Ah, the comic book movie. Other than video game movies, no source of adaptations has been historically botched quite as badly. It’s bizarre, really, that we essentially went through almost two full decades with only a smattering of decent, let alone good, comic book-based films. Ever since Superman II, we’ve been treated to a steady stream of garbage. Even Tim Burton’s first two Batman films, while still enjoyable, were hardly loyal or loving adaptations.
Think about that: since the release of Superman II in 1980, we basically had three decent comic book movies (the Burton Batman movies, and Blade) until we hit the current decade. That’s incredibly depressing. Comic books remain a much-maligned source of inspiration, a brilliant, vividly imaginative medium that contains both frequently spectacular writing, as well as gorgeous artwork, that should be an obvious choice for cinematic mining. Instead, what do we get? Three Punisher movies, all of which were terrible (the most recent, Punisher: War Zone was the closest we’ve come in tone to hitting it, but was ruined by absolutely terrible villains). Ghost Rider. Emo-Spidey. Brett fucking Ratner taking a massive, unapologetic dump on the X-Men franchise. And what’s worse is that those movies, particularly the horrendously awful X3 and Wolverine movies, made boffo money at the box office. Fuck you very much, moviegoing public.
Well, I’m here to tell you that the last ten years weren’t wasted. We were treated to several comic book movies that were not only good (if not always 100% faithful) adaptations, but also just genuinely good movies. Well-directed, with actors who seemed to actually invest something in the roles. Special effects that don’t look like Sci-Fi Channel shlockery. There appear to be a select group of filmmakers and actors who actually care about making a decent, no… a great comic book movie. If Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise and the minds behind the slowly evolving Avengers series have taught us anything, it’s that when a team truly cares about the source material, something amazing can actually happen.
Of course, as with all lists, it’s likely to be contentious — not because of what got left off, but because of what got put on. There are few enough (good) comic book movies that making a full top ten list is actually rather difficult. But we are Pajiba, and lists are part of what we do. So with that said, here are the Ten Best Comic Book Movies of the Aughts.
10. The Road To Perdition (2002): Sam Mendes’s adaptation of the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins is the least “comic booky” of the list, and is seen by many to be an uneven effort. However, Mendes’s direction is steady and the performances of the leads are solid, particularly Hanks as Michael Sullivan, the gangster who, with his son in hand, is on the run from his traitorous employers. Equally if not more effective is Jude Law as an assassin who is twisted in both mind and body. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with a rich, Hopper-esque color palette that is as much a character in the film as the cast itself. The Road To Perdition is often slow, and stumbles on occasion, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great movie. — TK
9. Blade II (2002): Before the big gun franchises like X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman started firing on all cylinders, Blade was a quiet gold standard for comic book movies. The first one was a grim, somber film that combined moody atmospherics with stylized, bloody martial arts violence (it’s also Stephen Norrington’s only good movie). The second one, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, removed many of the dramatic elements, and ratcheted up everything else. The result is a true comic book geekgasm of a flick, a gory, bloody, breathless foray into vampire chaos. Wesley Snipes is literally perfect as the titular Blade, the half-vamp, half-human who hunts vampires. The CGI is less eye-popping now than it was then, but the film still manages to do its share of dazzling. It’s not a terribly cerebral film, but through decent acting, spectacular action pieces, some truly innovative creature design and effects and of course, Ron Perlman, Blade II is easily one of the best. — TK
8. Sin City (2005): Sin City is, if nothing else, a fanboy’s wet dream. As promised, Rodriguez and Miller have adapted the books with a literal-mindedness never previously attempted. Every plot twist, every line of dialogue, and most of the visuals come straight from the comics. (It’s no wonder Rodriguez wrote part of the score himself — what else was there for him to contribute?) Visually, it works most of the time. Despite his crude draftsmanship, Miller’s high-contrast black and white compositions often have a rough, Spartan beauty that translates well to film, and the filmmakers convert the drawings into motion without succumbing to the static images that could have resulted. Indeed, many scenes are shockingly kinetic, the visual abstraction heightening the action by presenting it on a blank stage. — Jeremy C. Fox
7. Wanted (2008): What do you get when you combine the sultriest pair of hips and lips in Hollywood, seemingly tethered together only by body art; blood splatters that course with viscous glee; enough cold, hard steel to resurrect Heston; bullets that curve; joyous holes in the head; and a hot, slathering mess of McAvoy? You get Wanted, a movie you want to take behind the middle school and impregnate. With twins… It has that Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta anti-cubicle fuck you vibe of Office Space, the struggle for individuality spirit and light-hearted brutality of Fight Club, and a brand of action-movie Waschowskism that hasn’t felt this fresh since The Matrix, even if director Timur Bekmambetov owes a huge debt to that movie. Throw in a dash of last year’s Ratatouille (you’ll understand), and you have the symphonic awesomeness of Wanted, an orgy of bullets, blood, and toned flesh that will break open your anal capillaries like a Crisco-free Saturday night up on Brokeback. — Dustin Rowles
