Top 25 underappreciated comic book movies

Feature James Hunt 30 Jan 2014 - 06:25

Comic book movies are solid blockbuster fare now, but there are plenty of adaptations that didn't get the love they deserved...

You might argue that fans of comic book adaptations have had a pretty good decade or so. Between The Avengers movies, the Dark Knight trilogy, and multiple Spider-Man and X-Men films, some of the biggest-grossing action movies of all time have been based on comics. Not bad when you consider that only recently, the medium was considered the preserve of dateless man-children alone.

But here's the thing: not every comic book adaptation lends itself to being a summer tentpole CGI-fest, and just as many get overlooked or forgotten completely by the time the next one comes out. Comic adaptations are coming out thick and fast, and with so much forward momentum it's sometimes worth taking a moment to look back on what's come before.

That's why we've dedicated an entire top 25 to what we think are the most underappreciated comicbook adaptations of all time. This list covers everything: the rarely-mentioned, the oft-maligned, the box office smashes and the box office bombs, and they all have two things in common: they were all based on a comic, and they're all worth revisiting the next time you think you've seen everything comic-movies have to offer.

25. Mystery Men

One of the few superhero adaptations produced in the wilderness years between Schumacher's Batman films and Fox's X-Men, Mystery Men was loosely based on Bob Burden's humour series, Flaming Carrot Comics. Despite a surprisingly star-packed cast (Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Tom Waits…), it only made back half of its budget and was correctly regarded as a box-office flop.

But as it happens, it's a lot better than the numbers suggest. Whether Mystery Men failed by association with a genre that had temporarily gone toxic or because it genuinely didn't click with audiences will forever be up for debate, but those who've seen it are quick to fight its corner. We suspect that it was just the wrong time to be making fun of grim and gritty superheroes – after all, the memory of bat-nipples was still fresh in everyone's minds. Give it a try now and it'll make far more sense.

See also: rethinking Mystery Men.

24. Generation X

Intended as a pilot for a series that never materialised, this is technically a TV-movie, but the first screen-outing for Marvel's mutants – while you wouldn't call it good, exactly – qualifies as under-appreciated just because of how much it got right (and because no-one saw it). It's far from an overlooked classic, but it is an entertaining curio, providing the first screen appearances of characters like Jubilee, Banshee and Emma Frost and opening with a definition of the term "mutant" in a manner so similar to the original X-Men film that it's hard to imagine it being a coincidence.

To be fair the plot, which involves Matt Frewer (in full Max Headroom mode) invading people's dreams using a futuristic dream-chair thingy, is complete fluff. But the realisation of the link between teen angst and mutant powers is skilfully made, and if you're an X-Men fan it's worth tracking down so you can think about the series that could've been. And why, if they can manage this much in 1996, Agents of SHIELD seems so reluctant to show anyone using superpowers.

23. Supergirl

An oft-forgotten spin-off of the Christopher Reeves Superman era, Supergirl nonetheless remains pretty much the only comics adaptation with a super-powered female protagonist. Considering it was released almost 30 years ago, that's a pretty damning state of affairs.

It's fair to say that the film itself wasn't spectacular (it has an 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes!) but we should at least give it credit for what it was trying to do: A faithful adaptation that didn't pander to its audience. Unfortunately, the lack of even a cameo by Reeves' Superman hurt its credibility, and despite lofty intentions, it's a shame that it probably did more harm than good to the cause. Its biggest contribution to pop culture appears to be convincing an entire generation that female superheroes can't carry their own film.

22. The Punisher

Few characters defy a nuanced portrayal quite as completely as the Punisher. Unless you're reading a comic by Garth Ennis, he's little more than a vigilante who shoots criminals. A lot. Given that most action films don't go much further than that with their protagonists anyway, it's hardly a surprise that we've already had three adaptations over the years.

Of those, our favourite (sorry, Lundgren fans) is the 2004 Thomas Jane version, which loosely adapts Ennis' "Welcome Back, Frank" storyline, surrounding the single-minded killer (that is to say, the hero) with a more colourful cast of neighbours and villains to inject something a bit less monotonous in there than two hours of shooty-shooty gun-gun. It makes for a distracting couple of hours, and we'd be surprised if it's bettered any time soon.

21. Daredevil: Director’s Cut

Most people missed the Director's Cut DVD release of Daredevil, and given the poor reception to the theatrical version it's hard to blame them. We'd hesitate to call this version completely fixed – it still has the awful costume, the tonally confused playground fight and a massively miscast Jennifer Garner – but it is considerably better than the version that reached cinemas.

