My Favorite Things – ‘Top 5 Comic Book Flicks’

vendetta.jpg

You have only your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to thank for this.
Bolstered by the webcrawler’s wild success a few summer’s ago, spun to the tune of $500 million earned in international sawbucks, Hollywood has gone comic book crazy.

There’s a reason, beyond good economics, that comic books provide great narratives for film franchise. Once one gets past the silly costumes and goofy nicknames, they find stories that hearken back to good old fashioned myth-making – with tortured heroes and misunderstood villains vying for their proper place in a world that fears them.

Back in April, I posted a comment on Sean’s V for Vendetta review, where I listed my Top 5 Comic Book movies. That lists stands with one noticeable omission that I have rectified here. Remember – feel free to post your own faves or join in a discussion in the Comments below.

5.   Unbreakable

unbreakable.jpg

In booting Blade from the list (to #6) and placing this flick in the five hole, I have effectively spoiled it for all those who have not had a chance to view this masterpiece.

Unbreakable was M. Night Shyamalan’s sophomore follow-up to The Sixth Sense and is arguably a much stronger film. Granted The Sixth Sense boasts that whopper of a twist ending – placing Unbreakable in the unenviable position of having audiences work overtime to guess the twist at the end – rather than focus on Shyamalan’s unique treatise on the symbiotic relationship of good and evil. Shyamalan shows his cards from the first title screen – with some quick stats on the number of comic books read and sold around the world annually. He then paints the ultimate origin tale – introducing Bruce Willis’ sad sack security guard as the sole survivor of a catastrophic train crash. Watching this ordinary man who’s never been sick a day in his life – who possesses greater strengths than he ever realized – gradually realize that he may have been placed on this Earth with a greater purpose is exhilarating. This is the real world superhero tale.

Of course, every good hero needs a good villain and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass is that perfect foil – a character whose strange place in this world drives a desire to create something at the opposite end of the spectrum to justify his sad existence.

In order to make my lists of favorites, most films have to possess a sequence (or series of scenes) that coax my goose bumps – that raise the hairs – that toss a lump in my throat – that stir a reaction. Unbreakable has one long, winding sequence – beginning in the train station where Willis goes to hone his precognitive abilities and ending with his heroic intervention of a tragic home invasion. The sequence depicts all of his powers in bloom, reveals his weakness, allows good to triumph over evil and paints this everyday Joe as something iconic. Hoodie rain coats have never looked so awe-inspiring. If you’ve never seen this film, seek it out. It’s the best comic book film ever made of a non-existent comic book.

4.   X2 – XMen United

x-men-2-8.jpg

Like Terminator 2, this sequel is that rare second helping that is not only better than its predecessor but serves to augment and strengthen the first film. While X-Men appeased the core fan base by depicting its ragtag band of superpowered mutants with great reverence to their back stories (fleshed out in over 30 years of comic history) the film faltered in a rushed third act. Running a lean 106 minutes (two-thirds of that devoted to introduction and exposition) the film needed more room to breath. It doesn’t take the world’s greatest telepath to deduce that the Hollywood suits ordered Charles Xavier’s Children of the Atom to a rushed battle royale atop a cheap Statue of Liberty set piece.

In the sequel, Singer benefits from a larger budget, a tighter script and so many of those messy introductions out of the way. We know who these mutants are so the canvas is clear to begin sketching the magnum opus. With a plot structure that echoes Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan (right down to the noble sacrifice and closing narration), X2 storms the screen, bigger and brawnier than its predecessor.

Singer is wise to play several scenes with a wink and a nudge. The heavy-handed metaphors of the first film are goosed slightly – most notably in a scene where Bobby Drake (a.k.a. Iceman) ‘comes out’ to his parents. After settling down for a sincere heart to heart with Mom & Dad, where he unveils the secret identity he’s been loathe to discuss, his Mom asks quizzically “Haven’t you ever tried… not being a mutant?” While the scene provides some nice levity, it also performs double duty by fleshing out the universe, and the problems, these characters inhabit.

Singer spins a nice twist to many of his explosive action sequences. He stages an ingenious prison break for Magneto from his plastic holding cell (“too much iron in your diet”) as well as an inventive and humorous sequence in which Mystique infiltrates and dismantles a top-secret military installation. Singer also plays some of his action scenes straight, with a chilling attack on the X-Men’s mansion (where several fringe mutants make cameo appearances to the utter squealing delight of Geek Nation) as well as a climactic brutal battle between Wolverine and the similarly long-taloned Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). As escapist entertainment goes, X2 is a marvel.

3.   Spiderman 2

spidey.jpg

Spiderman 2 is to X2 as Spiderman is to X-Men in that the first installments bought their auteurs the clout they needed to really bust these things wide open and apply their signature. Where Bryan Singer launched two stellar X-Men flicks – Sam Raimi finally did the impossible and brought Spiderman to vibrant, vivid life.