6. V For Vendetta (2005): Beneath McTeigue’s floating knives and the ballet of violence, Larry and Andy provide thoughtful (if somewhat shallow) characters, challenging-but-logical mythology, and the kind of daring political ambiguity rarely seen in a blockbuster of this magnitude… In short, V for Vendetta will reignite the pleasantly unexpected feelings of open-mouthed awe you felt walking out of the first Matrix, shaking your head in disbelief and thinking silently to yourself, “Seriously! Did I just love a Keanu Reeves film?” Only this time, you won’t have to hang your hat on the breathtaking way a bullet splits through the fourth dimension. Instead, you’ll leave wrestling over whether it’s OK to believe that terrorism can possess this much humanism or whether V’s vigilante-anarchist approach may actually provide the ideal solution to the groupthink convergence of corporate America and an autocracy that is emerging against our indifference. — Dustin Rowles
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004): From the opening credits, which efficiently recap the events of the first film through the watercolors of fan-favorite Alex Ross, it’s clear that the filmmakers have tried to do this movie the right way, giving its comic-book roots the requisite Wagnerian pomp. The most rewarding aspect of their dedication is the way they have, for the first time ever, found a fully satisfying moving-picture equivalent for the action depicted in the still images of the comics… The amazing penultimate action sequence, in which Spidey uses his every last ounce of strength to save dozens of lives, brings the payoff to the Christ motif. His unconscious body is passed, arms outstretched, over the heads of those he’s saved. He is laid on the ground and revived, seemingly, by their appreciation, their faith in him. His sacrifice was worth the efforts and the risks, and it was, thankfully, not final. He will live to fight again. — Jeremy C. Fox
4. X-Men 2 (2003): Bryan Singer struck gold with his first X-Men movie, which while it satisfied fans and made a decent return, suffered a bit from under-budgeting. For his second go-round, Singer had the leash taken off, with incredibly satisfying results. While not 100% true in tone to the comics, X-Men 2 was a godsend for fans, a source of hope for things to come (little did we know that Ratner would destroy that hope so thoroughly with his preposterous X3). The story of good and evil mutants battling each other, even as regular humans plot to either use them or destroy them, played into themes of loneliness and abandonment, of not fitting in and not belonging, almost perfectly. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was allowed to let the animal out a bit more, and we saw tantalizing glimpses of Jean Grey’s Phoenix metamorphosis (let’s not talk about how that ended up, OK?). Characters like Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler and Aaron Stanford’s Pyro added to the fun. Singer’s direction was crisp and efficient, with impressive fight choreography, slick action scenes and a foot-stompingly awesome finale. Of course, Ian McKellan’s Magneto stole the show, and you were happy to have him do so. X-Men 2 was, much like Blade II, an improvement on everything that made the low-budget first film good, before the trilogy’s conclusion ruined everything. — TK
3. Batman Begins (2005): Joel Schumacher’s campy reign of terror is over. Long live Christopher Nolan, who puts even Tim Burton’s Grand Guignol interpretation to shame. Starting from a very basic but intuitively right conception — let’s make Batman a plausible real-world figure — Nolan and his co-writer David S. Goyer have scraped away the candy-colored barnacles that accrued to the Batman legend over the previous four films, stripping down the story to an elemental battle between a man and his own night terrors… The Wayne persona has echoes of Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, another man who constructed every part of himself to present a perfect façade; what that says about Wayne the man is only part of what makes this the darkest and most psychologically rich Batman film so far. — Jeremy C. Fox
2. Iron Man (2008): Iron Man has renewed my faith. It is the reales Abkommen, the real goddamn deal, y’all. Better than a film for cool kids, it’s a film that makes you feel cool for loving it. It is cinematic engorgia, a movie that will leave you gleefully priapistic. Or, for those of you who prefer unpretentious terminology: It will make your funny parts hard. Iron Man is the perfect storm of badassary, debilitating wit, tester-octane explosives, and tongue-in-cheek gnarliness… Moreover, for all its implausibility, Iron Man feels grounded in a form of reality; the action is low key, without being underwhelming; and at no point does it feel like Iron Man is being weighed down by obligations to the fanboys. It doesn’t need to, anyway — five minutes after Iron Man escapes from the cave his captors have held him in, the fanboys will have blissfully rolled over and passed out in their own juices. — Dustin Rowles
1. The Dark Knight (2008): Yes, it’s patently absurd that a young man attempting to deal with the death of his parents would channel that rage into karate classes and building a rubber suit shaped like a bat, but Nolan grounds that action in a world that’s palpably real. As a director, Nolan takes the story seriously, and that makes all the difference, transforming his films from good to great. They’re the best superhero movies ever made because they embrace the character on a gut level and not as some pop artifact. The Dark Knight is a harrowing, frightening, uncompromising, flat-out great superhero movie, wonderful in sad ways, hitting the perfect mix of characterization and humor, bouncing between phenomenal action set pieces and the brutally human moments that place the film in a recognizable world even as it soars into comic book fantasy. Put simply, Nolan just gets it. He’s a believer, and he’ll make one out of you, too. — Daniel Carlson