At the Height of Their Power


Say goodbye to those flowery adaptations of 19th-century British literature and Oprah’s Book Club bestsellers. Studio executives have unearthed a new moneymaking inspiration in comic books and graphic novels—and this summer is full of them. From Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk—the first two movies from newly-minted Marvel Studios—to Wanted and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the season has already seen an unusual amount of these adaptations. This week audiences are eagerly awaiting another—arguably the most anticipated film this year, period—when The Dark Knight is released on Friday.

Once considered a niche art form, graphic novels now continually sweep the box office and make appearances at the Academy Awards. With the reinvention of the Batman franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, this summer’s theatrical slate and the upcoming movie version of Watchmen (2009)—the only graphic novel to receive the prestigious Hugo Award—it looks like these tormented heroes and villains are here to stay. For those who still have their doubts about actually appreciating an action flick as real cinema, rest assured these movies consist of more than senseless fight sequences; they often feature layered, profound and sincere messages (though the stunts are pretty cool, too).

In preparation for this weekend’s release of The Dark Knight, MM thought it worthwhile to take a look back at 10 of the best, most popular and/or groundbreaking graphic novel movie adaptations.

Superman: The Movie (1978)
The late Christopher Reeves will forever be defined by his portrayal as, ironically enough, the invincible Superman. Also starring Marlon Brando as Jor-El and a brilliant Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Superman: The Movie marks an impressive milestone in the history of special effects, garnering a Special Achievement Oscar at the 1979 Academy Awards. Okay, so it still looks phony enough to know that he’s not really flying, but did you actually believe those thick-framed glasses made such a huge difference between Superman and Clark Kent?

Batman

Batman (1989)
While the hit 1960s television show was fun, with its freeze frames and wide-range of onomatopoeia, Tim Burton’s whimsically-brooding—not to mention Oscar-winning—take on the Dark Knight was the first version to resuscitate a dying franchise. Batman’s back, and with an updated suit of custom-made microfiber and a bulletproof six-pack, he means business. Starring Michael Keaton as the masked hero, it was the deliciously creepy Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) who stole the show back then, too.

X-Men (2000)
The first of the X-Men movie franchise saw Bryan Singer introducing audiences to a group of unlikely heroes in the form of mutants (played by the likes of Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and James Marsden). Ostracized from human society, these mutants possess their own “X-factor” that ranges from telekinesis, laser eyes and even the ability to manipulate weather—all factors that made for great special effects possibilities on screen.

Spider-Man

Spider-Man & Spider-Man II (2002 & 2004)
Director Sam Raimi set the new superhero standard with his energetic, big-screen renderings of Stan Lee’s beloved Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the hopelessly dorky teen-turned-incredible-human-spider. Both films are bursting with all the right ingredients to keep the audience wanting more: Mad scientists taken over by their even madder inventions (played brilliantly in two separate movies by Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina), unrequited love with its glimmers of hope (the first movie’s upside-down kiss between Parker and childhood love Mary Jane spiced up relationships worldwide) and fight scenes at frightening heights.

American Splendor

American Splendor (2003)
We all know that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things, yet most of the time, they’re just plain ordinary. That’s what writer-artist Harvey Pekar aims to get across in his graphic novel series American Splendor. Creatively weaving together fiction and reality, this Oscar-nominated film illustrates the daily life of everyman Pekar, a disgruntled file clerk played by the always seemingly down-and-out Paul Giamatti. Though offbeat in its humor, this atypical graphic novel adaptation reminds us that we can all be heroes in our own right. And that can be just as entertaining.

Hellboy (2004)
Academy Award nominee Guillermo del Toro brings a vibrant burst of color to the silver screen with his adaptation of the Dark Horse Comic Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. After being saved as an infant by American soldiers, Hellboy is a walking paradox: A born-demon who defends the world against the forces of darkness. Grossing $100 million worldwide, Hellboy impressed both audiences and studios enough for a sequel. Hellboy II: The Golden Army was the number one movie at the box office in its first week of release, July 11.

V for Vendetta (2005)
This exhilarating and thought-provoking film is at once a political satire, suspense thriller and love story. Though unconventional in its characters—an anarchist who dons a Guy Fawkes mask and goes by the name of “V” and a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) who was left orphaned as a child—V for Vendetta shares the heart and essence of every great superhero story: The right to live in a free world. Adapted by the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame from the 10-issue comic book series written by Alan Moore, this audacious commentary on the use of fear and terrorist tactics employed by the government instantly became a cult hit in a time when terrorism is always on the front page.

Sin City

Sin City (2005)
Director Robert Rodriguez brought Frank Miller’s graphic novel to life with highly stylized cinematography and post-production effects. The result: A post-modern noir that’s absolutely breathtaking to watch and impossible to ignore. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes some of Hollywood’s biggest players (Bruce Willis, Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro among them), Sin City was a hit for both die-hard fans and Hollywood executives. The long-awaited sequel is set for a 2010 release.

Persepolis (2007): Chain-smoking, black eyeliner-wearing Marjane Satrapi may not be your typical graphic novel heroine but give the girl some credit: She’s not only survived multiple broken hearts and a bad haircut, but war as well. The Academy Award-nominated film stays loyal to the critically-acclaimed graphic memoir of the same name: From coming of age during the Iranian Revolution to living solo in Europe by age 14 and her return to Iran, which had turned into a strange, unfamiliar country while she was gone. Preserving her distinctively sparse, no frills animation and charming wit, the animated adaptation (directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) won viewers over with commentary on Islamic fundamentalists, Karl Marx, her gay ex-boyfriend and more.

Iron Man (2008)
While it’s no surprise that Jon Favreau’s highly anticipated Iron Man would smash the box office—grossing over $300 million domestically—did anyone foresee immense critical acclaim, such as featured spots on top 10 lists from film critics worldwide? In another Stan Lee creation (see The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and X-Men), Robert Downey Jr. makes his comeback as a billionaire industrialist who builds a high-tech suit of armor to thwart the building of weapons of mass destruction. While the original comic book explored Cold War themes, the revamped screen version is the latest criticism on the corporate crime and terrorism plaguing today’s world.

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