Forgotten Comic Book Movies Part 1: Gangsters, Antiheroes & Vampires
With all of the Marvel and DC films in recent years, it’s hard to remember a time where adaptations of comics were rarer and not the norm. A time where they didn’t push the fact of their source material, rather they wanted to make the best film possible and not just rehash the same story again and again with different heroes. Believe it or not, that time did exist with some truly great films being released and some lesser albeit fun adaptions. I’m going to talk about a handful which I consider gems (and a few that arnt but I have a soft spot for).
As with any kind of fiction, comics come in all genres. The late 90’s saw an influx of cleverly written and deep gangster/crime stories with a couple of true standouts. Some of the best were made into feature films which I guess isn’t too surprising considering everything comes from a source and with comics/graphic novels the basic storyboards are already in place.
The 2 films below are 2 great examples of films which handled the source material perfectly and in some ways improved on it;
Road To Perdition (2002)
This for me is the greatest comic book adaptation ever made and one of finest pieces of cinema around. Based on the comic of the same name by Max Allan Collins it follows a mobster on the run with his son from some very bad people. What could have been a simple revenge story becomes something truly special under the masterful hands of Sam Mendes. The cast are outstanding with Tom Hanks and the great late Paul Newman stealing the show. The supporting cast also excels with some career-high performances from Daniel Craig and Jude Law.
The film is beautiful to look at and won an academy award for best cinematography thanks to the amazing Conrad Hall who sadly died in 2003 (with this being his final film). Each scene is like a painting with every inch pitch perfect. One of the late scenes in a downpour is a masterclass in lighting and filming. The whole film feels rich with age with each set feeling like they’ve been pulled straight out of the 1930’s.
The film is slow and poignant with some deep themes of family and loyalty but it constantly moves forward at a nice pace. When the action scenes occur they are expertly filmed and choreographed.
For me Road to Perdition is up there with the very best cinema has to offer and is a true classic gangster film up there with the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas. This is how to masterfully execute an adaptation and I can’t fault it.
A History of Violence (2005)
If Road to Perdition is a slow poignant story about father and son, A History of Violence is like a breakneck mystery thriller which hits hard and fast. Both may be gangster films but they couldn’t be further apart.
Based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. It follows a man who one day stops a robbery, which ultimately sets off a string of events eventually revealing who he really is.
Director David Cronenberg dials it back from his usual weirdness to create a grounded a pretty straightforward picture. It’s expertly paced and flows beautifully. The acting is stellar with Virgo Mortenson stealing the show as the main protagonist Tom.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, as when the violence hits, it doesn’t hold back. It’s brutal and realistic but always stays on the right side of not going over the top.
It’s a great little film and one that got a lot of praise on release but has since drifted into the shadows.
Everyone loves a good antihero and it’s not like it’s rare to get them in film and books, but some over the years have, although gaining a cult following, faded into the darkness. It’s not that they were bad films, I feel it’s more to do with the market at the time of release and the more adult market they were aimed at.
There was a trend in the mid-90’s and early 00’s to make dark comic-book movies and aim for the group market as opposed to the child-friendly offerings we get nowadays.
I have a large soft spot for the 2 below, both of which gained cult followings, with one being more successful than the other with numerous sequels.
Spawn is a massive indie comic series following an antihero who went to hell only to return to earth as a soldier for the devil. There’s been a lot of recent buzz that they may be trying again with a new film but as of this moment, I can only remember 2 attempts at bringing the character to screen. Although the comic was a massive success, both current adaptations have faded into vague obscurity. There was an animated television series which got cancelled before it finished (it is amazing though) and this, the 1997 blockbuster.
Many just pass over the movie, but I really quite enjoy it. Its got a grand scale and some stunning cinematography which somewhere between The Crow and the Tim Burton Batman films. The action scenes are great (well the ones outside of hell are) with some truly memorable set pieces such as an early pivotal warehouse explosion.
The acting is great with some big-name actors like Michael Jai White and Martin Sheen. The true scene stealer though has to be John Leguizamo who gives a truly creepy performance as the clown.
Not everything is perfect though. On release, there was so much press for the film and how it’s digital effects were state of the art, with mind-blowing visuals and some jaw-dropping creatures. Skip 22 years into the future and those effects have not aged well. At times it looks like you are watching a poorly rendered cutscene from a videogame, especially during the final act.
But if you can get past some ropey CGI you are in for a treat of late 90’s superhero action.
