated films that have largely disappeared into the mists of cinema history. Therefore, when Steven Spielberg announced his intention to bring Tintin to the big screen in 2004 hopes were high for a trilogy of films. Particularly from the creator Hergé who had been disappointed by previous animated and live action versions. Believing Spielberg, who was a long-time fan of Tintin to be the only director who could truly bring his creation to the big screen.
By 2007 Peter Jackson, another long-term fan of Tintin had jumped on board, with script writing duties sitting with Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, a truly enviable writing partnership. While casting placed Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg into core roles. The plan centring on three films that would faithfully bring Herges world to life with cutting edge 3D animation.
The result released in 2011 was both a critical and box office success, finally bringing the world of Hergé to life on the big screen. While surrounding Tintin with the energy and adventure of a young Indiana Jones. Unfortunately to date this has been the only film in originally announced trilogy. And as time has slipped past it may be the only one involving the talent of the first outing.
First appearing in Fantastic Four #52 back in 1966, Stan Lee’s groundbreaking African superhero had a long journey to our cinema screens. But when he did it was with a cataclysmic bang, as the white supremacy of the superhero was challenged and changed forever. In a film that not only reflects the history of African culture, but embraces it in every single scene. Finally offering African young people and those of African decent a hero who shines with ferocity and difference. While in turn being surrounded by strong black women, and an African nation of advanced technology that has never been colonised.
Stan Lee’s character came from the heart of the civil rights movement in 1960’s America. Reflecting the need for hope in black communities at a time of widespread discrimination and oppression. With the movement having been shook by the assassination of Kennedy and Malcolm X , while placing hope in the hands of his brother Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Only to see him them both suffer the same fate in 1968. However, the character inspired young people to reach for hope. As for the first time in comic book history they saw a character reflecting their own heritage and identity. And despite the character not receiving their own comic book until 1977, by which time DC Comics and other had also introduced their own black characters. It was Stan Lee’s Black Panther who paved the way.
This is not just a movie about a black superhero; it’s very much a black movie. It carries a weight that neither Thor nor Captain America could lift: serving a black audience that has long gone underrepresented. For so long, films that depict a reality where whiteness isn’t the default have been ghettoized, marketed largely to audiences of color as niche entertainment, instead of as part of the mainstream.
Think of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, Malcolm D. Lee’s surprise 1999 hit The Best Man or the Barbershop franchise that launched in 2002. But over the past year, the success of films including Get Out and Girls Trip have done even bigger business at the box office, led to commercial acclaim and minted new stars like Kaluuya and Tiffany Haddish. Those two hits have only bolstered an argument that has persisted since well before Spike Lee made his debut: black films with black themes and black stars can and should be marketed like any other. No one talks about Woody Allen and Wes Anderson movies as “white movies” to be marketed only to that audience.The Revolutionary Power of Black Panther – Time Magazine (Jamil Smith)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Few comic book or graphic novel adaptations truly reflect the visual style of their source material when brought to the screen. However, Edgar Wright’s 2010 film based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-volume graphic novel delivers all the energy and flare of the graphic novel in spades. Creating a highly unique narrative style that follows the pace and construct of video game as apposed to standard movie. While circling its neon colours and adolescent energy and confusion with delicious humour and an addictive pace.
However amid all the energy and colour, there are also deep issues of teenage identity and belonging. From what it means to male in 21st Century, through to the discovery of who you really are in a world of social pressure. These are themes that only Edgar Wright could twist and turn into a film of pure comic book delight. Its energy bouncing off the screen and its your heart. As pop culture mixes with teenage angst, gaming and romance in one the finest graphic novel adaptations of the 21st Century, so far.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
After an all too brief but truly stunning performance in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland finally received his own full fledged Spider-Man debut in 2017 with Homecoming. But a question lingered about how the Spider-Man character could once again be reinvented. And while Tom had brought a youthful energy and charisma to the character reminiscent of the comics, could this be translated into a film that offered something new? Thankfully the answer was yes. In a Spider-Man film that not only relaunched the character. But provided the world with what is arguably the finest on screen interpretation of Stan Lee’s original hero.
Now at this point, I am aware that many will disagree with my judgements. After all the on screen depiction of Spider-Man carries as much debate among fans as Batman or Superman. But for me Tom Holland is the quintessential Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Firstly, he reflects the origins of the teenage character. His super hero abilities interfacing with all the trauma, excitement and drama of teen life. While, secondly he conveys the puppy like energy of boy who still hasn’t found his style or place in a world of much bigger superheroes. His eagerness to learn cut against his teenage mindset and experience.
