19 Comic-Based Films and the Pros and Cons Involved in Nominating Each One to Add to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 List
BREAKING NEWS! While snooping around the offices of the American Film Institute during one of my fact-finding missions, I discovered there are plans afoot to add a comic-book film to their AFI Top 100 list!
According to top secret meeting minutes I found while looking for snacks in the trash (DON’T JUDGE ME!), the people who maintain the official list of America’s 100 greatest movies have decided that one of the films in the list will be taken out to make room for one that represents the comic-film genre, which I think we can all agree has been a dominant force — if not the dominant force — in the film industry over the past 20 years.
Our challenge: to decide which film to add to the list. The only criteria the film has to meet is (1) it has to be a film created by an American studio and (2) it has to be a film based on characters that first appeared in a comic book (sorry, Garfield 2: A Tale of Two Kitties — no comic strip characters allowed).
Sadly, we can choose only one film for this special honor. So what criteria do we we use to decide? Biggest box office? Best special effects? Largest cultural impact? Heaviest thematic resonance? Most hardware at the awards shows? Closest adherence to the source material? Critical applause? Yes!
And so, without further ado, the nominees are…
PROS: I don’t see how you can even start this conversation without considering Superman as one of the nominees. It’s the first big-budget superhero movie, its success (which was by no means a guarantee) helped comic-book films shake off the B-movie image, Christopher Reeve — an unknown at the time — was perfectly cast as the Man of Steel, the film’s idealistic tone was a much-needed tonic for the cynicism of the 1970s, and people to this day still picture the man’s Fortress of Solitude as a crystal palace where Marlon Brando’s ghost head offers fatherly advice from beyond the grave. That, people, is called “resonance.”
CONS: As groundbreaking as Superman was, its success didn’t open the floodgates for a new era of superhero cinema. Superman II opened to good reviews, sure, but the only films inspired by that one-two punch were Superman III (meh), Supergirl (uch) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (dear God, no). Also, as beloved as Superman was, I think it’s okay to say Gene Hackman’s Luthor was a little more clownish than needed, the whole spinning-the-Earth-backwards thing isn’t that awesome when you think about it, and aside from the underwhelming Superman Returns it’s hard to see how any other comic-based film drew inspiration from Superman’s look or tone.
PROS: Batman was a revelation, wildly succeeding in helping the franchise shake off the campiness of the Batman TV show and making a ton of money in the process. It also proved that a director (in this case Tim Burton) didn’t have to sacrifice his signature style to create a comic-book film that the masses could enjoy. And talk about Bat-mania: with over $750 million in toys, T-shirts and other merchandise sold that year, Batman proved that a comic-book film could do a lot more for a studio’s bottom line than just sell tickets to comic fans.
CONS: While Jack Nicholson was paid handsomely to belt out lines like “This town needs an enema!” I think it’s fair to say his take on the Joker has since been eclipsed by others who have put their own unique spin on the character. Some Batman purists have also balked at the military-grade weaponry on the Batmobile and the Batwing — a creative decision that suggested maybe the studio heads didn’t have as complete an understanding of the Dark Knight as one might expect. Batman also suffers the same “inspiration” issue as Superman, producing several direct sequels but little evidence that its success led to a new era in comic-book films.
PROS: How’s this for a mark in the “wins” column: made on a budget of only $23 million, Jim Carrey’s The Mask grossed more than $350 million at the box office, earning its studio more than 15 times its production budget. It was also a film that had “legs,” which in the film distribution business means it didn’t see a precipitous drop in its box office when you compare its opening-weekend take to subsequent weeks. Aside from the money stuff, The Mask — based on a Dark Horse comic that you can bet most filmgoers had never heard of before they hit the cineplex — proved you could make a hugely profitable movie out of an obscure comic book. It also boasts CGI effects that, while looking a little primitive today, were cutting edge for their time.
CONS: Can we really count this as a comic book film, though? While the anarchist character originated in a comic book, this film was The Jim Carrey Show through and through, and you could argue a lot of people showed up at theatres because the film came out at the height of Carrey’s fame (1994 being a very good year for him, with Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber coming out that year as well). And while the film’s success led to an animated series and a Nintendo spin-off game, a lack of sequels or other films following its formula for success suggest its impact on the film industry was limited.
