February 14, 2006

Comics in film

Film adaptations of comic books have an amazing and troubled history. Amazing when they work — like the first “Batman” by Tim Burton or “X-Men” by Bryan Singer — and “troubled, painful, awful, crummy and disappointing” when they don’t. See “The Punisher,” “Daredevil,” “Howard the Duck”.
In the last few years, the quality and scope of comics-based films has surged to an all-time high. Here are a few films that transcend the usual expectations of comic book movies:

“Batman Begins” (2005)
—Directed by Christopher Nolan
Longtime fans hoped and hoped for this one — the most intelligent and thrilling film of the 1939 character yet. Returning to the series’ (very dark) origins and offering detailed, powerful performances (in and out of masks), Nolan made this an unexpected critical and box office success.

“Ghost World” (2001)
—Directed by Terry Zwigoff
From Dan Clowes’ super-hilarious and painful story of two young friends. Maybe the best and most true film on teenage life ever made.

“Spiderman 2” (2004)
—Directed by Sam Raimi
The veteran horror director and gorehound makes this sequel really live. Michael Chabon’s addition to the script brings out the generous humor and humanity of the title character. Also — Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus? Hell, yeah!

“American Splendor” (2003)
—Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Adapted from the great indie-comic biography of Harvey Pekar, this film won wide acclaim and remains one of the best collaborations between books and films.

“Hellboy” (2004)
—Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
A robust imagining of Mike Mignola’s incredible and beautiful work. While missing the sheer graphic pacing of Mignola’s line art, the film obviously respects and believes in the original book in every frame.

“Frank Miller’s Sin City” (2005)
—Directed Robert Rodriguez (with Frank Miller)
Maybe the most literal translation of any comic to film, this largely black and white movie confidently creates its own reality of death, sex, glamor and amorality. Many loved it, many questioned it. For sheer audacity, it recalls the most debased and strange EC Comics of the mid-20th century. What is that dog eating anyway?

And a couple most people don’t know were based on comics:
“The Road to Perdition” (2002)
—Directed by Sam Mendes
A melancholy story of youth, violence and fatherhood from the director of “American Beauty” and “Jarhead.” Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

“A History of Violence” (2005)
—Directed by David Cronenberg

The master director brings us the quiet and dread of normal life as it falls apart. Based on the comic by John Wagner and Vince Locke, this Oscar-nominated film won wide praise and started angry debate last year. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine picked it as his No. 1 favorite of 2005, while others called it harsh and meaningless. Either way, a bold and personal work.