With the summer of 2014 seemingly overloaded with comic book-based films now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the best comic book movies we’ve seen thus far.
Back in the day comic book movies were something of an oddity, mostly because it seemed like nobody could quite figure out how to make them. But in the last decade or so, they have become perhaps the dominant movie genre, and so we figured it was about time to sort them out the way we do – by ranking the best of the best.
They are ranked according to a variety of criteria – film quality, importance, general comic bookiness for lack of a better term, etc – and since we all know comic book geeks are the most levelheaded, least argumentative people on Earth, I’m sure we’ll get no arguments at all about these, the 50 best comic book movies ever.
Note: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not included since it just hit theaters. Where would you put it on this list if it were? Or would you even?
Movies 50 through 46
50. ‘The Incredible Hulk’
Hulk movies have never really worked for some reason, but this version, the one starring Ed Norton, probably came the closest. It fell just shy of the mark set by the other Marvel comic-book movies, and obviously Marvel wasn’t too enthused given that Norton was turfed for Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, but it’s a solid, solid movie all on its own merits, definitely better than Ang Lee’s take a few years earlier, and Norton and the gang deserve credit for really solidifying the tenor of the Hulk character here, which gave Ruffalo plenty to work with.
49. ‘The Wolverine’
Another sequel that worked better than its predecessor, The Wolverine showed that there is still some life in the character’s story beyond the X-Men. It was really easy to dismiss it as just another cash grab by the studio, but in The Wolverine, it seems that they’ve finally found a way forward with the franchise, and if they can successfully build on what it started, I predict that The Wolverine will just seem better and better with age, kinda like Logan himself.
48. ‘The Mask’
Sure, if you’re in a certain mood, this just seems like a bad acid-trip while stuck in a room with a manic Jim Carrey dusted off his ass on cocaine, but you can’t deny the visual creativity of this movie, especially for the time it was made. As we’ve seen from the horrid sequel, it’s a tough movie to pull off, and it’s a credit to Carrey’s energy and understanding of the sort of expressive, physical comedy of years gone-by that not only does this movie work, but it was an enormous hit. Also, Cameron Diaz is hot as hell here. Let’s not lose sight of what really matters.
If you listen to its fanboys, Watchmen is one of the greatest comic book movies ever. It’s not – it’s heavy-handed, ponderous, and a little too ridiculous and in love with itself – but if you don’t go into it thinking it will be the greatest thing ever, it’s a good enough time. At the very least, you have to respect the ambition involved in trying to bring one of best graphic novels ever to the screen, and the fact that they didn’t embarrass themselves in the process. Also, I’m pretty sure Dr. Manhattan’s dong did enough work to get its own sequel.
Red was kind of a surprise hit, but really it shouldn’t be that surprising that they managed to get a quality movie out of that ridiculous cast. It also helps to have source material written by Warren Ellis, and let’s face it, when Bruce Willis is probably the least interesting actor in your movie, you’re doing okay.
Movies 45 through 41
45. ‘Iron Man 2′
Like most of the movies on the lower end of this list, Iron Man 2 is flawed and at least a little disappointing, but also really entertaining if you’re in the right mood. I mean, let’s face it, a comic book movie that is just pretty good is still a lot more fun than 99% of other movies. It helps, of course, to have Robert Downey, Jr. being, well, Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson in skin-tight black leather, which are unimpeachable foundations for any movie in any genre.
44. ‘Man of Steel’
Man of Steel is kind of a hard one to rank. On the one hand, it was ambitious, suitably epic, and it re-launched Superman in a way that modern audiences could finally relate to. On the other, it was overlong, kind of ponderous in the way that Zack Snyder movies tend to be, and I’m not sure if Superman should be snapping a dude’s neck or destroying Metropolis. Put it all together, and you come up with a movie that, like Watchmen, didn’t quite hit the mark it was aiming for, but managed to land somewhere respectable anyway.
43. ‘Fritz the Cat’
It’s not exactly critically adored, but how can you not love an X-rated animated movie about a degenerate cat? It’s offensive as hell, but let’s face it, that’s what makes it work. This is basically everything that Family Guy wishes it could be, only it was made over 40 years ago. And sure, it was made without his permission, but anytime you team up source material by Robert Crumb with animation guru Ralph Bakshi, you’re going to have something both super-weird, and super-delightful.
42. ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (1990)
Sure, it’s pretty ridiculous and, let’s face it, objectively terrible, but there is something to be said for the elusive fun factor, which this movie has in spades. Besides, if you didn’t love this movie as a kid, then I’m not sure if we can be friends. Turtle power for life, bro.
41. ‘Batman: The Movie’ (1966)
This is the old school Adam West Batman, and it is maybe the most gloriously cheesy thing ever made. Of course, that also means that it is one of the funniest – and most fun – things ever made. This is the perfect movie to watch if you’re just in the mood to hang out with friends and MST3K it for the night. Sure, it might not have the gravitas of The Dark Knight, but, uh, it’s the story of a millionaire playboy who dresses up in a bat costume to fight a dude who looks like a clown. That shit is funny.
Movies 40 through 36
Dredd never really got the attention it deserved, mostly because the franchise was indelibly tainted by Sylvester Stallone’s terrible version back in the day. But it’s actually a really solid movie, and while Karl Urban doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as Sly, he actually gets the role, and let’s face it, even if you don’t know his name, you’ve probably loved everything else he’s been in – Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc. – so why not give this one a chance?
Hellboy is kind of a hard one to pull off – I mean, it’s the story of an oversized demon, which doesn’t exactly appeal to Ma and Pa Kent over in Kansas, you know? – but it totally works thanks to both the inventive direction of Guillermo del Toro, and the presence of Ron Perlman, who was born to play roles like this. The movie’s secret weapon, though, is actor Doug Jones, who is pretty much the human embodiment of a comic-book character.
This was maybe the last movie about vampires before vampires were hijacked by emoish teens and Tiger Beat fanatics, and thankfully, the vampires here are just glorious flaming assholes. This is also pretty much the last hurrah for Wesley Snipes, which is just fine considering that he did such a good job here that he pretty much became Blade. I’m not sure if I could even see him as anything else now.
37. ‘The Rocketeer’
It’s kind of corny and old-fashioned, but then again, that’s kind of the point. It’s also a lot of fun, in that old-school popcorn matinee way that’s been sadly missing for a long time from Hollywood. This is the perfect movie to watch on a lazy hung over weekend afternoon, and hey, you get to see Nazis getting their asses kicked and Jennifer Connelly when she was at her most, uh, is there a button here I can just push to signify drool?
36. ‘Batman Returns’
It’s not the best of the Batman movies, but it’s far from the worst either. This is Tim Burton’s and Michael Keaton’s last go with the character, and if anything, it was the last hurrah for Batman until being rescued by Christopher Nolan more than a decade later. It’s kind of dark and kind of weird, but as the Nolan movies showed, it was also kind of ahead of its time. Plus, Michelle Pfeiffer in a catsuit is always going to work. Always.
Movies 35 through 31
35. ‘Heavy Metal’
Yes, it’s incredibly juvenile and completely irredeemable from a social standpoint, but let’s face it, that makes it pretty much the perfect movie for something called Heavy Metal. I mean, here’s the movie’s synopsis from imbd.com – “A glowing orb terrorizes a young girl with a collection of stories of dark fantasy, eroticism and horror.” This is basically an animated version of Geek, USA circa 1981 and it is gloriously ridiculous in all the best ways.
34. ‘Iron Man 3′
Iron Man 3 gave the franchise back its kick, and while it doesn’t totally work – the Mandarin plotline feels a little bungled – it’s still better than most comic book movies. Again, it helps that Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark, and the combination of Shane Black, aka the dude who wrote Lethal Weapon, and Warren Ellis, aka the dude who wrote the source material the Extremis plot is based on, pretty much assured that everything would turn out well. And it did.
33. ‘Thor: The Dark World’
The Marvel universe is the absolute king of the comic book movie hill right now, and improbably, Thor has become one of the biggest reasons why. It’s a weird concept that seems like it would be even harder to translate to film, but it totally works, and this sequel keeps things humming along nicely. Of course, the secret weapon is probably Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who might just be the single best character in the entire Marvel arsenal.
