This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Not all comic book movies are blockbuster tent poles. Comics are such a vast medium that almost any story can exist within it. From action, superheroes, coming of age drama, revenge thriller, horror, and comedy, comics welcome all.
Below are 20 comic book movies you may not know. Some are based on famous properties, others are adaptions of source material you might not have known existed. But hopefully it will give you an insight into the wider world of adaptations, and show you that the last word certainly doesn’t lie with DC and Marvel.
Oh, and for those wondering, sadly no Barb Wire, but you can read about that here…
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
d. Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm (1993)
Move over The Dark Knight, the real king of Batman films has been around a lot longer. For those sadly unaware of this work of genius, let me introduce it. Based on the 90s Batman: The Animated Series (a show which balanced the dark yet goofy tone of Batman’s pulp adventures perfectly) Kevin Conroy once again reprises vocal duties at the Caped Crusader. After a masked vigilante starts murdering crime bosses, Batman is blamed for it and forced to go on the run while proving his innocence , while at the same time catching the real killer. Oh, and he also has to deal with the former love of his life turning back up.
The film explores the origins of both Batman and the Joker (the superlative Mark Hamill on vocal duties) and while it is pivotal to the plot, it’s never heavy handed. Oh, and for those who notice that elements of the film are similar to The Dark Knight Rises, I hear you. This is better though.
d. Bong Joon-ho (2013)
Criminally never released theatrically in the UK, Snowpiercer is nothing short of a modern masterpiece. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, the story tells of the last survivors of the human race following a disastrous attempt to fix the climate which instead freezes the planet. Living on board a train which circles the Earth, the rich front section passengers live a life of luxury while those in the rear are pressed together, forced to exist in cramped, brutal conditions. Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) decides the time has come to lead a revolution, and with a group of tail passengers, tries to fight his way to the front of the train. What follows is astounding.
At once a treatise on class, global warming, and economic trickle-down philosophy, it’s also a total balls to the wall action spectacular, with director Bong Joon-ho making every encounter in a new train compartment feel fresh and exciting. The future world is perfectly realised too, with the production design selling it almost as much as the performances, which range from Chris Evans steady, beating heart, leading man presence to Tilda Swinton going full on theatrical as middle manager Minister Mason. Just go and watch it.
d. Terry Zwigoff (2001)
Based on the comic of the same name by Daniel Clowes (who also co-wrote the script) Ghost World was a seminal film for many at the time of release. Charting a summer in the lives of two teenage girls in an unnamed American city, it charts the competing emotions of feeling trapped in a rut while at the same time knowing your whole adult life is just about to start, while exploring how a friendship that feels intense and everything might only be a brief butterfly.
Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson are the comic book characters come to life, but crucially adding an extra layer of humanity to their roles. This is especially key for Johansson’s Rebecca, who is much more engaging and relatable in the film version, rather than being something for Enid to ultimately react against.
30 Days Of Night
d. David Slade (2007)
The sun goes down on a remote Alaskan town. So begins their 30 day polar night. Tough at the best of times, almost impossible to deal with when that becomes the signal for vampires to lay siege to your home. It’s a great set-up and led to a great comic. Here then is the underrated film adaptation, which suffers mainly from a spot of miscasting (sorry Josh Hartnett and Melissa George), but would sit very well during any sort of horror binge viewing you have planned.
Developed by writer Steve Niles as both a comic and a film during its early life, the original comic has the momentum of a action flick which translates well onto the screen. What the film improves upon though is by having a wildly over acting Danny Huston as vampire leader Marlow. I especially like the vampire language he delivers in almost Shakespearian style.
d. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (2003)
Part biopic of seminal comics creator Harvey Pekar, part adaption of his American Splendor comic series, Paul Giamatti headlines this delight of a film. The directors came from a documentary background, and ingeniously utilise that sensibility as they mix appearances and interviews from the real Pekar and his associates in between all the fictional portrayals of them – their way of aping the ever changing looks of comic characters. It’s head tripping, surreal at times, and utterly brilliant. Much like the work of Harvey Pekar then.
d. Jon Drever (2015)
Okay, it’s a cheat here as Superbob, Britain’s first modern superhero film, was based on a short film originally rather than a comic. But it’s just so fun and underrated that you should see it as soon as you can.