PROS: Most comic-film fans mark Blade — the film starring Wesley Snipes as the half-vampire “daywalker” who hunts the vampires living among us — as the beginning of Marvel’s rise in Hollywood. Based on an obscure Marvel character, it proved you didn’t need to have a superhero A-lister in your movie to do well at the box office, and its edgy horror/action style helped dispel the campy reputation comic-book movies had at the time thanks to films like Howard the Duck and Batman and Robin.
CONS: Blade did all right at the box office ($130 million on a $45 million budget), but it’s a stretch to say it was a massive financial success. And given how dark and violent it was, it’s hard to imagine its release was intended to inspire a lot of other comic-book films to follow its R-rated lead.
PROS: True, 2000’s X-Men came out before the first film in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, but this is the film that made Hollywood sit up and notice the potential in mining comic books. Spider-Man became the first film to pass the $100-million mark in a single weekend, establishing a new opening weekend record. It became the highest-grossing superhero film of all time at the time of its release, with a domestic gross that wouldn’t be topped until 2008’s The Dark Knight. After spending almost two decades in development hell, the film’s success made it clear to Sony and other studios there was good value in buying the film rights to other comic-book stars.
CONS: While hugely successful, Spider-Man wasn’t invincible to the real super-villain in Hollywood: studio notes. By the third film in the trilogy, it was clear there were too many hands stirring the pot, and Sony’s panicked reboot of the franchise in an attempt to retain the film rights didn’t help right the ship. You could also argue a lot of Spider-Man’s box office was due to really great timing — coming out in May 2002, it rode a wave of post-9/11 patriotism, especially with scenes in which ordinary New Yorkers say things like, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”
PROS: Despite being one of the bigger names in indie comics (big enough to land him regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman), Harvey Pekar wasn’t that well-known outside the comics community for most of his career. That changed in 2003, when the film American Splendor — based on his autobiographical comic about his daily life — won Movie of the Year from the American Film Institute Awards, the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the Sundance Festival, the award for Best Adapted Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (where it lost to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in a year when that film won everything). Aside from the hardware and prestige, American Splendor wasn’t just a “comic book film” — it was a film about comic books and how they can elevate even the more mundane parts of our lives.
CONS: If I say “comic-book film,” what’s the first thing that comes to your head? Probably not a balding Paul Giamatti dealing with cancer and grousing about supermarket checkout lines. As innovative as the film was, it didn’t lead to a burst of interest in other books by quirky underground comics writers, nor did its unique style of blending creator and creation lead to similar experiments down the road.
PROS: After 1997’s Batman and Robin almost buried the Batman franchise once and for all, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did exactly what the title promised: it took Batman back to basics. For the first time, audiences saw some of the overseas training a young Bruce Wayne undertook before starting his campaign against Gotham’s underworld, setting up a few moral quandaries along the way. While being faithful to the comics and setting a more realistic and thoughtful tone at the same time, the film reset the button on the Batman franchise and became one of the more influential films of the 2000s.
CONS: Honestly, I can’t think of a lot of cons here; many filmmakers have cited this film as the one that made them realize genre films could tell compelling stories with a darker edge and still be entertaining crowd-pleasers. If there’s anything working against nominating Batman Begins, it might be the fact it would very quickly find itself overshadowed by the success of its sequel (see below).
PROS: This political thriller was based on a 1980s comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd that was ahead of its time, just as the film version starring Hugo Weaving as the fascism-fighting anarchist also proved to be strikingly prescient. While other comic-based films might be content to feature timeless battles between good and evil, V for Vendetta stands a good chance of being assigned in future university classes as a way to help students understand the unique forces in the early 21st century that came together and gave ordinary people cause to rise up and resist authority, many of them sporting the same mask as everyone’s favorite Guy Fawkes cosplayer.
