My Top 20 Non-Superhero Comic Book Movies
Inspired by DJ Dangler ranking all 41 Marvel superhero movies after he and I saw Avengers 2, I decided to rank my top 20 non-superhero comic book movies. It’s not nearly as ambitious as DJ’s list, which can be found here, but I hope you enjoy it just the same.
I’ve noticed a theme in the following movies. I tend to really like stories that feature women kicking a lot of ass. At least 13 of the following 20 films have really strong and notable female leads. Thinking about the stuff I’ve written, I feel better knowing now that I’m not writing those parts out of some weird male guilt. I’m apparently writing those parts because they’re characters that have always appealed to me.
- Losers (2010): Just look at this cast! You’ve got Captain America, Gamora, Heimdall, and the Comedian. This movie, based on a Vertigo comic, out A-Teams the A-Team movie.
- Art School Confidential (2006): This is another one with a great cast. I think if I revisited this, it would probably rank much higher for me. My memory is that at least the A story is about how all the talent in the world doesn’t matter because art is subjective and it’s almost arbitrary who gets to sit at the cool kid’s table. Just looking at the cast list is blowing me away. I will revisit this soon.
- Persepolis (2007): This animated film is a pretty straight forward adaptation of the comic about the Islamic Revolution. I suppose it I was more in touch with world events, I’d probably have this one ranked much higher. I recognize that it’s an important film. It was nominated for every big award.
- V for Vendetta (2006): I begrudgingly like Alan Moore work. He’s such a curmudgeon though, that he makes it hard. Plus, he’s on record not liking film adaptations of his work. I only recently saw V. It’s long. It’s good. I know I’d probably appreciate it more if I read the comic, but Alan Moore comics can be quite laborsome.
- The Crow (1994): I don’t know if this was a thing unique to Detroit, but during my childhood Devil’s Night was the night before Halloween and it was the night that people burned the city to ground. At least that’s what the news reports led me to believe in the safety of my suburban home. Crow creator James O’Barr is from Detroit and maybe the same things scared him that scared me. So he created this Detroit vigilante. Yeah, this movie spawned a handful of sequels that I don’t remember being all that great, but this one is something good. Indie movie superstar Michael Wincott makes a great bad guy!
- Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014): Living in Los Angeles means I get to go to a lot of test screenings. This was one of them. I knew nothing about it going in. There were no credits. I had no idea it was based on a Mark Millar comic. Millar’s comics have been hit or miss when it comes to being adapted to the screen. Wanted bears almost no resemblance to its source material, while KickAss is pretty faithful. I’ve never read The Secret Service comic, but this movie was great! It could very easily be James Bond for this new generation. Taron Edgerton makes his big screen debut and handily carries the movie. Colin Firth is delightful as always, but also kicks a shit ton of ass.
- American Splendor (2003): It seems to be tough to make a non-formulaic biopic. American Splendor manages to do that successfully by breaking the fourth wall and having the real life Harvey Pekar comment on the film about his life during the film about his life. I’m a sucker for meta and for Paul Giamatti. This movie has both. Another thing this movie has is proof that, in addition to being one of our more unique stand up comedians today, Judah Friedlander is a phenomenal actor who can disappear in a role. I saw this well after I was familiar with Friedlander, but had no idea he was even in this film.
- Sin City (2005): Sin City is a really stylized comic that I would have thought would have been nearly impossible to bring to the screen. Robert Rodriguez not only accomplished the impossible, but he did it incredibly faithfully, using the source material as story boards. Sin City is the blackest noir. It has a pretty stellar ensemble cast full of heavy hitters. And while The Wrestler is often cited as Mickey Rourke’s big comeback, it’s really Sin City.
- Ghost World (2001): I don’t know why this movie about two girls facing life after graduating high school speaks to me so much, but it does. I have a reputation among my friends to be into exactly this kind of thing, but honestly, I either don’t remember reading the comic or don’t remember liking the comic. I can get behind character studies in film, but I have a hard time doing the same in print. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson play the aforementioned girls. Steve Buscemi is really understated and great in this.
- 30 Days of Night (2007): I loved the movie. It’s such a great concept. Vampires in Alaska where you get 30 Days of Night. How terrifying is that? I enjoyed the movie so much, that I tried to read the comics, but I just couldn’t get into the art style. It’s very abstract if my memory is correct. Ben Foster plays a small, but pivotal role in this. He may be one of the best actors of our time.
