It’s been suggested that superhero movies are the contemporary equivalent to the western, during the peak of that genre’s popularity. Certainly, the established narrative arcs of superhero stories are firmly embedded in the public consciousness, and as each major studio arm of a comic book conglomerate (such as the Disney-owned Marvel Studios) continues to release variations on a well worn formula, it’s becoming increasingly easy to tire of the lack of innovation in how these stories are told. Many of these films remain entertaining, but the innate sense of wonder has disappeared, with each tentpole ‘event movie’ often feeling indistinguishable from what came before.
Todd Phillips’ critically divisive Golden Lion winner Joker has generated countless think pieces long before release due to how it breaks from convention – not just adding a non-canonical backstory to one of pop culture’s most well-known villains, but by making him an anti-hero in the mould of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin. The jury’s out on whether the film is more substantial than a mere homage to the early films of Martin Scorsese, but the immediate reaction suggests that a break from convention in terms of style can help rejuvenate the well trodden ground of the comic book origin story.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Comic book movies aren’t just tales of heroes and villains, with the finest adaptations managing to translate the visual invention of that medium to the big screen, challenging established conventions of narrative and form in the process. Here are 10 that bucked the trend.
Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Director: Mario Bava
Despite being a notoriously troubled Dino De Laurentiis production (with the producer wanting a family-friendly caper instead of a faithful vehicle for the comic book antihero), Danger: Diabolik is the first noticeably auteur-driven comic book film. It’s also a perfect vehicle for Mario Bava’s love for B-movie experimentation and parodying established genre tropes. This is all the more remarkable due to the fact that Bava was only hired midway through the cash-strapped production, but he brought a sense of kitsch that transformed Danger: Diabolik into a perfectly calibrated pastiche of the ridiculous, overly sexualised European crime films of the era.
Many of the sets had to be shared with De Laurentiis’ production of Barbarella, which was filming concurrently with Diabolik. But the distinctive look of Bava’s film is in no small part due to Carlo Rambaldi, whose set design is some of the most striking of the era, distilling the essence of the swinging 60s into every frame.
When the Wind Blows (1986)
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
One of the first major titles to prove that graphic novels weren’t just a medium to tell child-friendly stories of caped crusaders, Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows is a devastating account of the nuclear anxieties of the 80s, centred entirely on an elderly couple’s naive survival attempts. It’s the first major comic book adaptation that couldn’t be described as either a straightforward genre tale, or something altogether family friendly. Films like Fritz the Cat (1972) already attempted to push the boundaries of animation, proving this wasn’t just a genre for young audiences, but When the Wind Blows was the first to delicately handle harrowing content, providing emotional value where other ‘adult animations’ prioritised the shock factor.
Director Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation is also groundbreaking for its animation style. Protagonists James and Hilda are hand-drawn, while the surroundings of their house are frequently animated using stop motion, helping to make the devastation of the nuclear blast feel all the more vivid, as we see the couple navigate the wreckage of their home.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
Directors: Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan
Loosely based on the Archie comics series of the same name, this satirical take on the unrelenting consumerism in teen-oriented pop culture left audiences largely baffled. Several critics (including Roger Ebert) accused it of being the very thing it was mocking. Even with a high rate of surreal gags establishing the film’s distinctly heightened reality, it’s easy to see why so many were confounded by it. By indulging in the empty manufactured pop culture being critiqued, directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan got as close as a teen comedy has ever been to Paul Verhoeven’s slyly satirical Hollywood films.
The directors were unfairly thrown in ‘director jail’ after the dismal response, but Josie and the Pussycats has become a cult classic. Without it, it’s hard to imagine the meta-mockery of Deadpool (2016) being adapted for the big screen so faithfully, or the weirder excesses of teen TV sensation (and fellow Archie comics adaptation) Riverdale being embraced for its unabashed campiness.
Ichi the Killer (2001)
Director: Takashi Miike
Adapted from Hideo Yamamoto’s manga, Takashi Miike’s film is the most notorious in his eclectic filmography. It was banned in several countries, and introduced to the world at an infamous Toronto screening where vomit bags were handed to the audience. But Miike’s sadistic tale of a psychologically damaged man led to murder rival yakuza members is groundbreaking for reasons besides the difficult-to-stomach sequences of torture.
Yamamoto was initially approached by Miike to write the screenplay entirely in manga form, so the director could make the most faithful adaptation of comic book source material in history, replicating each panel on screen. The author took an entire year to finish a draft, and then never sent it to the director due to dissatisfaction with how it turned out. By this point Miike had already hired actor Sakichi Sato to draft a screenplay, the first of several increasingly avant-garde projects the pair would collaborate on.
