The Best Comic Book Movies Of All Time

Every week, we attempt to answer a new pop culture related question. This week's edition of /Answers asks the following: Which is your favorite comic book movie adaptation? And when we say comic book movies, we don't just mean superhero movies. Every movie based on a comic is up for grabs, including Scott Pilgrim, Persepolis, A History of Violence, American Splendor, Ghost World, Men in Black, Dredd, The Rocketeer, Hellboy, Sin City, V For Vendetta, Road To Perdition, 300, Snowpiercer, and more. Find out our personal favorite comic book movies of all time after the jump.

As always, we have the regular /Film writing and podcast team providing answers, alongside a special guest filmmaker. This week we are joined by James Mangold, director of comic book movies The Wolverine and the upcoming Logan, as well as Walk The Line, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Kate & Leopold, Identity, and Knight and Day.

The Avengers

Jeff Cannata: The Avengers

I'm a Marvel Zombie from way back.  But as elated as I was when Samuel L. Jackson appeared after the end credits of Iron Man and said "I want to speak to you about The Avengers Initiative" – and as my arms raised screams in the emptying theater can attest, I was very elated – I have to admit I never really dared to believe that an Avengers film could happen.  And then a Thor movie came out... and it was good?!  And Captain America worked on film?!  And... WHAT... Joss Whedon, the absolute dream guy for the job was hired to write and direct?  What?  No.  There was still no way that The Avengers could live up to decades of my wishes and imagination.

But it did.  It did.  It did the thing that had never been done on the big screen.  It brought the comic idea that these individual heroes, each proven capable of carrying their own films, together, all in one story, without giving short shrift to any of them. It somehow managed to make a guy who only uses bow and arrow cool while also figuring out how to make The Hulk actually feel like The Hulk for the first time on screen.  And it was funny!  And action-packed!  And it delivered every fanboy's dream moment – all of them.  Hawkeye vs. Black Widow? Check.  Cap vs. Iron Man?  Yep.  Hulk vs. Thor?  Oh, hell yeah.  It nailed all of these characters, in a film about trust and team building, and did it with moment after unforgettable moment.  It embraced "comic book" in a way no film before it ha, and proved that super heroes don't have to be dark and brooding to work on the big screen. Things didn't have to be dumbed down or simplified from their paneled roots.  Not only is The Avengers the best comic book movie, it's the most comic book movie.

Chris Stipp: Batman

One of the reasons I've chosen Tim Burton's 1989's inaugural vision of the Caped Crusader as the definitive comic book movie isn't due to how progressive it was, technologically, emotionally or metaphorically, but more for how it broke through my expectations of what a comic book movie was supposed to be and helped reset my expectations of what a comic book movie could be. Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, and Kim Basinger didn't approach the material with exaggerated performances because it was based on a comic book (one could make the case that Nicholson's Joker succeeded because of this transition from the heavy to supervillain), they were grounded in a world where humanity and insanity could co-exist in the same space.

For a boy of 13 whose only exposure to superhero movies was a Superman who donned tight red briefs, Batman was a revelation. It was dark, it was gray, it was grimy, and Batman was badass. Hand-to-hand combat, fists to the face, henchman Bob getting shot willy nilly, and the dark tickled me on every level and still stands as one of those movies I had to see more than a handful of times in the theater (the first Rami Spider-Man and X2 share that same designation). And for good reason. The score from Danny Elfman is immutable and who would have foreseen that The Purple One's "Batdance" would be a runaway, number one hit? The movie tore through the box office, it was the fifth-highest-grossing film in history up until then, and it's easy to see why: the story was well-told and its explorations into the machinations of this hero, this villain and what made them similar and dissimilar was fascinating. The denouement, where the Joker finally gets his, still stands as a classic ending every time I see it.

Superman: The Movie

James Mangold: Superman: The Movie

I've said comic book movies aren't a genre. But superhero movies – I don't know if they're a genre, because I don't know what rules would hold them all together, unless you also include like Greek myths and the Christ story, all of which would be superhero movies. But what would be my favorite? I love the Richard Donner Superman movie.

The charm. The lightness. There is incredible deft touch with the portrayal of Superman. I think it's the most successful portrayal of Superman. I think the cast is phenomenal. I think Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor is phenomenal. But I find the first act of that movie, culminating in that one night in New York when he's stopping burglars out on the river and on the side of a building and meeting up with Lois Lane to be just fabulous. I saw it when I was like 13 years old, and I thought it was amazing. That would be my favorite.

the dark knight

Peter Sciretta: The Dark Knight

As a kid, Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton's Batman were my favorite comic book movies. As a teenager, I fell in love with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 and how perfectly it captured the tone of the comic books and it was the first comic book adaptation that sucked me in emotionally. But as an adult, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is my vote for best comic book movie of all time.

