In praise of comic book movies

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March’s Empire has a special section on comic book movies, to coincide with the releases of V for Vendetta, Mirrormask and X-Men 3. Irritatingly, they’ve gone for a 1960s Batman “pow! bang! smack!” pastiche for the cover(s) but we’ll let that pass.

The first bit of (potentially) good news is that V gets a good review. 4 stars in fact. I’m not going to punch the air yet however, because the reviewer wasn’t sufficiently critical of From Hell (it wasn’t “so so” it was dreadful!), but it definitely looks as if it may have potential.

Alan Moore still won’t be going to the premiere though, and I have to admit I admire his obstinacy. For those of you who don’t know, Alan Moore has for years had a series of rows with publishers over his intellectual property (or lack thereof) and thus when his work came to the attention of Hollywood there would inevitably be fireworks. After a bizarre legal incident whereby he was sued for copyright theft over the film version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (screenplay by Susanne Lamido‘s brother, Lib Dem trivia fans!), he’s taken the extreme solution of demanding that his name be removed from all the work he has written but doesn’t own.

Moving on, Empire publishes it’s list of the Top 20 all time best comic book movies:

  1. X-Men 2 (2003)
  2. Superman the Movie (1978)
  3. Batman Begins (2005)
  4. Spider-Man (2002)
  5. Blade (1998)
  6. Road to Perdition (2002)
  7. Oldboy (2003)
  8. Sin City (2005)
  9. A History of Violence (2005)
  10. Superman II (1980)
  11. Hellboy (2004)
  12. Danger Diabolik (1968)
  13. Akira (1988)
  14. Mystery Men (1999)
  15. Hulk (2003)
  16. Dick Tracy (1990)
  17. Popeye (1980)
  18. Batman Returns (1992)
  19. Ghost World (2001)
  20. Constantine (2005)

Hmmm… controversial. I can’t comment on 7, 9, 12 and 20 as I haven’t seen them (bizarrely in 9s case given my love of the original and its writer). I think it is strange though that this list includes Superman 2 but not Spider-Man 2, which is surely superior? Batman Returns and Ghost World are too far down on this list in my view while Sin City (a triumph of style over substance is not, in itself, a triumph) and The Hulk are far too high. 2,3 and 4 are all superior to 1 in my view (I’d settle for any of them in first place) and where’s Flash Gordon (given my trouble yesterday, I wouldn’t dare allege a Ming conspiracy!)? For that matter, given some of the dross here, what about Men In Black?

As for the “greatest unmade comic book movies,” I have to say I’m not slavering for a Watchmen or Preacher adaptation. My general rule is that good comics make bad films – a rule that doesn’t necessarily apply the other way round and is constantly broken, but it is a trend nonetheless. Thus, hoping that someone will make a good comic into a film is a mug’s game.

Personally though, if you want a really ace film, my dream would be Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. Skizz, written by Alan Moore Smithee, is Brit-antidote to ET; basically alien crashlands in rundown 80s Birmingham, befriends a teenage girl and is hunted by a South African lunatic. It isn’t the best comic in the world, but it has moments of brilliance and the opportunity to subtly deconstruct Spielberg’s more saccharine version (in fact, Skizz was written before ET was released, but it was a deliberate cash-in) would be delicious.

I saw Millions last week and loved it, and the John Williams’ ET mobile phone ringtone convinced me that Boyle’s the man for the job. Are you reading this, lottery moguls?

33 thoughts on “In praise of comic book movies

  1. I may have to buy a copy of Empire just so i can tut tut over it which is presumably why they have been controversial. 11,15,16 and 20 were all dreadful. In fact 11 and 20 were so bad as to beggar belief. I generally think the x men adaptions haven’t had the critical success they deserve ( I want to believe in prof Xavier but I just mentally hear him saying “make it so”) but I’m surprised to see one topping the poll. Finally Spiderman 2 superior to 1 despite the dodgy cruxifiction scene.

    Of course the comic book adaption to end all CBA’s would be a proper Wonder Woman. However i fear a Stepford Wives style road accident and I may never recover from that.

  2. You must have more faith in The Whedon!

    Will take your word on Dick Tracy as its been so long since I saw it. I did like Hellboy though.

    I’ve just remembered that one comic book adaptation which certainly kicks the butt of a lot of the films on this list is Rocketeer.

  3. I quite enjoyed Hellboy too.

    Agree also that Sin City was overrated. I thought it was an interesting proof of concept, but they never quite reinvented it enough for it to work as cinema.

