Best Comic and Graphic-Novel-Related Films Update by Vittorio Carli
It has been three whole years since my Best Comic and Graphic-Novel-Related Films article was published on the Moraine web site. You can see it here: https://searchtips.lib.morainevalley.edu/best-comic-and-graphic-novel-related-films-by-vittorio-carli-comicswculture/.
I have decided to do an update or appendix to the list dealing with all of the films made in this period after my list) to coincide with Moraine Valley’s annual graphic novel event on September 27 & 28.
The entries range from the outstanding (Wonder Woman) to the abysmal (Batman: The Killing Joke). With a few exceptions DC, based TV shows (including Supergirl and Green Arrow) have better scripts and stronger characterization than their cinematic counterparts do. Marvel continues to make both good films and shows. Indy based films have been more hit and miss.
Therefore, here are all of the recent comic and graphic novel related films rated and ranked in order or quality from best to worst.
Wonder Woman **** (2017) – Gal Gadot (a former Israeli model and military trainer) is perfectly cast as a transplanted Amazon who joins the US forces in the war effort against the Nazis in World War II. The film retells Diana’s origin story and depicts her WW II adventures, which were alluded to in the inferior Batman vs Superman. A triumph from start to finish with rip-roaring action and insightful gender centered social commentary. I am eagerly waiting for Gadot to finish the sequel. Perhaps the best DC film ever and this came as a major surprise after the abysmal prequel. Some theatres had all female screenings of the film and it has spurred many discussions on feminism. This was the top grossing film ever directed by a woman. A triumph from start to finish.
Captain America Civil War (2016) ***1/2-This Marvel film fractures the Avengers into two teams that have to fight each other. One side (led by a rather fascistic Ironman) supports a law that would force superheroes to register with the government while the other team (led by a noble Captain America) is opposed to the law.) Black Panther and a young Spiderman are introduced well into the Avengers universe, and the film is chock full of exciting battles (I especially liked Vision vs Scarlet Witch and ironman vs antman.) I also loved the developing Vision/Scarlet Witch romance although comic fans probably suspect that this might not end well. The film (and the comic series) also brings up controversial issues such as the ethics and legality of the Patriot Act. They left out Thor and the Hulk presumably because each of the two characters could individually demolish the whole cast, but they will be featured in the upcoming Thor: Apocalypse film. The actors who played Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch later teamed up again in the superior arctic noir flick Wind River and Jeremy Reiner plays another sharpshooter.
Logan (2017) ***1/2-This remarkably effective film is a transposed spaghetti western with Hugh Jackman in the under emoting Clint Eastwood role. The film depicts an older version of everybody’s favorite feral mutant. The film’s plot is initially reminiscent of High Noon. Logan/Wolverine is reluctantly forced out of retirement after a tragedy that results from his violent nature. He ends up trying to defend his genetically produced off spring from sinister government forces in a dystopian future reality. Although the comic series Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve Mc Niven (my favorite Wolverine story ever) was even better this film manages the capture the paranoid flavor of the comic. The ending with ethnically diverse mutants trying to get across the border while trying to evade the government is a not too subtle critique of US immigration policies. This is a fitting and worthy last hurrah to Jackman’s beloved Woverine character and one of the best scenes depicts the final encounter between him and the Patrick Stewart version of Professor Xavier.
Deadpool ***1/2-This works well as a riotous comedy with a morally ambivalent mutant anti-hero assassin who reluctantly is pushed into a hero role by two of the Xmen. Colossus had never been handled better onscreen (he actually seems Russian here) and his Goth protégé, Negasonic Teenage Warhead is a delight (in the Xmen comics she had different powers and was killed off right away). All of the self-referential breaking/ the fourth wall stuff works and Ryan Remolds was so charismatic in the lead role that he made me forget Green Lantern. My only quibble is the porn loving, murderous Deadpool is a poor role model for kids and after the film was over a seven-year-old kid stood up in the theatre and yelled, “I love you deadpool.” This R rated film is great fun for adults but children should not see it. This was the highest grossing R rated film ever.
