As DC Comics try to rebound from a less than ideal critical reception for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel continues to pump out a new superhero movie every other day, it can be easy to forget that other comic books exist outside of these giants. In fact, some of the very best comic book movies have begun with comics or graphic novels from lesser-known brands, names like Dark Horse Comics, IDW Publishing and Rebellion Developments.
Several of the comics on this list were published under DC or Marvel imprints like Vertigo, Paradox Press and Aircel Comics, often aimed at a different audience than the mainstream host’s. Also, because DC and Marvel comics and their superheroes have transcended the page into pop culture and household names, public awareness of the comic book roots for Marvel and DC’s movie’s is entirely different than for those grown in smaller publishing houses. You may never have even seen a Green Arrow comic but you probably had heard of him before seeing him on TV. Conversely, some of the films on this list will be surprising to learn that they originally came from comics.
If you like more obscure comic book movies, or if you’ve completed the 43-film marathon of Marvel movies released in 2016 and are looking for more comic book movies to fill your cup, well you’ve come to right place. Here are 13 of the best comic book movies not starring Robert Downey Jr.
13. 30 Days of Night (2007)
30 Days of Night is a horror film based on the Steve Niles comic (IDW Publishing) that takes place in small town in Alaska during its annual month of darkness. While the film received relatively poor reviews, the fantastic concept and strong performances are enough to make it a strong film. Critics are typically very hard on the horror genre because it often leans too heavily on tried and true clichés, but there is a vast collection of horror fanatics who rely on these same clichés. The movie certainly won’t scare you out of your wits, but it’s a lot of fun and there are some excellent cinematic moments sprinkled throughout.
12. Dredd (2012)
Dredd is an adaptation of the British comic first published by Rebellion Developments in 1977. While the film received mixed reviews, it has generated a cult following since its DVD release. Considered to be more true to the source material than the much maligned 1995 film Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone, Dredd tells the story of a hero of very little words attempting to bring order to a 200-story apartment complex ruled by a drug lord. Jam-packed with action and few quips from the protagonist, played by Karl Urban, the film plays through a satisfying progression of battles, a creative twist on tournament-style fighting films from the 80s and 90s that will surely please any action-film buff.
11. V for Vendetta (2006)
Based on the 1988 Vertigo Comics series written by Alan Moore, V for Vendetta is a revolutionary tale that has captured the imagination of many would-be revolutionaries throughout the world. While Moore has, as he tends to do, distanced himself from the adaptation because it geopolitically remaps modern American issues onto the United Kingdom, the film has been a hit with most audiences. The Guy Fawkes mask that the main character wears to hide his identity has even become the face of protest in the real world, specifically with Anonymous and other political protest groups. Yet, even if you aren’t looking for a contemporary political comparison or protest inspiration, the powerful script and poetic dialogue make V for Vendetta an excellent and engaging film.
10. Men in Black (1997)
This is one of those adaptations where the film version completely overshadows the original comic. However, since this is a movie list, we won’t be complaining. The film is based on the comic of the same name which was first published in 1993 by Aircel Comics—prior to its association with Marvel. The film Men in Black follows paranormal investigators K and J through their riotous journey to save the world from alien invaders. You know the story, you’ve seen the movie, you may have even done the Universal Studios ride, but it’s amazing, silly and, like Will Smith, has aged really well.
9. 300 (2007)
Inspired by the Frank Miller‘s 1998 graphic novel of the same name, 300 tells the story of the Spartan King Leonidas and his brave 300 soldiers who attempt to hold off a Persian invasion. Lauded by film critics for its historical inaccuracies, 300 is a high-style reimagining of a historical event we really know very little about. While both Miller and Zack Snyder, the director, definitely expressed quite a bit of creative license when retelling the historical events, the coloring and slow-motion fighting sequences were enough to make it a visual treat for $456 million USD worth of theater audiences. So if you’re looking for a wild, bloody ride through a fuzzy interpretation of the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 is the best option you have. If you’re looking for the “facts,” read the primary source Histories by Herodotus, the “Father of History” or the “Father of Lies,” depending on who you ask.