    And why no mention of Judge Dredd?! (apart from the obvious that is).

    Personally rather than someone having another shot at Judge Dredd, I’d like someone to make the Simping Detective… 🙂

  4. I didn’t mention Dredd the film as I’m still doing my best to forget it 🙁

    Simping Detective has potential. My personal favourite for a shot at the big time in the Dreddverse would be Chopper, but the title has already been taken.

  5. James, my hat goes off to you tonight with respect. How on earth you remembered the article I wrote about my brother Jimmy.

    None of us have been able to find him yet. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Even his nephew Matthew tried to put the military feelers out but no luck.

  6. The thing about hell boy was the William Hurt cameo. It was so obvious that they couldn’t afford a proper Ham. I was quite pleased when he was killed.

    I agree about Whedon but remeber Firefly! and the Buffy movie.

  7. > However i fear a Stepford Wives style road accident and I may never recover from that.

    In Joss we trust – in Joss we trust – in Joss we trust…

    Skizz for me was one of those things that you enjoy at the time but years later, as you look back, you actually realise was one of the key cultural moments in your formative years (in my case along with The Human League, Golden Nuggets and Shirley Conran’s “Lace”).

    Personally, I live in hope of a Halo Jones movie, if (and it’s the world’s biggest if) it’s made by someone who understands and loves the source material. Fantasy casting: Alyson Hannigan as Halo, Eliza Dushku as Rodice, Britney Spears as Ludy, Whoopi Goldberg as Brinna, Lucy Lawless as Toy, Sigourney Weaver as Life Sentence, the Rock as General Cannibal and Michael Jackson as Lux Roth Chop.

    Oh – and this might interest you, from December 2004 when Alan Moore was interviewed for Radio 4:

  8. See, I loved Firefly, so clearly we’re going to have to agree to disagree. As for the Buffy movie, it isn’t his fault the bozos who made it didn’t get the source material.

    Susanne, the reason I remembered it was because I’m quite a fan of some of his work, particularly The Golden Age and Starman. If you’re struggling to get in touch with him, my advice is to write to him via DC Comics (1700 Broadway, New York NY10019) – according to wikipedia he’s about to start writing Batman.

  9. Andy,

    A Halo Jones movie would be like a Watchman movie – I’d rather they didn’t make it as it would be a true tragedy if they got it wrong. Skizz is safer because it is so much more self-contained. So long as the film was set in 80s Birmingham you couldn’t really go too far wrong. And the lower budget the better.

    You’re right about it being a key cultural moment though. It always makes me think of the Specials’ Ghost Town. One of the great things about Alan Moore’s UK 80s stuff is that it just reeks of the period – they’re true cultural artifacts. Book 1 of Halo Jones, I am reliably informed by someone who grew up there, is an exact recreation of a shopping expedition from Northampton to London.

    If you want a real eye-opener, check out AARGH! (cover by Dave McKean, which brings us neatly back full circle) – makes you realise quite how far we’ve come in the last 20 years in terms of attitudes about homosexuality. Some of the contributions to it (especially Brian Bolland’s and Frank Miller’s) are cringemaking – trying to be “right on,” but professing attitudes that would be considered unacceptable today.

  10. Perhaps Firefly wasn’t given sufficent time to mature. I know several tonnes of rocks will come down on my head for mentioning Star Trek but all of the varying franchises needed a few series to mature. Only Seven of Nine saved Voyager in series 4 and they have just cancelled Enterprise just as it has stopped being crap.

    However my biggest disappointment by way of adaptions was the very poor BBC NeverWhere. not a comic I grant you.

    However on a serious note this thread has spurred me into serious political action…..

  11. The less said about the Dredd movie the better (is this the prime example of great comic does not a great film make). But because of the films awfulness I can’t see someone else having a stab at it.
    Sin City: love the film, love the comic. But both are about style over substance. As I’m re-reading them atm I can see how the film wasn’t so much an adaptation, but a wholesale transfer of comic to film.
    Finally, I’d love to see Sinister Dexter on the silver screen.

  12. David M: Firefly began better than any Star Trek series, but you’re right in general about series needing time to mature. TNG, still the best Trek by far in my humble opinion, only really got going in season 3.

    Neverwhere wasn’t an adaptation as it was an original drama written by Neil Gaiman for the Beeb (which he later adapted into a book and more recently, a comic). It would be interesting to see what they would do with such material now, Doctor Who springing immediately to mind.