- Stardust (2007): This may be a little bit of a cheat. If my memory is right, Stardust isn’t so much a comic as much as it’s an illustrated novel by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman. This movie is a lot of fun. I don’t think Robert De Niro does comedy very well. He always seems uncomfortable to me when he tries. But here, he really cuts loose and plays a comedic character who is kind of layered. I had to think about it for a second and ponder if his character (a gay pirate) is a gross stereotype, but my gut tells me it isn’t offensive. Coincidentally, I had an audition today where the casting director wanted me to play my character as gay. What does that even mean? He kept asking me to make it more over the top (i.e. swishy I guess). I wouldn’t and couldn’t. I have plenty of gay friends (too many if you ask me!) and not one of them nances around like a clown. It’s also really fun listening to a casting director try to find the least offensive way of asking you to do something pretty offensive.
- Heavy Metal (1981): This is a gem. When I was a kid, one mall theater played Rocky Horror as their midnight movie and the other played Heavy Metal. This animated movie is a collection of short stories, much like the magazine it’s based on. Each section is pretty different than the last. My favorite stories are the sci-fi noir about a cabbie, who I’m sure inspired Luc Besson considerably when creating Bruce Willis’ role in Fifth Element. There’s also the story about the white haired woman who can control dragons, who kind of reminds me a little of Game of Thrones all of a sudden. John Candy voices a nerdy kid who gets mutated into a Vin Deisel-like ass kicking machine. There’s even a horror short about war, which I believe is set to some Black Sabbath music. A lot of the old National Lampoon guys like Harold Ramis do voices in this. It’s really worth seeing.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): I’m not sure how a comic book that I remember disliking so much that it made me angry managed to become a movie that would crack my top ten comic book films. The music is good. The acting is good. The story is fine. Edgar Wright is the real star here. He managed to make a movie that is stylistically genius. Seeing how well he did this makes me sad that he bailed out on Ant Man. I think I’m going to have a hard time watching Ant Man and not thinking about how much better it would be with Edgar Wright at the helm.
- The Watchmen (2009): Okay, I wrote earlier about how Alan Moore can be tedious. With that in mind, The Watchmen is one of two things he’s written that I managed to finish. Both of those things (Top Ten is the other) are things I’ve read repeatedly. I get it. The reward for making it through Alan Moore’s work is worth it. The Watchmen is about as dense as it gets when it comes to comics. It may only be second to The Sandman series. The movie does its best to get everything in there, but it would really have to be about a four or five hour film to do that. I do own the complete edition on Blu-Ray that clocks in at a little more than 3 ½ hours. Honestly, I haven’t watched the version yet. One day I will. The opening credit sequence of this movie has never been topped in my opinion.
- Barbarella (1968): This movie is everything I imagine 1968 to be, but set in a sci-fi world. You get classic lines like “An Angel doesn’t make love. An Angel is love.” Jane Fonda “floats” around during the opening titles stripping off her space suit until she’s just in her birthday suit. There’s some pretty neat stuff here. There’s a sequence with creepy dolls with razor sharp teeth who bite away at Barbarella leotard. I think this movie is responsible for a good majority of my perversions! About a dozen years ago it was rumored that Drew Barrymore was going to star in a remake. I’m kind of bummed that didn’t happen because beneath a heavy dose of 60s hippy cheese, there’s kind of a cool thing here. Unfortunately it almost feels like the film makers ran out of money at the end because the finale really happens quickly and awkwardly. Really, nostalgia is the only reason I’m ranking this so highly.
- Dredd (2012): Sometimes we love the things we love because we were at a good point in our lives when we discovered them. I saw this movie in the Mall of America while doing a run of comedy shows with Jeff Scheen. Jeff was my favorite person to take out on the road because he could make me laugh until I cried both on stage and off. I’ve never laughed harder than I have with that weirdo. So all of that may account for why I love Dredd so much. It’s not a great movie. It’s really basically a video game pretending to be a movie. Here’s the thing though, it’s a fun movie! The story is really simple. Dredd and a rookie have to make it to the top level of a building to have a boss fight. It’s basically Kung Fu on the original Nintendo. Karl Urban made a great Dredd. He got the mouth down perfect…which is all you need to see of Dredd. This isn’t the Stallone helmetless version. Lena Headey makes a great villain as the drug lord Ma-Ma as well.