32. ‘Tales from the Crypt’ (1972)
This is the original old-school version, and if anything, it’s even more fun than the ridiculously fun ‘90s HBO version. Based on the comic book series of the same name, it was one of the first horror movies to dabble in the ironic and revel in its general hammy nature. The result is a movie that is both entertaining in an off-beat way and oddly disconcerting. It’s not quite as over-the-top as the crazy HBO version, but it hits the note between that and more standard horror fare perfectly.
This was a hard movie to pull off. After all, believe it or not, most people aren’t very comfortable with a little girl dropping F and C bombs all over the place, and let’s face it, the movie is about some weird dork who doesn’t really have any abilities or talent other than self-delusion. And yet, somehow it works, probably because the actors just totally go for it, the script is a lot of fun, and Nicolas Cage is, well, Nicolas Cage in all his ridiculous glory.
Movies 30 through 26
30. ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’
It’s hard to make a straight laced comic book character a hero to modern audiences, and let’s face it, we all figured it would be even harder to pull off with Chris Evans playing Cap. But they managed to get it right, as Evans plays Cap with a sort of unimpeachable integrity that isn’t a goody two-shoes either. He’s just an old-school badass with a giant heart, and hey, again, anytime you get to see Nazis tossed around like rag dolls, I’m in.
29. ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’
This movie almost had to be good. After all, the people involved were risking a lot by having the audacity to reboot the Spider-Man franchise only a couple of years after the last Tobey Maguire version. Luckily for them, it is good. Andrew Garfield is pretty much the perfect Peter Parker (say that five times fast) and the fact that the movie felt fresh and interesting instead of like just a desperate rehash speaks to its quality.
28. ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’
Hellboy II manages to be better than the first movie, and I think it’s because Guillermo del Toro really goes for it here. This just feels like one of his movies. It’s weird, and strangely beautiful, and you just sort of find yourself getting lost in this world that he created. But at the same time, it’s still a Hellboy movie. That’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but everyone involves does so here, and does so really, really well.
27. ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’
There are those who will tell you that this is the best Batman movie made before Christopher Nolan got involved. Hell, there are those who will tell you that it’s still the best Batman movie. I wouldn’t go that far – with either statement – but both sentiments speak to the shocking quality of this movie. It’s easy to dismiss it as just a kid’s version of the Batman story, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s a cartoon. It’s the real deal.
It’s completely ridiculous, and sometimes it teeters into unintentional self-parody in that special Zack Snyder way, but you can’t deny that this movie is just balls-out fun. It’s weird and fantastic and, well, it’s like a comic book brought to life. It’s hard to praise a movie in this genre any better than that.
Movies 25 through 21
25. ‘Road to Perdition’
Most people are surprised to learn that this is, in fact, technically a comic book movie. But comic books can also tackle weightier themes than people give them credit for, and this movie, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, digs into the relationships between fathers and sons about as well as any movie out there. It doesn’t have quite the same fun-factor as most comic book movies, but that’s okay. It just shows the versatility of the genre.
There’s almost no way to make the comic book Thor work. It’s just too damn weird and goofy. But it helps when you get Kenneth Branagh involved, who cut through all the bullshit to a story with a Shakespearean heart. He also did a really smart thing by just going with the goofier elements of the story instead of trying to downplay them or make them the point of the whole movie. I mean, he got you to believe that alien gods are perfectly believable – at least in the Marvel universe anyway – and without this movie and that believability, The Avengers doesn’t work. Hell, it doesn’t even exist.
23. ‘Superman II’
Kneel before Zod! Yes, long before Man of Steel, there was Superman II, which covered a lot of the same ground without being weighed down by ponderous navel-gazing. Plus, there’s a reason why Lex Luthor doesn’t even get involved in the latest Superman hijinks, and that’s because you aren’t topping Gene Hackman. You just aren’t.
Spider-Man might have been the movie that really kicked off this whole comic book movie craze. I don’t think it figured out how to make the genre work again – X-Men probably gets the honors there – but it was the first one since Tim Burton’s Batman to really catch fire in the public consciousness. That’s because it’s a damn good movie, with relatable three-dimensional characters. It’s not cheesy, and that’s the one thing comic book movies could never quite figure out.