Director: Ang Lee
In the summer of 2002, Ang Lee’s regular collaborator James Schamus called the director as he was midway through production of Hulk. Schamus had just left a screening of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which had played like gangbusters to his sold out crowd, and he had only one thing to say about their impending superhero blockbuster: “Ang, I think we’re in a little trouble”. The following summer, Schamus was proved right when audiences were confounded by Lee’s introspective take on one of Marvel’s most famous creations, focused almost entirely on Bruce Banner, characterised as a blank slate due to repressed memories of childhood trauma.
Following the flag-waving patriotism of Spider-Man, and in the wake of 9/11, audiences were presumably not ready for a blockbuster critical of American imperialism and the war on terror. Lee’s ambitious take is visually stylish, resembling comic book strips more than any other adaptation up to that point, but his desire to make an inherently political “Greek tragedy” out of the material immediately broke from newly established superhero movie conventions.
American Splendor (2003)
Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
There was a big boom of indie comic adaptations in the early 2000s, but few were as inventive as American Splendor, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s attempt to merge faithful adaptation with a biopic on the author behind the work. American Splendor was already semi-autobiographical, with author Harvey Pekar exploring his own struggles as a working-class man in Cleveland, Ohio, with Pekar often opining that the comic book medium should be about more than just genre stories, and that authors could “do anything with words and pictures”.
Documentarians Berman and Pulcini took the spirit of the down-to-earth creative and created something true to his oft-repeated claim. It’s a hilarious biopic, with Paul Giamatti giving one of his best performances as Pekar, as well as a testament to the independent spirit of the American Splendor comic books, and a fourth-wall-breaking assessment on the Hollywood-isation of true stories.
Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Despite being a commercial success, the Batman franchise seemed to be on its last legs following the release of 1997’s much derided Batman and Robin. Director Joel Schumacher had steered away from Tim Burton’s take on this world (which firmly put the ‘Goth’ into Gotham) into something far campier – and audiences just weren’t comfortable returning to the kitschy sensibility of the 60s TV series.
It’s hard to think there was a time when the Batman Begins approach of ‘going darker’ was a novelty, but Christopher Nolan’s much heralded franchise reboot stripped away the fantastical design to create a tangible contemporary Gotham, also foregrounding Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma into his every waking move. Nolan looked towards David Lean for inspiration, citing Lawrence of Arabia’s epic sweep as his primary influence. The end result was one of the boldest conceivable franchise reinventions. No other gritty reboot that aped Nolan’s formula could match it.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Director: Edgar Wright
The mid 2000s saw directors experimenting with new technology in order to replicate the visual style of comic books on screen. Robert Rodriguez teamed up with author Frank Miller to adapt nihilistic neo-noir Sin City (2005), while Zack Snyder made a name for himself with the similarly green-screen-heavy 300 (2006). The reliance on this technology as opposed to filming on location created a garish visual style – undeniably pushing the boundaries of replicating comic book panels on screen, but in a way that can best be described as an acquired taste.
For his debut Hollywood film, Edgar Wright adapted Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics with a similar lack of realism, using the influence of Bava’s Danger: Diabolik in creating “a sense of completely unbridled imagination”. By grounding this chaos in real Toronto filming locations, replicating comic strip panels within the neighbourhoods where they were set, the ensuing sensory overload could tangibly be described as the first time a comic book truly “came to life” on the big screen.
Director: James Mangold
The release of Joker, an R-rated standalone film that deviates from the established lore of its larger franchise, would likely not be possible without James Mangold’s conclusion to the Wolverine saga. Comic books have long grappled with stories in alternate timelines, with Logan taking some inspiration from Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s ‘Old Man Logan’ series. But it’s a novelty for a franchise film to disregard every previous instalment, while simultaneously aiming to conclude the story unfolding for close to two decades prior.
Mangold doesn’t make his western influences a secret, with various nods to Shane (1953) littered throughout the drama. But the influence goes deeper than surface level nods, channeling later westerns in how it contrasts the myths told via folklore (in this world, the X-Men comic books that were produced as propaganda) with a dystopian reality that hasn’t been progressed by the existence of superheroes. Tentpole blockbusters don’t come bleaker than this.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman
Spider-Man has been rebooted more than any other superhero this century, with Sam Raimi’s take being followed by a brooding, post-Twilight take (Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man), and an ill-fated MCU integration that acted as an extended John Hughes homage. Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose previous films evidenced a talent for making essential work out of superfluous franchise reboots, are responsible for the finest Spider-Man film yet – and one that largely works by aligning itself with audience reboot fatigue.
Utilising a unique mix of computer animation with hand-drawn comic book techniques, Into the Spider-Verse takes Stan Lee’s mantra that “anyone can wear the mask” and weaves a genuinely moving coming-of-age story with the more bizarre peripheries (Spider-Ham!) of established comic book lore. Like any project bearing the Lord/Miller credit, a seemingly unnecessary proposition is revealed to be a frequently hilarious and surprisingly emotionally affecting delight.