CONS: Yeah, but is it any good? Critics were divided on the matter, with some praising the movie for having a message and others finding fault with the execution and the many deviations from Moore’s script. Moore himself campaigned to have his name removed from the film’s credits, and it’s easy to see why; where the book doesn’t spare the general public from responsibility for installing a fascist regime, the film goes in a more audience-friendly direction that dilutes the story’s key message. And whatever effect the film might have had on real-life events, its impact on the entertainment business was negligible, certainly compared to films like…
PROS: Iron Man wasn’t just the start of a trilogy of films starring Marvel’s high-tech hero; it was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the phenomenally successful media juggernaut that’s still going strong today (and, ironically, about to add Juggernaut and a lot of other mutants to its ranks). Before this film’s success, the idea of a “shared universe” where characters from different films would interact with each other was a novelty (think Freddy vs. Jason or Alien vs. Predator), but the success of Iron Man and other MCU films led to other studios with the rights to various franchises trying to replicate the same business model. Aside from that, Iron Man’s success proved a comic film didn’t need an A-list name like Superman or Spider-Man to bring in audiences, just a great script, some decent special effects and the world’s most perfect pairing of actor and character.
CONS: Hardware-wise, Iron Man didn’t do all that great, with only two Academy Awards nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but given the awards and attention given to another 2008 superhero film (see below), well, that’s got to hurt. Its two sequels, though financially more successful, didn’t achieve the same level of critical success, and the three films together — while entertaining — are more important to film history as part of the MCU than as a separate franchise.
PROS: Has there been any comic-book film that more perfectly captured the zeitgeist as The Dark Knight? At a time when the U.S. was still coming to terms with the atrocities of the Iraq War and growing fearful of the surveillance state created in the aftermath of 9/11, along came a film that tackled domestic terrorism and privacy fears head on while asking “Why so serious?” Heath Ledger (who would earn a posthumous Oscar for this, his final role) perfectly embodied the agent of chaos who sets out to show how society is a joke, while Batman wrestles with his own totalitarian impulses, and the price that some individuals must pay to keep the rest of us believing in a better day. “You either die a hero…”
CONS: As much as Ledger’s performance is a pleasure to watch, there’s not much for the rest of the cast to do — this is his film, and everyone else is reacting to him. Which doesn’t make it a bad or boring movie, but the high-octane set pieces without him (like Batman nabbing that shady accountant to bring him back to Gotham) feel like we’re just killing time until we get to Joker’s next scene. There’s also the argument that, because the film knows it has Very Important Themes to share, it can get a little ponderous and unfunny — two things any project featuring the Clown Prince of Crime should never be.
PROS: This action/comedy/adventure film based on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels about a slacker musician and his friends starts off on the right foot by keeping the story set in Toronto, and by not hiding that fact by highlighting numerous local landmarks and Toronto-isms. But more importantly, the film borrows many of the graphical elements from the books, creating an inventive amalgam of film, comic book and video game iconography that led some academic folks to use terms like “transmedia narrative” while describing it. In some respects, this may be the most “comic book film” of all the comic book films.
CONS: The film was a bomb, landing in fifth place on its opening weekend and taking in only $48 million domestically against a budget of $85-90 million. While critics mostly praised it as funny and inventive, their efforts to get people to see it were hampered by Universal’s colossal failure in marketing Scott Pilgrim to the world. Take the movie poster, which doesn’t even show Michael Cera’s face as he’s hunched over an electric guitar and the tagline “An epic of epic epicness.” What does that even mean…? Universal’s marketing people sure as heck didn’t know. It eventually gathered a cult following, but it would be hard to argue it’s the best example of a comic-book film.
PROS: The sixth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers represented a huge gamble. Would audiences reward Marvel Studios for forcing them to six through five previous and mostly unrelated films to know what was going on in The Avengers? The answer was a resounding yes. The film was the first in the MCU to bring in more than $1 billion at the box office, it received numerous awards and nominations for its visual effects, and its success spurred other studios (notably Warner Bros. with its DC heroes and Universal with its monster-movie properties) to crank out “cinematic universes” of their own.
CONS: With so many characters and so many plot points to get to, it was inevitable that something would have to be sacrificed, like character development. As the final act of Marvel’s “Phase One,” The Avengers function as an excellent climax, but anyone watching the movie without viewing the earlier Marvel films might be a little lost. Plus… the Chitauri are a bit of a bust as an invading force, don’t you think? True, Loki is the “face” villain in the film, but the film’s major setpiece sees our heroes defending New York City from an alien army pouring in from a hole in the sky. The ease with which they were taken out by six individuals — even if one of them is the Hulk — does not suggest an epic battle for the ages.