Lego Batman *** 1/2 (2017)-Surprisingly witty and well-written 3-D animated deals with the Batman book’s casual sexism by making Barbara Gordon the new police chief (but the Robin here is much less competent than usual and he is used for comic relief). It even features a delightful animated walk on by the highly obscure (gasp) batman villain, condiment king and even a Dalek. Will Arnett from SNL does a fantastic job voicing the cape crusader’s words and the film inspired one talk show a commentator to ask him “Did you start out doing Lego Shakespeare?” The in jokes reward comic fans and the film should also please the kids yet it has some smart under the radar banter for adults. Everyone wins with this film.
Dr. Strange (2016) ***1/2-This breaks the marvel mold because it’s hero has powers that are magic rather than science based and the graphics are much trippier and psychedelic than usual. The final showdown with Dormammu, a devil level dark god is ingenuous. The film is slightly too derivative of the Matrix but it succeeded in transporting me to different worlds and dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch is charismatic and believable in the lead role but the love story is a bit clichéd. In addition, there is a Dr. Voodoo cameo. The gender shift of the ancient one did not bother me but the elimination of Tibet from Strange’s origin story was rather gutless.
Spiderman Homecoming ***-(2017)-This succeeds in rejuvenating the sputtering series by taking the title character back to his inexperienced high school days. The film has a decent villain (Michael Keaton’s vulture appears to have found the garden of youth.) This is more than competent but it does not break a lot of new ground. My other quibble is Spiderman has always worked best as a loner (not an avenger) and this film reduces him to being Tony Stark’s understudy.
Sleight *** (2016)-Urban youth/street magician creates a device artificially that give him magnetic powers. He uses his powers against a drug lord and tries to get out of a life of crime. This is a great setup for a superhero series but it resolves just as it starts getting good. I hope that there will be a sequel. Although the basic plot resembles Luke Cage crossed with Ironman the story’s treatment is fresh and original.
Valerian and the Lost Planets *** (2017)-This movie led me the question is it better for a film to be creative and ultimately fail in its actions or successful in a completely predictable way? This time I went for creativity, which is why this is ranked higher than Atomic Blonde. Where else can you see Rhianna play a shape shifting alien escort who would rather recite symbolist poetry or Shakespeare (she is much better than the wooden female lead.) The film also has a delightful cameo (unbelievably) by the fusion great, Herbie Hancock. I have a feeling this film will age well and it might go down in history as a great piece of cinematic camp in the tradition of Barbarella and Flash Gordon. The film is based on the French science fiction comic’s series Valérian and Laureline, written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. Visionary, idiosyncratic and uneven with some great moments.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 *** (2017)– This manages to be fun most of the time and we even get to see a cute baby Groot as well as a deepening of the relationship between Starlord and Gamora. I also liked the way they used David Hasselhoff. In addition, the character play between Gamora and her quasi sister is fascinating. Still this lacks the freshness of the original and Starlord’s and the final confrontation with Ego the living planet is anticlimactic. In addition, it ruins one of my five cult comic characters, Mantis by turning her into a weak Asian stereotype, and the quasi-romantic scenes between her and Drax are just plain stupid.
Justice League Dark *** (2017)-This lively animated film features a gathering of magical heroes ( Constantine, Zatanna Zatara, Deadman, Black Orchid, and Swamp Thing) who team up against an occult menace that is causing mass psychosis. It is great that Matt Ryan, the man who played Constantine (in the ill-fated TV series) gets to lip-synch his character’s words here. The plot is decent (although Batman really is not integral to the story) and I liked the love/hate interaction between Zatanna and Constantine. Nicholas Turturro (who had a fine role on the late lamented NYPD show) does the voice for the slangy dialogue of Deadman (the character will soon get his own comic series produced by the great Neil Adams). If they kept this adult, it would make a nifty TV addition to the UW TV lineup. This is one of the few R rated DC animated films.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (2017) ***-Powerful story of a member betraying the team of young superheroes. The film uses Robin and Blue Beetle instead of Donna Troy and Cyborg. Slightly sanitized animated adaptation of the classic Wolman/Perez comic series still has some adult themes and a quasi-mature storyline (Nightwing and Starfire are shacking up) even though it was done in a kid’s cartoon animated style. It usually stays true to the spirit of the classic comic series that was written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
Vixen (2017) ***-Vixen (created by Gerry Conway in the comics) is a high-class fashion model who gains animal powers through a mystic totem. Her sister believes she is the true heir to the totem and attacks Vixen. The JLA tries to recruit her and she ends up fighting both Green Lantern and Flash in a very unequal battle. Originally, in the comics, Vixen was supposed to be the first African American female superhero to get her own series, but the book was cancelled before it ever came out in the great DC Implosion. This content of this DVD takes place in the TV arrow verse and it originally came out in web series installments.