The Director's Cut is almost 30 minutes longer and adds some gritty, Frank Miller-esque violence, removes the more overt romance elements and includes an entire subplot about Matt Murdock's courtroom battle to nail the Kingpin, giving some much-needed logic to the finale (without these scenes, it appears that the villain is arrested for, er, losing a fight to Daredevil.) It's altogether a far superior film and definitely worth re-evaluating if you liked any part of the original.

20. The Losers

Based on the comic of the same name by former 2000AD editor Andy Diggle and Jock, The Losers is the story of a special ops team whose masters turn against them. While the comic remains a fantastic thrill-ride, there's more than a hint of the A-Team about the distilled version of the concept and that spills over into the movie script, which is a broad, somewhat cliché-ridden action piece. Even so, its top-quality cast elevates what could've been a disappointment into something that's better than you might expect. And hey, if you've ever wanted a Gamora/Heimdall/Captain America (or Johnny Storm) movie then you're in luck: Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba and Chris Evans all feature heavily even though the original comic was published by Marvel's rivals at DC.

19. Dick Tracy

Another film that did reasonably well in its time but has since all but disappeared, the Dick Tracy movie of 1990 is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the pulp detective genre that also spawned Batman. Packed with retro charm and overseen by veteran director Warren Beatty, the film got seven Oscar nominations and actually won three, but its street-level antics and simplistic approach to story and character leave it buried under the more complex, effects-heavy offerings it's supposed to be competing with. Even so, Beatty was recently confirmed as the owner of the Dick Tracy rights after a long lawsuit and plans to bring a sequel to screens. We'd be interested to see that happen.

18. The Mask

Based on a comic? You bet! Whether or not it's under-appreciated depends on how good you think Jim Carrey is, but despite killing the box office (it cost $23m and made $350m) and establishing Cameron Diaz's career, it's basically disappeared from cultural memory along and been replaced by the over-worked catchphrases it spawned.

Maybe that's because stripped of CGI, Carrey's surrounding films – Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber – were that much better at showing the wacky, physical humour he excelled at. Maybe it's because the cartoon spin-off made people re-evaluate it as a kid's film. Or maybe, given the size of the box office numbers, we all saw it the first time around and never felt the need to revisit it. Whatever the reasoning, it's easy to forget the genius of Carrey's cartoonish bombast when he was still young and eager to entertain, rather than be taken seriously, and The Mask is vintage Carrey from when he was at his slapstick peak.

17. Turtles Forever

It's often forgotten that somewhere beneath the Ninja Turtle media juggernaut there was originally a comic series, one which was intended as a satirical mash-up of the most popular comics of the era, Claremont's X-Men and Frank Miller's Daredevil. That's why the Turtles are mutants and that's why their villains are called "The Foot" (parodying Daredevil's The Hand).

Several movies have followed. The original live-action film is probably better than you remember and 2007's CGI-animated sequel, TMNT, was nowhere near as big a hit as it should've been. But its sequel, Turtles Forever, unites the TMNT turtles with the black-and-white comic versions and 1987 cartoon versions for an amazing, if nostalgia-reliant 90 minutes. And hey, at the very least it's likely to be better than anything Michael Bay comes up with…

16. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

The original Ghost Rider was a reasonably dumb outing, enjoyable only to those who turned up for flaming skulls rather than a decent story. But the sequel? Now that was a fun movie (yep, we're aware that, er, not everyone agrees on this one). It won't win awards for the story, but at least it wasn't based on the same template every other superhero movie follows, and if you're the sort of person who likes to see Nic Cage doing his thing (we hear the guy has quite a following in some circles) then you get everything you want and more.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance goes further than the original in almost every way, embracing the inherent ridiculousness of the character rather than trying to treat it seriously. When the filmmakers are having fun, the audience can have fun too, and in case there was any doubt that you're supposed to be having fun, Idris Elba turns up as a gun-toting priest doing a cod-French accent. What's not to like?

15. The Rocketeer

Just ten years after the pulp-throwback Rocketeer debuted as a backup in the pages of Starslayer, the character got his own film courtesy of Disney and Joe Johnston, later the director of Captain America: The First Avenger. And it was fantastic. An utterly charming story, with a timeless look and feel.

In all fairness, the effects visuals haven't aged particularly well, but as a homage to the pulp roots of the superhero genre it's got a light touch and wide appeal. Family-friendly action from the days before that meant one set of jokes for the adults and another set of jokes for the kids. The character's undergoing something of a renaissance right now in a new series of comics from IDW, and with a new adaptation being talked about there's no better time to revisit the original.

14. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Luc Besson may have turned in some of this generation's most memorable films, like Leon and The Fifth Element, but his 2010 release The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, based on the comic of the same name, was disappointingly overlooked despite being praised as a return to form for the director.

The story itself is set around the turn of the last century and combines pulp adventure and Victorian-era parapsychology to create a classic adventure movie revolving around the eponymous writer and the characters she encounters. Polished, original and witty, it's a film unfairly overlooked for being French-language. Let's try to change that.

13. Road to Perdition

Sam Mendes' adaptation of Max Allan Collins' graphic novel is almost 12 years old now, but it remains a powerful a story about fathers and sons thanks to its historical setting and beautifully simple black and white visuals. Set in 1930s America, it follows a mob enforcer and his son as they seek vengeance against a mobster who killed the rest of their family. The superb cast includes Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig, making it (by our reckoning) one of the most talent-stuffed comic adaptations ever made.

12. American Splendor

Lauded upon release but quickly expunged from the popular consciousness, American Splendor was an adaptation of Harvey Pekar's long-running autobiographical series of the same name, starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

Drawing heavily on Pekar's genius eye for slice-of-life detail and observation, it's full of humour and pathos, but as in the comics industry, this smaller and more thoughtful adaptation has been overshadowed by superhero blockbusters. Despite an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, it remains a largely undiscovered gem. Make sure you see it, if for no other reason than the chance to see the most page-accurate version of a Robin costume yet portrayed on screen...

11. Flash Gordon

It may have been reduced to a single Brian Blessed line in the collective memory, but the 1980's adaptation of Flash Gordon (based on Alex Raymond's comic strip) still holds up today, even if it does have a Queen soundtrack. Cited as a favourite by filmmaker Edgar Wright, writer Seth MacFarlane and acclaimed comic artist Alex Ross, Flash Gordon is a bona-fide cult classic. Strangely, the film performed badly in most countries but was beloved in the UK. Maybe the distance of a few decades will allow a new audience across the globe to discover its charms.

10. Persepolis

An animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s comic strip autobiography, Persepolis is a heartfelt, funny, well-realised depiction of life in revolutionary Iran. Although critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, we'd bet most people reading this never found the time to watch it, so let's take this opportunity to encourage you do so. We know it sounds worthy, looks pretentious and that a film about childhood in an increasingly oppressive regime doesn't promise a very upbeat experience, but give it a try. If you don't love it, we'll be surprised.

9. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

In certain circles, Batman's animated series is considered the pinnacle of superhero cartoons, but that doesn't mean everyone's aware of it. We'd wager that the majority of the hundreds of thousands of movie-goers who flock to every Batman film missed out on Mask of the Phantasm, the film that span out of the cartoon series in 1993.

Originally intended as a straight-to-video release, Mask of the Phantasm was considered so good that it was upgraded to a cinematic outing. And if you think that's a low bar, remember that this was only a year after Batman Returns had been released. The short notice for this change left the film's box office poor, but the quality of the movie itself has never been in question. The late Shirley Walker's score is outstanding, too. You can read more about her here.

8. V For Vendetta

Like all Alan Moore adaptations, the V for Vendetta film isn't a patch on the original work, but as a movie it's better than it's often given credit for and even detractors would admit that it remains the Wachowski's second best blockbuster by some distance. Admittedly Natalie Portman's accent gets in the way and the use of the word vichyssoise was so forced-in that one suspects the crowbar is still stuck in the script, but the spot-on translation of a downbeat dystopian Britain from page to screen far outweighs the weakness of the casting and dialogue.

Purists will particularly denounce the shift in politics and alterations made to Evey's character, but for us those elements fall firmly under the "Why make an adaptation if you're not going to do anything different?" umbrella. The original comic was, after all, a pro-anarchist, anti-Thatcher tract that was very much of its time, and the film uses the same characters and setting to comment similarly on its own era. Just the fact that it's a blockbuster movie with themes and subtext puts it streets ahead of most.

7. Constantine

If you've ever read Hellblazer than you have every right to hate this film, from Keanu Reeves' distinctly un-punk portrayal of freelance exorcist John Constantine, to the way it butchers the punchline of the loosely-adapted "Dangerous Habits" storyline, to the strange decision for the title-character to wield a hellfire shotgun (what is this, Ghost Rider?)