The Crow (1994)
Lots of people like The Crow. It has a massive cult following and was a hit on release, yet you rarely see it mentioned on lists of great comic adaptations. It’s an odd one as it perfectly captures the feel and theme of the comic while adding its own layer of deepness to create what I think is in the upper echelon of revenge films. It spawned 3 sequels and a tv series with a remake also being on the cards for many years. None of the sequels captured the magic the first one had, although I do feel the second film is a great, albeit unnecessary followup (I may be one of the few as most people seem to hate it).
The first follows Eric Draven who is brought back from the dead to get revenge on those who wronged him. It pulls few punches and is almost as dark as they come. There’s very little humour and what there is comes from the characters desperation rather than just being for the sake of it. The whole semi-dystopian future feels like it could easily be around the corner and a lot of the themes are just as relevant today.
The acting is amazing especially by Brandon Lee who sadly died during the making of the film. He has so much charisma and emotion it’s hard not to get caught up in the character. The direction is equally as strong with meticulous pacing and some stunning set pieces.
The dark gritty vibe lends itself perfectly to the screen and oozes menace and society falling. The city itself has the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman with the Gothicness.
All in all, it is a phenomenal film no matter which way you look at it. It’s different and iconic and has so much more heart than most of what’s released in the genre today.
Vampire films are a dime a dozen nowadays after to immense success of things like the Twilight franchise. The real rejuvenation of vampires on screen was Joss Whedon’s masterpiece Buffy The Vampire Slayer in 1997 which reinforced that the iconic monster would still work for audiences.
Vampire comics and I guess horror comics, in general, were kind of in a bit of a slump with readers seemingly wanting heroes instead of creepy tales. They did keep trying though with things such as Tales Trom the Crypt being released alongside the TV show and characters such as Ghost Rider, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing rising in interest. But they still didn’t seem that prominent and seemed rather marginalised. With the sudden interest in Vampires and horror on the screen, it seemed obvious to tap into some of the until then lesser used characters and comics.
Many people seem to forget there were films based on Marvel characters before the will Marvel Cinematic Universe happened, which is sad as many of them are far superior to anything that Marvel Studios has ever made. Whereas the new films, in my opinion, are generic retellings of the same story featuring different heroes, many of the older films were a breath of fresh air and really stood out. Blade is one of those films.
Following the exploits of half human, half vampire Blade, the film gives us a freshly updated take on the character who’s main home before this was fighting Dracula in the Tomb of Dracula Comics. The character oozes cool and for me, it’s Wesley Snipes defining role. He is just so utterly badass.
The film from the get-go lets us know it’s not for kids with some dark bloody violence and some brutal action. The film progresses at a frantic pace but works so remarkably. The origin side of things is relegated to a small prologue which acts as a clever and wise move. Where lots of films focus too much on how a character gets to become the person we see in the comics, here we jump straight in.
The cinematography is beautiful and gives us this neo-gothic mashup which is perfect for the characters and story. The special effects, for the most part, are still great with a couple of minorly dated exceptions during the final fight.
Blade is one of the reasons (along with Spider-Man and X-Men) that the much loved Marvel Studios even exists today. It was made at a time when it was hard to sell comic book films and was almost a last-ditch attempt to prove something good could be made from a Marvel franchise. Blade is the forefather of the MCU. It takes risks, is edgy and isn’t afraid to absorb the darkness of the source character.
Blade along with its first sequel is a fantastic film and stands high above the majority of movies based on Marvel characters.
30 Days of Night (2007)
Imagine assault on precinct 13 if it was set in Alaska, was spread out from one night to 30 and featured vampires. That’s what you get with 30 Days of Night. Based on the comic series by Steve Niles the film is a dark descent into hell and a great one to boot.
The plot consists of a small Alaskan town which is under attack by a group.of vampires. Only a small few led by the great Josh Harnett stand in their way.
It’s a very dark, very impressive film which highlights the darkness inside people and the strength some have to keep going even in the face of defeat. The direction is spot on with stunning pacing and a great script. It’s also beautiful to look at as it perfectly captures the feel of the comics. It has a bold use of colour when necessary, which against the darkness of the sky and the white of the snow works so incredibly well.
The film also has a phenomenal ending which is near perfection. It’s a great and sadly now overlooked film which really deserves a lot more notice then it has.
Those are just a small selection of comic book films which I feel are sadly overlooked. There are many more out there and I plan on doing a follow-up article focusing on more on superhero and sci-fi movies.
Thanks for reading and let us know what are your undervalued and underappreciated favourites are.
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