Great Cinematic Comic Book Adaptations (Part 1)

Comic books are a wonderful medium where dreams, fears, fantasies and desires are brought to life through illustrations and words. From superhero adventures and nightmarish tales, to hardboiled crime stories and existential slices of life, comics have enjoyed a large variety of stories through the ages, which have extended to the cinematic format.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

The brainchild of producer William Dozier, combined with the beautiful self-awareness of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., make Batman: the movie at once a faithful translation and a witty send-up of the source material; what were once solo adventures about a dark knight (created by Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane) on a crusade against the crime that plagued Gotham City, descended into juvenile territory by replacing the gothic vigilante’s broody persona with a cheery disposition, and partnering him with a child sidekick named Robin.

In the film, the Bright Knight (Adam West) and the Boy Wonder (Burt Ward), both of whom were orphaned by acts of crime, would go on to face the United Underworld: four members of their most flamboyant rogues gallery. The clown prince of crime, The Joker (Cesar Romero), the waddling avian trickster, The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the slinky feline fatale, Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and the obsessive clue master, the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). Together they formulate a crazy, over-top-plan plan that involves holding members of the United World Security Council hostage for a handsome ransom with a dehydrating weapon. The narrative plays out as an absurd, adventure story and a Cold War satire.

Semple Jr., would scribe ‘70s paranoid thriller The Parallax View, but not before injecting a dose of paranoia into the easily frazzled and helpless populace of Gotham. With a film that pokes fun at the global tension of the time, and having its titular hero physically carrying a (possibly symbolic) bomb away from a lair of denizens, it ends on a wonderfully bittersweet notion, where viewers will be left wondering whether there was any need for a Batman.

Superman (1978)

One of America’s most beloved icons in comics made his cinematic debut in 1941, in the Fleischer studio’s animated short. Superman was damn near invincible, and there was no challenge he could not overcome. He was an admirable figure, but not necessarily relatable…not until Richard Donner undertook the ambitious task of bringing genuine empathy to the Man of Steel.

The character, as originally envisioned by creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, was a force for good, to inspire others to fight against corruption and oppression, and to reach for the highest potential, and if possible, beyond the furthest of stars.

Being the last son from the destroyed planet of Krypton, the alien being was sent to earth by his scientist father’s own will, and would become a god among men. Raised by goodhearted farmers in Smallville, Kansas, and losing his adoptive father as a teenager, he would grow up to be Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve), journalist for the Daily Planet in Metropolis, and as Superman, use his powers to protect mankind. He falls in love, battles a mastermind with a messiah complex, and questions his existence.

The film is as earnest and sincere as Christopher Reeve’s heartfelt performance; it believes in its world and explores its themes with great desire, becoming a romantic fantasy, a religious drama, a witty piece of classic mythology and a good-humored comedy. With Clark balancing his dual identity in part so that he does not interfere too much with humanity’s own journey, he battles predestination with his own free will, and that, is what makes him more human than ever.

Batman and Batman Returns (1989/1992)

With Neal Adams & Denny O’Neill returning a zany superhero to his gothic roots in the ‘70s, and Frank Miller’s operatic The Dark Knight Returns series in the zeitgeist, the Batman received a more serious treatment in the ‘80s.

With the very black-humoured sensibility of Beetlejuice director Tim Burton, the creative team would focus on the dark, fetishistic and surreal side of Batman’s world from the comics and its many influences, including German expressionism and noir crime films (with art director Anton Furst’s dystopian, timeless vision and composer Danny Elfman’s brooding, melancholic score). Batman (1989) saw orphaned millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), along with his surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth, living in an isolated mansion, where his inner demons dwelled and manifested into the personal crusade of the Batman. Wayne would descend to the bat-infested caves beneath the manor, and don the mantle of the inhabiting creatures, thus transforming into the avenger of the night.

In both this film and the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, the nightmarish world embraces its eccentricities, and does not paint the Batman as a typical hero; he is a reluctant vigilante who battles evildoers to feed his internal pain. He encounters very twisted reflections of his persona in the forms of: The Joker, a scarred gangster who transforms into a reckless clown hell-bent on bringing madness and murder to Gotham; The Penguin, a disfigured orphan abandoned by his elitist parents, raised by circus freaks and penguins, only to seek power, respect and revenge; and Catwoman, a once meek secretary, practically murdered by her corrupt employer, Max Schreck, adopts the persona of a vengeful feline dominatrix, clad in stitched-up leather costume that creates a feminist icon not unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster.

The protagonist proves to be just as damaged as his antagonists, and with a bizarre variety of aesthetics, props and set pieces, Gotham city challenges the real world to name another town that has been tormented by both an anarchistic freak show and  an army of penguins with missiles strapped to their backs.

Dredd (2012)

“I am the Law.” In any ordinary situation, that may be viewed as hyperbolic.

Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra for British comics publication 2000 AD in 1977, Judge Dredd was not just a no-nonsense, heavy-duty cop in the American dystopia of Mega-City One; he was the faceless entity that embodied every extreme measure taken in law and politics, andwas a triple threat package of judge, jury & executioner.

Dredd is an adrenaline-fueled action film, an exaggerated police procedural and a dark satire. Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), an idealistic new recruit with telepathic abilities, joins Dredd (Karl Urban) on her first day of the job, where they investigate the deaths of three drug dealers at the Peach Trees Complex. There, they are locked in and wanted by Ma-Ma Madrigal (Lena Headey), a prostitute abused into becoming a sadistic man-hating gang leader.

As monstrous as Ma-Ma and the rest of the criminals can be, Alex Garland’s writing cleverly and subtly focuses (through Anderson’s gaze) on the complexity of Dredd’s cold stone attitude and the inner demons he represses; he is not a saint, and he does not seem to care.

With a vibrant cyber-punk feel, an electric score from Paul Leonard-Morgan and a grimy sense of art direction, Dredd is unforgiving and unapologetic in exploiting its protagonist’s brand of justice, and does not count on its viewers to agree with it.

Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2011/ 2014)

Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby during the Second World War, Steve Rogers was a determined, good-natured patriot, but ultimately, a physically weak being unqualified for battle. Admired for his noble attributes, he is selected for a “super soldier” program, which transforms his frail visage into a mythical marvel, enhancing his strength, stamina and agility. Soon, he is shipped out fighting the Nazis, and becoming the most valuable weapon and symbol of American propaganda.

Joe Johnston, who directed the pulpy The Rocketeer, brings the same sensibility to The First Avenger, and damn near nails it. This film brings the vintage eight-page comic story to life, and is infatuated with its period setting, and the aesthetics and mythology that accompany it. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a charismatic, and likeable personality, with an idealistic & naïve sense of right & wrong that complements the romanticism of that era. Rogers loses the chance to pursue a solid romance, and return to a normal life of post-war accomplishments, after he sacrifices himself while submerging a weaponized airship into the ocean, preserving him in a deep cryogenic sleep.

After a seventy-year icy slumber, the Captain awakens to see the world around him is much more complicated, filled where the good and the bad are coated with shades of gray. In The Winter Soldier he experiences something worse than the Cold War he missed out on, which is, the enemy at home. With all the battles, conflicts and treachery Rogers comes face to face with, its refreshing to see him able to adapt and re-assess his ways of thinking in a weird new world, while maintaining his well-preserved humanity and principles. Like Superman and Uncle Sam, he is a character that finds nothing funny about truth, justice and the American way, and becomes more than an ancient tool of patriotism.

Ghost World (2001)

What is refreshing about the cynicism of Ghost World’s protagonist, Enid (Thora Birch), is that it is not a result of her noble intentions…because she has none. She is a selfish, narcissistic anti-hero who enjoys playing god with the lives of the “losers” of her world. Surely there must be a solid explanation?

With her mother absent, Enid is only cared for by her father (Bob Balaban), who frankly sees more interested in his own life, especially when it comes to the romance department. She only has one true friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), who share’s Enid’s cynicism but simultaneously tries to mature and become more accessible to society.  She interacts with a medley of quirky characters on a daily basis, and never treats them with anything short of contempt and sarcasm. That is until she meets Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a timid, middle-aged man who has eclectic hobbies & interests, but more importantly, serves as a cypher of sorts for Enid, as she sees a little of herself in this lonely being. By changing an aspect in Seymour’s life, Enid gets to be a puppeteer, but in the process allows her defense mechanism of her mean-spirited, rebellious teenaged self to weaken, and expose her humanity.

Enid’s flaunts her “hipster” attitude & culture unapologetically, and her free spiritedness creates a charming painting of a film, and (while not for everyone) manages to make a beautiful slice of life and an unique “coming-of-age” tale.

American Splendor (2003)

Part autobiographical, part comic book fiction, and part documentary, American Splendor takes the time to paint an intricate and endearing portrait of the Man that inspired it.

From the get-go, Harvey Pekar, the creator of the titular comic, lets us know that he was never really interested in mainstream comic book fare (superheroes and the like), instead, always intending to write more down-to-earth stories of struggle and fidelity, and with characters that are identical to quirky personalities that he would have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Pekar’s life is filled with comedy, irony, passion and tragedy, which are all engulfed by a general defeatist attitude that the man never seems to shake off, even when he is winning. He is easy to empathize with, but difficult to deal and socialize with. He finds solace in other “eccentric geniuses” like underground comic book legend, Robert Crumb, who would prove to be a major inspiration for Pekar’s future work, as independent “weirdo” narratives still find their rock-stars.

The film cleverly blends its elements of fiction and non-fiction so casually, where the actors all seem to be aware that they doing their best to tell the stories of real people who may find it difficult to find a podium to express themselves otherwise (despite the fact that Pekar was an well established comic book writer). Perhaps intentionally ironic, the man who never believed in heroes, becomes the “superhero” of his own story, but as is traditional Pekar style, a reluctant one at best.