But try to forget you've ever read a Hellblazer comic, and suddenly this film becomes a lot better. Tilda Swinton as Gabriel was a superb casting decision, and we're clearly not the only ones to think that because it quite cleanly delineates her transition into mainstream film. The story, sometimes described as "Theological Noir", makes supernatural contemporaries like Underworld and Van Helsing look even worse than they were, and the effects provide an unforgettable vision of Hell as a fire-blasted urban landscape. There's a lot to like, provided you can forget that it's an adaptation at all.

6. Kick Ass 2

Who knows what went wrong with this one? As with the first movie, Kick Ass 2 smoothes off the rough edges of the comic and replaces Millar's cynicism and satire with a convincing emotional core. So why didn't it do better? Perhaps people felt the joke was done. Perhaps they felt that the story didn't have anywhere to go. Perhaps, like Jim Carrey, they just felt that violence wasn't funny anymore.

But here's the thing: Kick Ass 2 was a sufficiently different treatment of the material and characters to justify doing a sequel, and even though it lost some of its originality and thrills, it was every bit as funny as the first. But considering that the majority of the cast came back for the follow-up, it's strange that the film didn't find the same audience as the first.

5. Tank Girl

Adapting Tank Girl was always going to be a mug's game, given that the strength of the strip was largely down to Jamie Hewlett's superb artwork and Alan Martin's stream-of-consciousness vulgarity. But despite being critically hammered and virtually disowned by everyone involved, Tank Girl is a slice of mid-90s craziness that has found a cult audience among those who hate the homogeneity and risk-free nature of modern blockbusters. This is, after all, a post-apocalyptic action-comedy with a dance number in the middle (a Wikipedia category we need to invent just so it can share it with Super Mario Bros.)

As for the cast, who can hate any film where Ice-T plays a genetically altered Kangaroo-man? It proved Naomi Watts was going to be a star long before anyone else even realised she existed, and Malcolm McDowell could phone his role in and still be gripping on screen (which is good, because that's what he did). You might want to describe it as a guilty pleasure, or say it's so bad, it's good, but however you want to justify it Tank Girl is more fun to watch than it's usually given credit for.

4. Ghost World

A cult hit that deserves to be considerably less cult, Ghost World is an adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic of the same name and deserves praise for its casting of Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi alone. There's more talent in this movie than some comics franchises combined.

That said, it's the small-town, big ideas contrast that really makes this film so great. The way it captures both the adolescent feeling that you don't belong and combines it with the teenage arrogance of thinking you're better than those around you. It's sharp, insightful, beautifully written and emotionally incisive. As much as, if not more so than Clowes' comic.

3. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

Edgar Wright's action-comedy adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's manga-influenced, pop-culture saturated slice-of-life series is easily better than any movie on this list. And for that matter, it's better than most movies not on this list. A combination of mis-marketing, misplaced anti-hipster criticism and people who just can't stand Michael Cera meant that this utter gem of a movie failed to make back its budget.

In truth, it's superbly-written and directed, thick with jokes and references, and has a supporting cast of amazing young talent, all of whom have gone on to greater and richly-deserved prominence. It's already destined for cult appreciation, but a movie this good should've been far more widely appreciated. We're probably preaching to the converted here, though.

2. Dredd

Now, here's the thing. If you're reading Den of Geek, we probably don't need to tell you how good Dredd 3D was. We shouldn't have to explain that it's a note-perfect interpretation of the character, with a superb cast, great script and inventive use of 3D. You're probably aware that it makes the original Judge Dredd film look like the mid-90s toss it was. And yet, despite all that, it seems like the majority of the population has simply failed to notice all of this. Which means we (all of us) haven't been doing our job properly. We don't care that by now, hopes for a sequel are all but dashed. Make a friend watch Dredd today. They'll thank you for it.

1. Hulk

Of everything on this list, our top choice is likely to be the most controversial, purely because the consensus on it is so wide. But hear us out, because if anything qualifies as underappreciated – or maybe misappreciated - it's Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk film.

In the wake of The Avengers, where the Hulk was played for laughs and thrills, it's easy to say what Ang Lee's Hulk apparently got wrong in terms of delighting audiences. But Ang Lee didn't go the easy route, instead delivering an adaptation few would've dared to. One that treated the concept of the Hulk more respectfully and thoughtfully than any director before or since.

Admittedly, its psychologically-layered writing, artful direction and strong themes have been overshadowed in popular memory by hulked-out pooches and hard to follow action. But especially when compared to the string of video game cut scenes that comprised its non-sequel, The Incredible Hulk, Ang Lee's movie is bold and original. Even if you don't like it, you have to admit that an ambitious failure is better than the unambitious one that followed.

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