A panel of industry experts offers VFXWorld its comicbook movie faves.
With this Friday's highly-anticipated Watchmen release, we thought it would be fun to ask some industry experts to chime in on their favorite comicbook movies (despite Alan Moore's vocal dislike of them). We even got a few Watchmen participants: Visual Effects Supervisors John DJ DesJardin (who admitted to being in full "geek glory") and Pete Travers of Sony Pictures Imageworks (with tongue very much in cheek), Concept Illustrator Scott Lukowski and Dave Gibbons, who, of course, illustrated the original graphic novel. They are joined by such distinguished vfx supervisors as Eric Barba of Digital Domain, who just earned the Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Double Negative's Paul Franklin, who was nominated for The Dark Knight; ILM's Ben Snow, an Iron Man nominee now working on Terminator Salvation; and Sony's Scott Stokdyk, Oscar winner for Spider-Man 2 now in the midst of G-Force. The results, as you will see, run the gamut from predictable to very idiosyncratic. We'll begin with the Watchmen guys:
John DJ DesJardin
"It's really a tough thing to do [narrowing down this list]. Maybe they all deserve to be on one line, as a foundation upon which all good comic movies should be built. Here's my Top 10, although not in order (and, yes, I think it's important to acknowledge the importance of the animated films in this list... perfection does not always equal live action)."
Iron Man (An excellent movie that also takes its reference comic seriously)
2. The Dark Knight (Batman finally taken seriously, again)
3. 300 (The best attempt at taking a stylish graphic novel literally)
4. Sin City (A great attempt at taking a stylish graphic novel literally)
5. Superman: The Movie (The classic that got it right and started it all...)
6. The Crow (Only like the graphic novel in spirit, but that's saying a lot)
7. Akira (The first anime I ever saw... blew me away! And it's just like the comic)
8. Ghost in the Shell 2 (Ghost in the Shell is so good, 2 is so good, too)
9. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Also well done, by Guillermo del Toro and the original creator, Mike Mignola)
10. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Arguably the best Batman movie to date, designed and executed by the guys [Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm] who did the amazing animated series from the early '90s)
"Comicbooks are a completely valid medium in their own right. What's interesting is that these characters appeal on a primal level and superhero comics are modern myths. [Superman Returns] deviated from that. Spider-Man is more of a teenage take; Iron Man is older and cynical. In The Dark Knight, the relationship worked between Batman and the Joker. Watchmen is a loving but honest look at superheroes. Audiences are ready for a deconstruction… there's a serendipity."
Giving more thought to his personal favorites, Gibbons added, "Twos: Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back. I just hope they don't all go dark. Watchmen was so successful that it spawned so many dark comics and that was a shame. Frank Miller said he regretted that. I'd love to see a beautiful Pixar Captain Marvel movie."
Batman Tim Burton's original 1989 adaptation of Bob Kane's legendary creation captured my imagination like no other comicbook film before it. Its darker, ominous presentation was unique to me as was the concept of a single vigilante, imperfect in many ways, who was capable of performing superhuman tasks by relying only on his technological achievements without the benefit of supernatural powers. The publications that accompany this film and its sequel, Batman Returns, also captured my interest and inspired me as they exposed the design and developmental process involved in the making of the film itself. Over the years, this series has met a variety of incantations but most recently has landed back in a world closer to our own, as Chris Nolan's intelligent take on Batman displays a very realistic depiction of a fantastic character that could possibly exist today.
X-Men In 2000, Bryan Singer and his writers successfully adapted Stan Lee's popular creation to the big screen. This piece could have easily become very confusing, as it incorporated a multitude of intricate characters. Its unique tale, which revolved around genetic evolution, also tackles the complex topic of social prejudice. To me, one of the most fascinating elements involved the main villain (Eric Lensherr/Magneto). This character isn't the traditional vindictive bad guy that's bent on greed, but, rather, he's portrayed as someone who is simply defending his own existence from a malicious world where he himself has personally experienced some of history's darkest moments.
3. The Crow This is a supernatural tale, by James O'Barr, about a young guitarist, who, along with his fiancée, is brutally murdered by a gang of criminals. One year after his death, this character rises from the dead in search of justice. In 1994 Alex Proyas successfully adapted this cult classic comicbook to a cinematic presentation. This film's appeal came with the fact that the hero wasn't based on a typical formula. His mission defined his unique nature somewhere between good and evil.