Robert Kenner (Brett Goldstein), is a postman from Peckham who is hit by a meteor while strolling through the park one day. As a result, Bob gains super strength, flight, heat vision, basically every power ever. But taking a left turn from where you expect it to go (and probably thanks to the limited budget), rather than super powered fisticuffs for 90 minutes the film instead takes a look at how his existence has changed Britain, how he is treated as both a threat and a civil servant, and also how alone it has made him. A day (off) in the life of a superhero with a definite British sensibility.
d. Daniel Lee (1996)
Based on the Chinese manhua (a Chinese comic in Cantonese) of the same name, Black Mask is a Jet Li action spectacular produced by legendary Hong Kong new wave director Tsui Hark. Li plays librarian Tsui Chik (brilliantly renamed Simon in the US dub). While he lives a quiet life, in reality he is a former super soldier in hiding.
When members of his former team start carrying out a violent crime wave, Tsui Chik dons the titular black mask and sets out to stop them. It’s the perfect showcase for Jet Li in his prime, with the outrageous and glorious fast and furious pace and camerawork of the movie put in into second place by all the flying bodies Li is responsible for.
d. Jeffrey J. Varab, Peter Madsen (1986)
A favorite thing of mine when writing articles like this is the excuse it gives to revisit films I loved as child, and then forgot about in later life. Case in point is this Danish animated movie, which I remember renting from the video shop and being totally enthralled by. Based on the Valhallacomic series (which is in turn based on Norse mythology), it involves Loki setting challenges for children to overcome (with a supremely unhelpful Thor popping in now and again).
While finding cult love with an audience, behind the scenes it was chaos. The most expensive Danish film ever made at the time, it also retains the record for the most over-budget film in Danish history. Disney animator Jeffrey J Varab, hired as director, walked out during the final stages of production, leaving comic creator Peter Madsen to take over. Despite (or perhaps because of) this tension, the finished film is truly magical, and will transport you to the realm of the Norse gods.
The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc Sec
d. Luc Besson (2010)
Luc Besson’s inventive and mad-cap take on the Jaques Tardi comic series is the type of film that leaves you with a huge smile on your face, and a renewed love of adventure cinema. Starring Louise Bourgoin as the eponymous heroine, the film takes in ancient mummies, dinosaurs, telepathy, and a withered Mathieu Almaric.
An old school action adventure done right (which is an incredibly hard thing to do, just ask anyone involved with the last Indiana Jones film). Adele Blanc Sec’s adventures are almost as good as her cast of supporting characters, which include Inspecteur Albert Caponi (Gilles Lellouche), a truly baffled cop, and Nicolas Giraud as Adèle’s shy love interest (although he may be shy of Adele’s acerbic put-downs). Huge fun.
d. Mario Bava (1968)
Based on the Italian comic Diabolik, and directed by Mario Bava, considered the father of the slasher genre, produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis, and scored by none other than Ennio Morricone, Danger: Diabolik is quite rightly considered by many to be a film classic. John Phillip Law plays the titular criminal extraordinaire, who plans and carries out daredevil super heists for his girlfriend Eva.
Hot on his heels is Inspector Ginco, who coerces gangster Ralph Valmont into catching Diabolik for him. The film is a sensory overload, not entirely dissimilar to Barbarella, released the same year. But while that film concentrated on sci-fi shenanigans, here the world of super spy and action thrillers is pastiched, to brilliant effect.
d. Cho Geun-hyun (2012)
An adaptation of cartoonist Kang Full’s incredibly popular South Korean webtoon, 26 Years weaves fact and fiction into a compelling tale of revenge, complicity, and responsibility. On May 18, 1980 in the city of Gwangju, state troops were ordered to open fire on civilians following a popular uprising, killing and wounding thousands. The President at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, was believed to have given the order. Set 26 years after the events, the film tells the fictional tale of five people affected by the tragedy coming together in order to assassinate the man responsible.
It’s a high stake tale, with the group having to overcome the state in order to get to their target. It’s also notable for having credits that run for 10 minutes, listing every single donor to the film following a crowdfunding campaign.
The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
d. Marielle Heller (2015)
A real surprise of last year, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, adapted by director Marielle Heller from Phoebe Gloekner’s graphic novel The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures, is a raw and painfully truthful examination of a girl growing up in 1970s San Francisco. As coming of age stories go, this one is particularly unvarnished, but never judges on the often questionable actions of the characters.
Brit Bel Powley delivers a true breakout turn as lead Minnie, who begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. As hilarious as it is painful, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl was a true cinematic treat.
A History Of Violence
d. David Cronenberg (2005)
David Cronenberg’s powerful and punchy adaptation of John Wagner and John Locke’s 1997 graphic novel of the same name is probably the best adaptation of a source material on this list. It’s also one of the loosest adaptations, so draw from that what you will. Viggo Mortensen is Tom Stall, a small town restaurant owner who becomes a local celebrity after killing two robbers who threatened the life of one of his waitresses. Hailed as a local hero on television, Tom receives a visit from an even shadier group of organised criminals (led by Ed Harris) who claim that Tom is really a mob hitman from Philadelphia.
