Everyone seems to think comic book movies are the only way to make money these days. Big studios don’t take chances on interesting ideas. Meanwhile, DC and WB waste time and money on more and more superhero comic book movies, even as their biggest investments fall flat. And this was all instigated by Marvel, the comic book empire. You’d think we’re living in some sort of “Age of Comic Book Movies.” But, no, it turns out, people have been aping movie ideas from comic books for forever. Examples, you say?
From Hell (2001)
Alan Moore’s work is very popular with people who like to make dark movies. From Hell is based on an eponymous graphic novel about the Jack the Ripper murders, and integrates some cult and conspiracy themes by involving the Freemasons. Like most of Moore’s work, the characters are deeply troubled and the story is pretty dark and twisted. Although, evidently it’s not dark and twisted enough, because Moore has gone on record saying that he dislikes the replacement of his “gruff” main character with an “absinthe-swilling dandy.”
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
…Um… What? No, really, this movie is about characters from the Archie comics. The comic book got made into a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and eventually, they decided to make a movie, I guess. I think I saw this movie when I was very young but didn’t remember it, so I decided to go back and give it a watch. It… bombed for a reason.
The only other thing I have to say about this movie is that these characters are, in a way, the same ones from Riverdale, and that’s kind of weird to think about.
Based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer, Constantine is best described as Supernatural meets Diablo. Starring Keanu Reeves, the film tells the story of a paranormal investigator and exorcist of sorts who has to stop a demonic conspiracy from ending the world. Pretty standard stuff. Like many other early comic book movies, Constantine adapts material from a smorgasbord of its original source material, coming up with something that works on its own terms, rather than trying too hard to fit everything into a larger continuity.
Apparently, the John Constantine character was included in the New 52 Justice League Dark, which means that, depending on how much DC is willing to scrape the barrel to try and launch a cinematic universe, we could potentially be seeing a Constantine reboot anytime in the next however many years Warner Bros’s budget will allow for.
Prince Valiant (1954)
I am aware that there is also a 1997 film of the same name, based on the same source material, but this is the only one I’ve seen. Prince Valiant is one of those classic 50’s fantasy movies where they didn’t realize that they should go film in New Zealand yet, so all of the epic fantasy wilderness looks hilariously like it was shot near the Missouri River. The sets and swordplay are also wonderfully and hilariously overdone.
To its credit, the reasoning behind the extremely saturated Technicolor look was to emulate the vibrant colors of the original comic’s artwork. Said comic strip, originally drawn by Hal Foster, remains the longest-running comic strip to this day, with authorship passed down from artist to artist like a sacred family heirloom. This is actually a film I recommend you go back and watch if you’re sick of the overblown, overly serious fantasy movies of this century.
I love Barbarella. Call me a pervert if you want, but this movie is just the right kind of weird, bizarre, pulpy science fiction that I crave, and that has fallen by the wayside since Flash Gordon (1980). This is a movie where Jane Fonda defeats a villain by being too kinky for his torture device.
One of the first things I learned in my Film Studies major was that any piece of media can be read any way you want to. I choose to read Barbarella as feminist, for embracing the character’s sexuality and making it fully a part of her, rather than trying to downplay it or pretend that it doesn’t exist. Of course, it is based on a French comic, so make of that what you will.
Weird Science (1985)
Remember the 80’s? This movie is the most 80’s thing that exists and possibly will ever exist. The original Weird Science was an anthology-type comic series from the 50’s. When Joel Silver, the producer, got his hands on the movie rights, he picked one of the anthology stories and spun it up into a whole movie. And got John Hughes to direct it.
And this movie is basically a normal John Hughes movie on drugs. And if the screenplay adaption was written by a stereotypical 80’s nerd on an old Mac. It’s the first American manic pixie dream girl movie if the manic pixie dream girl is a supermodel cyborg played by Kelly LeBrock. There’s a gang of mutant bikers. Robert Downey Jr.’s here. He doesn’t like being called “Jr.” yet. Make your own judgments.
To be honest, I’m not sure if this one really counts, because the graphic novel was never really released. Director Joseph Kosinski states that the comic was really only a phase of development for the movie, and the intent from the beginning was always to tell the story in film form.
Honestly, I think this film could’ve used more Tom Cruise direction, but that probably would’ve veered it away from Kosinski’s desire to make a serious sci-fi movie. Also, the score was done by M83, the band who made Midnight City, and I think that’s awesome.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Everyone talks about Cast Away as the film where Tom Hanks went from being funny to being serious, but I like Road to Perdition much more. Maybe it’s because I was an edgy teen when I watched it, but the dark imagery and subject material are very appealing. The comic book has this distinct, hyperrealistic black-and-white artwork that the film mimics in both photography and tone.
The movie, on the other hand, is what really got me started thinking about morality in stories. By making the story more of a drama and less action-schlock, the film really dives into the ethics of the story, and ties those into its themes about fatherhood and violence. Sometimes at the same time. It’s great and you should watch it if you haven’t.
Ghost World (2001)
Horrendously underrated and second-billing Scarlett Johansson before she started getting herself mixed up in race and gender politics, Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 coming-of-age comedy is actually based on an extremely depressing, eponymous comic book. Also starring Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi, this movie was one of the ones that lost Best Adapted Screenplay to A Beautiful Mind in 2002.
The imagery and pacing of this movie are great. Zwigoff crafts an excellent approximation of the boonies and suburbs that the comic book is set in, and captures the same doldrums and vacantness that the original did, perhaps partially thanks to script help from the comic’s author, Daniel Clowes. While the film takes on a more distinct plot and develops its own narrative direction, Ghost World adapts its print companion’s tone well, and that’s definitely the most important part of the work. If you missed this weird little coming-of-age story, it’s worth your time to check out.
A History of Violence (2005)
This is not a ranked list but this is my favorite movie that nobody knows is a comic book. Viggo Mortensen stars as the low-tech Winter Soldier, trying to blend into small-town America when the mob finds him again and tries to bring him back into the fold. The film cuts the lengthy backstory in favor of an exploration of the character in his post-mob life.
The film version is exactly the right kind of dark and artsy for its dark and artsy source material. It trims down on detail in all the right places and puts emphasis on the difficult morality and the themes. Viggo delivers an intense performance, and the ending is exactly what I wanted and needed by the end of the film. Compared to the other films in this list, A History of Violence is a more unpleasant ride, but I still highly recommend it.
Plus there’s a shot where a mob boss gets locked out of his house and rummages his pockets for his keys for half a second before getting shot that I love.