Films of the Decade: Comic Book Movies

Monday, December 21, 2009

For better or for worse (mainly for worse), comic book movies came to dominate blockbuster season this decade. Well-known characters and a built-in audience made for ready cash. All the filmmakers had to do was not fuck things up completely and they’d be almost guaranteed a decent yield.

However, the transition from page to screen was rarely easy and so for every Dark Knight, there were a couple of Daredevils. There was even Catwoman and Ghost Rider, but thankfully my path has yet to cross with those (alleged) abominations.

Top Five Comic Book Films

5. Spider-Man 2

Before Sam Raimi fucked everything up with Spider-Man 3 (although quite perversely it’s almost more entertaining than the first two films, so ridiculous is everything in it), he had a good thing going with the Spider-Man series. And the second film betters the first by a fraction. This is partly because you avoid the always rather tedious origin story and because the action isn’t dominated by a man in a rubbish green suit.

4. Watchmen

A referential adaption of the source material. Therefore it suffers from the same strengths and weaknesses of the comic – on the plus side, the story is imaginative and it twists the superhero concept on its head, but on the negative, the story is incredibly episodic. It never really flows. But there’s a lot to admire in the film (the seriousness of the execution, the excellent visuals and some of the action scenes). Thankfully it also ditches the graphic novel’s ridiculous ending.

3. Hulk

Hulk unfairly receives a lot of criticism. People moan about the CGI and how humourless it is. But I appreciate the seriousness of the exercise and sometimes I think the CGI Hulk looks great - just take the fight with the tanks. I also love the multiple panels to make the movie look like a living, breathing comic book. Another plus is Nick Nolte. Yes the performance is incredibly OTT, but it’s the one bit of excess in an otherwise remarkably restrained film (Nolte’s fake screaming when talking to his son is hilarious). The only negative is the tedious monster mash at the end. One of the positives of the film is that there isn’t a supervillain for the Hulk to contend with – his biggest enemy is himself. So to see things degenerate into a bland, poorly lit CGI fight temporarily makes you forget how good the rest of the film is.

2. Batman Begins

The origin story is hard to contend with. You want to show where the character came from but you also know that the audience is actually there for the result. Tim Burton got around this by having Batman already formed. And I don’t have a problem with Burton’s version. But Nolan decided to give Batman’s origin story the space it needed. And as a result you have a very rare thing – a comic book movie with lots of layers and with characters who actually feel like living, breathing people. Burton’s movie had a beautiful surface but Nolan’s film has more things going on underneath. The action scenes are also considerably better (even if the fights are overly disjointed – Nolan goes for a Bourne vibe and fails somewhat); the car chase is amazing and demon Batman is one of the coolest visuals that CGI has conjured.

1. The Dark Knight

Hopes were high for The Dark Knight and Christopher Nolan didn’t disappoint. His sequel is darker, better acted and better written than the original. It also has one of the best villains in recent cinema, allowing the film to tap into the paranoia that clouds present society – the fear of fearless terror. How do you combat a force that doesn’t give a shit about itself? Nolan also improves his action direction and provides a couple of genuine surprises with the plot. However, the film is far from perfect. The final action sequence is confused and Two-Face isn’t fully realised. Plus, in the face of the Joker, Batman seems kind of impotent in comparison. But then that’s kind of the point and full credit goes to Nolan for making a film that is so relentlessly grim.

Five Worst Comic Book Movies

5. Superman Returns

For me, Superman has always been one of the least interesting superheroes. He’s far too perfect and he’s a goody two-shoes to boot. Despite this, the first couple of Christopher Reeve films managed to overcome these shortcomings through sheer spectacle alone. But in the age of CGI, where everything that can be imagined can be filmed (and poorly rendered), there’s nothing remarkable about Superman’s exploits. In lieu of this you need interesting characters and good writing, two things that are sorely lacking here. The film limps and plods along with only Kevin Spacey’s humping of old ladies and shouting of ‘WRONG!’ to occasionally break the tedium.

4. Hellboy

Guillermo del Toro is one of the most puzzling directors working today. Despite the fact that most of his films are shit or mediocre at best (Pan’s Labyrinth must rank as one of the most overrated films of the decade), he’s developed a cult following. Hellboy is a prime example. It’s dull and incoherent. It displays no storytelling skill whatsoever. It doesn’t even possess the ‘it’s so bad, it’s funny’ feel that pieces of crap like Daredevil have. I think I ended up clipping my toenails or something as I was watching it, so uninvolving was the whole enterprise.

3. V For Vendetta

‘Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.’ Bash my nuts with a mallet.

2. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Fucking hilarious and excruciating in equal measure. Want to see a man attacking a Nazi gun emplacement on all fours like a panther? Want to see a child running at his father with sharp claws and killing him before screaming in mental anguish? Want to see shot after shot of Hugh Jackman’s luscious body? This movie has it all and much, much less.

1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

A huge mess of a film. It’s one of those movies where even though everything is explained in excruciating detail, it still doesn’t make any sense. Everything just seems to happen at random. It also features one of the most annoying performances in recent years – Stuart Townsend as Dorian Gray. His villain is like an even camper version of Roger Moore (yes, that is possible). He’s all raised eyebrows and crappy one-liners. Then you have Sean Connery picking up a paycheque. His heart isn’t in the film and it shows. Plus it’s blindingly obvious that all of his action is done by a much younger stunt double, making it resemble the skit in The Naked Gun where a stunt Frank Drebben enters a room with gymnastics and disappears behind a couch only for Leslie Nielsen to appear.

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  1. I think I may have been unaware of the Del Toro animosity. I count myself one among the cult -- and think him a genius. Had I compiled a top 50 of the decade, Pan's Labyrinth (which I hope to teach one day) would certainly have been on it, likewise Hellboy 2 (which is even better than also wonderful Hellboy). (In fact, I like both HB films more than I like The Dark Knight...)