Comic book movies are inescapable these days. It seems like every studio is trying to prop up its summer release schedule with at least one superhero drama. The biggest and baddest of these are the films based on Marvel and DC properties–your Age of Ultrons, your Dawns of Justice.
But what about some other properties? There are plenty of comic book movies out there that aren’t based on a Big Two character. Here are some of the best.
1 Mystery Men
Watched today, Mystery Men seems like a comic book Idiocracy, a pointed and none-too-subtle satire of overexposed superhero cliches.
The heroes are nerdy, broke, and almost entirely hapless; the villain is surrounded by an absurd gang of henchmen (including disco Eddie Izzard) and seems to know exactly how stupid they all are; and there’s an extended training montage that perfectly skewers similar scenes from countless other superhero movies.
But Mystery Men came out in 1999, well before the superhero movie boom (the movie that really started it all, X-Men, wasn’t released until a year later). It was ahead of its time, a satire of superhero movies before they had become such an indelible part of the pop culture landscape.
2 Sin City
There are things that work on the comic book page that just don’t translate well to the screen. The costumes, for one–there’s a reason Cyclops made fun of Wolverine’s “yellow spandex” in X-Men. Most comic book movies try to strike a compromise between realism and faithfulness to the source material. Not Sin City, a movie which revels in its style, and, if we’re talking about pure visuals, is the most accurate comic book to film adaptation I’ve ever seen.
Sin City doesn’t just perfectly capture Frank Miller’s distinctive black-and-white-with-sometimes-a-little-bit-of-red color scheme. It also gets all the little details perfect. From the brilliant casting of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the inspired soundtrack, everything about this 2005 film nails what it is people loved about the Sin City comics: brutal violence, duplicitous dames, dirty cops, and the kind of tough-as-nails Mickey-Spillane-meets-Batman dialogue that made Miller so (in)famous.
3 Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim was always sort of an anomaly to me–a beloved indie book that I could never really get into made into a huge, explosion-filled movie helmed by a blockbuster director that somehow had just as much heart and humor as the source material (you wouldn’t expect to see, say, Shane Black directing an effects-heavy adaptation of Love and Rockets).
And yet Scott Pilgrim is not only a real movie, it’s a good one, a joyous ode to video games and the kind of stupendous action sequences usually not found outside of the really obscure animes.
SPvtW more than adequately mimics the comic’s style, especially in its use of visual gags–the way the captions and text boxes are integrated into the scene is particularly impressive. And with a cast that includes Superman, Captain America, and Jason Schwartzman, this is a movie you can watch even if you aren’t a fan of bands that no one else has heard of.
4 The Rocketeer
Quick, name a comic book movie set during World War Two and directed by Joe Johnston. If you said Captain America: The First Avenger, you’re right! If you said Rocketeer, you’re right too (hey, can’t fault the guy for having a niche. Look at George Miller).
Rocketeer is based on the comics of the same name by Dave Stevens, who was trying to capture the spirit of the old pulps, like Doc Savage or The Shadow (which, despite Alec Baldwin’s best efforts, did not make this list). The film similarly tries to be a throwback to the days of the serials, like Commander Cody and Flash Gordon, and it succeeds, not in emulating them, but emulating what we remember about them. (Seriously, Commander Cody hasn’t aged well–there’s a reason it shows up on MST3K).
Timothy Dalton is a perfect Nazi; Billy Campbell is a great “Aw, shucks” flying ace; and the art design is enough to make you think you’re back at the ’39 World’s Fair. An underrated classic, especially by Disney standards, which, by my count, has re-released every film in their back catalog at least a dozen times.
5 Flash Gordon
First of all, Flash Gordon has the best soundtrack in film history, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Yes, it’s campy, goofy, and over-the-top (we should expect nothing less from screenwriter and unsung hero Lorenzo Semple, Jr, who was the executive story editor of the Adam West Batman). But, like The Rocketeer, Flash Gordon captures everything we loved about the good old days without making us sit through the terrible acting and worse effects.
Everything about Flash (ah-AH!) Gordon is fun, from the old-school space opera feel to the delightfully exaggerated characters (Brian Blessed is deservedly lauded for his role as the howling beard that played Prince Vultan, but everyone from Max von Sydow on down is a joy to behold). There’s definitely something missing in movies today, a little kernel of breathless enthusiasm, and Flash Gordon fills that void perfectly.
6 The Crow
If I had to pick just one problem with modern comic book movies, it’s that no one has found a way to adapt Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. to the big screen. But if I had to pick two, it would be that modern superhero movies have the kind of obsession with origin stories that usually end in restraining orders. In a world where we get to see Peter Parker get bitten by a spider every few years, it’s refreshing to see a movie that opens on the origin story so we can hurry up and watch a guy in clown makeup punch people in nightclubs.
The Crow is tragically associated with Brandon Lee’s death, a detail that often overshadows the film itself. Which is a shame, because The Crow is great. Based on James O’Barr’s comic, The Crow opens with the death of the main character (Lee’s Eric Draven) and pretty much immediately goes off the rails. There’s a magical bird (I don’t know what kind, maybe a raven or something?), and a crime boss who’s basically a Highlander, and a part where Draven shoots a guy with a shotgun full of wedding rings. It’s got just as much manic energy and style as Tim Burton’s Batman, but with a lot more pathos and 90s grunge-angst.
Before M. Night Shyamalan became a punchline, he wrote and directed Unbreakable, a brilliant, brooding movie that isn’t based on any existing comic book property, yet is somehow about all of them. Unbreakable is the greatest modern superhero movie that anyone has ever made, and it came out while Christopher Nolan was still making Guy Pearce run around with Polaroids.
Unbreakable tells the story of a man named David Dunn (whose alliterative name should strike a chord with comic fans), a man with a dead-end job, a wife who doesn’t love him, and superpowers. It’s that last part that brings him into contact with Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, who uses his love of comic books to provide context for what David has become.
Unbreakable is a movie about comics as much as inspired by them, a movie that talks about the kinds of stories comic books tell, one that explores the nature of heroes and villains. Every cape-and-cowl movie for the last 16 years has been trying to tell the story Unbreakable did, and none of them have even come close.