    Dave R: Sinister Dexter on the silver screen? Isn’t that Pulp Fiction? Personally, I’ve always loathed the characters but I have to accept I’m in a minority.

    Two other tooth strips sprang to mind this morning that I’d like to see get the big screen treatment: Nikolai Dante and Firekind. The latter before, hopefully, someone goes and makes an Anne Macaffrey film (God help us!).

  13. Ooh, several of those I’ve not even seen. Off the top of my head, I entirely agree about Flash Gordon – fabulous and hugely entertaining, though I’d add at least Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars as the most outstanding of all the ‘film serials’ too – but I remember preferring X-Men to its sequel / second half. I’ve not seen either for a while so I’m not entirely certain why, though I can still hum the theme from the first and not the second. Glad to see Superman II getting in there, though (quite like Superman III as well, for the ‘evil Superman’ and the lovely Robert Vaughn). I remember something about the end of Spiderman putting me off but can’t remember what, either, so you may be encouraging me to have a season of them.

    I’d probably put Batman Returns higher and Batman Begins a little lower and, shucks, I thought Batman Forever was lots of fun, too, though obviously I won’t mention the R-word. That one made even Judge Dredd look good – oddly, I thought Stallone wasn’t bad as Joe, but somehow the script forgot any element of satire and everything else went downhill from there. Actually, I suspect someone did make rather a good Judge Dredd movie with just about the right tone, but they called it Robocop instead. All I’d really add would be Addams Family Values, which is probably cheating (less so than Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).

    Skizz might be interesting, but I’m just not sure who’d go to see a low-budget ‘80s Brummie sci-fi – fun as it might be to see some scenes filmed as shot-for-shot parody of ET in rain and concrete and (inspired) Ghost Town on the soundtrack. I could see Robo-Hunter as a sort of comedy noir… But that might be hideous, too. Perhaps Nemesis Book I, just to see posters of it burnt in the Bible Belt. And I’d be intrigued to see AARGH! This is probably the right point to say how inspired your blog title is, too…

    Fascinating factoid about Susanne’s brother, though! Coo. And the movie wasn’t half bad as long as you can put all thought of the comic out of your mind and just take it on its own terms.

  14. LOEG the film is, to be fair, much better than Van Helsing (same basic premise, same actor playing the bad guy – you could include Moulin Rouge for completeness!). In their own brainless way, I enjoyed both as pure escapism.

    I see Skizz as an intelligent kids film, hence my allusion to Millions. A good enough film would find its audience.

  15. I’ve still got my copy of Arrgh! proudly on the bookshelf – I’ll have to check the Miller contribution, can’t remember it at all, but even at the time I recall thinking the Bolland strip was missing the point a bit. Although I have used the punchline with the flowers a few times myself, it’s a good bit of bathos.

    I agree with your general gloom about the likely outcome of a Halo movie… I was just allowing myself to dream for a moment what it would be like if it actually worked.

    And, how come no-one’s suggested Zenith Book One for the big screen treatment? Just right for the Pop Idol generation!

  16. I can remember AARGH – wasn’t Miller’s contribution Robohomophobe or something similar?

    Both the X-Men films are good, but I prefer the second, mainly because the first one feels very much like the pilot episode for a series – ‘here are all the characters, here are all their powers, now they come together and solve a problem and set everything up for the rest of the series.’

    I’m beginning to wonder if TV might not be a better medium for adapting comics (at least of the superheroic variety) than film, giving that most of them are based on episodic structures with no resolution to the main story. With the reducing cost of special effects, increasing TV budgets (how much did HBO and BBC spend on Rome, for instance?) and the growth of the DVD market you could make some interesting series – imagine an HBO version of Transmetropolitan, for instance. Plus, some of the most faithful comic adaptations of recent years have been for TV – especially the stuff Paul Dini et al did with the DC Universe.

    As for V, I’m hopeful that they’ll have made a decent movie out of it – I can accept that it’s not going to be 100% faithful to the original, but it doesn’t seem as though they’ve done them because they don’t understand the source material – there’s been nothing that I’ve seen in the publicity equivalent to giving John Constantine a crucifix-shaped shotgun or removing Dredd’s helmet, for instance.

  17. I’m a little disappointed to see Akira only reach as far 13th place.

    Although it’s certainly fair to sat that a two-hour movie was never going to capture enough of a six-volume comic, Akira the film not only managed to work as a stand alone film for the most part, its spirit and aesthetic was also pretty much solely responsible for the explosion of awareness of anime/manga in Britain in the early 90s, it deserves ranking for the affect it had as much as for the quality of the film.