Yes, it finally brought the dark gothic vision of the hero to the big screen, something many comic book fans had been waiting decades to see. And while Hollywood spent the next ten years obsessed with slapping the dark and gritty take onto other movie franchises, I think they missed the real reasons why this film worked so well and is considered by many to be a masterpiece.

The dark and gritty version of Batman was borrowed from the modern Frank Miller comic books, but the grounded realism and respect that Nolan brought to the comic book adaptation was what I believe audiences connected to. It was the first comic book movie adaptation not to be treated like a comic book movie adaptation.

There is so much to love about this film. Han Zimmer's score is tense. Nolan's casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker elevates this story in a way no other superhero story has before or since. With The Dark Knight, Nolan had indeed brought the world of Gotham to life. And experiencing the film in an IMAX theater with the 70mm full-screen footage was almost like the first time I saw a high definition television set. But it wasn't just a jump in quality – it was an immersive expansion of the traditional theatrical experience.

hellboy 2

Jacob Hall: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

How can a film adaptation of a comic series feel nothing like its source material while retaining everything that makes that series so special to begin with? It's a question a comic book fan may ponder while watching Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy and it's superior sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, two films that fundamentally modify the very nature of the title character and his world while also feeling like love letters instead of betrayals. del Toro, so in love with Mike Mignola's wondrous comic book creatiion, is confident enough to inject the character with a big dose of his own DNA. He makes Hellboy his own.

Removed from the comics entirely, the Hellboy movies are just plain beautiful. A cocktail of H.P. Lovecraft and classic folklore and Judeo-Christian mythology and Jack Kirby, they proudly wear the colors of a superhero movie while living in their own freaky bubble, a bubble where monsters are the coolest thing ever, especially when they're high-strung 60-year old teenagers armed with big guns. It's a wacky fantasy, built for preteens and those lucky enough to exist on the same wavelength as del Toro, the rare artist capable of blending high art with great trash. The Hellboy movies are fast food produced by a five-star chef. They're comfort food produced with supreme class.

The first Hellboy is a ton of fun, a enthusiastic collage of hand-picked genre concepts perched on the shoulders of an incredible Ron Perlman performance, but its sequel is different, more perfect experience. del Toro opens up Hellboy's world, steering this demonic secret agent and his team of monstrous (and that's a compliment here) allies into a literal fantasy world filled with elves and trolls and fairies. The first movie tells us that the world is bigger than we know, but the follow-up shows us, filling every frame with creatures so imaginative and so different than what we've seen before that we can only imagine what wonders lurk in every other crack and crevice around this world. It helps that del Toro's natural affection for the odd and the grotesque is in full swing here – there is no cannon fodder here, just creatures who have found themselves on the wrong side of a desperate conflict.

Earlier this week, del Toro revealed that Hellboy 3 is officially dead and that our final moments with Big Red, where he learns that he's going to be a father while also knowing that he's key to the coming apocalypse, will forever exist as a cliffhanger, frozen in time. Maybe that's the way to remember the Hellboy series, with an ending that's funny and sincere and weird, aware of the weight of the moment but willing to shrug it off because life can't be all doom and gloom.

iron man

Blake Harris: Iron Man

I'll admit it, when I first heard that the director of Elf and That Actor Who Got Arrested Driving Naked in his Porsche would be bringing Iron Man to the big screen, I was not particularly optimistic. It didn't help either that just one year earlier, a trio of super-sized flops — Ghost RiderSpider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer — seemed to have killed off the superhero genre. But then...that trailer.

From the back of a Humvee, with a tumbler casually in hand, we meet the hero we never knew we wanted but now could never live without: Robert Downey Jr. He goes by the name "Tony Stark" and later by "Iron Man" but none of that matters right away. Because snarky sanguine, Robert Downey Jr. — musing about fear and respect; wondering if it's too much to seek both — has already roped us in. No costumes, no fight scenes, no reliance on a blockbuster IP; just this crazy calm charismatic guy ushering in a new era of superhero movie.

In retrospect, it's kind of shocking that Marvel gambled $140 million on that film, especially when you throw in a Holden Caulfield hero and a villain whose machinations actually kind of make sense. We don't even see the iconic suit of armor, which was by no means iconic at the time (see 2007: Iron Chef > Iron Man) — and yet the movie glides on character and story, flaws and redemption, arrogance and technology — until finally the credits roll and we're collectively reminded that blockbuster films can actually be clever, thrilling and fun. So much fun that...wait, wait, the credits are over, but man alive I think there's more. Is that Samuel L. Jackson? Did he just say Avengers? Oh boy, what hijinks there will be, when the earth's mightiest heroes meet the earth's mightiest ego...

