Sunday, February 8, 2015

Movies Adapted from the Comics

I was rummaging through some articles I wrote for Epinions and I came across this jewel that I published three years ago. I'm pretty proud of this list. With the exception of possibly adding "X-Men, Days of Future Past" and "Man of Steel", I still stand by this list of my favorite comic book movies.

************************************************************

This is a countdown of my top 10 comic book action movies.  While movies adapted from a comic book don't have to remain 100% faithful to their source material, they should still embody a generous portion of the spirit from which the series is based.  In addition, excellent action and adventure, and realistic human drama would be the next crucial criteria behind all the choices listed herein.  The title says it all, so I'll list some honorable mentions and we'll start the countdown.

Honorable Mentions:
Superman (1978), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Watchmen (2009), Amazing Spider Man (2012)


10. Superman II (1981)
"Kneel before Zod", Terence Stamp proclaims.  And in the summer of 1981, we all knelt before Superman II.  Presaging the special effects boom of the 1990s, Superman II can look dated at first blush, but there are other reasons for which this movie makes the #10 spot.  The first Superman (1978) brought the comic book hero to real life, but Superman II took it to the next level.  Dated special effects aside, the stunt sequences are still solid and loads of fun (the wonders one can do with just a sewer lid).  The opening Eiffel Tower scene is a swashbuckling hoot as Lois Lane's impetuous nature (a feisty Margot Kidder) will always put her in need of a Superman.  Not one, but three black patent leather-suited villains?  That was worth the price of admission alone.  Add the late, great Christopher Reeve who embodied the noble spirit of this flagship DC character, and Superman II had all the right ingredients for a summer blockbuster.  Just add the popcorn.


9. Superman Returns (2006)
Woefully underrated, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns deserves a second look.  Not only is it beautifully shot with a reverent eye toward Richard Donner's 1978 adaptation of the Superman movie, but its brisk storytelling nimbly alternates between love story and action movie, with neither hitting a false or hurried note.  Newcomer Brandon Routh ably fits the role of Clark Kent/Superman, whereas Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane seems to be the only slight misstep in casting.  Lex Luthor's villainy lies in his vicious intellect and Kevin Spacey conveys this with his trademark dramatic pauses.  Even the tinges of humor - more leftover from Gene Hackman's portrayal than anything from the comic book - doesn't detract from Luthor's deadly menace.  Well over a two-hour running time, Singer knows how to let a movie breathe while still making it taut and entertaining.  A double-take on this movie is most worth it.


8. Spiderman 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi crafted a serviceable, albeit thankless, directing job in outlining Spiderman's origins in Spiderman 1 (2002), and I think no one would disagree that the Green Goblin posed a problematic interpretation to the big screen.  Whereas Spiderman 1 was merely adequate, Spiderman 3 was just too unfocused and scattershot.

Spiderman 2, however, was a pitch perfect superhero action flick.  The comic book series as envisioned by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, struck a light yet dramatic tone between Peter Parker's everyday teen problems and the burden of his newfound powers.  Spiderman 2 balances this high wire act brilliantly.  Whether Peter is struggling with his fading powers, dealing with the on again/off again relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), or a strained friendship that's about to boil over with Harry Osborn (James Franco), the movie's center of gravity comes from Peter Parker's constant grappling with the moral sense of duty his Uncle Ben inculcated in him: "with great power comes great responsibility".   As far as villains go, Doctor Octopus could have been just another one-dimensional psychopath wreaking havoc and robbing banks.  Extra kudos go to Alfred Molina for humanizing this villain.


7. X-Men First Class (2011)
X-Men First Class explores the origins of how Charles Xavier’s team of mutants came into existence.  It can be very tricky to tell a story whose outcome we already know.  Done with no respect for continuity or lack of logic, and the audience can easily walk away feeling cheated and bored.  Luckily, Matthew Vaughn retrofits this prequel with excellent actors tweaking their respective characters with youthful cheekiness and morally ambiguous motivations.

Before they were known as Professor X and Magneto, we get a glimpse into Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) friendship with Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and how events unfurled to turn these men into archenemies.

Set in the 1960’s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis as backdrop, Charles and Erik help the American government recruit other mutants to stop the imminent threat of nuclear war precipitated by Sebastian Shaw (a casually cruel Kevin Bacon).  First Class combines wonderful action sequences with a fantastic plot and a mix of new and old characters from the X-Men universe.


6. Batman Begins (2005)
After a lamentable raping at the hands of Joel Schumacher, director Christopher Nolan gives the Batman franchise the proper reboot it deserved, creating "Batman Begins", a somber and decidedly more serious comic book movie.  With second class villains like Ra's Al Ghul and Scarecrow, not to mention a more believable retelling of the Batman's origins, one would think Batman Begins is a plodding and leaden affair, but nothing could be further from the truth.

With few special effects, Batman is one of the rare comic book heroes with no super powers, and as such, everything about the character is related on a human scale and within a realistic framework.  Rather than an aerodynamically phallic space age automobile, the Batmobile is a veritable tank, clunky almost in its bulky frame.  Even Bruce Wayne's alter ego goes through growing pains before he perfects his crime fighting persona.  A cape interspersed with negative charges explains his ability to glide through the air.  And as Batman wages a nightly battle with Gotham City's criminals, it's Bruce Wayne that wakes up the next morning visibly bruised and beaten.

