When Tim Burton’s Batman film hit theaters more than 25 years ago, super-hero movies had been a relative non-factor. Sure, the first two Superman films were great, but comic book-based movies were few and far between.
Nowadays, with geek culture trending, it seems like a new super-hero saga debuts every weekend, such as the recent action comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy, based on the Marvel Comics property. These types of films are fun, but we’re nearing super-hero saturation (I now wait for most of them to be released on DVD instead of rushing to the theater).
Fortunately for the comic book fan who’s tired of seeing super-heroes on the silver screen (or would at least like to see something a little different from time to time), there are some alternatives, movies not involving men and women in tights. These include such films as: From Hell (2001), a thriller about Jack the Ripper; 300 (2007), an epic fantasy war picture; and Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, a stylized, over-the-top crime drama released summer of last year.
Here are 10 more quality comic book movies—listed chronologically—with nary a super-hero in sight:
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Loosely based on the work of underground artist Robert Crumb (the subject of the brilliant1995 documentary, Crumb), Fritz the Cat was the directorial debut of Ralph Bakshi, the animator responsible for such controversial fare as Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975). Fritz is an anthropomorphized college student in mid-1960s New York City, a cool cat as it were. The freewheeling feline experiments with group sex, smokes marijuana and, in one of the film’s many satirical touches, gets chased by cops depicted as pigs.
While the current DVD release is unrated, Fritz the Cat was the first X-rated animated movie released in the United States. It is the top grossing independent animated film of all time, generating more than $100 million worldwide. Fritz the Cat is dated, but fascinating for its quirky encapsulation of the zeitgeist.
Heavy Metal (1981)
During the mid-late 1980s and early 1990s, Heavy Metal, which adapted stories from the long-running magazine of the same name, was a staple of the midnight movie lineup at the late, lamented Forum 303 Mall in Arlington. Comic book aficionados and hipster film buffs alike enjoyed the animated anthology for its fantastic art (by the likes of Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson), iconic soundtrack (including the title track by Sammy Hagar) and otherworldly characters, from futuristic cab driver Harry Canyon to nerd-turned-fantasy-hero Den to Captain Sternn, a “double-dealing, backstabbing, larcenous, perverted worm.”
To get the full effect, watch Heavy Metal on Blu-ray, with the speakers turned up to 11. Just be sure the little ones are asleep—as with Fritz the Cat, this is no kids’ cartoon.
Swamp Thing (1982)
A film that the late, great Roger Ebert said falls “somewhere between buried treasures and guilty pleasures,” Swamp Thing brought DC Comics’ mythical muck monster to the silver screen. The movie never reaches the heights of the two classic Swamp Thing comic book runs—the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson story arc of the early 1970s and the Alan Moore-penned revamping from the 1980s—but it does entertain, thanks to ample doses of action, adventure and humor, and even a little heart: played by a rubber suit-wearing Dick Durock, Swampy has a touching relationship with the beautiful Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau).
Directed ably by Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Swamp Thing spawned a lesser sequel (Return of the Swamp Thing), a short-lived cartoon and a solid live action TV series.
The Crow (1994)
Created by writer/artist James O’Barr as a way to cope with the death of his fiancé at the hands of a drunk driver, The Crow is a character surrounded by real-life tragedy. During the making of the movie that is based on the comic book (The Crow first appeared in 1989 in Caliber Presents #1 and went on to star in several mini-series), Brandon Lee, who played the vengeful title character, was accidentally shot and killed.
Rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of all this carnage is a dark, dramatic, action-packed, visually arresting thriller that is as fresh and exciting today as it was 20 years ago. The film is also a fitting tribute to Lee, a great martial artist and budding action star whose life was cut tragically short.
Men in Black (1997)
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family), Men in Black was a blockbuster smash, turning a pair of obscure, poorly drawn comic book mini-series from the early 1990s into a full-blown franchise. The film, which eschews its more serious source material in favor of pure comedy (a welcome change), stars stone-faced Tommy Lee Jones as “K,” a secretive government agent who battles aliens, and dapper Will Smith as “J,” his wisecracking partner. Both wear black suits, ties and shades, and both handle funky weaponry as they vanquish a variety of creatures created by the ever-imaginative, Oscar winning makeup maven, Rick Baker.
A funny crowd-pleaser with boffo special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic, Men in Black spawned two sequels and a cartoon series.
Ghost World (2001)
Originally published in serial form in Eightball #s 11-18 (1993-1997), Daniel Clowes’ masterful Ghost World was collected into a graphic novel in 1997. In 2001, it was adapted somewhat loosely for the silver screen, featuring Thora Birch as Enid Coleslaw, a pseudo-intellectual social outcast, and Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca Doppelmeyer, her misfit (though more attractive) friend. Both girls are cynical, and neither has a clue what to do after graduating high school. On a lark, they answer a man’s newspaper ad for a date, bringing a perfectly cast Steve Buscemi (as Seymour) into the picture.
In his review, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly summed up Ghost World nicely, calling it a “buoyant, funny and disarmingly humane comedy of beautiful losers in revolt.”
Road to Perdition (2002)
Anyone who thinks comic book movies offer nothing more than musclebound heroes thwarting cartoonish villains should check out Road to Perdition, an Irish Mafia thriller set in depression-era Chicago. Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, which was written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, the film features an all-star cast (Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law) and received six Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Cinematography.
Although not universally praised by critics (some said it was “emotionally detached”), Road to Perdition has many esteemed fans, including Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News, who called it “wrenching but never manipulative, stoic but never dull, exhausting but never wearying.”
American Splendor (2003)
Despite several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman during the 1980s, Harvey Pekar is hardly a household name. However, he was a legendary comic book writer, helping define the sequential art memoir, working with such artists as Robert Crumb and winning awards for his anthology series, American Splendor (1976), and the graphic novel, Our Cancer Year (1994). The film version of American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti as cranky Clevelander Pekar, and James Urbaniak as Crumb, translates Pekar’s life beautifully, serving as both big screen biopic and slice-of-life comic book adaptation.
Although he didn’t win an Oscar for the role, Giamatti absolutely nailed Pekar’s look, mannerisms and voice, earning him Best Actor awards from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the International Press Academy.
A History of Violence (2005)
Everyman Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) owns a diner in the sleepy town of Millbrook, Indiana, population 3,246. “Nothing much ever happens here” until one night at closing time, when two men try to rob Stall’s humble establishment. Stall kills both bad guys and is hailed as a hero, but the action puts a strain on his family and sheds light on his secretive and violent past.
One of director David Cronenberg’s (The Dead Zone, Naked Lunch) most mature films, A History of Violence is based on a 1997 graphic novel by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner and Vince Locke. Masquerading as a mainstream crime drama, it is a gripping, Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, exploring the nature of cyclical violence.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Likable nebbish Michael Cera (Arrested Development) is Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian bass guitarist who sheepishly asks an Amazon delivery girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on a date. Unbeknownst to him, in order to win her over, he must defeat her “seven evil exes,” including a super strong movie star and a pair of Japanese twins who can summon powerful creatures. The battles play out like a video game, complete with popup text, extra lives and exaggerated fighting moves, an innovative approach that complements Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series quite nicely.
If the characters in The Big Bang Theory were real, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would easily be one of their favorite films.