With Marvel already carrying over a lot of their characters to the big screen and DC making the first steps in doing so with 2016’s Batman Vs. Superman, when one thinks of the surging popularity of “the comic book movie” the mind immediately goes to Robert Downy Jr. as Iron Man or Christopher Nolan’s critically and commercially successful Batman films. Not too often does one immediately think about mob movies with hit-man protagonists, historical epics, or a VA clinic employee achieving a level of fame he never asked for.
More often than not, a comic book that isn’t about a superhero only achieves an underground cult following, and the general movie-goer isn’t aware these books are even on the shelves as one needs to visit a specialty store to get them. However, this doesn’t mean these incredible stories can’t be transferred to film. In fact, a lot of these comic book films are highly successful, as some of the following films have proven.
10. A History of Violence – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87% Fresh
In a small mid-western town, a diner owner is keeping a secret of his past from everyone, up to and including his model family. The residents of Millbrook, Indiana know Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortensen) as an upstanding citizen and family man, but when a group of killers on a cross-country crime spree step into Tom’s diner, the gloves come off. After a mix of quick thinking and action that could only come from years of training, Tom kills the two men, saves his employees, and becomes a local hero. After the incident makes the news, Tom and his family are visited by a man named Carl Fogarty who claims Tom is Joey Cusack, a member of the Irish Mob who disappeared some years ago. Soon after, Tom’s seemingly perfect life begins to spiral out of control.
9. Red – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71% Fresh
Red, which stands for “Retired and Extremely Dangerous” in the film, is about a former black-ops agent named Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) who experiences a six-man attack on his life for reasons unknown. In an attempt to find answers, Willis must get the old gang back together for help, which is where the rest of this wonderful cast comes in that includes John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Hellen Mirren. The movie has just about everything going for it; it’s funny, it has great style, and boasts some great action sequences.
The original comic mini-series used as the source material was written by the legendary Warren Ellis and co-created with Cully Hamner who provided the art.
8. 300 – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60% Fresh
Most don’t know that the hugely popular 300 was based on a comic book by Frank Miller. This film’s unique take on the three day Battle of Thermopylae blended elements of myth with the actual history of the legendary battle to make this ground-breaking action/period-piece that put Zack Snyder on the map.
Whether you like this film or down-right hated the liberties it took with history, there is no denying a lot of the technique used to portray action in this film has been borrowed by many films that have come out since. It’s definitely a far cry from 1962’s The 300 Spartans, a more historically accurate and far less stylized interpretation that starred Richard Egan as the Spartan King Leonidas.
7. 30 Days of Night – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51% Rotten
This film about an Alaskan town that experiences a 30 day period of endless night once a year wasn’t exactly revered by fans of the comic, or the general theater goer for that matter. Due to the town being covered in darkness for such a long period of time (due to its location far north of the Arctic Circle), this makes it a haven for the strange vampire/zombie hybrid creatures to wage the feast of feasts on the unsuspecting population.
There is an irony to this film being based on a comic book; creator Steve Niles actually pitched it as a film originally but it had been turned down, forcing him to explore the story as a comic book min-series.
6. American Splendor – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94% Fresh
This was an interesting little film. American Splendor was a series of autobiographical comics written by life-long Ohio native Harvey Pekar that featured artwork by legends like R. Crumb. The man is a bit of a working class grump who makes some entertaining and sometimes beautiful observations on every day life and human interaction. He was such a naturally entertaining character that David Letterman had the real-life Pekar come on his show several times, with some appearances ending up in explosive arguments.
The film is an underground classic that blended actor portrayals (Pekar was perfectly portrayed by Paul Giamatti) with the real-life counterparts to make a truly unique biopic that leaves the viewer wondering exactly how the filmmakers so successfully pulled it off.
5. The Crow – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82% Fresh
The Crow followed the story of rock musician Eric Draven, who was given the opportunity to return from the grave with a set of supernatural powers to seek vengeance on his killers. The film was so popular in its own right that many had no idea it was ever a comic book first. The story had spawned several movies and a television show but the comic was always more of an underground success while the film was both critically and commercially successful. To this day you will still see people at Halloween sporting the make-up of the lead character as the first film in the series maintains a strong cult following some twenty years later.
4. Sin City – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78% Fresh
Frank Miller’s Sin City was a sprawling seven volume graphic novel series that is best described as gritty noir on methamphetamine. Many had tried to adapt Sin City to film but Miller was never on board, citing the comic as not being transferable to film. One day, co-director Robert Rodriguez (he shared the credit with Miller himself, costing him his Director’s Guild Association membership) put together some test footage with Josh Hartnett to show Miller his comic books artistic noir style could be transferred to film.
The end product was so unique in its stylization that Miller was given the opportunity to direct other films.
3. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82% Fresh
If you didn’t know this film has its origins in comic books you’d probably think it was an adaptation of an old 8-bit video game. This fun flick about 22-year old Scott Pilgrim falling in love with Ramona Flowers takes much of its style and action from video games, as did the comic book predecessor. Scott falls for a girl with a past and must now do battle with her seven ex-boy/girlfriends. They all have supernatural video-game like powers, point totals and life bars are often super-imposed on the screen, and when Scott defeats one of his attackers, they explode into coins (which is Scott’s only real stream of income).
If you’ve seen the movie and decide to give the comic books a shot, you’re in for a treat. The film was finished before the series was finished, so both go off and do their own thing and both stories are incredibly fun in their own rights.
2. Road To Perdition – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81% Fresh
Much like A History of Violence, Road to Perdition is a mob story that typically isn’t associated with a medium known for super-powered men and woman in vibrantly colored spandex. The studio took a gamble and put big dollars into this project which resulted in a remarkable film with an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig. It follows the story of hit-man Sullivan (Hanks) whose son stows himself away when his father leaves for work. The boy witnesses a hit and Sullivan’s partner freaks out, deciding to wipe out Sullivan’s entire family. Sullivan’s wife and youngest child are killed but Sullivan and his son escape, heading to the town of Perdition to leave the younger Sullivan with family and seeking vengeance along the way.
1. Men in Black – Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91% Fresh
Much like The Crow, the Men in Black series of films became so popular themselves that the knowledge of their underground comic book origins just faded away with time. While the movie focuses on a government group formed to keep the general public from knowing about alien life from other planets, the comics focused on all manners of aliens, the supernatural, and paranormal. The Men in Black of the comics faced everything from demons, to aliens, to mythical creatures. They were still on a mission to keep the general population from knowing about these things and other parts of the comics carried over into the films like Agents Zed, Jay, Kay, Ecks, and the infamous memory-wiping device, the Neuralyzer.