However, the beauty and energy of Holland’s performance would have achieved little without a film that tore up the rule book of the origin story. And its here where Homecoming achieves something truly unique in Spider-Man movie history. Circumnavigating the origin story, while introducing the world to a new Spider-Man through a homage to the John Hughes teenage films of the 80s. Ultimately delivering a movie that transcends the superhero genre from which it is born.
Casper the friendly ghost was created in the late 1930s by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, with his first animated appearance coming in 1939. However, despite the popularity of the comic books carrying his name. The character did not make it to a live action film until 1995. When Steven Spielberg hired director Brad Silberling to bring the famous apparition to the silver screen. With a script by Sherri Stoner, Deanna Oliver and an uncredited JJ Abrahams.
Despite its Spielberg backing, Casper did not receive universal praise on its release. With many reviewers pointing to the challenge of bringing a short cartoon into the realms of feature length film. However, what many reviewers of the time missed was the delicate, loving and tender exploration of grief at the films heart. With Casper not only providing a delightful children’s adventure, but also encouraging discussion on the nature of death. A subject many children’s films struggle to reflect in a meaningful way. Wrapping its comedy and visual beauty with deep and highly emotional themes of childhood mortality and parental loss.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Those of us born in the 1960’s and 1970’s will have fond memories of watching the TV series of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. But while the teatime TV show offered a delicious mix of camp fun. Many wondered when the DC comics hero would transfer to the silver screen in a more serious guise. Thankfully, Warner Brothers finally listened, introducing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman in the disappointing Batman vs Superman. Where she stole the show with a mix of female power, heroic duty and spirited pride. With Wonder Woman finally receiving her own story in 2017 in the hands of Patty Jenkins. Ultimately providing the world with a film that shattered the glass ceiling of female superheroes on screen in way 1984s Supergirl never managed.
Patty Jenkins not only reinvents the character in the public imagination, but ensures her power and beliefs sit centre stage. In a film that takes us from the Amazonian fantasy world of Themyscira, to the darkest trenches of World War One. Allowing the audience to experience her passions and belief in justice through a mixture of comic book fantasy and human reality. While Gal Gadot soars with intensity, love and respect for the character in her care.
Unlike the tricky, self-serving Black Widow in the Marvel Universe or the ambiguous Catwoman, Diana is pure of spirit. She is a pacifist mother-protector who fights for an end to all wars. But along with her tribe of elite warrior women, she has been isolated from the human race that she is sworn to protect.
This changes when dashing pilot/spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, great fun) crashes into her world, with stories of a war to end all wars (the main body of the film is set at the end of the first world war). There is crackling chemistry between Gadot and Pine – even an “above average” man (as he is at pains to point out) can’t help but wilt a little under Diana’s clear-eyed, curious gaze. There’s just a flicker of disappointment in his eyes when he realises that she is more interested in his wristwatch than she is in his other “equipment”. It’s lip-smacking, flirtatious fun. But, in common with Diana, there is a genuine wonder at work here. We rediscover the tropes of genre through her questioning eyes. And for once, the comic-book movie almost seems fresh again.Wendy Ide – The Guardian (June 2017)
Sin City (2005)
Film Noir meets Tarantino in one of the most stylistically unique adaptations of a graphic novel ever committed to screen. Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City is the closest thing you will ever get to a graphic novel on film. Providing us with a journey that exudes style, violence and sheer artistic audacity in bringing Frank Miller’s Sin City to life. While in turn surrounding the viewer with a mix of period style from the brash violence of a modern city to the 1930s inspired crime drama. Sin City sits outside of time as we know it, while never succumbing to any individual genre boundaries.
However, for all its artistry there is also a dark side to Frank Miller’s world, one that jars in a post ‘Me too’ era. As women are simply used and discarded, while men who obtain power do so through violence. This does lead to a reexamination of Sin City, but also poses questions about the wider adult comic book world.
WARNING – MATURE CONTENT
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
First appearing in Marvel Comics back in 1969 The Guardians of the Galaxy have taken several forms in the comic book world. With James Gunn’s film based on the more modern set characters introduced in 2008.
