Movies based on comic books are hit and miss. Sometimes you get an amazing film with a deep story and compelling characters that remain true to the source material. Other times you get kitschy garbage (check out this list of horrible superhero films) that warps everything we love into dated tropes that offend both deep and casual fans.
The movies on this list are examples of great comic book-based movies that future filmmakers should pay attention to in order to avoid ruining the genre for everyone.
This list is focused on live-action movies. I’ll post another list of animated movies later, as those tend to overshadow the live-action versions since it’s easier and cheaper to animate cartoon effects.
10. Spawn (1997)
Todd McFarlane is one of the most creative and savvy businessmen in the comic book industry. When he left Marvel to help found Image Comics in 1992, his creation Spawn instantly became a comic icon, easily outpacing nearly every other property on the label (though The Walking Dead is more popular these days).
In the 1997 film, Michael Jae White and John Leguizamo help bring Spawn/Al Simmons and his nemesis Clown/Violator to life on the brig screen.
Although several changes were made from the comics in order to appease mass audiences (his friend his whitewashed, his murderer is a woman, his daughter isn’t even his anymore), Spawn is one of the first dark comic movies, featuring an antihero who is literally a demon from hell.
McFarlane has been fighting to create a sequel ever since the film’s release, and it looks like production may actually start in 2016, though expect it to be more of a supernatural thriller than a superhero movie.
9. The Mask (1994)
In the original Dark Horse comics, the name of The Mask refers only to the mask itself, which imbues the wearer with seemingly unlimited power, invulnerability, and intelligence, at the cost of a loss of inhibitions. The actual character wearing the mask becomes known as Big Head, due to his abnormally large, green head.
When Jim Carrey donned the mask for the 1994 film, he perfectly captured the zany elements of the character, though the violence was toned down and made more cartoony to fit more with Carrey’s image.
The result is a still-watchable comic book adaptation that works as a slapstick superhero action comedy.
Mostly following the idea of the comics, mild-mannered bank clerk Stanley Ipkiss finds the mask of Loki at a dock and uses it to wreak havoc on both the city and its organized crime syndicate. Soon he finds himself riddled with guilt over what he’s done and at the center of a lot of problems.
Although Ipkiss is killed by the end of the first Mask miniseries in the comics, the character is so popular that he’s given a classic Hollywood happy ending.
Still, the perfect mix of comedy, action, and magic make The Mask one of the best comic book-based movies ever made. It even launched the career of Cameron Diaz.
8. Watchmen (2009)
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons originally created Watchmen for DC Comics in 1986, nobody expected it to ever be made into a feature film. The complicated story is set in an alternate reality and features a lot of violence that wasn’t really associated with comic book movies at the time (though actual comic books had been filled with this type of violence for an entire generation.
Upon its release in 2009, Watchmen quickly became one of the highest-grossing superhero movies, DC movies, and R-rated movies of all time, and it’s easy to see why.
The noir feel of this movie set at the height of the Cold War era made it a hit with comic fans and introduced the largely unknown characters to a wider audience.
Watchmen shows an unparalleled level of reality that most superhero movies ignored until then. It proved audiences can handle a mature view on superheroes and laid the groundwork for Dark Knight, Deadpool, and a new generation of superhero movies.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
For a long time, superhero movies seemed to focus on constantly retelling the same origin story we already know, while neglecting to expand on the rich worlds created within comic book universes. Marvel’s cinematic universe (known as MCU) finally started to show off its expansive world with Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Guardians are a group of space heroes who banded together to oppose the Phalanx conquest of the Kree system. By introducing these elements into the cinematic universe, Marvel is now able to introduce the the Kree and Skrull races to face earth’s mightiest heroes.
Ronan, Thanos, and the fight for the Infinity Gems (and Infinity Gauntlet) will soon create supervillains that can overpower any superhuman in ways that will make Marvel movies epic blockbusters.
All of that aside, Guardians of the Galaxy is a great standalone movie that mixes comedy, action, sci-fi, and superheroes to great effect. released at a time when superhero films were going dark and realistic, Guardians is a pure popcorn flick the whole family can enjoy.
6. Kick-Ass (2010)
With so many superhero movies being accepted into mainstream culture, it’s only a matter of time before some kid gets hurt trying to be a superhero. This is the idea that Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. had when they created Kick-Ass in 2008.
The movie adaptation did a brilliant job of bringing the ultra-violence and over-the-top language of the original work to the big screen. Many advocate groups quickly panned the usage of a child (Chloe Grace Moretz – then 11) to perform violent acts and utter profanities such as “cunt,” but it all works to create a brilliantly entertaining fan-service to connoisseurs of comics.
Although Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) himself has no superpowers, a brutal beating diminishes his ability to feel pain, and he soon becomes a viral internet sensation. This inspires others to become superheros, and he soon has weapon-yielding assassins in the form of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Moretz) on his team.
