Third Generation Comic Book Adaptations (1998-2007)

Now that there’s an 11-month gap between adaptations of comics (the longest in five years?) until Iron Man comes out in May, followed in June by The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, and by Hellboy 2 in July, I think it would be a good time to assess the past ten years of adaptations, which I consider the “third generation” of such films.

The Three Generations

The first generation of comic book adaptations is represented almost exclusively by Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, accompanied only by Wes Craven’s adaptation of another DC property, Swamp Thing (1982), their cash-in Supergirl (1984), and Marvel’s notorious Howard the Duck (1986). As far as I’m concerned the beginning of this era is open-ended, so the 1968 adaptations of Diabolik and Barbarella might as well be included, but its end was undoubtedly brought on by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987.

The second generation was sparked by the cultural event that was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Along with its own sequels and the animated Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman inspired adaptations of period stories like Dick Tracy (1990) and The Rocketeer (1991), as well as the Ninja Turtles (1990, 1991, 1993) and Crow (1994, 1996) franchises. Besides a couple of horror adaptations — The Return of the Swamp Thing (1989) and Dr. Giggles (1992) seem hardly worth mentioning — other attempts to exploit the trend included The Mask, Richie Rich, The Shadow, Timecop (all 1994), Tank Girl, Judge Dredd (both 1995), Barb Wire and The Phantom (1996). In 1997 the adaptation of Men in Black proved a rare success — the first comics-based movie since Batman to make $250 million domestically — but this second generation of adaptations was drawn to an inauspicious close by the three strikes of Spawn, the Superman-spin-off Steel, and of course Batman & Robin.

The current renaissance was sparked by 1998’s Blade — the first R-rated adaptation of a superhero from either of the Big Two comic book publishers, not to mention the first theatrical release of a Marvel property since Howard the Duck — and its profitability was proven by 2000’s X-Men. But it wasn’t until Spider-Man broke practically every box-office record in 2002 that studios suddenly focused their attention on comic books in a furious search for the next blockbuster. Of course, as they greenlighted every available comic book property, none managed to duplicate Spider-Man‘s success except its own sequels.

But regardless of their financial successes or failures, Hollywood’s eagerness to exploit this newly rediscovered mine of source material gave the fans of that material an unprecedented opportunity to see a raft of their favorite characters finally depicted on film. Marvel Comics in particular seized the moment (perhaps recognizing that after the fad has passed Hollywood may never again be so well disposed to superheroes) and managed 16 productions in the last ten years, or 46% of American comic book adaptations in the period. By contrast, DC and its imprint Vertigo managed a total of six.

The List

I’m rating only theatrical releases, so the TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998), and direct-to-video releases The Crow: Salvation (2000), The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2004), and Man-Thing (2004) don’t count, but Blueberry and Immortel: Ad Vitam do even though their theatrical runs did not include the US.

And I’m rating only adaptations of comics, not original superhero movies, so Unbreakable (2000), The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), The Incredibles (2004), Sky High (2005), and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) do not qualify either.

I’m not an absolute completist, however. Of the 38 comic book adaptations in the last ten years, I haven’t seen Virus (1999), From Hell (2001), Catwoman (2004), Les Chevaliers du ciel (2005), or Son of the Mask (2005), so I’m just going to rate the movies I have seen.

It should go without saying that the primary consideration is a movie’s quality independent of its fidelity to the source material, which may or may not contribute to its success as a film. So now, in order from worst to best:

The Bad (when Hollywood jumped the comics-adapting shark)

33. Bulletproof Monk (2003)
32. Men in Black II (2002)
31. Elektra (2005)

The Ugly (entertaining enough but nonetheless disappointing)

30. Fantastic Four (2005)
29. Blade: Trinity (2004)
28. Blueberry (2004) a.k.a. Renegade
27. Ghost Rider (2007)
26. The Punisher (2004)
25. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
24. Spider-Man (2002)
23. X-Men (2000)
22. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
21. Hulk (2003)
EDIT: V for Vendetta (2005) not a great sign that I totally forgot about this one

The Good (respectable adaptations)

20. TMNT (2007)
19. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
18. Daredevil (2003)
17. Blade II (2002)
16. Sin City (2005)
15. American Splendor (2003)
14. Immortel: Ad Vitam (2004)
13. Hellboy (2004)
12. Blade (1998)
11. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The Best (good movies in their own right)

10. 300 (2007)
9. Superman Returns (2006)
8. Mystery Men (1999)
7. Constantine (2005)
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. X2 (2003)
4. Road to Perdition (2002)
3. A History of Violence (2005)
2. Ghost World (2000)
1. Batman Begins (2005)

8 thoughts on “Third Generation Comic Book Adaptations (1998-2007)

  1. kastor417 says:

    Though i don’t agree with your whole list i do think Batman Begins is the best good job

  2. jeri says:

    I’m so glad you recognized Mystery Men. Ric and I like that one a lot.