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Directed by Edgar Wright and based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Oni Press), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a creative and eye-pleasing romp through a video-game inspired adventure. The critical responses were quite positive for this film, even though it never gained any true box office success. Led by a hilarious script and top-notch visuals, this movie doesn’t hide from its graphic novel roots, instead it embraces them and brings them onto the screen in new and exciting ways. Loaded with great music, video game references and quick-witted dialogue, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a nostalgic joyride through its inspiration material.
7. Sin City (2005)
Stylistically, Frank Miller’s and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City is about as close to a true comic book film as you can get. Rodriguez pitched the idea for this film to Miller, who wrote the popular comic series of the same name, as a translation of the comic, not an adaptation. Shot in black and white with odd pops of color to draw in the eye, the film really does execute the goal of translation perfectly. About as violent as a film can get, the comic approach removes any realism from the scenes and allows it to feel natural and warranted as opposed to gratuitous. For any fan of comic books, this is a must-see film that blurs the lines between comic and film about as much as humanly possible.
6. The Incredibles (2004)
This one is a little unfair. A comic book movie that was a movie before becoming a comic book, The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird, deserves to be on the list because it’s a superhero movie with comic book influences. In fact, you could argue that this is the only good Fantastic Four movie ever made. Funny, action-packed and surprisingly thought-provoking, Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles has the best critical reception of any superhero movie. While this may be due to the unfair bias that critics give animated films, it shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of it. Not nearly as lighthearted and innocent as most of Disney Pixar’s films, The Incredibles explores the lives of superheroes and villains and the societal implications their existence and their roles incur.
5. Hellboy (2004)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and based on the character first appearing in Dark Horse comics in 1993, Hellboy is a witty paranormal detective story with high-flying visuals and a compellingly flawed protagonist. While the dark and gritty sets and flashes of stylish action sequences are great, the film’s success is almost all due in part to the performance of Ron Perlman’s Hellboy. His sharp wit and vulnerability is a winning combination that feels fresh and exciting even after the sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While some critics describe the plot as convoluted or far-fetched, others were able to recognize that the protagonist is a cigar-smoking demon with filed off horns that fights evil with a handgun and praise it for its creativity instead.
4. Road to Perdition (2002)
Published in 1998 by the DC imprint Paradox Press, Road to Perdition was adapted for the big screen in 2002 by Sam Mendes. The film features outstanding performances, led by the great Tom Hanks, and beautiful Academy Award winning cinematography, which really drags the audience into the murkiness of the film. One of the better gangster-era films in the new millennium, Road to Perdition is sadly overlooked as a comic book adaption because its source material is not widely known; however, it’s one of the best and one that both comic fans and just film fans in general can enjoy.
3. A History of Violence (2005)
Based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name written by John Wagner, A History of Violence is another one of those movies with many fans that are unaware of its source material. While the plotline strays from the original graphic novel, the underlying themes and motivations stay the same. Heralded by many as one of the best films of 2005, this David Cronenberg masterpiece plays with the idea that violence is a one of, if not the, fabric of America, and, despite outward appearances, that violence is always resting at the core.
2. Kick-Ass (2010)
This movie is in a different position than most comic book movies because the movie rights were sold prior to the comic being written. Originally penned by Mark Millar and published under Icon Comics, a Marvel imprint, this Matthew Vaughan directed action flick is about as good as it gets in terms of action comedy. Even though it received fairly positive reviews overall, the styling of the film’s action sequences is some of the best in the genre. Many critics penalized Kick-Ass, the rated R action movie, for its gratuitous violence and profanity as if they weren’t warned. Expect over the top, unrealistic violence and you will be blown away by the visuals. Wonderfully scored and featuring some of the best fighting choreography there is, Kick-Ass is a triumph for action movies and a love letter to comic books.
1. Oldboy (2003)
Not the Spike Lee remake – never the Spike Lee remake. Oldboy started as a serialized Japanese manga series from 1996-1998 before it was picked up by Dark Horse Comics. The Park Chan-wook directed film that resulted from the comic became a massive hit for international audiences, winning the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Festival. The mystery thriller is dark and unforgiving in its themes, but its slow-burning script and masterful cinematography are simply majestic. It’s possible that if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve seen some of the fight sequences as they have been passed around the web and worked their way into the action hall of fame. If you enjoy the moves from Marvel’s hit TV show Daredevil, you will almost certainly enjoy the film that first taught it how to dance.