Out of all the Marvel films on our list with the exception of Thor Ragnarock, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most unique. Providing us with a tongue in cheek homage to 1970s and 80s science fiction. Bound up in a film that is a pure rollercoaster ride of fun and humour. In essence, providing us with an intergalactic road trip movie, where outcasts and misfits save the day. While surrounding the delicious humour and action with pop and soul classics that joyfully transcend the science fiction roots of the story.
Maybe you never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel comic franchise that wilts in the shadows while Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers get all the love. Maybe you think a big-ass movie about wanna-be Marvel icons isn’t worth your time.
Snap out of it. Guardians of the Galaxy does the impossible. Through dazzle and dumb luck, it turns the clichés of comic-book films on their idiot heads and hits you like an exhilarating blast of fun-fun-fun. It’s insanely, shamelessly silly – just one reason to love it.Peter Travers – Rolling Stone (July 2014)
Warner Brothers Animated Films
No list of essential comic book movies would be complete without mentioning the superb Warner Brothers animated collection. And while there are simply too many stand out films to include individually. These animated DC Comics adventures are all too often overlooked when discussing film. While offering wonderful comic rich stories that appeal to multiple ages in reflecting the scale and scope of the DC universe. Therefore we urge any reader to seek out these animated gems, and enjoy the ride.
Manga/Anime in Film
Just as with Warner Animation above, there are simply too many great films based on Manga and Anime for us to list them all separately. Ranging from Death Note and Ghost in the Shell through to Old Boy and Akira. Each one reflecting an art form that has had global impact in both vision, stories and animated innovation.With all the films listed a mere tip of much larger iceberg when exploring the treasure trove of Manga. However, despite its cultural impact and a history dating back the 18th Century. Manga has only relatively recently become a part of western pop culture and film.
However, as its global popularity has grown, Manga and Anime have provided us with some of the finest comic book stories in film. Stories that have often been translated into westernised filmmaking with mixed results. Whether that be through remakes of classic manga/anime films or fresh interpretations of the Japanese art form. But for us, we advise you stick to the original Japanese and Korean films that brought Manga to the western world. Films that injected difference and diversity into the comic book movie landscape. Taking us from coming of age, to science fiction and revenge drama.
Iron Man (2008)
Where did the Marvel Studios journey begin? was it with Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man or Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man. The answer to the this question is undeniably the latter. With Iron Man not only pressing the reset button on Marvel’s cinematic journey, but also delivering a tour de force in reinvention.
Iron Man first appeared in comic form in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963, with his first solo outing in 1968. But it’s his anti-hero credentials that fascinated me as a young comic book reader. Providing us with the Marvel reflection of DC Comics Batman. As a wealthy arms dealer and businessman slowly becomes a metal clad hero who always sits on the verge of self interest and public good. However, despite the depth and complexity inherent in the character, Iron Man’s journey to the big screen was problematic. With the rights to the character transferring from Universal Pictures to 20th Century Fox and eventually Paramount over an 18 year period.
By 2006 Jon Favreau found himself in the directors chair, as pre-production finally got underway after years of delay. With Favreau clear that Iron Man should reflect a man’s rebirth as his world changed. And it’s here that the casting of Robert Downey Jr provided the film with stroke of pure genius. Ultimately casting an actor who was also in the process of reinventing himself after years of addiction. Linking the actor with his onscreen persona in way that embedded the performance with a mix of fantasy and human reality. Ensuring Robert Downey Jr became the character in way few other actors could have ever achieved. While in turn creating one of the finest on screen anti-heroes in film history.
Richie Rich (1994)
Okay we know what you’re thinking! Has Cinerama Film gone mad in citing the poor performing Richie Rich as an essential comic book movie? Well no we are not mad, and urge you to hear us out on this left field addition to the list.
Created by Alfred Harvey and Warren Kremer in 1953, Richie Rich followed the adventures on the richest boy alive. Becoming Harvey Comics most popular character by the early 1960’s. His extraordinary wealth accompanied by a charitable need to do good in the wider world. However, it’s not the comic book character that makes the 1994 film fascinating. Instead it is the link between the character and the teenage child star at the films heart.
By 1994 Macaulay Culkin had cemented his place as the most successful child star of the modern era. His journey from 1990s Home Alone leading to eight motion pictures in just four years. A tiring and all consuming feat for even the most well established adult stars. Let alone a 13 year old boy whose life was directed by an overbearing father. Therefore, by the time Richie Rich came into production Culkin was showing signs of exhaustion and depression. Signs that are not only evident on screen but also tie him to the overarching sadness of the character he portrays.