Sin City Created by Frank Miller and adapted to the big screen by Robert Rodriguez in 2005, this product offers a lot to digest with its host of characters and a unique visual presentation. Very dark and graphic, this comicbook film is a fantastic translation from print to picture.
5. The Shadow This 1930 pulp hero created by Walter Gibson is among my favorites across all genres. It has been said to be the source of material to what is the foundation of the modern superhero and has influenced such iconic characters as Bob Kane's Batman and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, among others. The 1994 film adaptation by Russell Mulcahy portrayed The Shadow in a lighter version of the original material. However, the appeal of this piece, beyond its visual splendor of a stylistic era, was the struggle between good and evil within the hero himself. Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, lives a new life of fighting crime outside of the laws set by society as he struggles with his own troubled past as corruptive opium smuggling war lord with a supernatural ability to cloud men's minds. Brilliant!
Watchmen (Nixon finally gets his due credit).
2. Superman (I would like to see a Superman movie where, in the first five minutes, Superman goes and finds Lex Luthor and throws him at the sun. Then tells one of his super friends, like Aquaman or somebody, to round up all of the Kryptonite on the planet and launches all of it at the sun. This way Aquaman does something truly useful for the team. Win, win. The vast majority of the movie could be Apache Chief's post-mortem slide presentation at the Hall of Justice about how life is so much easier now that Superman can solve everything).
4. Ghost Rider
5. Men in Black (Isn't it obvious that I work at Sony Pictures Imageworks and this is turning into "The Pete Travers Story"?).
6. Howard the Duck (The Citizen Kane of duck movies. I can't wait for it to come out on Blu-ray!).
The Dark Knight (I love the characters. Heath Ledger was amazing. The whole movie felt so real -- it was more like a Michael Mann crime drama than a superhero movie).
2. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr. is so much fun to watch. The movie was pure fun from beginning to end).
3. Batman Begins (The filmmakers really showed what a superhero movie could be -- less camp, more drama).
4. X2 (It had a great feel and lots of interesting effects work).
5. 300 (A whole new world that looked amazing. A great mixture of art and storytelling).
6. Batman (Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton gave great performances. I remember that I was learning Alias at the time and my instructor had worked on the bat shields, so the movie really got me thinking about CG and visual effects).
The Dark Knight
3. Danger Diabolik (This is from an Italian comic, and it is certainly designed to feel like one!).
4. Barbarella (Best use of a lava lamp in the entire history of cinema).
5. Superman: The Movie (The Donner original and still the best).
6. Flash Gordon (Many people were disappointed that it wasn't a straight update of the Buster Crabbe Saturday morning serial, but for me this movie really captures the surreal swirl of the original '30s comicbook).
Spider-Man (The first entry in the franchise did a fantastic job capturing all that I loved about the original comics).
8. Ghost World (No vfx to speak of, but a great comicbook adaptation nonetheless).
9. American Splendor (Again, no vfx, but really shows that comics can be about other things than giant robots and hot women).
10. Akira (A film that reveals new layers each time you view it. Incredibly influential. Got to love that opening bike chase too!).
"Comicbook movies were generally crap, probably until the Tim Burton Batmans, although the Supermans were good too. But then Raimi really did it with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. The possibilities of taking comics beyond the mindset of what people think they are really came through there. In fact, they've always had quite a bit of subtext. That's why they work. And Spider-Man started tapping into that and changed the comicbook movie. I personally enjoyed the flights of fancy of Ang Lee's Hulk. It's funny because I was working on Star Wars: Episode II, and Dennis [Muren] wanted to go off and work on the Hulk, which gave me my big break as a visual effects supervisor. So I'm always grateful to the Hulk for that, too."
Akira (Opened up my mind to dramatic visual storytelling that is not constrained by what you can shoot... the style of everything in this movie still blows me away).
2. The Crow (A very dark movie, and I was amazed that they could combine such incredible images and action and still make you care about the characters).
3. Spider-Man 2 (Every visual in this movie is intertwined with so many fantastic memories for me... working with Sam Raimi and the crew, being in NYC on building rooftops, all the creative people at Marvel and Sony who I met during this period).
4. Iron Man (They took a superhero that I wasn't a huge fan of, and turned me into a fan. This movie hit it right on all levels. The combination of Downey's acting with the visual FX was perfect).
5. The Dark Knight (I can't just watch five minutes of this movie... every time I start to watch it, it sucks me in. The opening scene is up there with Luc Besson's The Professional in terms of some of my favorite movie action sequences).
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.