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Finn`s Wake: The Short Big Book of Comic Book Movies
© Mark Finn
April 06, 2003

It’s not that hard, really it isn’t. Now, more than ever, it’s pretty easy to do super heroes in the movies. The Matrix came out in 1999. Ever since then, all of the technology needed to produce these super-human feats has been in place. The One, a really terrible movie with Jet Li, had gorgeous action sequences in which Jet Li was The Flash, Superman, and Batman. It can be done.

That said, it’s not really fair for me to do a series of lists, because many of these films didn’t have access to the technology. Doesn’t matter; I’m doing it anyway. These movies knew the job was dangerous when they took it. And in most cases, the problem wasn’t so much the effects as it was the writing and plotting. That never requires a computer, unless, you know, you’ve hired Akiva Goldsman.

Here was my criteria for what movies to consider: I went with anything that was a comic book or a comic strip first, before it was anything else. The Shadow and Doc Savage didn’t make the list (lucky bastards) because they started out as pulps. The Green Hornet didn’t make the list because it was a radio show first. You see what I mean? Also, the movie had to have some sort of official release. Othewise, the FF movie and the JLA pilot would have horribly skewed the results. The full list, with my ratings from one to four stars, can be viewed HERE.

As for criteria, these movies were judged first and foremost by how well the character translated to the big screen. Plot, story, and details followed in that order. Without any further ado, here are my picks for the top five best comic book movies of all time.

5. Blade

Kind of a cheat, really, since this was also a vampire movie. That is, movie-going audiences accept vampires a lot more than they accept super heroes. Blade did a great job of bridging the gap with a simple, action-driven storyline.

4. Batman

Fat Joker killing Thomas Wayne aside, this movie made it cool to like Batman again. Even now, people are looking down at the tattoo they got on their arm twelve years ago and thinking, “Aw, man . . . ” Batman gets lots of points for style, which is almost enough to overcome its flaws.

3. The X-Men

The best thing about this movie was that it wasn’t an embarrassment. Seriously. It could have been awful. Thankfully, a lot of details got covered, and while they had to lose their trademark costumes, the X-Men surprised everyone from the wish-fulfillment of the Wolverine fans to the average guy who just wanted stuff to blow up real good.

2. Superman

It may seem a little dated now, but it still holds up for that giddy rush when you see Superman save Lois Lane for the first time. A faithful origin, a great villain, and lots of Superman doing what he does best—being a symbol. I still don’t like the way he goes back in time (who DIDN’T think he was spinning the Earth backwards when they were kids?), and that’s still my only quibble about the whole thing.

1. Spider-Man

I’ll quote from myself, here: “They really got it right this time. Perhaps for the first, and maybe only time, they put the character onscreen with the same impact that he has in the comics, which is something that other versions of the character got wrong, or ignored for simplicity’s sake.” I’ve rewatched the movie and it still holds up for me. I revel in the little details, like the spot-on Jameson and the un-Hollywood (but completely comic book) ending.

There are also several movies that, while great in their own right, didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. These would be on a top ten list, but not on a top five. They are:

10. The Mask

Factoring out the cheerful viciousness of the original comic, this light-hearted adaptation worked better than anyone thought it would. The story had some problems, but back in the early nineties, what didn’t?

9. Batman Returns

In some ways, this film was better than the first, but in other ways, it was much, much worse. Nevertheless, the Batman/Catwoman/Penguin triangle was really effective, and the movie had a cool sense of humor that made up for its shortcomings.

8. The Crow

Lots of style, lots of cool action, and some spot-on (albeit tragic) casting made The Crow a worthwhile endeavor. The problem was, no one really cared, because no one had heard of the comic book. After the fact, it was a smash success, though.

7. The Phantom

Boy, oh boy, what a fun movie! Just like the strip and the comics, The Phantom started and ended with a bang. Excepting the “Green Lantern Power Ring Fight” at the end, the story was remarkably faithful to the source material, and Billy Zane looked absolutely fantastic, to boot.

6. The Rocketeer

In spite of the fact that the Doc Savage material had to be removed, Disney’s adaptation was well-received, classily executed, and best of all, not embarrassing. The characters looked like they stepped right out of Dave Stevens’ graphic novel and really came to life. Some of the story had to be compromised, but what got put in its place was just as good.

But what about the worst? That’s really what we want to avoid in the future, isn’t it? I think so. It’s not really that hard, when you look at the list, but I’ll run them down for you all the same.

5. Superman 4

I’ve read the script with all of the stuff that was cut out of the movie replaced, and you know what? It’s not much better. This is an embarrassment to everyone involved.

4. Supergirl

Two words: “The Wimp!” This movie sucked a plate of ass, for many reasons, chief among them was wasting Peter Cook in the movie. It never should’ve gotten made. Not a good part of the Superman canon to begin with, it makes an even lamer story when told with the same tone as Superman III.

3. Batman & Robin

If you loved the 60’s Batman, boy, has Joel Shumacher got a treat for you! Appalling, horrible, script, overblown, poorly lighted fights, and the most ridiculous, outlandish plotting. In some ways, it really mirrored a comic . . . a terrible comic. How much crap can one put in a super hero movie? This bucket of ass shows you in graphic detail.

2. Howard the Duck

Look, I don’t care if YOU liked it, this movie should never have been made. Steve Gerber is a nut, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense of the word, and Howard the Duck was a brilliant, funny idea. This movie isn’t Howard the Duck. It’s not even close. Oh, there’s a duck in it named Howard. But that’s where the similarities end.

1. Swamp Thing

“There is—much beauty in swamp—if you only look.” Well, don’t look at Dick Durock. He’s the guy in the baggy, ill-painted and ill-fitting rubber suit who gets to battle Louie Jordan as Arcane and chase around a half-naked Adrienne Barbeau filling in (and filling out) the Matt Cable role. They took a pretty clever, well-drawn comic book series and made it into . . . well, it’s not even schlock. It just went against everything that the comic book tried to be. I don’t care if Wes Craven DID direct it; this is the worst movie adaptation of a comic book I’ve ever seen. Particularly when you consider that a year after the movie was released, Alan Moore wrote “The Anatomy Lesson” and redid Swamp Thing . . . and then years after that, they did a sequel to the movie that was just as bad as the original. You just can’t win for losing.

It’s important to remember that these things aren’t the be all and end all of science fiction. In fact, many of these movies wouldn’t be on my top ten list, or even my favorite movies of all time list. And if you throw in other movies that are clearly comic book flavored (The Matrix, for example), then it dilutes the power of these movies even further. Statistically speaking, there are far more terrible comic to film adaptations than good ones. Here’s hoping it’s going to get better in the next few years . . .

Mark Finn is the author of Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare, available from your local bookstore or from www.amazon.com.

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