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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 America, 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 comic book, as we now know it, came into being. While the comic’s popularity grew, it took Hollywood some time to catch on to the comic/movie crossover’s potential success. The Adventures of Captain Marvel the first to hit cinema screens in 1941, based on the Fawcett comics creation (Shazam).
Since these tentative steps into films, 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. Each film embedding the comic’s place as 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 provided the cinematic template for everything ‘super’ that came after it and redefined the role of comic book movies. Taking the superhero from low budget matinee to the spectacular event-driven cinema we know today.
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 character’s creators were both Jewish young men. Their creation of hope and justice shining in a post-depression world of turmoil and hate. Their characters stature and strength a dreamlike reflection of adolescent longing. While at the same time, his origins echo that of Moses; his name Kal-El a Hebrew suffix for God.
Not only did Siegel and Shuster’s character give birth to the DC Comics we know today, but also the superhero template of every super character since. His popularity throughout the post-war dawn of the American comic book proving instrumental in the birth of Marvel’s universe, Batman, the Flash and many others. While at the same time, his popularity ensured a jump from the page to radio and early TV. However, it took Superman far longer to make his big-screen debut. The journey beset by concerns over the limited practical effects available.
But, those concerns were not going to deter the Salkind family from bringing the man of steel to the big screen, hiring long time fan Richard Donner to direct the movie that would make you believe a man can fly. While also shooting the first film and its sequel back to back, in a move mostly unheard of in Hollywood circles. Of course, the budget quickly expanded, and production suffered massive delays, driving a rift between the Salkind’s and Donner. But, the result was nothing short of stunning.
Superman the Movie offers a sublime coming of age story, dovetailed with a reflection of American freedom based on its history as a 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 a man still finding his own place in the society that surrounds him.
In translating the Superman story for the screen, Donner surrounds these themes with the energy and adventure of the 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 ensures that Superman the Movie soars with sincerity and love. 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, Richard Donner’s sacking as director before the sequel was completed, even though Donner had already filmed a large part of Superman II. Ultimately leading to the film’s 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, the Donner cut truly shines in showing the power of the director’s 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 Lois 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 picks. 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. At the same time, joyously dovetailing ancient mythology with a childhood desire to obtain superpowers. However, since 1972 the character had sat under the DC Comics brand with limited fanfare in the broader media. And it is for this reason that the character’s rebirth on screen in 2019 was so welcome.
Thankfully Shazam! did not disappoint, lighting up the cinema screen while also reinventing the genre. Its writers, director, and cast playing homage to the comics’ teenage longing, fun, and excitement. With 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 comic book world in 2004. In turn, creating stories and characters that placed the audience into a far more urban, edgy, diverse and darkly humorous world. A world that has given birth to Kingsman, Nemesis, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl, to name but a few. With Millar’s Kick-Ass characters finally finding their cinematic voice in 2010 through director Matthew Vaughn, who not only brought the characters to life in a blaze of colour and violence but created one of the most innovative comic adaptations of a generation. The resulting film echoed the mayhem and dark humour of Millar’s books and achieved cult status. Its cultural significance inspiring a whole generation of alternative superhero TV shows and movies, from The Boys to The Umbrella Academy.
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 graphic novel is both chilling and fascinating in equal measure. His personal reflections on Dahmer charting their brief time together during the final months of high school. Their graduation into an adult world foreshadowing a man who would go 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, the loner, and damaged teenager who would go on to kill. His festering obsession for animal cruelty interfacing with his dysfunctional home life and a desperate need to find a place within his peer group.
Meyer’s film’s complex social and personal dynamic is purposefully laced with the random nature of teenage behaviour. In turn, offering us an atmosphere that is, at times, deeply unsettling. The viewer forced into a corner of sympathy for the eventual perpetrator. For some, this may prove too confusing. 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.