- Mystery Men (1999): The fact that the director Kinka Usher never directed another motion picture made a lot of conspiracy people think that maybe Tim Burton was really behind this film. I’m pretty sure Usher is a real person. He’s an award winning commercial director…or maybe that’s how Burton makes extra money so he can keep buying silly costumes for Johnny Depp! Mystery Men is based on a really obscure comic called The Flaming Carrot. The Carrot was one of the Mystery Men. Somehow, someone, I’m going to guess someone in Gwar (name drop) turned me on to some really cool comics like The Flaming Carrot and Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman. Mystery Men is another movie with a really great ensemble cast. You’ve got Eddie Izzard and Geoffrey Rush as the villains. And the Mystery Men are Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, William H. Macy(!), and Kel Mitchell. Tom Waits plays a Tom Waits type weirdo scientist who makes non-lethal weapons and has a taste for the much older ladies. He’s also the one responsible for saying that Tim Burton made this movie. I think the reason that rumor had any legs is because this movie looks huge! It’s a fully realized world that certainly has a bit of Burton and even a little Ridley Scott in it.
- Conan the Barbarian (1982): Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be Conan to me. And even though James Earl Jones voiced Darth Vader, whenever I hear his name, I always picture his Conan villain Thulsa Doom first. I think the first time I ever saw sex on screen was in this movie. After freeing himself from slavery, Conan stumbles on a hut in the desert. He has sex with the lady inside who turns out to be some sort of she-beast. If you think that didn’t cause psychological issues later in life for me, you’re wrong! So once you get close to a lady, she’s get weird and try to ruin your day? Got it! Lesson learned! While the comic relief of my all time favorite character actor Tracey Walter fits the spirit of the 1984 sequel perfectly, I kind of wish he was in this film too. This movie is much grittier than the PG or PG-13 sequel. I don’t think Conan works unless he’s rated R. The Basil Poledouris soundtrack is right up there with anything John Williams or Ennio Morricone have ever composed. This film is great from top to bottom. I think maybe my dad told me once that Conan in the comics and novels isn’t as dumb as Arnold plays him here, but in all fairness, the Oliver Stone/John Milius script doesn’t ask him to do much beyond spouting off macho declarations.
- Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006): I often get in conversations with friends about things like: Who are the best actors of our time? We always cover the big name people, but forget chameleons like Shea Whigham who costars here as a basically Eugene Hutz from the band Gogol Bordello. Wristcutters is basically a road trip movie through a bleak purgatory. Purgatory is described in this movie as basically the same as things here only shittier. Patrick Fugit is really great as the star, and honestly it surprises me that with this as a win, along with Almost Famous, why he hasn’t been given the chance to carry more films. Granted, Almost Famous is really an ensemble. Anyway, back to this film, based in part on a comic called Kamikaze Pizzeria. Shannyn Sossamon, another really terrific and underused actor, rounds out the starring roles. The rest of the film is filled with really great character actors playing quirky, but grounded in the strange reality of this world, roles. You’ve got Nick Offerman, Tom Waits, Abraham Benrubi, Mark Boone Junior, John Hawkes and Mary Pat Gleason. This is a really sweet movie, with a great soundtrack, about love and suicide.
- Tank Girl (1995): I love Tank Girl to the point where you should be surprised that I don’t have a Tank Girl tattoo. Why don’t I have a Tank Girl tattoo? That’s a huge oversight on my part. I read the comics way before this movie was even a thing. That’s not entirely true. I probably read the comics a couple years before this movie was a thing. I remember getting excited about the casting news, even before the internet made it super easy to get excited over such silly things. Part of me is still kind of bummed that Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton didn’t get the role. I think there’s something about the way the role is written in the comics that makes the character British. I still can’t imagine movie Tank Girl to be anyone other than Lori Petty. This movie is a good 70% of the reason I have a Lori Petty crush. Prey For Rock ‘n’ Roll, A Leauge of Their Own and Point Break each get an equal 10% of the credit. Petty makes Tank Girl her own. Director Rachel Talalay really managed to shape a really anarchic comic and shape it into a cohesive story and makes the Tank Girl character more likable through making her more three dimensional. In print, she’s all explosions and shagging. She’s all Id. But in the film, she’s on a mission. Talalay lost a bit of the film in editing to the studio, but she includes all the deleted stuff on her website. Tank Girl is unfortunately a DVD without a lot of extras. It’s a real shame that it looks like Talalay only got three chances at filmmaking and has done television ever since, because all three of her films manage to do something pretty ambitious only what I can only imagine were fairly limited budgets and I’m guessing a lot of sexism in Hollywood giving a female director a chance to do two sci-fi movies and a horror film. For a person who started as a production assistant for John Waters, she has a great body of work. I love stories about tough as nails women, and Tank Girl is definitely one of those stories both in front of and behind the camera.