PROS: First off, Ryan Reynolds was born to play the merc with a mouth; no other actor could possibly have pulled this off so effectively. As the first major release R-rated comic-book film, Deadpool had a lot of people looking closely at it to see if it would work… and its $800 million box office would suggest that yes, yes it did. Its success led to a well-received sequel and films at other studios (Birds of Prey) following the same formula, and its brilliantly self-aware script knocked the stuffing out of a genre that (let’s face it) can sometimes get a little too precious with itself.
CONS: So, here’s the thing about a film like Deadpool: it succeeds because it’s a reaction to something else. Most of the jokes in the film don’t land unless you’ve watched other superhero films, or at least have some knowledge of the spoken and visual language of those films. This doesn’t make the film any less brilliant, just harder to sell it as a stand-alone example of a great comic-book film. Also, some of the R-rated parts might be a little too “R” for our hypothetical judges to give it the green light.
PROS: After the middling financial success and critical panning of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (where Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman made her debut), hopes were not high for Wonder Woman. But the lady came though, breaking the curse of bad DCU movies and delivering a payday ($820 million on a $120 million budget) that put to rest the idea that female-led superhero movies couldn’t draw a crowd. Just by being a powerful woman, Gadot’s character opened the door for a lot of discussion about women in the film industry (and in society in general, especially with the #metoo movement in high gear during its release), and the film’s success as a cultural touchstone went a long way in helping the general public see comic book films as capable of delivering more than just blow-’em-up action scenes.
CONS: As fun as the film was, it suffered the same setback as a lot of other films on this list: a lacklustre third act involving a not-terribly-impressive villain and a whole lot of forgettable CGI effects. You also have to wonder what her creator, William Moulton Marston, would have thought of her film debut: he created the character specifically as a representation of female empowerment, and there aren’t a lot of examples in the film of Diana upending the patriarchy (and not much explanation for why she chooses to hide her powers by working as a museum employee, though maybe that’s something that will get explored in the upcoming sequel).
PROS: The numbers speak for themselves: third-highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, first live-action superhero film to be nominated for screenwriting, best-reviewed film in the X-Men franchise with numerous critics flat-out calling it the best superhero movie ever made. Hal Jackman’s final stab (pun!) at the character he played for almost 20 years is a heartbreaking story of trauma and loss, a film that transcends the genre by invoking some of the greatest Westerns ever made. The National Board of Review listed it as one of the top 10 films of 2017, and it’s not hard to see why one critic praised Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine as “a gritty, nuanced performance in a violent but surprisingly thoughtful superhero action film that defies genre conventions.”
CONS: Talk about elitism — a lot of those same critics went out of their way to say this comic-book movie is so good that it shouldn’t be considered a comic-book movie. What’s wrong with being considered a comic-book movie? This isn’t a knock against Logan, just something that bugs me. Anyway, the film really is as great as everyone says it is, but I find it has the same disqualifier as Deadpool — it’s a film that wouldn’t be possible without other films coming before it to tell you the story of how Logan got to this point. And as such, it’s hard to argue it’s the ultimate comic-book film when you need to do your homework to appreciate all its layers.
PROS: As the first superhero film with a majority Black cast and a Black director, Black Panther was a genuine global phenomenon, instantly vaulting one of Marvel’s reliable B-list players to the top of Hollywood’s A-list. It’s also (at the time I’m writing this) the highest-grossing superhero movie starring a solo character, only bested by the four Avengers movies in box-office clout. Beyond the copious stacks of money, though, Black Panther — like Wonder Woman before it — sparked a lot of conversations about representation in Hollywood, and elements of its plot reflected a lot of real-life concerns (like how much should more advanced nations help other nations with their problems). Plus, Killmonger — greatest comic-film villain or greatest movie villain of all time? Discuss.
CONS: Given the themes of the film and the many issues it brings up, it feels a little problematic that the nation ended the film as it began, an absolute monarchy with some line of succession rules that someone should think about updating. (And don’t get me started about how it took an entire film’s worth of Killmonger’s murderous actions to get T’Challa to see the same point that Nakia was trying to pound into his head at the start of the film. Not the swiftest knife in the drawer, our T’Challa.) And while the film makes huge strides in Black representation in Hollywood and features many excellent performances, the film’s story arc is fairly conventional as far as superhero scripts go.
