Films based on comic books and their younger, slightly more pretentious sibling, the graphic novel, have enjoyed an immense popularity that only seems to increase as cinema technology begins to catch up with the imaginations of their creators as well as the expectations of fans. Once relegated to Saturday afternoon matinees in serialized format with hysterically low production values, this genre is now home to some of the most expensive and successful films ever made.
A bit of the shine on the apple is gone as audiences tire quickly with any genre that does not evolve – there have been some real stinkers. “Derivative” is not a label you want because audiences pick-up on it and stay away (after the first weekend of release, of course.) But derivative they must be, especially for established superhero flicks that have entertained us since film began. To avoid this trauma, the genre has gone darker and more risqué, ramping up the sexual references and violence, showing the sometimes-disturbing personality flaws of both the heroes and villains.
It’s not all about flying strongmen – or women – anymore, either. The graphic novel has seized upon crime, in particular, for their tabloid style storytelling using drawings to replace those thousands of words. It’s an effective device and, if the filmmaker is smart, provides a blueprint for the style and substance of the films.
When they are dark, these films can go where no others dare because they are firmly moored in the fantastical world of make-believe. Dark, whimsical, irreverent, even satirical, they are the modern centuries’ replacement for mythology. Whether it’s the serialized periodical comic or the single publication graphic novel, seeing them personified by big name actors on a wide screen is catnip for the young and young-at-heart.
Deadpool Tim Miller (2016)
Make no mistake – the smartest thing Ryan Reynolds ever did was to attach himself to this product. Funny, irreverent, sexually charged – let’s just say the character fits him like a glove. From the riotous title sequence opening the film (that includes a hilarious teabagging moment) to the gag take on post end credit treats, Miller’s film is the first of this genre in a long time to whet the appetite for more, more, more. Smart and smartass make compelling bedfellows.
Superman Richard Donner (1978)
“You’ll believe a man can fly”, was the tagline in ’78. “Sure,” we said, “but how much weed will we need to make it work?” It was a pre-CGI environment and the natural laws of physics prevailed – man cannot fly and all attempts to create that illusion generally came off as, well, tacky. Yet, this film succeeded and became the first superhero film of the modern era. Brando, Hackman, Valerie Perrine, and a wonderfully charming Margot Kidder (as Lois Lane) weave (or was it macramé in the 70s) a comfortable supporting cast net to Christopher Reeve’s (still the best) Clark/Superman. The in-your-face opening credit sequence where titles seem to evaporate into the audience to John Williams’ rousing score hasn’t lost its thunder either.
The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan (2008)
So we thought that Jack Nicholson’s Joker was just about as far as one could go into the realm of horrifying craziness, then along comes Chris Nolan with Heath Ledger in tow and…BAM! POW! First Oscar for a comic book character ever awarded, unfortunately, posthumously – something else that has only happened once before. Tim Burton’s Batman broke ground by taking Batman into the shadows, but Nolan plunges the legend into the pitch-blackness physically and psychologically. Everybody in this film is either damaged goods or well on the way to becoming so. The rivalry between good and evil is fierce, even when we aren’t certain who is which. TDK (wasn’t it this film that started the whole acronym thing with movie titles?) is brilliant and accounts for 80% of the reasoning why Nolan will receive a best director Oscar this year for the far more “noble” endeavor, Dunkirk.
Road to Perdition Sam Mendes (2002)
Max Allan Collins’ moody depression-era graphic novel about a mob hit man and his young son was well served by filmmakers, particularly cinematographer Conrad Hall. It may have been Hall’s last film before his death, but it was a stunning achievement in a career stacked with accomplishments, always landing Perdition on every top ten cinematography poll taken since. Like the graphic novel, the visuals overpower the story, but it’s not without its plusses, mostly revolving around Sullivan’s relationship with his kid, complicated by the violent (and unlawful) aspects of his job. With Tom Hanks in the lead role, the battle to reconcile his roles as father and hit man into something workable is a believable conflict that, of course, has one possible ending. Sam Mendes directs his second film, on the heels of American Beauty.
A History of Violence David Cronenberg (2005)
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the John Wagner/Vince Locke graphic novel is a rough but rewarding ride. Viggo Mortensen is Tom, a diner-owner who may or may not have been a gang henchman and who has since married and has a family. His cover is blown when he defends his business, dispatching the would-be robbers in a surprisingly efficient manner. His hero status begins to come under scrutiny, upsetting both his safety and the family peace. Ashton Holmes, Maria Bello, William Hurt, and Ed Harris each give strong support and Cronenberg always takes those extra steps beyond our expectations. He is one director who can be labeled as “fearless”.
I could have easily inserted Snowpiercer in this genre had I not used it already, and both Road to Perdition and A History of Violence would have fit nicely into the DADS genre published for Fathers Day, but in order to spread the wealth, ya only git one shot. Ah, the complexities of genre sorting….