Amir here. It’s the first Tuesday of the month and we’re back with another edition of Team Top Ten. In case you haven’t caught up with the series yet, you can see our first episode here (best new directors of the 21st century) and the second here (greatest Best Actress-losing performances).
With the summer movie season finally upon us in full force, I thought it’d be as good a time as any to discuss what has become one of the premier ways for Hollywood to take every last penny out of collective pockets: comic books! So let’s have a look at what Team Experience considers The Greatest Comic Book Adaptations of All Time.
While spandex-and-cape-clad superheroes and over the top villains usually come to mind when “comic books” are mentioned, the range of films adapted from this source is as wide as films adapted from any other pre-existing material, really. If we had waited a year to do this poll, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche’s three hour, Francophone epic about a teenage lesbian love affair could have possibly made the top ten and that should tell you all you need to know about the variety of films at our disposal – and mind you, we needn’t wait for Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner to put lesbians on our list.
For various reasons including several ties, additional weight given to films placed first on a ballot and late submissions by procrastinating Team Experience members we’ve ended up with a list of 11, but even so, we’ve had to leave out some pretty terrific titles. Last month, many of you were surprised at the absence of Glenn Close from Dangerous Liaisons on our list. I found this month’s list to be even more surprising so I’ve listed some of the curiosities of our votes in a trivia section after the list. For now, let’s get right to it with...
11. Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
Adapted by Katsuhiro Otomo from his own epic manga, Akira is a sprawling and hyperviolent tour through a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. It's the original "darker and grittier," set in a dystopia dominated by self-interest, whether among the city's corrupt officials or its teenage motorcycle gangs. An angry youth movie, a work of cosmic sci-fi, and a colossal audiovisual achievement, Akira was really the ideal introduction for American audiences to anime's capabilities as an art form.
10. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
I was in the very middle seat of the very middle row of a sold-out matinee when The Dark Knight opened because, girl, you know I get there early. Little did I know how knotted up and claustrophobic I would soon feel, locked into that sea of similarly stunned spectators on every side. I wasn't prepared for the mayhem or the cruelty in the movie to have such an earnest, brutal edge to it. Sitting in a Chicago theater and watching Chicago crumble and blaze before my eyes was a genuinely gripping if also a surprisingly distressing experience. I don't think everything in The Dark Knight works perfectly, and Nolan's solemn maximalism is not the right choice for every scene or indeed every film. But The Dark Knight feels sincere about what it's doing, much more focused than its predecessor and possessed of infinitely more conviction than its sad, heavy follow-up. It remains a very potent film, even setting aside the phenomenal, hollow-eyed, hinged and unhinged performance at the center of it.
9. Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990)
Dick Tracy isn’t just my personal favourite comic adapted movie, but remains a nostalgic gem of my early cinephile life. It's the first film I remember seeing in a cinema and it’s no wonder why I fell in love. Even at only five years old I was already a big Madonna fan and the film’s giddy splash of primary colours and cartoonish glee was a recipe for childhood success. Viewing it today, however, I see it as a daring take on the genre with a distinct, unique vision that no comic film has achieved since. By utilising the imagery of the comic strip so literally, director Warren Beatty(!!!) made the biggest argument for “comics are art” possible. It is beautiful and wondrous, magical and jaw-droppingly gorgeous with three Oscars for its effort.
8. X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003)
To name it only "the best of the X-Franchise" is a dubious honor and unfortunately low bar. It might more tellingly be called the best team superhero movie ever made (barring The Incredibles... but that's not eligible for this list). True, there haven't been many of the latter but it even trumps the extremely popular The Avengers because it has a far grabbier opening sequence, more diversity of character, better villains and less plot clutter even though there are twice as many superpowered beings flying around. The best thing about X2 might be how serious it is about the business of entertaining without the lead weight of taking itself too seriously as an entertainment; its intentionally campy mutant "coming out" speeches prevent its pleas for tolerance from becoming too heavy-handed. And glory of glories -- the attack on Xavier's mansion is just about the best that it could possibly be as a set piece, like an actual Claremont/Byrne site-specific classic brought to life: exciting, colorful, weird, and littered with character beats where most blockbusters leave only visual fx droppings.
7. Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
Batman Returns manages a remarkable feat in that it remains faithful to the original source material, but doesn't dilute or compromise its directors signature vision in the process. This is as dark a film as Burton has ever made, an interminable winter of discontent that only a Penguin could survive. Keaton and DeVito are both aces, but it's really Pfeiffer who seals the deal here. More than any other character borne of a comic book page, it's her rendition of Catwoman that sings; she rises like Bolero, and falls like a Dying God, lending this picture a chilly air of tragic fatalism. It's the rare instance where a Performance (with a capital P) not only makes the movie, but elevates it past what it could have been. Look for the Star who takes what could have been just another toy story about monsters and men, clutches it between her claws like a new Louis Vuitton, and struts away with it all, tail sashaying behind her gloriously. The comics have never been so lucky.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
What Scott Pilgrim vs the World has that too many adaptations – of comic books, or any literature for that matter – do not is a significantly unabashed exuberance in its delivery. Wright’s enthusiasm for the story he’s telling seeps through into every frame of the film and that type of joy in a film like this is irresistible. It’s not so much that Scott Pilgrim vs the World is a fun experience (it is, but that’s beside the point); the point is that that the collective sense of investment and care in the project and its characters emanating from the creative team and the actors is the palpable ingredient turning this from a good film into a great one. The film is firing not just on the writing and acting, on so many technical levels with A+ editing and visual effects and it might seem easy to call it a case of style over substance as it launches into its final third; but golly, what style!