21. ‘A History of Violence’
Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this movie is similar to Road to Perdition in that it doesn’t quite have that comic book feel to it. But like that movie, what it does have is a weightier heft to it thematically, and further solidifies the graphic novel as something that perhaps no longer requires any qualifiers. This is a damn good movie based on a damn good book. It’s that simple.
Movies 20 through 16
Speaking of the Tim Burton’s Batman, for years this stood as the best Batman movie of them all, and really, as one of the probably two or three best comic book movies period. It was inventive and weird in a way that only Tim Burton could pull off, and Jack Nicholson totally went for it as The Joker. It’s still got its moments of cheese, but this was the first movie to really embrace the idea that comic books could be dark, and not just a ridiculous camp-fest. It was ahead of its time.
19. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’
It’s easy to hate on this movie, with its hipsterish tone and its general Michael Cera-ness, but that’s just reactionary haterism, indicative of its own peculiar form of hipsterism. Look past all that BS, and you’ll find a ridiculously inventive movie that isn’t afraid of its comic book roots. Plus, if you don’t crush out on Mary Elizabeth Winstead after watching this, you probably don’t have a soul.
After years of fumbling around, unable to put the whole comic book/movie puzzle together, they finally figured it out with X-Men, which took the superhero genre and did it as straight-forwardly as you can, without all the winking cheese and horrible spandex. Most importantly, though, it gave the characters actual personalities and feelings, and set the template for every comic book movie to follow. It’s not the best comic book movie ever made – even though it’s very, very good in its own right – but it’s definitely one of the most important.
17. ‘Ghost World’
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World took the comic book movie to the sort of emoish corners of the world which eventually spawned Tumblr and the like. Naturally, the possibility for irritating nonsense was pretty high, but Clowes knew what he was doing, as he adapted his own book into a movie that perfectly finds the balance between modern irony and honest, lovable characters. There’s a reason it was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
This was one of the first comic-book movies that made people realize that they could be more than just dumb popcorn movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with dumb popcorn movies – this list wouldn’t exist without their wonderful contributions to society – but X2 added a dose of character development that raised the stakes for the genre. Again, Wolverine, Professor X and company pointed the way forward for everyone.
Movies 15 through 11
15. ‘Men in Black’
This movie served as sort of an outpost in the wasteland that was comic book movies in the ‘90s. In fact, when it was released, it sort of just felt like a really flashy Will Smith summer blockbuster and not a “comic book movie,” which might sound kind of disparaging, but you have to remember, that was kind of a dirty phrase back then, and to transcend it meant that your movie had to be good. And Men in Black was certainly that.
14. ‘V for Vendetta’
It’s hard to overstate a movie’s impact on popular culture when an entire socio-political movement stylizes themselves on the movie’s hero. But leaving even that aside, it’s just a really fun movie, with highpoints that are charged with real emotion. If you’re gonna do a movie based on graphic novel rebellion, you better do it balls out, and V for Vendetta does just that.
13. ‘X-Men: First Class’
X-Men: First Class is just a really, really fun movie. It’s that simple. It didn’t really break new ground, it just rebooted a franchise and – as we can see from the upcoming sequel – opened the door for all sorts of ridiculously awesome possibilities. The cast is great, and if you can’t appreciate Jennifer Lawrence walking around in body paint, you probably should just get the hell out of here right now.
12. ‘The Crow’
The Crow is one of those movies that just seems unbelievably cool when you’re at a certain point in your life (read: 15 and full of angst), and while it seems a little silly the older you get, you can’t deny that it captures a time and a feel perfectly. This is 1994 in perfect comic book form and the Goth version of Citizen Kane.
11. ‘Sin City’
This is the best translation of a comic book/graphic novel that anyone’s ever done. There’s no real interpretation here, no story told beyond “hey, here’s a really awesome comic book, and in case you don’t read comic books, we’ll just show it to you instead.” That doesn’t necessarily make it the best movie adapted from comic books, but it’s still immensely entertaining, reveling in the inky noire gloom created by Frank Miller.