Ghost in the Shell *** (2017) – An artificial being struggles against her limitations and her role to serve the human government. Scarlet Johannsson is ok in the lead but they really should have used an Asian actor. Casting Scarlet in such a quintessentially Asian role would be like using a German James Bond. This is exciting but the earlier animated series was superior. The better than average action scenes elevate the film but the way the script treats the human rights of machines theme has been done better in a million films including Blade Runner and the recent Ex Machina (2015).
Atomic Blonde (2017)**1/2-Charlise Theron is a more then credible action heroine, and this film has some of the best stunts and action scenes of the year as well as a terrific 80s new wave dominated soundtrack. Too bad they did not bother to write an actual story. I hope that there will be a better-written sequel because all the elements are here for a good series. Based on Anthony Johnson’s The Coldest City (the film title is catchier.)
Xmen: Apocalypse (2016) ** – Apocalypse an immortal mutant recruits several mutants (both good and bad) to serve as his avatars. Some of the costumes and fight scenes are decent but the flat villain is a complete bore with no apparent motivation beyond creating havoc and world conquest. Some of the battle scenes are ok. Olivia Munn (she was great in The Newsroom show) is magnificent looking and intriguing as Psyclop but her character is completely wasted (although her too brief fight with The Beast is a highlight). The most compelling scenes involve Magneto’s tragic family life and Michael Fassbender continues to show he is an A plus acting talent. Overall, this is one of the lesser entries in a spotty Xmen series. In addition, Jennifer Lawrence has weakly written Mystique gives more lofty insincere sounding motivational speeches. I know she is a big star but she add nothing to the series except box office strength and the character works best as a straight villain. The direct sequel, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is scheduled to be released on November 2, 2018. I hope that it will be better than Xmen: Last Stand, which was based on the same source material.
Suicide Squad (2016) *1/2-This starts out rather well (the first half hour is riveting) but the murky script completely runs off the rails very early. The cast is actually good. Margot Robie steals the show in almost every scene. She is a playfully insane and ravishing Harley Quinn and Will Smith is a more than decent as the tragic morally conflicted reluctant villain Deadshot, but they really should have worked on the script more. Viola Davis who plays Amanda Waller is also impressive, but she is too good for this story. This might have worked better as an R rated cable TV series. Jaret Leto is a wonderful actor, but his Joker portrayal here does not work at all although it did apparently please the Hot Topic crowd. Heath Ledger has nothing to worry about. The biggest mistake is that this film’s tone is not dark enough (most of the time the villains do not do anything a superhero would not do) whereas Batman vs Superman was too dark.
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) *-This crams together plot elements of two of the most significant comic DC series of all time (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman) and expels them into a dumb, turgid, loud cinematic mishmash. The horrible script seems like it was written by a faceless committee for the lowest common denominator, and the oppressively dark tone is all wrong for a Superman film. The expensive bombastic fight scenes seem to go on forever, and I hoped that most of the two unlikeable lead characters would die most of the time. Words cannot describe how terrible, misguided and hammy Ben Affleck’s lead performance is. The only redeeming feature was a glorious but too brief appearance by Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. This is a very weak and hopelessly moronic prelude to the Justice League film. Also despite the use of kryptonite, the battle between the almost omnipotent Superman and the underpowered Batman is about as fair as Bambi vs Godzilla.
Batman the Killing Joke (2016) Zero- This takes one of the greatest classic Batman stories (Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke) and transforms it into a piece of cinematic sewage. The original comic story was dark and the plot even incudes a controversial rape scene involving Batgirl. However, the story here was not improved by having Batman commit psychological incest with his surrogate stepdaughter, Barbara Gordon. This gives the film a huge ick factor. What were the writer’s thinking? No film with Mark Hammill voicing the Joker role is worthless but this comes awful close. This is the 26th animated adaptation of an Alan Moore story, and this film made me understand why Moore hates movies. See http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/alan-moore-on-w/.
Subjects for Future Research: I have not seen the Batman and Harley Quinn and JLA vs. Teen Titans animated films plus Wilson which was based on a Daniel Clowes book.