5. Ghost World (2001, Terry Zwigoff)
Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are such droll, social misfits that you can almost see them communicating through speech bubbles, as if the "regular" world couldn't contain the intensity of their feelings and desires. Their lives change over the course of a summer as they contemplate the vast world that awaits them after graduation. Adapted from Daniel Cloves' comic book and graphic novel by the eccentric Terry Zwigoff, the greatest thing about Ghost World is that it replicates the effect of best comic books: you want to see these characters come to life somewhere near you.
4. Oldboy (Park Chan Wook, 2003)
The first rule of Oldboy is: don’t watch it on an full stomach. The second rule of Oldboy is: there isn’t a rulebook. Park Chan-wook’s brilliant film is perhaps the most atypical adaptation of a comic book yet filmed. It’s a curiosity and a novelty within what normally typifies comic book-derived filmmaking. It’s brutal, hard toned and unsavoury on a variety of levels — fierce, compulsive viewing brim full of striking vibrancy. It stands up and stands firm: takes the lead from its lead, Choi Min-sik. It harnesses the excess and imagination on the page and throws it in searing, pounding images across the screen. (Oldboy is best seen in the biggest, darkest, loudest auditorium you can find.) It exhibits wholly pugilistic power. But it hammers on the heart too. The soul-crushing and so-unfortunate-it-hurts sadness is every bit as impacting as the full count of body blows. That revelatory sting in the final stretch delivers thrice the amount of poison deemed healthy for any viewer. Everything hurts by the end. Oldboy is ink-raw cinema.
3. Spider Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
In Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man movie we get the gag about the teenage boy who can't stop shooting "webs" all over the place - his room's a sticky disaster! Well in the sequel, Peter faces every overly virile boy's worst nightmare - he suddenly can't get it up! Yeah it's broad and teenage and silly - impotence as annihilation - but isn't that precisely all a Spider-Man movie should be? Everything about Spider-Man 2 is on-point perfect for me - Peter's Catch 22 between love and duty, mirrored perfectly by the doomed love affair between Doc Ock and his wife (rendered with great and delicate depth by Alfred Molina and Donna Murphy). And the vertiginous action scenes are as good as these things get. Go get 'em, tiger? Oh it's already been gotten.
2. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Vincent Paronnaud’s and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis would place near the top on any number of lists. A list of the most powerful depictions of recent history, for example, or a list of the most moving coming of age stories. It would surely have a place of distinction on any ranking of the most stunningly beautiful uses of animation. That said, I am glad to see it place so highly on a list of comic book films, because in capturing the full richness of Satrapi’s book Persepolis has elevated the standing of both graphic novels and their cinematic adaptations.
1. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
David Cronenberg's A History of Violence owned me in ten seconds the first time I saw it, effectively pulling off (in one glorious long take) that thing that comics do when they write out a sound in the background of a series of frames. It's rare that a film not only stays true to its comic origins, but manages to transcend them, and Cronenberg manages it here, aided by stunning work from the entire crew - especially a never-better Viggo Mortensen and the devastating Maria Bello (who was robbed of an Oscar for this), creating a fully believable marriage in crisis. Their sex scene on the stairway is one of the best, most visceral sex scenes of all time, and the final scene around the dinner table is perfect, on every level. It's one of Cronenberg's best films, and pulls off the neat trick of being both slick popcorn entertainment and as deep, auteur provocation. Brilliant.
• Many films had fervent fans but found little support among the rest of the group. In fact, 7 of the 17 ballots submitted were topped by films that didn’t make the cut, while one of the other ten ballots didn’t have a number 1 film, because Nick Davis is still waiting on the great comic book adaptation. The seven ballots were: The Mask (yours truly), American Splendor (Andrew Stewart), Chicken with Plums (Paolo Kagaon), Tales from the Crypt (Andreas Stoehr), Speed Racer (David Upton) and Superman: The Movie (Tim Brayton, Deborah Lipp).
• Ghost World’s highest placement on a ballot was at 4th, which makes it the only entry on any of our top ten lists so far that failed to crack the top three on even a single ballot. It was, however, mentioned by ten different voters – and curiously, at 5th by almost all of them – so it’s a consensus favorite. I plead guilty to having never seen it.
• 50 different films were chosen by our voters, which is much smaller than our two previous sample sizes. Of these, only seven films were not in English. The Caped Crusader was Team Experience’s favorite superhero, with 5 different Batman films splitting 10% of all our votes.
• Each Avenger can claim to getting at least two votes from Team Experience. Aside from The Avengers (ranked 21st), Iron Man 3, Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor all have their own supporters. Scarlett Johansson needs her own film ASAP.
• Team Experience clearly wouldn’t mind David Cronenberg taking another trip to comicsville. A History of Violence gained more than double the points of any other film on the list, except Persepolis. It won an easy, landslide victory. Only four of our seventeen contributors didn’t mention it on their ballots, while another four selected it as their number one.
If you have suggestions for top ten lists on your favorite topics, let us know in the comments or on twitter @amiresque.