You'd think that adapting comic books to the movies would be easy. The stories are straightforward, and the source material comes with storyboards in place. The authors and artists have told the filmmakers how the films should look. Alas, video stores are littered with films like Daredevil, Batman And Robin and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace - all of which demonstrate just how hard it is to get it right.
The principal impediment is Hollywood producers. The studios are full of execs who did not spend their childhoods reading comic books while waiting to get into the Wharton Business School's MBA program.
Or if they did, they haven't spent much time since childhood looking at comics, so they're either unaware of the mythological hold of the best ones or, worse, don't trust the mythology they've hired people to adapt.
Rent An Evening With Kevin Smith for a prolonged and hilarious account of his dealings with producer Jon Peters while trying to write a new Superman movie for Warner Brothers. (Smith, a certifiable comic geek, is currently at work on a movie version of the Green Lantern.)
There are two basic things that a movie adaptation of a comic book has to get right.
One, do not fuck with the mythos. The popular comics have stayed popular for decades for a reason. And they have devoted fans. Those fans may have been divided on Batman and Batman Returns, but they were united in their loathing of the idiotic Batman And Robin and Batman Forever.
Two, get the tone right. Spiderman needs late-adolescent angst just as Batman needs to wander through a film noir and Superman needs to fly heroically above Metropolis. None of them is quite the same as any of the others - Daredevil is not Batman. Not quite.
Here's my list of the top 10 comic book adaptations. The list is not pure; I've drawn from graphic novels and Japanese manga as well as superhero books.
1. Batman/Batman Returns
These are, of course, the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batmans, with Jack Nicholson's Joker and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Much of the films' grandeur should be credited to Anton Furst, who designed the first film and committed suicide in 1991. Bo Welch designed the second, in Furst's long, dark shadows. These films perfectly capture the central peculiarity of Batman: his phenomenal wealth is purely a means for exercising vigilante justice.
2. Ghost World
Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel of adolescent angst stars Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as young women who are too smart for their own good, a sarcastic clique of two in aimless disarray the summer after high school. Zwigoff, friend and cinematic biographer of Robert Crumb - and Birch's Enid is a Crumb fantasy in utero - understands the clarity of composition necessary to bring out the absurdity of the story. Great Teri Garr cameo, too.
3. Hellboy/Blade II
The link here is director Guillermo del Toro, a full-blown comic book geek who apparently shot both films in the sewers of Prague. Wesley Snipes is superb as the half-vampire/half-human Blade, the vampire who kills vampires - a character who snarls rather than speaks. Hellboy, with del Toro's favourite actor, Ron Perlman, is one of the few Hollywood productions to attempt a Lovecraftian mythos and get it right, down to the odd characters and grandiose art direction. What fine villains, and what great supporting characters.
4. Ghost In The Shell
Mamoru Oshii's jaw-dropping anime adaptation of the post-cyberpunk manga was a key influence on The Matrix (which quotes it in half a dozen shots) but is worth seeing for its own electrifying speed and science-fiction panache. Everybody's tied into the cyberworld, including the villain, who seems to be hiding in it.
The first one, with Toby Maguire as adolescent geek Peter Parker, and some design elements and CG as the web-slinger. Director Sam Raimi is at the top of his game, and the story is dead-on faithful to the character's origins. Anyone who read those comics as a child gets an electrifying charge of déjà vu when Spider-Man decides to become a wrestler. And you have to love a hugely budgeted effects-driven summer action movie whose signature moment is a kiss. Spider-Man 2 is good, but it's unbalanced - too much Peter Parker, not enough Spider-Man.
It never occurred to me that to people who saw this 1978 movie in childhood, Christopher Reeve's Superman is how they remember the character. It's not nearly as disposable as I'd suspected, so I'll include it here. What I like best is its lyricism, a word not often applied to Richard Donner's films, but the flying scenes and the treatment of New York are poems to the city.
7. American Splendor
Crankily postmodern, this adaptation of Harvey Pekar's graphic novels about his life as a file clerk in Cleveland is great weird fun, with Pekar himself commenting on Paul Giamatti's performance. At one point, the fictional Pekar and his wife, Joyce (Hope Davis), go to a musical based on the comic book.... Wheels within wheels....
Apocalyptic anime, and the film that broke Japanese animated films beyond a tiny North American cult to a slightly bigger North American cult. Akira is not a character, but a secret government project whose plans endanger the existence of neo-Tokyo. Most interestingly, the core of the visual extravaganza is a fully developed critique of contemporary Japanese society.
Bryan Singer's second X-Men film overcomes the relative thinness of the storyline by jamming the narrative with incidents as the war between humans and mutants begins, forcing Dr. X and Magneto to join forces against a renegade American military commander. And if that sentence makes sense to you, you've seen the film. The X-Men films have the most spectacular casts of any comic book movies: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Alan Cumming, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Halle Berry....
10. From Hell
Two of Alan Moore's monumental graphic novels have been adapted. The other one was the risible League Of Extraordinary Gentleman, a pure example of studio executives absolutely not getting the point. Here, Johnny Depp is a drug-addicted English police detective using scientific investigation and his own psychic abilities to track down Jack the Ripper before he can kill Heather Graham, who's awfully clean-looking for a 19th-century London whore, but who cares? email@example.com