Arguments about the greatest comic-book films run rampant among geek fandom circles. Richard Donner’s Superman, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 typically dominate the conversation, as they should. Lately, newer capes and tights masterpieces are creeping into the mix as well, ranging from James Mangold’s Logan and Alex Garland’s Dredd, to The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. There’s obviously no clear right answer, and each of the aforementioned (or more) could be argued for easily depending on your sensibilities.
The endless nerdy discussions about this are all in the name of fun of course. But it is a shame that while the debate rages on, a few less glamorously epic, but no less powerful, graphic novel takes are often overlooked. Comics may be dominated by powers and responsibility, but there’s much more to the medium and industry than that. From offbeat coming-of-age stories and poignant working-class portraits, to war-torn autobiographies of persecution and twisted tales of revenge – some of the greatest comic-book movies don’t feature superheroes at all! Here we’ve rounded up a few titles that deserved to be read, watched and celebrated.
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Based on the manga by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya
No, we’re not talking about Spike Lee’s woefully disappointing American remake. The South Korean original was a gritty, ultra-violent and profoundly disturbing neo-noir tale of vengeance. Following Oh Dae-su’s quest for revenge after being imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years without knowing why, Oldboy was a brutal nail-biter that plays out like a Greek tragedy.
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes
This black comedy about young alienation and self-discovery is odd, deadpan, and yet, thoroughly endearing. Avoiding teen tropes at every corner, Ghost World crafts a complex and deeply poignant inner life for it’s untethered protagonist Enid. This film is a meandering journey on the fringes that depicts adolescent agonies in darkly funny and quietly inconsolable ways.
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Based on the comic-book series by Harvey Pekar.
Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comics were daringly mundane, beautifully truthful and even occasionally unflattering. Likewise, this film captures the everyday concerns and anxieties of an underground comics legend with an unconventional portrait that’s stylish, honest and tremendously moving. American Splendor is the rare biopic that illuminates rather than retells.
Directed by: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Based on the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi
This strikingly personal animated autobiography recounts Marjane Satrapi’s own experiences growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Visually gorgeous and emotionally potent – Persepolis’ coming-of-age story remains intimate amidst a tumultuous backdrop of war, religious fanaticism and social upheaval. This powerful black and white tale is about the shades of humanist grey.
Road to Perdition
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Based on the comic-book series by Max Allan Collins
Set during the Great Depression, this well-crafted mob drama is a thematically potent and commandingly acted exploration of fathers and sons, and the consequences of violence. Road to Perdition is a thoughtful gangster movie that prefers elegant poise over blunt energy, resulting in a stately and strikingly sombre cross between Boardwalk Empire and Lone Wolf and Cub.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Directed by Edgar Wright
Based on the comic-book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Combining eye-popping visuals with subversively sharp humour, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably the most inventive and stylish efforts on this list. Framing slacker struggles and young romance through video game, comic-book and sitcom tropes, Scott Pilgrim’s colorful quest to defeat his dream girl’s seven evil ex-boyfriends is just as fun, sweet and endearing in live-action.
Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke
An absolutely crackling psychological crime thriller, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of A History of Violence is one of his most underrated films to date. This riveting character study is weighty with themes examining man’s intertwined dual nature of heroism and violence. Alternately thoughtful, restrained and frighteningly perverse, A History of Violence grips you till the end.
V for Vendetta
Directed by: James McTeigue
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Probably the most influential work on this list, V for Vendetta has become an enduring pop culture touchstone. Indeed, the ideas and iconography driving both the film and the graphic novel have become synonymous with anarchic revolution and rebellion against totalitarianism. This is an excellent piece of speculative fiction that’s provocative, challenging and exhilarating.
Ichi the Killer
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto
This unhinged gorefest by Takashi Miike should only be seen by those with strong stomachs. Ichi the Killer is a masochistic and psychotic yakuza yarn dripping in blood and ejaculate. It famously pushed the boundaries of cinematic violence to controversial levels, but underneath the gratuity lies a potent confrontation of our attitudes towards depictions of violence in media.