Movies 10 through 6
10. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy completely blew up the idea of what a comic-book movie could be, and while the third installment is the weakest of the trilogy, it’s still a really, really engrossing movie. The only thing keeping it from being higher – a problem for at least two-thirds of the Nolan Batman movies – is that it kind of lacks that crucial fun factor. It’s not a movie you just want to watch again and again, because it just pummels you. But that’s also what makes it special.
9. ‘American Splendor’
American Splendor is kind of a bizarre biopic/comic book movie mash-up, which makes sense because Harvey Pekar’s comics were always about his own life. Paul Giamatti is perfect as Pekar, and the movie totally nails the shlubby tone of his work. This isn’t about giant muscle-men in capes, this is just about the simple heroism of surviving a messed up world.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is simply a great film. It’s a black and white, animated coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, and it manages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s a story of the indomitability of the human will, of revolution both big and political, and small and personal. And it’s a perfect representation of the possibilities that exist both within comic books and comic book movies.
7. ‘Spider-Man 2′
When it came out, Spider-Man 2 smashed box-office records and cemented that comic-book movies weren’t just another fad, and were here to stay. That’s because it kept its big-budget fun-factor while also adding in textured character development. This is when comic book movies started feeling “respectable”, for lack of a better word, and turned them into a genuine event which studios planned their whole calendar around. The X-Men franchise and the first Spider-Man film really opened the door, but this is the movie that kicked it off its hinges and invited the whole genre to crash the party.
6. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’
The first Captain America was just good old fashioned fun. But comic book movies are at their best when they manage to strike the perfect balance between fun and having something interesting to say, and Winter Soldier manages this perhaps better than any movie released recently – of any genre. It taps perfectly into the paranoid “What the hell’s going on here?” feeling that has swept the country, with Cap finding a world in which the line between the good guys and the bad guys isn’t nearly as clear as it used to be. But the movie still hangs onto that fun factor, and the result is a movie that belongs in the top tier of the Marvel universe movies, which makes it one of the best comic book movies period.
Movies 5 through 1
This movie stood alone as the best comic book movie – and one of the only good comic book movies – for twenty years. It’s still the best Superman movie. Honestly, it pretty much created the comic book movie genre, and while parts of it might seem a little dated, on the whole, it has aged really well, largely because the tone set in this movie is still the tone most successful comic book movies ape. It’s fun without being too goofy, and it’s just serious enough without taking itself too seriously. People wonder why they can’t get the Superman franchise right. Well, they did. They just did it 35 years ago.
4. ‘Batman Begins’
There are some who would argue that this is actually the best of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. That’s because it manages to be a compelling story while still retaining its general comic book fun feel. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but I will say this: Batman Begins is still the most re-watchable movie in the trilogy, even if it does star Katie Holmes.
3. ‘Iron Man’
This is the perfect comic book movie. It’s just ridiculously fun, with a hero who manages to be interesting both as himself and as his heroic alter-ego. That’s because Robert Downey, Jr. kills it. He just murders everyone and everything as Tony Stark. This is where the Marvel Universe was truly born – at least on screen – and none of it would have worked even fractionally as well if Iron Man wasn’t so damn good.
2. ‘The Dark Knight’
There are those who will get out the torches and pitchforks because this isn’t number one. Here’s the reason: for as great as it is, The Dark Knight is missing that fun-factor I’ve repeatedly mentioned. Like its sequel, it just pummels you. It’s relentless and it’s exhausting, and… that’s also what makes it a great movie. Don’t get it twisted, it’s still one of the greatest comic book movies of all time – especially thanks to Heath Ledger’s ridiculous once in a lifetime performance – and its scope and ambition deserve all the accolades you can throw at it. It’s just not number one.
1. ‘The Avengers’
In the end, I suppose it all comes to down to personal taste between the top two movies on this list. The Avengers is fun in a way that the Nolan Batman films just can’t find, and it’s no less interesting. This is everything a comic book movie should feel like – it’s big, it’s loud, its characters pop off the screen, and you find yourself watching with sheer, child-like joy. That’s the heart of both comic book magic and movie magic, and no comic book movie nails that as perfectly as The Avengers.
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