X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past (2011/2014)

“Mutant, and proud”; whether it alludes to race issues, class hierarchy or one’s sexual orientation (among other topics), the aforementioned motto emphasizes the great sense of confidence that X-men: First Class and X-men: Days of Future Past wear ever so proudly on their shoulders.

The first film, directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn, serves as a reboot to the muddled franchise previously established by Bryan Singer, with 2000’s X-men.  While Singer’s cinematic entry into the world of the classic Marvel comics was admirable and filled with noble intentions and meaningful themes, it lacked the confidence, energy and magic that Vaughn managed to infuse the story with over a decade later. Setting the narrative in the 1960s (when the source material was conceived), the film explores the ambitions and plights of various mutants like the socially conflicted mutant scholar, Professor Charles Xavier, to vengeful Nazi Holocaust survivor, Erik Lensherr. While their ethics and principles vary, both men combine forces to prevent an extremist mutant from bringing about Armageddon, by manipulating Cold War nations to destroy each other head-on.

Days of Future Past, sees Singer’s return to the franchise, and this time has Logan “The Wolverine”, a mutant with a dark a tortured past, sent back in time to prevent a dystopian future, where humanity and mutants’ existence are threatened by the fascistic hunters known as Sentinels.

The superhuman mythos is strong and alive in these films, and the multilayered characters of the X-men prove to be significant cyphers to minorities worldwide in that they allow them to realize their heroic abilities to make a positive impact on their world.

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

A rich man orphaned by crime, and dressing up as a bat to fight it, may not spell out realism, but Christopher Nolan’s saga is not concerned with that. While it feels real, this fictional world creates its own hyper-realistic environment, with recognizable and relatable imagery, coated with a brooding, gothic mood. A scene from the dark opera, Die Fledermaus plays in Batman Begins, and serves as a dark omen for the films’ protagonist, as it leads to his parents’ murder, and paves the way for his crusading antics in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

While honouring its source material and making use of over (at the time) sixty years of comic book mythology & storytelling, Chris and Jonathan Nolan (and David Goyer) create a rich, unique canvas, that holds nothing back in the areas of iconic ideas and operatic set pieces. The primary players of this tragedy are layered to a fault, and each one serves to be a mirror the Batman. While the world of these characters (and their individual actions) references classic mythology and some of the greatest literary sources, they also draw parallels to the world we live in with global terrorism, brutal government infiltration methods, urban crime, and historical events. Whether it is through Harvey Dent, a scarred attorney, who breaks bad with one devastating tragedy occurring after another, or Ras Al Ghul, an extremist truly dedicated to cleansing his planet from scum, or the Dark Knight himself, who may have good intentions, but fulfills them with merciless aggression, there is something one can take away from this thrilling gothic opera. Ultimately, The Dark Knight trilogy is the splitting image of its comic book source material; it just happens to be drawn differently.

Men in Black (1997)

This is a world where anyone can be an extra terrestrial; and with the guaranteed help of a device known as a neuralyzer, the special G-men, known as the “Men in Black” (or MIB) see to it that the general public are kept in the dark. However, a police officer named Jay (Will Smith), discovers the existence of alien life on his planet, and is later recruited by veteran agent of MIB named Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) to join the secret organization and abandon his old life for a new identity.

What is special about Men in Black is not limited to its great visual effects; it’s how consistently witty it manages to remain throughout the picture. It’s largely self-aware and has a lot of fun with exploring its mythology without being extremely self-referential. The film also benefits with an added dose of personality from its two leads. Jay overreacts to the majority of things that happen before him (as one might) but learns from everything he sees and remains as sharp an officer as he is established to be, while Kay is almost desensitized to strangeness that he manages to act almost monotonous and oozes confidence.

By the end of the film, Men in Black boasts the wealth of its universe and showcases the promise of exploring a galaxy’s worth of ideas and stories (even if reality does not see it the same way, given how its sequel turned out).

Ichi the Killer (2001)

Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga series is an ambitious and brutal rollercoaster of a ride, where operatic gangland antics and subverted superhero mythology intertwine.

The titular character (Nao Omori) is a timid, psychologically impaired, young man, who, thanks to his manipulative father, unleashes his hidden strength when he becomes furious. His actions pit two yakuza clans against one another, which bring in numerous players to the battleground, most notably, a sadomasochistic enforcer named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), who is merciless, and relentlessly violent. He proves to be a worthy archenemy of sort’s to Ichi’s “Superhero” iconography, with both men at opposite extremes, enforcing extreme violence on their targets.

The film is almost a perfect literal translation of the manga’s cartoonish nature, turning the source material surreal, hyper-realistic orgy of damaged individuals motivated by their perverted desires and lust for power. A little boy named Takeshi observes the kinetically charged war between the individuals up close and personal, and an earlier promise of brave and honorable role models, is a twisted fantasy, as the only heroes that exist in his world are the broken ones.

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