    I agree with most of your choices. I still need to see Batman Begins again, because I felt a bit disappointed when I first saw it, although I couldn’t figure out why.

    I keep meaning to see Constantine. I’ll have to add that to the (now 345 long) queue.

  3. Spot 1980 says:

    I love your idea of three eras of Superhero cinema. Great post – though of course I have to disagree with parts!

    Having read the book before seeing the History of Violence movie adaptation, I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the film. The aspects of the comic that I felt were most Cronenburg-esk were completely missing from the film! The book was split into three parts – perfect for a three act screenplay – and yet the final act of the book is missing from the film and has been replaced with a completely strange (and totally unrelated to the source material) ending.

    Also, I’m always a little surprised by the lavish praise Batman Begins receives. Batman and Robin obviuosly swung the pendulum too far into formalism, but Nolan swung it too far back in the realist direction, which resulted in a rather unstylish, and frankly visually ugly, movie.

  4. Ryan says:

    Thanks, Guy-with-a-cat-for-a-picture-and-no-love-for-punctuation.

  5. Nobody says:

    Hi Spot, your comment got caught by the spam catcher and I only just noticed it. I’m glad I double-check all the spam personally!

    I haven’t read the History of Violence graphic novel, but a couple of friends who have read it both consider the film a vast improvement over the original’s third act. When I flipped through the book after seeing the film I had to agree. Like I said at the beginning, I tried to rate these films independent of their relation to the source material, and I think Cronenburg did make a great film.

    As for Batman Begins, I’m almost in disbelief at the words “visually ugly” used in reference to it! I think it’s one of the few visually coherent and artistically realized superhero movies.

    The only bits I disliked when I first saw it were Batman’s fights with thugs that were shot in that shaky way that is a pet peeve of mine because it prevents you from seeing what’s actually happening. However I think Batman is the only “superhero” that actually warrants that device because the only way he can get away with being a superhero is by people never really getting a good look at him and seeing that he’s just human. The jerky movements also reflect those of a bat which you can never get a good look at.

    Aside from those few moments, however, I think it’s a beautiful movie. Like Batman’s comic book costume, the movie’s palette is blues and golds, beginning with the blue glaciers of Iceland, and everyone’s wardrobe (mostly variations of suits) are likewise tans, blues, and grays.

    As for it being unstylish, you’ll just have to clarify that for me. I’ve never seen a movie integrate flashbacks as coherently as the first act of Batman Begins, and the “training montage” with Neeson’s voiceover actually works (!) intercut as it is with the swordfight on the ice. There are even some gratuitously artistic aerial shots that glide over some glaciers.

    I think one of the reasons it might seem ugly is that Gotham is supposed to be a place in need of cleanup, so some of its exteriors are more shabby than the bright, clean city of the flashback. But I think the movie is gorgeous, and the characters are the best-dressed of all comic book movies, including Superman Returns.

  6. Spot 1980 says:

    Oh man… You mean you actually want me to be able to back up my arguments with like evidence or something? Jeez! Now I’m going to have to watch the movie again!

  7. Nobody says:

    Oh well, I can’t feel guilty for prompting you to see it again if you do. Consider it a returned favor for getting me see X-Men 3 again.

    Of course, I didn’t even mention the fact that Begins has the best script of any superhero movie, in which the villains actually reflect the theme and the hero’s origin. And it’s faithful to Batman’s 1939 motivation while also being the most interesting movie of 2005 about terrorism and the war on terror (including Munich).

  8. jack 3d says:

    hey, I just found your blog – thanks. I wanted to tell ya that it’s not showing up properly on the BlackBerry Browser (I have a Bold). Definitely on your feed on my laptop, so thanks a million

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