What makes Kick-Ass so great is its depiction of everyday people becoming heroes against all odds. That and it’s an artistic triumph that mocks everything about the genre in a way that simply works on every level. Kick-Ass combines elements of Watchmen and Guardians to make a popcorn movie nobody saw coming.
5. Hellboy (2004)
Mike Mignola created Hellboy for Dark Horse in 1993 in order to use his own character creation for the stories he wanted to tell instead of pigeonholing other characters into it. The character soon became popular as a demon much like Spawn, but with the attitude and sense of humor of Wolverine.
Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro only loosely adapted the original comic into the Hellboy film, but he did capture the essence of everything people loved about the character. He was still pulled from hell by Nazis and fights demons as part of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.
Ron Perlman was the perfect casting, and, although the special effects are laughably dated by today’s high-definition standards, the heart of the film still holds up better than your average comic book adaptation.
Hellboy is another great example of humor and action blended with likable characters and an interesting story to make a movie that ages well while pleasing both hardcore fans and casual audiences alike.
4. Deadpool (2016)
At first glance, Deadpool doesn’t seem like the type of character who’d get his own movie. It seems especially unlikely that Ryan Reynolds would work as a superhero after the disastrous Green Lantern film.
Despite these limitations, Deadpool kicked off the 2016 superhero movie season with easily the most enjoyable R-rated superhero film to date.
Fans of the character worried that the filmmakers would ruin the character, who is fully aware he’s in a comic book and constantly breaks the 4th wall in every media appearance. From the start of the opening credits, it became clear this wouldn’t be the case.
Assassin Wade Wilson undergoes an experimental treatment to become a self-regenerating mutant and quickly turns on his creators to go on a rampage through the city and destroy those responsible.
Deadpool raised the bar for superhero movies and made it clear that although Marvel went family-friendly with its sale to Disney that the X-Men franchise would remain true to the grit and story depth that made the comics popular.
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
Batman has always been one of the most popular characters in comic books, but the movies were terrible until Chris Nolan’s reboot. Ditching the campiness of earlier iterations, Nolan built the dark Gotham we’re now used to seeing.
The Dark Knight is not only among the best live-action comic book adaptations ever made, it’s on most critics’ lists of the best movies ever made.
Having already established Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Christian Bale) origin in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight allowed Nolan to throw in Joker (Heath Ledger) and give fans exactly what they always wanted to see.
Nearly everyone was worried when Ledger was cast as Joker, and old-school cinephiles complained he’d never be as good as Jack Nicholson. None of these haters will admit their folly these days as Ledger is easily recognized as the best non-animated Joker ever portrayed on screen.
Filmed in Imax, taking elements from The Killing Joke and other graphic novels, and nominated for dozens of awards, The Dark Knight is the gold standard every comic book-based movie needs to meet to even be considered as decent.
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Like Batman, X-Men movies have long been dated, unwatchable garbage and in desperate need of a reboot. Unlike Batman, it was their original director Bryan Singer who was put in charge of fixing the mess he made.
Days of Future Past accomplished the impossible by not only rebooting the X-Men series, but doing it in a way that recognized the existence of the others instead of simply replacing them. In doing so, the movie introduced the complicated idea of time travel to mass audiences, something it seemed like Hollywood would never understand that we actually get.
Instead of talking down to comic fans, Days of Future Past was the first X-Men film to finally embrace the themes and storylines that made the franchise so popular with comic book fans at a time when heroes like Superman and Batman were insulting everyone’s intelligence.
Although it deviates from the comic book canon, the movie does follow the spirit of the characters and the scene after the credits sets up one of the most anticipated supervillains to hit theaters: En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse.
1. Sin City (2005)
Although Frank Miller’s political views are mentally retarded, his graphic novels are the thing of legends. When Robert Rodriguez announced he was working with Miller on a live-action adaptation of Sin City, comic book fans rejoiced.
What we got was the greatest live-action comic book movie ever made, despite it not even featuring superheroes, which are often thought by layman as being synonymous with comics.
Sin City is a shot-for-shot remake of a collection of stories from Miller’s Sin City miniseries featuring an all-star ensemble cast. Rodriguez often mentioned using the original source material as a storyboard for the film, and he even quit the Writer’s Guild in order to give credit to Miller for his work.
Like Watchmen and Kick-Ass, this neo-noir crime drama isn’t for the feint of heart, but those who can sit through it will be treated to one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made.
The attention to detail is astounding. The artistic style of using black-and-white aside from random colored objects works beautifully. Everything in Sin City works, and it didn’t have to deviate from the source material to do it.
We would be living in a much better world if Hollywood could understand that the same people watching movies also read books and we don’t want them to deviate. We’re intelligent audiences who appreciate a good story over whatever white-washed, numbers-driven garbage you believe.
The success of movies like Sin City provides hope that maybe one day we will live in this better world. If not for Sin City, there’d be no Dark Knight, no Kick-Ass, no Deadpool. The success of these franchises means we’re only going to see things get better in the future.
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work appears in High Times, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Hardcore Droid, and The Street.