PROS: What, you think animated films aren’t allowed to be on the AFI list? Tell that to Toy Story and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Along with winning Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, Into the Spider-Verse hauled in a truckload of other trophies in praise of its animation, direction, characters, story, voice acting, humor and soundtrack. And aside from telling a great story featuring multiple versions of Marvel’s most beloved character, Into the Spider-Verse carried with it messages that every comic and movie fan needs to hear: there are no limits to our imagination, it’s all just lines on a page, don’t feel constrained by what came before, anything is possible if you believe it can happen, we all the potential in us to be a hero.
CONS: Honestly, I can’t think of a lot here, other than the usual points about how this film — as innovative as it was — hasn’t led to a rebirth in big-screen animated superhero films, and that while it represents something new and refreshing in the comic-film genre, it’s hard to argue that it’s the quintessential comic-based film.
PROS: How does “highest-grossing film of all time” sound to you? Avengers: Endgame, the highly anticipated sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, united all the MCU heroes against the mighty Thanos in the kind of fate-of-the-universe battle that was once only possible on the comic page. Thanos turned out to be a villain who could be somewhat sympathetic even while committing the most heinous atrocities imaginable, and the battle scenes and visual effects were more than matched by the more human and heart-warming moments of the film (“No, I don’t think that I will” — sniff).
CONS: Like I said with The Avengers above, to properly appreciate Avengers: Endgame you need to watch Avengers: Infinity War first (and maybe all the other previous MCU movies just for good measure). And I’m not sure if it makes sense to nominate one film to the AFI list when it’s really the second part of a much longer film that Marvel decided to split in two for marketing reasons (and, to be fair to them, out of kindness for our bums and bladders).
PROS: Joaquin Phoenix snagged a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian and mentally troubled man who would go on (or does he?) to achieve fame as Joker, inspiration to the masses of Gotham looking to rise up against the city’s elite. Borrowing heavily from such films as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, director Todd Phillips created a billion-dollar film that was easily the most talked-about piece of pop culture in 2019, with everyone weighing in on what its message was supposed to be, and what its popularity among film-goers said about the state of our society. And you know a film has made a cultural impact when a freakin’ flight of stairs in New York City is now a tourist attraction.
CONS: …yeah, but can we consider it a comic-book film? Aside from the name and a vague resemblance to the classic Batman villain, there’s nothing about Fleck that ties him to any of the many comic books featuring the Clown Prince of Crime, and the only other connections to DC properties are mentions of the Wayne family that could easily be changed in an updated version of the script. (I have no proof of this, but I like to imagine the pitch meeting went something like this: “I want to create a human drama, a searing portrait of a man driven to the edge of insanity by an uncaring society that–” “Pass. Sounds depressing. Got any comic films you wanna pitch?” “Uh… sure. [crosses out FLECK on the title page, writes in JOKER] How about this?” “Sounds great. How’s $50 million for a budget?”)
And the winner is…
This was a tough decision, with a lot of credible contenders fighting for the one open slot. But in the end, I think this is the film that takes the crown.
Some films can claim box office success. Others can boast great acting, writing or cinematography. Then you have the films that can make the claim of being the “first” of their kind, while still others find a way to become part of the larger cultural conversation through resonating themes in their scripts.
All of the films listed above can fit into one or more of these categories, but Iron Man sweeps them all. Box office darling? Check. Great cast and story? Check. A storyline (war-mongering American tycoon comes to terms with his complicity in the violent world he helped create in the name of profit) with a lot of thematic heft in the year the film was released? Check.
Most importantly, there’s that “first of its kind” business. I think it’s very likely that if Iron Man had been a bomb, then the history of the MCU would have been very different from the one we know today (assuming there even would be an MCU). Without Iron Man, there’s less of a chance of a successful MCU; without an MCU, we likely wouldn’t have seen Warner Bros. playing catch up with its own cinematic universe, or Universal, or…
Well, you see what I mean. Iron Man may not be the best comic-based film, but so many of the others seen listed here only exist because of its critical and commercial success. And because its release marks the ascendancy of the studio that has reshaped the film industry more than any other studio over the past 15 years, I don’t see how we can go with anyone else.
What do you think? Am I totally off the mark? Would you choose another film on this list, or maybe one I didn’t even mention? Tell me in the comments below!