8 Comic Book Movies That Actually FEEL Like Comic Books

scott pilgrim 1 8 Comic Book Movies That Actually FEEL Like Comic Books

When going about a cinematic comic book adaptation, there are essentially two courses of action a team can take. On one hand, you can work to humanize certain elements, making the overall film more accessible to our own world. When you look at a movie like Iron Man, Tony Stark is a mere mortal who just happens to be one of the most talented inventors around, and you can actually believe his hero character could exist in everyday life. Marvel has been doing this to most of their heroes, and it’s been working rather well for the studio. Do you need any more examples than dollar signs and critical ravings?

The other option a filmmaker has is keeping 100% faithful to the tone of a comic and attempting to recreate a comic book feel completely on screen. This, of course, presents certain problems concerning technical prowess, budget, and many other factors that aren’t exactly possible to replicate in a live-action format. How do you create a superhero like The Incredible Hulk on screen without the proper capabilities? We all saw how Roger Corman’s version of The Thing looked – sometimes a faithful adaptation just isn’t in the cards.

With that said, there have been some comic book movies over the years that were somehow able to magically translate their source material directly into a functioning film – despite being well-received or globally hated. Whether a story failed, actors bombed, or everything came together swimmingly, I’ve put together a list of comic book movies that still feel like comic books, knowing Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is on the horizon. A movie doesn’t have to be black and white to feel like a comic though, and that’s what becomes most impressive about the following adaptations.

Again, in no way do I think these movies are the BEST comic book adaptations of all time, but only the the most representative of a comic book atmosphere.

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8) 300 (2006)

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Zack Snyder created a fratboy sensation in 300, telling the story of fearless soldiers marching into certain death. Oily abs, an angry Gerard Butler, ancient fighting and more slow-motion than The Matrix – what more could you ask for?

Much like a few other movies on this list, Snyder embraces the graphically mature nature of comic book visuals and takes them to new heights with some cinematic magic. He doesn’t lighten up settings or explore a more realistic interpretation, instead turning to heavily green-screened scenes of darkly rendered mountain locations. The ominous atmosphere always addresses King Leonidas’ monumental task at hand, hovering overhead in a constant state of impending doom that stays faithful to Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s source material. There’s a crispness to shots, akin to illustrated pages, and Snyder’s mastery of slow-motion captures moments that replicate the feel of a comic book panel.

Snyder also gleefully embraces a level of violence that sends limbs flying, bloody spraying and bodies piling, never holding back for a single second. This is only the first example of many, but 300 is what happens when you transfer certain freedoms from comic books to movies, in this case the freedom being limitless, gluttonous violence. Blood swirls and dances while flying through the air, limbs are juggled, the warriors move in synchrony – there’s a strange beauty to Snyder’s violence, something typically only found in comics.

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7) Batman & Robin (1997)

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OK, I don’t get why everyone hates Batman & Robin so much! Every time I watch this adventure of the Caped Crusader, I always enjoy myself thoroughly. Seriously, if you can’t get through Joel Schumacher’s film without laughing heartily, then there’s something wrong with you.

Wait, it’s not supposed to be a campy comedy? Oh, uh, well then this is awkward.

Despite Batman & Robin being widely regarded as the worst Batman film of all, it’s easily the most comic-book-like of the bunch – depending on your criteria. So many versions of Batman have graced both cinema and print, but this film specifically seems built more for paper than Nolan’s grounded franchise or Tim Burton’s surprisingly focused game-changers. Batman & Robin is jokey, cheesy and unapologetically ridiculous, but not in darker ways like Burton opted for. With so many notable quotables, insane costumes and unrealistic scenarios, we truly feel like we’re stuck in a modern-day comic book adaptation embracing the freedoms of print.

If you want proof, look no further than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Mr. Freeze. There’s nothing about this role that demands cinematic integrity, yet there’s an inherent outlandishness that kind of seems perfect for a comic book. The way he uses crazy freeze-rays, wears a meticulously detailed cryogenic suit and shouts out hilarious dialogue screams comic book mentalities, which maybe hits a bit too close to home for movie audiences.

Whatever – I blame the sinking of Batman & Robin completely on Clooney’s Batnipples.