I’m a fan of the first Spiderman film – but only the first half. I thought the origin tale (usually the most creaky piece of cinema) was charming and I had a great time grooving to Peter Parker’s metamorphosis into that wacky wall crawler. Then, when the masks came on (with the Green Goblin raiding a fire sale down at the Power Rangers costume department) the film lost some momentum.

Spiderman 2 equals the original in style – amplifies the drama – and ends up crafting a perfect superhero flick. It’s heart is so wide and appeal so vast that this is the type of flick that transcends its genre (as the Godfather appeals to more than crime buffs and Star Wars attracts more than the geek patrol – Spiderman snares all demographics in its web). Director Sam Raimi – the infamous sadist who has placed pal Bruce Campbell through the ringer in his formative Evil Dead flicks – is up to his old tricks, piling soul crushing emotional torture upon our beloved hero, Peter Parker. The guy lives in a run down apartment, has lost Mary Jane to some WB astronaut, is perpetually late for everything, failing his college courses and has a best bud in Harry Osborn who wants to leverage Parker to take a whack at the bug that bit his old man, Norman. At times, the film plays like The Last Temptation of Peter Parker – which is interesting as James Cameron (when attached to the project in the early 90’s) described his script treatment using a similar pitch.

As with the other flicks on this list, Spiderman 2 has a number of sequences that gave me the chills. Most notably, the sequence following Spiderman’s rescue of an out-of-control train. As passengers gingerly pass Parker’s lifeless (and unmasked) body to safety, we catch little murmurs: “My God, he’s just a kid” – “No older than my boy.” As Doc Ock bursts in, his steely pincers ready to make mincemeat of the weakened Parker, the passengers gather en masse around their wounded savior – paying forward his heroic act. It’s a nice little scene situated in a film loaded with them.

Of course, Tobey McGuire is pitch-perfect casting. Maguire plays the role naturalistically – allowing the viewer to get closer than they’ve ever been to living the hero’s fantastic life.

2. V for Vendetta

vendetta portman.jpg

V for Vendetta is hands down the best film I’ve seen all year and one of my top ten favorite films of all time. That’s no small feat but this film stirred something within me. Directed by newbie James McTeigue (with I believe a lot of assistance from producers The Wachowski Brothers), Vendetta is an adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel. The film depicts a revolutionary’s plot to take down a futuristic totalitarian British dictatorship.

At the time of printing, Moore was raging against Margaret Thatcher’s regime. But the film’s targets are timeless – ‘cut and paste’ its message and apply it to any steamroller governmental approach – from Nazi Germany to the ‘thought police’ who seek to cover up Miss Jackson’s nip slip. This is one of those films that I beg, plead, kick and scream for people to see. It was marketed as a Matrix clone and that’s the wrong approach – as what transpires is slight on physical action but is bursting with kinetic mental activity. This film was a dream project for The Wachowski’s and their fingerprints are on every frame. Freed from the metaphysical mumbo jumbo of their Matrixverse, the brothers take a timeless tale and bring great poetry and poignancy to the tragic tale of V and his mission to stir life in a dead society. There are two sequences in this film that possess great power.

Without going into heavy spoilers, there is a sequence at the midpoint of the film (the Valerie letter) that is absolutely beautiful in its portrayal of betrayal and heartbreak. This scene lands dead center in the middle of the film, represents the story’s pivot point and ultimately exists as the great throbbing heart and soul of the piece. It is as picture perfect a sequence as one could film and it’s that moment that seared this film upon my psyche.

The second sequence comes at the conclusion – and I have to be real careful here – with a display of ‘passive resistance’ that is thunderous.

V may have been short on traditional ‘action’ but it was no less riveting. As mentioned, this film has joined that pantheon of flicks that I plead with people to check out. It settles in alongside Miller’s Crossing, Dark City, True Romance, A Simple Plan, the Evil Dead series and The Big Lebowski as one of those fringe films that is just so perfect in execution.

And if you don’t think it’s your cup of tea, you’re wrong. This is an excellent film that will stand the test of time.

1. Batman Begins

batman_08.jpg

I used to think Tim Burton’s two Batman flicks were the end all, be all of superhero flicks. I though Burton’s trademark Grand Guignol gallows humor and macabre fairy tale aesthetic provided the perfect milieu for Gotham city. Then Schumacher came along, camped it all up and killed Batman proper. I thought the Batman flicks (and comic flicks in general) would never be as good as those Burton tales. Sure they were all style over substance – but dammit if they didn’t look good.

Well Batman deserves more than great art design. Burton may have had the look down pat – although let’s be honest – was this Batman’s Gotham or Beetlejuice’s burg? What Burton missed – what Schumacher glossed over in favor of extra pointy nips on the bat suit – was that epic feeling. These are modern myths and they deserve a proper sense of awe.

Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) absolutely knocks Batman Begins out of the park. I mean how great is a Batman movie when you can get halfway through it, Batman hasn’t even shown up yet and you don’t care because your enjoying the Bruce Wayne story so much?

The casting in this film is perfection. Christian Bale plays both Bruce Wayne and Batman with great gravity and pathos – while a whole stable of great character actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer and Tom Wilkinson color in the corners. And Gary Oldman absolutely disappears in the role of Sergeant Gordon – Batman’s lone ally – a poignant portrayal of decency in a town gone to squalor.

The film ends on a fantastic note – a great scene that nicely juices my anticipation for future installments. In the last sequence – when Gordon meets with Batman on a rooftop and discusses his fears of ‘escalation’ – we get this set-up.

“We get semi-automatics weapons, they get automatics. We get Kevlar body armor, they get armor-piercing bullets. And you’re wearing a mask. Take this guy… armed robbery, double homicide… has a taste for theatrics, like you… he leaves a calling card.”

(Reveal) A Joker playing card.

Batman Begins is not just a great, thrilling comic book film but a perfect marriage of sound and shadow – a true noir thriller that just envelopes you. It’s got great real-world villains – retells an oft-told origin story through an exciting new voice – and just gooses your adrenaline (check out the Batmobile chase sequence – which like the best of all chase scenes eschews CGI for some honest-to-goodness stunt work). Batman Begins something amazing!

Comments now closed (12)

  • Now, are we not counting Dark City because, technically, it’s not based upon a real comic book?

    Here’s my top five:

    5. Blade
    4. X2
    3. V for Vendetta
    2. Batman Begins
    1. Hellboy

    I think Hellboy was overlooked by a lot of mainstream comic fans, but technically it is a comic book film, and it features some wonderful directing by Guillermo Del Toro and what I consider the best performance in a comic book film in Ron Perlman as Hellboy.

    BTW, be sure to keep an eye out for Del Toro’s newest film, Pan’s Labyrinth. It looks beautiful. And if you’ve never seen it, check out his movie The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a wonderful, haunting film.

    Del Toro also did Blade II, though he seems to have considered it an enjoyable popcorn project.

  • I love Dark City (as referenced in my ‘V’ commentary) but did not include it as it’s not a true comic book movie – although it certainly looks and feels like one. Unbreakable makes the list because – while it is not based on an actual comic – it’s entire structure is classic origin tale. Dark City is atop another Top 5 list – however. Coming soon.

    I still need to check out Hellboy. It’s been on my must watch list for years. Thanks for the reminder.

    I love Del Toro as a director – he has a great eye and makes interesting projects. I caught The Devil’s Backbone on IFC a few months back and found it haunting and strangely, beautiful. Pan’s Labyrinth appears to be the bridge between Backbone and Hellboy and is high on my radar screen. I even enjoyed Mimic.

    Del Toro has been circling At the Mountains of Madness for years and may eventually helm it.

    He was also rumored as the Halo director – although no confirmation on that. The fact that Universal recently bumped its release from Summer 2007 to Summer 2008 makes me think that perhaps their moving it to accomodate his schedule (as he said he’d love to direct the flick but wanted to work on Hellboy 2 first.) We already know they have teh script locked and pre-production has been cranking at Weta – so the right director is the only reason I can see them moving. I’m glad their not rushing it.

  • Yeah, I’m really hoping for Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness. Heck, I’d be willing to wait for Hellboy 2 in order to get ATMOM first.

    You definitely should check out Hellboy. I’d be curious to see what you thought. Be sure to check out the director’s cut–it’s longer, but it adds a few key scenes, and it’s one of the rare director’s cuts that I find superior to the theatrical one.

  • All right, here’s my five.

    5. Godzilla (Emmerich Version)
    4. ID4 (Kubrick Version)
    3. All 9 Seasons of the X-Files at $89 a pop – when years later they would be discounted to $19.99 a set
    2. 10 Different Versions of Army of Darkness
    1. Disturbing Behavior

    Oops, my bad. I thought this was the area for Top 5 Regretful DVD Purchases.

  • @Ed – I didn’t even think of Unbreakable for my list, but I haven’t seen it since it came out. I should definitely pick it up as that’s a good one to own. Way to think out of the box!

    I am going to stick by my list that I posted in my Superman Returns post for now, but you make a good argument about the Spidey sequel being better than the first. I think I’ll watch them both and see if it changes my mind.

    @Joe – LOL on #3. I’m thinking you can now, or some day soon, add the Buffy boxes to that as well. That will learn you for buying TV on DVD!

  • That would be a “Joe” impersonator – I imagine you can chalk it up to Mook or Ed.

  • @Real Joe – Do you really think Mook knows your DVD collection? Do you really think Mook reads these blogs? I’ll put my peso on Ed.

  • batman begins showed there was a different way to do these movies and I hope more will follow that lead as going a new direction is truly what makes us lose ourselves in these movies….you nailed it with this one