Tenebrous, moody, and relentlessly brooding, "Batman Begins" flawlessly distills the essence of a dark, psychologically complex superhero without compromising a scintilla of great storytelling or heart stopping action.


5. Iron Man (2008)
After a heart damaged by shrapnel from a terrorist ambush, Tony Stark literally has to schlep a car battery under his arm to keep his heart from giving out.  Confident and cocksure just like its character, Iron Man is one of those movies that far exceeded my expectations.

A-list actors marvelously cast in each role (Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges).

A knock out script with boldly drawn characters.

Suspense.

Great special effects in service of the plot rather than the other way around.

Action and drama tempered with bits of genuine, zippy humor.

And in the middle of it all, a boozing, womanizing multi-millionaire with a brazen attitude must save his own life from terrorist captives.  From this defining event, Tony Stark transforms himself into Iron Man, an all too frail human encased in a high tech, impenetrable shell of armor.  Don't let it fool you - Iron Man is all heart.


4. X-Men 2: X-Men United (2003)
Though I was never able to articulate it as a child, I enjoyed the X-Men comic books on so many different levels.  It wasn't just the idea of super powered mutants who protected a society that hated and feared them, but it was the obvious parallel it drew to the prejudice and bigotry real people experience for being regarded as different and therefore socially unacceptable.  In X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer skillfully and subtly weaves this subtext throughout the entire movie.

On the surface, X2, just as in the pages of the comic, is about a group of super beings shunned by normal society for the extraordinary abilities they possess.  Government operatives are hostile towards this new, powerful race, who many think are poised to occupy and dominate the next rung on the human evolutionary ladder.

As well on the surface, it's jam packed with great action and character cameos that would make a fanboy pump his fists.  The opening sequence with Nightcrawler's balletic attack on the White House is just an amuse bouche for what's to follow.  Along the way, there's a handy subplot involving Wolverine's origins, there's the introduction of Jean Grey's Phoenix persona, Cerebro, and Lady Deathstrike.

At more than two hours, X2 never feels like it bites off more than it can chew precisely because its quieter moments reveal a genuine poignancy.  "Couldn't you just stop being... a mutant?", Bobby Drake's mother asks.  Substitute "mutant" for "gay", or any word to define weird or "other", and X-Men 2 taps closer to the human marrow than any comic book movie should.


3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Pay attention to Batman Begins (2005) and you’ll see how The Dark Knight Rises becomes the perfect capstone to Christopher Nolan’s masterfully dark vision of DC’s iconic Batman character.

Whether viewed as part of the trilogy or on its own merits, Rises makes the grade.  And though probably a tad less brilliant than its second chapter, Nolan still manages some revelatory surprises, with the stakes never higher.  Rises features a brutal, methodical villain in Bane (Thomas Hardy) and a slinky Ann Hathaway as a morally ambiguous cat burglar.  Coming out of an 8-year retirement, Batman must rescue Gotham City from certain nuclear annihilation.

While some fans have argued that Rises is a parable for the Occupy Wall Street movement and a bubbling resentment over the uneven distribution of wealth among today’s classes, Nolan maintains that he derived his inspiration from Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”.  Whatever the case, The Dark Knight Rises is suffused with a trenchant and murky introspection that’s as deep as the pit Bruce Wayne tries to crawl out from.


2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The praise heaped on Christopher Nolan's follow up to Batman Begins deserved every bit of critical acclaim that came its way.  The Dark Knight is as much a feast for the eyes as it is the brain, and it doesn't rest solely on Heath Ledger's volcanic and unsettling performance as the Joker - a sociopathic prankster who masterminds deadly social experiments just for funsies.  It's the richly drawn characters with competing - and not always clear - motivations.  It's the twisting plot narrative that pits a deadly game of one-upsmanship between The Caped Crusader and his deranged adversary.  And it's Nolan's dark and claustrophobic visual style that keeps with the sense of doom that seems to lurk behind every corner.

District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) looks to be the only bright spot in a city brimming with corruption and moral rot.  Batman (a stoic Christian Bale) is viewed as just another vigilante and the rise of the Joker plunges Gotham's inhabitants into a state of perpetual fear and panic.  The battle for Gotham's soul doesn't come in the final showdown as the Joker suggests, but in the complete vitiation of its one true rising star.  The Joker is captured, but not defeated, and there's no tidy ending for this intense and dark thrill ride.


1. The Avengers (2012)
Forget its mega blockbuster status (The Avengers raked in $620M domestically!).  Forget even the technicolor action, fluid dialogue and the genuine LOL moments.

That a movie could be made with this kind of scope is not a stretch with today’s sophisticated digital effects.  So let’s leave that out too.  The real challenge with an ensemble cast of outsize comic book characters is how can it be translated to the big screen without looking like a campy mess?

Director Joss Whedon’s witty, light touch is all over this, and he plays the story as a clash of huge egos coming together to contain a worldwide threat.  Watching the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow all come together in this successful superhero team movie made me feel like a kid again.

And truthfully, it gives me hope that Hollywood can do justice to a Justice League movie.  Now that would be bank!
 

--This article was originally published on Epinions, December 8, 2012