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6) Howard The Duck (1986)

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I may be a forgivable critic, but that’s only when a movie can give me something to forgive. Howard The Duck is not one such movie – despite the involvement of George Lucas, Tim Robbins and Lea Thompson – becoming a truly befuddling mess in every sense of the word. Contractual obligations forced the film to be live-action instead of animated, one of the main qualms of many critics, while others weren’t impressed by lackluster storytelling and an unavoidably schlocky tone that “wasted” any bits of “comedy” present. What’s there to love about this scuzzy visitor from the planet Duckworld? Well, at least it’s a comic book movie that sticks to its guns.

For how horribly inept a film Howard The Duck is, complete with a cheesy 80s pop theme, you can’t deny that director Willard Huyck and company build a pretty savvy comic book adaptation – as far as the adapting goes. It’s mindless fun, with Howard reading Playduck, and even though Howard looks like a high-budget Halloween costume, moments do arise that seem like the beaked hero jumped right from the pages of Steve Gerber’s source material.

Quite possibly the most ill-advised adaptation in history, give credit where credit is due when discussing building a comic book world on screen – it’s just a shame almost every other aspect comes up lame. Like a duck. A lame duck. Get it? *reaches for whiskey*

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5) The Mask (1994)

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Yup, the Jim Carrey comedy most certainly was based on a comic book originally conceptualized by publisher Mike Richardson, then brought to fame by writer John Arcudi and illustrator Doug Mahnke. I know, when the movie was released, it seemed like just another vessel to highlight Carrey’s zaniness, but after I discovered that Chuck Russell’s film was actually based on a comic book, the movie was placed in a new light.

The Mask is comprised of a certain level of slapstick comedy, as a timid Stanely Ipkiss finds a mask that when placed on the face, overtakes the human underneath. His actions are overly emphasized, his yellow tuxedo costume becomes instantly memorable and he’s got catch phrases galore (“Ohhh, somebody stop me!”), essentially becoming a cartoon character when in proper form. The Mask can do things like whip out novelty-sized hammers from his back pocket without question, all while keeping a slick 50s-style bravado that includes acting like a gangster while getting away with phrases like “tootse” – a very smooth, goofy hero.

The Mask is a successful comedy that pays homage to a rather ambitious source years before Marvel overtook the comic book genre, never abandoning what made Arcudi adn Mahnke’s material so appealing.

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4) Tank Girl (1995)

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Quite possibly one of the most ambitious comic book adaptations of all time, Tank Girl was a financial disappointment to the tune of a $4 million gross on a $25 million budget, being so unsuccessful that the debacle all but destroyed director Rachel Talalay’s career – but as a comic book adaptation, it’s pretty damn vivid.

Tank Girl goes for broke in every sense of the phrase, mixing a whole slew of filmmaking techniques into this adaptation based on Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s source comic series. Stan Winston was brought in to design a crew of kangaroo punks, a lavish water plant was built, the whole ordeal plays around with illuminating colors and there’s a huge push to use as much technology as possible. These ideas all work wonders in the comic book world, being a dystopian sci-fi story that’s much easier to draw, but Tank Girl‘s ambition translates a heavy comic book feel to screen – aided by actual cartoon segments in lieu of live-action.

Sadly, the overload of fantasy elements becomes very jumbled in presentation, and the film bounces around far too frantically – but any movie that presents Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo deserves a shout out!

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3) Sin City (2005)

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Let’s get back to talking about some good movies, shall we?

I rather like Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City adaption as a film itself, but I really admire the director’s wishes to stay faithful to black and white comic book pages. Understanding how to manipulate colors, like Frank Miller’s source material, Rodriguez utilizes the griminess of tainted darkness to really make certain colors (red and yellow specifically) pop off the screen. While comic book adaptations have since upped their game, watching Sin City for the first time presented this invigorated cinematic experience where a filmmaker actually devoured every morsel of source material, and created a better adaption for it.

Sin City is obviously a fictional location where crime rules all, but the overkill factor plays favorably into the hand of comic book adaptions. Thinking back to memorable scenes, I’ll never erase Kevin’s death from my mind as Elijah Wood stares blankly at Rodriguez’s camera, an experience highlighted by the black and white nature (see video below). Rodriguez has the ability to darken Wood’s face while whiting out his glasses, making more of a silhouette than actual human face. In the same breath, watching Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl) get beaten to a pulp, with yellow goo flying everywhere, highlights the overkill nature of gritty, violent comic books. You can get away with so much mature content in comics, which is something Rodriguez’s movies revel in.

Sin City is one of the definitive comic book adaptations if you’re talking visuals, looking like it’s torn directly from Miller’s graphic novels.

