The Modern Comic Book Film
By Bert Ehrmann
May 7, 2010
Comic book characters have had a long history with the movies. As far back as the early 1940s Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel were all fighting villains in movie serials and there were film versions of the 1950s Superman and 1960s Batman TV shows released in those respective decades. But it really wasn't until the late 1970s with the film Superman (1978) that comic characters really came to the forefront of the movies and were seen as a major audience draw.
One could do far worse than introducing someone to comic book films than by doing it via the 1978 Superman film. Director Richard Donner and the four writers credited on the screenplay make doing a Superman movie look easy. They managed to stay very true to the character and his roots while at the same time using (then) cutting edge movie-making technology to make the audience believe that the Superman character is a real, breathing person with "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men."
But apparently making it look "easy" is really, really hard since the three film sequels after Superman would never quite attain the greatness of this first. Even the reboot Superman Returns (2006) somehow missed much of the essence of the character present in the original film and is a shadow of Superman.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; the 1989 version of Batman is my all-time favorite comic book movie. I won't go into much detail here since I devoted an entire column to the film last year, but suffice to say the very first Blu-ray I purchased was of this film.
One film most probably don't realize was based on a comic book, that is if they've even heard of it in the first place, is The Rocketeer (1991). The Rocketeer was created by comics legend Dave Stevens and had story and art so good I'm not sure anything has come close to matching it since it was last published some 15 years ago. The film version of The Rocketeer follows the comic very closely with 1930s pilot/stuntman Cliff (Bill Campbell) one day finding a rocket pack hidden in his airplane, left their by mobsters running from the police. Cliff tries on and flies the rocket pack for fun, but things turn deadly when famous Hollywood actor who moonlights as a Nazi spy Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) wants the pack for his friends in Germany and is willing to kill Cliff's girl Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) in order to get it.
If Batman is my favorite comic book movie then my second favorite is Iron Man (2008). While just about every other movie based on a comic book has tried to show the harsh realities of what having super-powers or a super-hero lifestyle would be like, the creators of Iron Man took a different tact. With Batman it's about the seriousness of the job, with The Incredible Hulk it's the drag of Bruce Banner having to keep his emotions in check in order to not change into the Hulk and with Spider-Man it's about the weight of the world on Peter Parker's shoulders as he tries to fight crime while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life. With Tony Stark and Iron Man it's all about how bloody brilliant it is to don a suit of armor and given the gift of superpowers.
The only downside about having created a super-powerful suit of armor that can do almost anything is that everyone else wants it and is ready to do almost anything to have it for themselves.
Still, the success rate for Hollywood and comic book movies has been spotty one at best. For every great one like Spider-Man (2002), The Incredible Hulk (2008) or Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), there are many more bad ones like Captain America (1990), Daredevil (2003) or Catwoman (2004) to make the average movie-goer doubt why ANY comic book should be turned into a film. Still, when Hollywood does get it right the results can be magnificent.
A few other comic films I didn't have room to include here but wished I could are The Crow (1994), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009), and X2 (2003).
Iron Man 2 is currently playing in theaters and most of the above films are available on DVD.