In the film Richie has everything a boy could ever desire, but lacks the most important thing money can’t buy, friends. In reality Culkin’s life was in a similar position as the dream of making movies warped into a nightmare of social isolation. His teenage longing for escape screaming from the cinema screen in every scene. As he bravely try’s to keep up the youthful energy of Home Alone while in turn reflecting the sadness of teenage isolation. Ultimately providing us with a comic book film that uncomfortably reflects the last gasps of lonely child star due an extended holiday.
Thor Ragnarok (2017)
With the Marvel cinematic universe in full swing, Thor Ragnarock provides a deliciously break in a collection of interlinking stories. Providing a humorous and gloriously eccentric hopping on point for new viewers. While equally transcending the comic book world of its creation. In a year that saw Marvel embrace creativity with Spider-Man Homecoming and Guardian of the Galaxy Part II sitting alongside Ragnarok.
This is a film where director Taika Waititi finally offers Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to embrace his Thor character. While equally allowing Mark Ruffalo time to fully explore the Hulk in all his glory. With a film that riffs on Flash Gordon, He-Man and Krull. While leaping from screen with one of the most entertaining of Marvel Studio’s movies. However, the pure energy and humour also hides a more serious exploration of leadership, fatherhood and alienation. Themes that pervade the one and only solo Thor outing to make our essential list.
In the run-up to release, much was made of the allegedly drastic shift in tone that would make this project unique. It was sold as a light, funky, largely comedic effort—practically a spoof of Marvel’s usual, with Thor and the Hulk serving as the anchor of, basically, a buddy movie, like the kind Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used to churn out.
There are times when it gets close to that promised film, and when it hits pay dirt, it is delightful—particularly during very broad slapstick moments, as when Hulk enters the arena and Thor laughs with relief and announces, “I know him—he’s a friend from work!”; and in moments of relatively subdued character development, as when Thor and Hulk commiserate in private and we learn that the big green guy loves it on Sakaar because the people treat him as an athletic superstar and folk hero, in contrast to the pariah treatment he gets back on Earth.Matt Zoller Seitz (Roger Ebert) November 2017
Tales from the Crypt (1972) & Creepshow (1982)
Who doesn’t love a good horror, especially when they centre on short but deliciously dark stories. Back in the late 1940s the go to comic outlet for grizzly tales of ghosts, murder and the undead was EC Comics. A small American outlet specialising in horror and fantasy. Until the mid 1950s resurgence of censorship following the explosion of a new and rebellious ‘teenage’ culture.
However, despite a relatively short lived life in print. EC Comics ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and ‘Eerie’ publications had a long lasting impact on many young people who would go on to write and direct. Including Stephen King and Joe Dante to name but a few. Inspiring horror movies, TV shows and short films to this day. While also giving us the deliciously dark short film collections of Tales from the Crypt 1972 and Creepshow 1982. With the latter penned by Stephen King as a homage the comics he grew up reading.
So thank you EC Comics for encouraging a whole generation of horror writers and directors. While delightfully trying to shrug away the accusations of moral turpitude levelled upon you. Without your horror comics the world of film and TV would have been a far more dull and safe place.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
So hands up if knew that Armando Iannucci’s divine satirical drama was based on a graphic novel? At this point we are assuming that very few hands have actually gone up. But it is true that the Death of Stalin is indeed based on the french collection La Mort de Staline by Thierry Robin and Fabien Nury.
The Death of Stalin is not only a highly intelligent dissection of fascism and control. But also a striking and powerful exploration of political influence, dictatorship and security. One that many will find hard to swallow as it veers from the ridiculous to the horrific truth of Stalins brutal power.
Stylishly plugging into the classic Soviet-era mode of subversive satire, and melding it with his own, Iannucci has returned to his great thematic troika of power, incompetence and bad faith. Like the spin-doctors and aides of his TV satires The Thick of It and Veep, these poisonous Soviet rivals are orphaned by the times. The real power – PM, president, general secretary of the Soviet Union – to whom these people pay lip-service but have forgotten why, is absent, somewhere beyond or above or below them. They scurry around in an eternal headless-chicken dance whose purpose is to make sure that someone gets the blame.
But in The Thick of It or Veep it was different. Get something wrong, and for the most part all you endured was media embarrassment. Here you get a bullet in the back of the head. I wonder if anyone from Vladimir Putin’s cabinet will see The Death of Stalin. They might see something awful being born.Peter Bradshaw – The Guardian 2017