The Avengers (2012)
Combining six superheroes and three successful franchises into one ensemble spin-off/sequel? It sounded ridiculous on paper, but writer-director Joss Whedon brought a lighthearted feel to Marvel’s mega-movie, making the superheroics of the all-star cast feel remarkably down-to-earth. Whedon also rose to the occasion by presenting a couple of slam-bang action sequences — including a breathtaking sequence on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. The only question now is: Will Marvel’s next round of solo sequels seem small by comparison? —Darren Franich
Iron Man (2008)
You will believe a man can shoehorn himself into a metal suit and fly. Sure, the FX were uniformly outstanding, and Jon Favreau handled the big-budget derring-do with a muscular dexterity we didn’t know he had — but Marvel’s first self-financed flick worked because of Robert Downey Jr. The Oscar nominee sold us on self-obsessed, self-destructive bazillionaire Tony Stark; he made him a prig we could still, somehow, identify with…and so his transformation from cocky to heroic struck the blockbuster chord.
Batman Begins + Batman Returns (2005; 1992)
When director Christopher Nolan took the reins of the Batman franchise, he was saving it from the day-glo nightmare that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And he did so by breaking the Dark Knight down to his components: a driven young man, haunted by the death of his parents; a city that needs a savior; and an iconography that would strike fear into the hearts of men. (And casting Christian Bale didn’t hurt.) Nolan gave the Caped Crusader a heft he hadn’t had since…Tim Burton’s 1992 Bat-sequel, which explored what it was like to live beneath a mask, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) found he shared more than a mutual attraction to Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Bryan Singer gets the Most Improved Comic-Book Movie Director award. Following 2000’s lackluster, inert X-Men, Singer (after learning how to direct an action scene) hatched an old-fashioned heroes-on-the-run yarn, complete with comic-worthy twists: villains who become heroes, heroes who become villains, and a cliff-hanger that’s to die for…literally.
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when anime — Japanese animation — was a rarity on American screens, especially anime for an adult audience. But this violent, post-apocalyptic tour de force was the film that paved the way. Director Katsuhiro Otomo adapted his own manga and created a lush, nightmarish look at a futuristic Tokyo beset by motorcycle gangs, a corrupt military-industrial complex, and mutant teens.
From Hell (2003)
There was no way that any movie was going to translate every panel of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s exhaustively researched 500-plus-page graphic tome. But sibling directors Allen and Albert Hughes saw the universality of ghetto life — in this case, the slums of 19th-century London and the prostitutes who worked there — and gave the story of an opium-addled detective (Johnny Depp) and his quest to stop Jack the Ripper a distinctly urban vibe, top hats and all.
American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar (pictured) is a cranky man. He writes comics about being a cranky man. Paul Giamatti excels at playing cranky men. What more could you want? Flash-forwards, flashbacks, animated interludes, documentary flourishes — all in the service of a tender romance between a man and his neuroses.
V for Vendetta (2005)
Another flick based on an Alan Moore text makes the list, this one an adaptation of the DC Comics limited series (illustrated by David Lloyd) that follows the Guy Fawkes-masked anti-hero who seeks to bring down a corrupt British government through acts of high-minded terrorism. So it’s all the more astonishing that this Wachowski brothers-produced film got made in a post-9/11 America, with so many of its themes intact.
Spider-Man + Spider-Man 2 (2002; 2004)
The first film captures, more vividly than any other, the sheer joy of waking up one morning and finding out you’ve got superpowers. (It’s almost good enough to make you overlook the bad Green Goblin mask. Almost.) But the sequel brings the engrossing drama of a young man fitfully embracing his destiny — and an incredible train chase. It’s the perfect mating of director and material: In Sam Raimi’s hands, Spidey bobs, weaves, and soars.
Superman II (1981)
If anyone deserves to be happy, it’s the Man of Steel, right? Why shouldn’t he be able to ditch his powers, settle down with Lois Lane, and just live the good life? Because Kryptonian übervillain General Zod (Terence Stamp) says so. The first comic-book-based film to qualify as heartbreaking — thanks to Richard Lester’s unvarnished direction and Christopher Reeve’s mature handling of a pop icon — it’s the very definition of ”you can’t always get what you want.”
Revenge is a dish that’s best served cold…unlike octopus, which can be downed alive. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) has been imprisoned for 15 years. He doesn’t know by whom, or why. Just as mysteriously, he’s set free. His quest for vengeance will lead him to places neither he — nor audiences — have even been before (including a restaurant for that squirming calamari). Brutal and haunting, this Korean masterwork (based on the Japanese manga by Minegishi Nobuaki and Tsuchiya Garon) has one of the most devastating endings you’ll ever see. No wonder it won the Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Cannes International Film Festival. It’s just that good.
Blade II (2002)
We chose this first Blade sequel because it’s the only installment in the vampire hunter’s saga that was directed by a real filmmaker. Guillermo del Toro — who’d later go on to make Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth (for which he received an Oscar nomination) — added an otherworldly feeling of dread to the perambulations of Wesley Snipes’ half-human, half-bloodsucker.
A History of Violence (2005)
Viggo Mortensen plays an unassuming Midwestern family man who, through events entirely not in his control, is revealed to be more than he appears. David Cronenberg took the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke and spun it into an elegy for innocence, a treatise on just how close the wolves are to our door, and a warning that one’s past can never be truly escaped.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972)
If you’ve never read Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic feudal-Japan manga Lone Wolf and Cub — which follows official executioner Itto Ogami, disgraced by a rival family, made a widower, and forced to walk the assassin’s path with his infant son — then go do so. I’ll wait. While this film — the first in a series of six movies based on the comic series — can’t hope to contain the volumes of story in the 8,700-plus-page manga, it’s still a pretty rocking ronin-on-the-run flick.
Hellboy + Hellboy II (2004; 2008)
Guillermo del Toro’s second go-round at a comic book property came with these two paranormal-flavored films, based on Mike Mignola’s series, about a big, red spawn of Hell who fights to keep humanity safe from the things that go bump in the night. Actor Ron Perlman (TV’s Beauty and the Beast) goes back under the makeup to play a role that was made for him: the gargantuan softy who views sending demons back into the pit they came from as just another day’s work.
Ghost World (2001)
Because I’m feeling a bit like a slacker myself, I’ll let EW’s own Owen Gleiberman do all the heavy lifting in describing this Thora Birch-Scarlett Johansson movie (based on Dan Clowes’ graphic novel): ”Just when I was sure I never wanted to see another movie about a terminally cynical, acid-tongued, thrift-shop-chic, postfeminist, postmodern, so-above-it-all-she-makes-your-teeth-ache teenage cherub, along comes Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a buoyant, funny, and disarmingly humane comedy of beautiful losers in revolt.”
Marjane Satrapi took great pains to protect the integrity of her popular graphic memoir, about her rock & roll-loving childhood in the shah’s Iran. She ensured that it retained her wit and empathy by co-directing the animated adaptation herself. And it got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. So there.
The Dark Knight (2008)
This is what you call raising the bar. Director Christopher Nolan sprung from Batman Begins like a man possessed — possessed with the idea of showing exactly how a city crumbles, how hope vanishes, how evil can win?even as it loses. I’ve heard it described lots of different ways — it’s either the Godfather or the Citizen Kane of comic films — but I prefer this: The Dark Knight is like Seven, but with a cape. And, honestly, I can’t pay a higher compliment.
You’ve seen the Best Comic Book Movies…now check out the worst: EW’s 20 Worst Comic-Book Movies Ever