Comic book films seem to divide cinema-goers and film buffs everywhere.
On the one hand, they take vast sums of money at the box office, drawing fans in from across the world. Take Avengers: Endgame as an example – it grossed $2.7bn worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, making it one of the most successful films of all time. On the other hand, Martin Scorsese famously described them as ‘not cinema’, a feeling that also seems to run through more dedicated fans of filmmaking as an art form, not purely as entertainment.
Whether comic book films are real cinema or not is a debate that will run and run, without conclusion, but some comic book films are excellent. Comic books as a genre are often woven together so that they make clever statements about real life without directly referencing the issues they address. The films are far more compelling and more profound than many give them credit for. In some instances, they are a great way to spend a couple of hours, and if you do wish to see the very best comic book films, then these five are right up there. Judge for yourself whether they are real cinema or not.
Superman II (1980)
Without Superman and Superman II, there would likely be no modern comic book movies. They were the first to take a character from a comic book and apply just enough effects to make them watchable, whilst always seeming to tip a sly wink at the audience whilst doing so. A good comic book movie suspends disbelief and manages to be believable in an overt way. Superman II gets the nod for the excellent villainy of Terence Stamp, aka General Zod.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
It would be crass to list the best comic book movies ever and not reference at least one of the current Marvel franchise. Thor is not just a comic book hero, but a Norse God and a character featured in digital media for many years. He might be a playable character in the latest Marvel Avengers game, but he also appears across other media. The character spreads as far as featuring in a title on Gala Bingo, Power of Thor Megaways, which leans on the strong imagery. Thor: The Dark World is another title featuring the hammer-wielding hero on mobile, and he featured in the console blockbuster Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. That means making the character your own is never easy for an actor, but Chris Hemsworth’s wise-cracking version is watchable and unique.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
What is real cinema? The Cornetto Trilogy, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost? Possibly, they are clever slacker movies, putting the everyday Joe in the hero hot seat, making an aspirational statement of sorts. Wright moved on from those to make Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on a six-volume Canadian comic-book series. The result is a charming, video game-influenced flick that delves further into the source material, than some other comic book film contemporaries.
Batman Returns (1992)
Is there a more recognisable superhero than Batman? Superman might well have been one of the first great superhero films, and Thor might pop up across media throughout the ages, but Batman has been on television screens since the sixties and has featured in 18 different films, as well as great video games such as the Arkham Trilogy and even Lego Batman. Unlike Thor, often the draw for a good Batman movie is not the protagonist but the selection of antagonists. That puts Batman Returns right up there with the best movies featuring Gotham’s villains, introducing us to Danny DeVito’s sinister Penguin and the sultry Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Throw in director Tim Burton, the master of the macabre, and you have a truly great comic book movie.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Storytelling and scripting have gone out of the window in some modern movies, with explosions, battles, and effects driving a film’s appeal to audiences. That cannot be said of The Dark Knight, perhaps the seminal modern superhero movie. It came out in the same year as Iron Man, a film which spawned the Marvel Universe, and yet The Dark Knight is by far the better movie. Again, it is not Christian Bale’s Batman / Bruce Wayne that steals the show, nor Aaron Eckhart’s brilliant Harvey Dent. No, The Dark Knight is all about Heath Ledger and his outstanding delivery of the Joker, which has, to some degree, become the benchmark by which all superhero villains are measured.
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