    Without Akira I’m not sure that many people will have seen others which deserve a place in the top-20, such as Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, or films such as Ninja Scroll or the Macross series which are disqualified through being films before they were comic books. I’m not sure that UK distributors would have made much effort with a classic like Spirited Away if they hadn’t been sure there was a strong but small fanbase, created by these films, to at least get the ball rolling.

    Staying on the manga subject, I would think that its mixture of gender-politics-lite and hilarious scrapes would make Ranma 1/2 a surefire hit as a date movie, but maybe I just go on wierd dates. An animated series has been made, but it’s not the kind of thing which would be nigh on impossible to film with live actors.

    Staying away from manga now, I’d like to see a film of the Slaine stories, preferably the Horned God. For films to be made of the Conan stories, and for them not to be truly terrible, surely shows that a fantasy barbarian [i]with a bit more character[/i] could go a long way. The strong female leads inthe first stories also make them a little more accessible than your typical swords & sorcery fair too.

    Bugger knows who you’d cast as the leading man though.

  18. > Bugger knows who you’d cast as the leading man though.

    Chris Huhne, obviously, to listen to his supporters…

    Oooh- a little bit political there

  19. Right – a man could lose his sense of humour quite rapidly here! Clearly, using any sort of angled bracket like the one you see on the comma key makes the blogging software treat everything that follows as code and truncates it. No ‘post delete’ option either.

    That previous comment – the one before the one before this one – was supposed to be a lot less strident and a lot more humorous because of the mock HTML tags that surrounded it to soften the bluntness. Sort of (ben elton voice)(/ben elton voice).

    Apologies for any offence caused, and for this ridiculous trail of half-assed messages. James: delete as many of them as you like.

  20. I defer to your greater knowledge of these things on Neverwhere. I had the most terrible dream last night about the leadership election in which you featured.

  21. Andy,

    No offence taken.


    If it was a terrible dream, presumably I won by a landslide.


    Slaine definitely has potential, but the Horned God would be a case of dropping people in at the deep end. Not sure how you’d handle all the background exposition. There are certainly elements of Slaine the King you’d want to include.

    You’d also need a bit more structure. The Bisley art looks gorgeous, and a lot of Mills’ themes are very interesting, but collecting the four treasures would be very episodic and the end sort of fizzles out (although that’s largely because The Biz seemed to get bored).

    Maybe it would make for a good TV series, especially if you began at the begninning. A stone-age Smallville perhaps? 🙂

  22. There was this voice from heaven berating me for voting Hughes 1 Huhne 2 instead of the other way round. it didn’t really say much except that because simon had won by one vote and I should have known better it was all my fault the party had been destroyed. In the back ground Cowley street was in flames.

    Anyway I wasn’t taking much notice of that, I was just intrigued that I knew that voice from heaven some where.

    and when I woke up I realised it was YOUR voice.

  23. I don’t suppose it counts as it wasn’t originally a comic book, but Unbreakable beats most of these films and fits within the genre. Also the first Tim Burton Batman.

  24. Unbreakable? Ghastly, deathly dull film. The first TB Batman was a missed opportunity as well – too much producer interference. It was better than either of the Schumacher ones, but I’d personally rate the 60s film as superior.

  25. Can’t agree with you about Unbreakable, James, I found it quite enjoyable. The way it played with the common-in-comics idea of Superheroes creating Supervillains also deserves credit.

  26. Oh, I certainly thought it was “clever”. But it was soooo sloooow, and the characters where so stilted and unemotional. All of M. Night Shamalan’s films merge into one after a while, even though they have quite different settings. That’s quite an achievment if you think about it.

  27. Hmm, Samual L. Jackson’s character was stilted and unemotional because he was a sociopath, the kid was stilted and whinily emotional because he was the bullied kid with issues archetype, Bruce Willis’ character was stilted and unemotional because he was being played by Bruce Willis. I’m not going to hold that against the film too much though, because let’s face it, no-one deserves a best actor or screenwriter Oscar for their work on any member of this top 20.

    I’ve only seen Unbreakable and the ‘I see dead people’ film out of Shamalan’s ouvre so will have to bow to your superior knowledge, it’s certainly true that the kids blend into one at the very least.

  28. Unbreakable was a shocking film. Excellent premise completely shocking film. The village was slightly brave attempt to talk about 9/11 and i can’t completely hate something with sigorney weaver in it. however also shocking. ditto the ones with the aleins who are allergic to water.

    hes had his hit with the i see dead people one. he should stop now.

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