Wolverine 3 title Logan poster

David Chen: Logan

Logan is one of my favorite superhero film because it DGAF about being a superhero film. It doesn't need to set up future franchise films. It doesn't need to be an origin story. It's a gritty, violent western with the trappings of an X-Men film, led by an actor who has been inhabiting this character for nearly two decades. By being freed from its (X-Men) Origins (Wolverine), it has the ability to take the character to places that others wouldn't dare. This Logan is a cold-hearted, f-bomb dropping, arm and leg-amputating killer. You are scared at what he can do to people.

Ultimately though, all of that atmosphere wouldn't mean much without an emotional connection to the character. What has Logan been through? How has it impacted what he's doing in this film? The filmmakers explore these ideas in rich and interesting ways. In making this swan song, they left it all on the table. I loved it.

Road To Perdition

Jack Giroux: Road To Perdition

Director Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, based on Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, hits me like a ton of bricks every time I revisit it and get lost again in this breathtakingly beautiful story about a father (Tom Hanks) and son (Tyler Hoechlin). Comic book movies often tell stories about good versus evil, but rarely is that battle this internalized and expressed with such emotion. Road to Perdition is about the fight between good and evil happening within these characters, most notably Michael Sullivan Sr., a mobster killer, isn't much of a talker, but Hanks speaks volumes in every scene. The mixed emotions of fear and love he has for his son, who he desperately wants to go down another path, is always real and palpable. Hanks' performance, and his character's hope for his son, always moves me to tears.

Also, the ambush in the rain? Beautifully shot by the late Conrad Hall and capped off by a heartbreaking exchange between Hanks and Paul Newman. The presence of those acting giants alone helps make the scene as epic.

Spider-Man 2

Devindra Hardawar: Spider-Man 2

Marvel gets a lot of credit for rejuvenating the comic book film and deservedly so. But the MCU wouldn't be possible without Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies. They were both refreshing, well-acted antidotes to the increasingly campy comic book films of the '90s. And yes, they both stumbled a bit in their third entries.

With Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi basically made his ideal superhero film. It's rooted in character – the entire movie is about Peter Parker struggling to balance his crime-fighting persona with his personal life, and the villain, Otto Octavius, is both a noble mentor and a tragic genius. But it's also a genuinely thrilling action movie, with impressive and meaningful set-pieces. The scene where New Yorkers rise up to save Spider-Man and carry him, Christ-like, into a subway car remains one of my favorite cinematic moments. Spider-Man 2 isn't just a great sequel: it's a textbook example of how to make a solid comic book film.


Angie Han: X2

Look, I make no claims about X2 being the best superhero movie to ever exist. It's been a while since I've watched the whole from thing start to finish, but I've seen enough of it to know it's starting to show its age. The super-serious tone feels heavier than it used to and the metaphors are more obvious and awkward. Still, this one will always be a sentimental favorite for me.

As I've mentioned before on /Film, X2 was my gateway into the world of geeky fandom. I was utterly taken with this universe: the distinctive characters, the wild possibilities of their powers, the kinetic action scenes we got when they clashed. That opener with Nightcrawler remains a classic. I walked out eager to find out where this story would go next, and while the franchise has never quite reached the heights of X2 (don't @ me, First Class fans), I will forever treasure those moments when all I could imagine were the possibilities.Scott Pilgrim Book Differences

Ethan Anderton: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Edgar Wright's stylish adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley graphic novel series only raked in just over $47 million at the box office, which wasn't even enough to earn back the $60 million budget Universal Pictures spent on the film, not to mention all the marketing costs. But don't let the fact that an audience didn't find this movie while it was in theaters deceive you. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the best comic book movies every made (and my personal favorite) because of how it meshes a completely unbelievable video game inspired world with the realistic struggles of dating.

Even though on the surface the story of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World feels high concept, having the title character fight all seven of his new romantic interest's evil ex-lovers is actually a grounded conceit that we've all dealt with at one time. When you start dating someone new, you're accepting everything that comes with them, including the baggage of all their exes. In the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, director Edgar Wright visualizes that in a spectacular way, emulating not only comic books but also arcade games, right down to their visuals and soundtracks, to give romantic tropes a refreshing and wholly entertaining new angle.

Despite the outlandish nature of the film as a piece of visual media, most earnest romantic comedies don't dig as deeply and profoundly as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Whether it's Scott earning the power of love and self-respect, or the visualization of a break-up where the whole world seems to go black around you, this movie tackles the ups and downs of relationships and all the baggage that comes with them. For more insight into Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, check out our own David Chen's video essay on the film right here.

It should be noted that I had an extremely hard time picking between this and Guardians of the Galaxy, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World just speaks a little more to me personally. Sorry, James Gunn. I still love you and that movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy

What Is Your Favorite Comic Book Movie?

What do you think of our picks? What is your favorite comic book movie? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

And in case you missed any past editions of /Answers, here is a look back:

  • Most Uncomfortable Movie Scene
  • Best Action Scene or Sequence
  • Favorite Sports Movie