It’s a film that doesn’t revel in mystery, giving you the reveal when the narrative calls for it, but that’s not really the point. The point is how the violence unleashed makes you feel, both applied and excited, and how Mortensen is key to selling this. A powerhouse performance in a powerhouse film.
d. Kinka Usher (1999)
Loosely adapted by Bob Burden and Neil Cuthbert from Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men is almost the quintessential underrated comic book film. Featuring a cast with the combined talents of Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, William H. Macy, Eddie Izzard, Kel Mitchell, Wes Studi, and Tom Waits, Mystery Men is the tale of a group of frankly terrible superheroes who are called on to save the day.
Filled with blockbuster moments that put many other superhero movies to shame, Mystery Men is also consistently laugh out loud hilarious, and eminently quotable.
d. Rachel Talalay (1995)
Based on the Jamie Hewlett (of later Gorillaz fame) and Alan Martin absurdist comic, which had gained huge cult popularity, Tank Girl the film was seemingly all set to be a great comic book adaption, at a time when the medium seriously needed one. With Lori Petty taking the eponymous role, Courtney Love providing a killer soundtrack, Catherine Hardwicke on production design, and Stan Winston designing the creatures, how could it fail? But fail it did, badly flopping at the box office, and creators Hewlett and Martin distancing themselves from the fall-out.
But later years have been far kinder to it, with Petty’s Tank Girl proving fairly iconic, and the steampunk aesthetic certainly ahead of its time. It’s a jumbled mess for sure, but a weirdly compelling one.
d. Jonathan Mostow (2009)
Mainly I put this here so you could all enjoy a picture of Bruce Willis’ amazing wig. It’s also a pretty decent sci-fi procedural, with a great central concept.
In the mid 21st century, most people no longer leave their homes, instead carrying out their daily life via use of android ‘surrogates’. After two surrogate operators are killed when their androids are destroyed, an previously impossible feat, Bruce Willis’ FBI agent Tom Greer is called in to investigate.
While the film doesn’t quite examine the comics critique of internet dependence with the same deft touch, Surrogatesis still a enjoyable film with some genuinely ingenious premises.
d. Marjane Satrapi (2007)
Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is perhaps the most literal translation of source material to screen there has ever been. Using the same simple, yet incredibly effective, animation style as the comic, the film charts the semi-autobiographical story of a young Satrapi as she longs to take part in a revolution against the corrupt Shah of Iran, only to watch in horror as the uprising is taken over by Islamic fundamentalists.
A tale about how any country’s idealistic uprising can be taken over by sinister forces, Persepolis only seems to become more and more relevant the longer the war in Syria goes on, as well as the wider conflict across the Arab world. More than just a comic book history lesson, Persepolisis essential viewing for our own futures.
20th Century Boys Trilogy
d. Yukihiko Tsutsumi (2008-9)
Based on the manga of the same name, this adaption is quite something. Set in a dystopian future, 20th Century Boys charts the attempts by a group of school-friends to avert a cataclysmic future they apparently wrote about in their own childhood, and which has now led a mysterious cult leader named Friend to try and take over the world.
With a central mystery over the identity of this Friend, plus side stories involving paranormal powers and flying saucers, this live-action Manga is over-the-top, mega-budgeted, and glorious. But quite, quite insane.
My Neighbors The Yamadas
d. Isao Takahata (1999)
A departure on several fronts for Studio Ghibli, this film, based on Hisaichi Ishii’s manga Nono-chan, was Ghibli’s first film to be entirely created on a computer, and their first to use a watercolour inspired comic strip look, rather than their traditional anime style.
It plays out as visual comic strip too, with no overarching story to speak of, instead the plot consists of a series of linked vignettes, including losing one of the children at the shop, the relationships between he various family members, and first girlfriends. It builds up a funny picture of a loving family, each with their own quirks, but who come together when needed most. Almost like a Japanese Simpsons.
d. Sylvain White (2010)
The original comic book series is an absolute blast, so I was a little nervous when this was originally announced. As it turns out, it’s a surprisingly great time. Overshadowed by the remake of The A-Team which was released at a similar time, it stars comic book adaption royalty in the form of Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a team of black op soldiers left for dead and out for revenge.
It gets the comedy of the comic spot on, and the cast seem to be having a great time with it. It gets a little lost at points with all the ‘wheeee, explosions!’ but for fans of smart action flicks, this is perfect for you.