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2) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

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When I first saw Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, I thought it couldn’t get better as far as comic book adaptations go. Released the same year as Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, I couldn’t believe how many arguments I had when proclaiming Edgar Wright’s masterpiece was hands-down the comic book movie of the year – and then some.

Scott Pilgrim’s lovestruck journey is perfectly transitioned from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular source material, capturing the unique blend of nerdy moments, relationship woes and action-packed battling. I don’t say this much, but Wright achieves perfection – a level other movies failed to attain until this very year.

When analyzing Wright’s techniques, you’ll realize how each scene flies by like a slew of comic panels, perfectly coinciding with the director’s signature quick-cut mentality. Characters don’t really saunter through a scene, they get from point to point in a flurry of actions and close ups, jumping about like a comic would. Things happen quickly, irrationally and without warning, sometimes catching us off-guard, just like when you’re flipping through a trade and discover a monumental event on the next set of pages, hidden by our singular turning.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is also full of perfect references, like villains bursting into a pile of coins or Scott collecting 1UPs, which brings that whole geek/gamer culture into reality right before believability sets in. As Aubrey Plaza attempts to swear on screen, a little censor bar and noise cover her up as to keep audiences from the foul language – little nuances that keep us in comic mentality.

Not to mention, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is visually one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, and is the pride of my Blu-Ray collection. The vibrancy of colors, the white borders that sometimes square slow-motion scenes, each musical battle, every otherwise forgettable detail that Wright highlights in some kind of funky light – it’s all there. Wright captures the freedom of comic books, the pain in Scott’s story and the explosive vitality in O’Malley’s graphic novels, elevating the collective whole to unfathomable levels.

Game, set, match – almost.

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1) Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

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I’m not going to say James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy bested Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, because I hold Wright’s film so highly, but I will say there are many similarities in capturing the feel of comic books and being an equally enjoyable ride with equatable entertainment value. That, alone, is compliment enough, being on the same level as the greatest comic book adaptation of all time.

When you look at what Gunn did with his Marvel movie in comparison to those like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, there’s no need or want to deliver a grounded experience somehow rooted in reality. A talking tree? A raccoon with a machine gun? These aren’t heroes who were injected with some super serum, or inventors who built their powers, but actual aliens from distant universes, and Gunn embraces their outcast nature instead of making more human equivalents. The typical Marvel blueprint is torn apart and started anew, with Gunn’s insanely vivid imagination leading the charge.

The tale of these Guardians is essentially a space opera, a mixture of Heavy Metal and Star Wars if you will, with a heavy emphasis on celestial set detail, character development in the kookiest of forms and high-flying adventures. You’ll feel more invested in the companionship between Groot and Rocket Racoon than any of the Avengers, and that’s something more akin to a comic book, being able to make the unbelievable seem pedestrian. Gunn’s delivery is lavish, flawless and full of boisterous energy, channeling his inner Peter Quill without a single moment of regret.

In order for Guardians Of The Galaxy to work, Gunn needed every creative freedom in the book. Marvel’s reward for granting it? One of the best comic book adaptations to date.

So what do you think, are there any other comic book movies that do a tremendous job of recreating the source material while still keeping that same comic book vibe?

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  • Sturgeon’s Law

    I’d say the Ang Lee Hulk is another candidate for this list, as he even used multiple panels and zoom-in shots in the way comics do.

    Hell, it’s a better Marvel movie than Howard The WTF.

  • Aaron

    I really feel like Avengers should be on the list. Before everyone goes off hear off hear me out. Avengers, in my opinion made a movie like Guardians possible. It was the perfect blend of humor, action and storytelling. It was so good because Marvel took their time to set up all the characters. You had the complex relationships between all of them, Fury always not telling everyone the whole story, all of them trying to keep the Hulk under control, the history between Widow and Hawkeye, and course Loki, well, just being Loki and the fact that Thor will always fight for his brother’s soul, no matter what. If you read Avengers at any point (more so in the late 80s and early 90s, all the elements are there. It’s not my favorite comic book adaptation by any stretch but when I saw it in the theater I was taken back to my childhood seeing everything I had read as a kid on the big screen.
    That’s my 2 cents and thank you for reading. ASSEMBLE!!!

  • Calvin

    Ah, the classic error of confusing “Comic Book” with “Cartoon” in so many of the examples. Still, Pilgrim and 300 are pretty apt matches, in my opinion.