Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Behold the mighty Thor!

Don’t you love that word mighty? It seems to be used only for behemoths. (And certain dog foods, I suppose.) But Thor is mighty, on screen and at the box office already this summer season. I saw it this past weekend and what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. It’s got grandeur and pageantry, but it never feels bloated or ponderous. Instead, it’s hugely entertaining with some of the biggest laughs this side of the similarly toned IRON MAN (2008). It’s a fitting adaptation that’s got to make Stan Lee proud, both reverent and slightly irreverent. (Of course Lee makes another witty cameo here in THOR, just as he does in all the film versions of his beloved Marvel creations.) 

At first I thought Kenneth Branagh was an odd choice as THOR’s director but his success with the film versions of HENRY V (1989), MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993) and HAMLET (1996) made him a perfect choice here as this material requires the same mix of majesty and crowd pleasing theatrics as those works by the Bard. All in all, Branagh has made one of the better comic book movies and that gives me hope for this year where no fewer than seven other comic book movies are due. They won’t all be as good as THOR, but hopefully they won’t be as dreadful as the likes of THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) or CATWOMAN (2004). Yeesh, please don't be any worse than those!

So as a big comics fan, what would I deem the 10 best comic book movies of all time? The following are my choices in descending order. Let the mighty debate begin.

10.) GHOST WORLD (2001)
Who better to direct the alienation of Daniel Clowe’s teens than Terry Zwigoff? (You’ll remember how disturbingly Zwigoff captured the cartoonist Robert Crumb in the documentary CRUMB in 1994.) In this movie, Zwigoff gets moving portraits of loneliness from Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson before she was “la femme,” and the great character actor Steve Buscemi. They’re three loners trying to connect in a world that’s labeled them losers. It’s heartbreaking, yet oddly amusing and sweet. If you’ve never seen it, you owe yourself the Netflix rental. 

9.) HELLBOY (2004)
Director Guillermo del Toro, like Zwigoff, has a lot of affection for the disaffected. He finds beauty in ugliness, and here he’s got one wonderful beast at the center of his tale. Based on the Dark Horse comic series by Mike Mignola, this film captures the derring-do of Hellboy, the reformed demon now battling underworld creatures even more hideous than he. Character actor Ron Perlman brings great sensitivity as well as prowess to the role and it’s a rare treat to see him in a lead. It’s a terrific film as is its sequel HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY released in 2008.

While this movie departs significantly from its source material, David Cronenberg’s interpretation still captures the essence of the story. It’s about a small-town family man (Viggo Mortenson) unable to completely put his checkered past behind him. When the former mob employers catch up with their former hit man shocking violence breaks out. (It is a Cronenberg film after all.) This tale is full of jolting twists and turns. And there's deft supporting work here from Ed Harris as the mafia fixer, Maria Bello as Mortenson’s devoted wife, and William Hurt as the top mob boss. Hurt’s witty eight-minute scene dominates the last portion of the picture and it deservedly netted him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.  

Sometimes a sequel tops the original. Such is the case with this superior follow-up to the huge film hit about Charles Addams’ darkly comic family in 1991. The sequel is also a savage put down of the GOP hypocrisy surrounding their family values obsession. In the “A” storyline, Joan Cusack plays a gold digger after an unsuspecting Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) and his money. In the secondary one, the Addams children are sent off to a summer camp where Wednesday and Pugsley must rise up against the bourgeois children and triumph over their haters. Both plots sneer at the false morality and family values posturing from the Gingrich era. (Hopefully we're way past that now and will reject Newt's dunderheaded presidential run!) Screenwriter Paul Rudnick wrings big belly laughs from all his barbed bile, particularly in the withering lines he writes for Christina Ricci as Wednesday. When the camp counselors ask for volunteers to help them demonstrate how to perform a drowning rescue, Wednesday's richie blonde rival intones, "I'll play the victim!" and the Addams daughter dryly quips, “All your life.” Those lines, and Ricci’s droll comedic performance, are ones for the ages. 

6.) IRON MAN (2008)
Thank God for director Jon Favreau and leading man Robert Downey Jr. Neither seemed like natural choices for super hero ethos but their comedic skills helped make this probably the most surprising comic book adaptation of the last 20 years. It’s a rousing action picture, true, but more importantly, it’s a character-driven comedy that recognizes that so much of the superhero world is simply high-falutin’ bunk. IRON MAN is a tonic meant to cleanse the taste of Christopher Nolan’s Batman angst out of our palates. Downey plays Stark only a few degrees shy of a flim-flam artist, more con man than world savior. That's ballsy. And brilliant. And it made me love this film.

5.) SIN CITY (2005)
If I was picking the best comic book movies based solely on how faithful it is to the original source material, SIN CITY would win hands down. Technically, it doesn’t even warrant a screenplay credit. Instead it merely acknowledges creator Frank Miller’s original graphic novel. But director Robert Rodriguez has created a stunning original on every other level. The costumes, art direction, editing, slow motion effects and most importantly, the cinematography pop off the screen. And if that’s not enough, you get some of the nastiest and funniest characterizations ever put on film from Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Nick Stahl, Carla Gugino and Mickey Rourke. As Marv, the thug with a leather trench penchant, Rourke is unrecognizable under heavy make-up yet his humanity shines through. It’s a stellar performance that won the Chicago Film Critics’ best supporting actor award that year. (Smart people, those reviewers in the city of big shoulders.)

4.) X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
The first X-Men movie was wondrous albeit for some sloppy special effects due to its economic budget. (The train station scene in particular was marred by obviously shoddy wire work and breakaway sets.) However, after its gargantuan success, the sequel got a more appropriate budget and director Bryan Singer soared even higher with it. Building on the sharp storytelling track and complex characters he started in the first one, the sequel exceeds beyond almost any other comic book adaptation. The acting, particularly by that of Ian McKellan as Magneto and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, is exemplary. Veteran pro Brian Cox makes a great supercilious villain here. And the younger cast excels as they step more into the center of the story, particularly Anna Pacquin as the torn mutant Rogue.

The X-Men comics have always been about prejudice and in this movie all the X-Men must band together to fight a U.S. government bent on destroying them. It's a hugely political movie and if its themes bare any similarity to the Japanese internment camps, the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, or this decade’s discrimination against gays and Hispanic population, well, it's purely intentional of course. Its scolding of our  government's history of hostility and discrimination adds weight to the film’s already potent mix of brains, brawn and humanity.

I still marvel at how well Edgar Wright did on bringing this offbeat comic to life. Of course, he make the film as odd, with its cockeyed camera angles, exuberant energy, droll performances, and slyly askew dialogue. It was the perfect translation of tricky material. Michael Cera played Scott as a gullible, yet resourceful teen trying his darndest to win the affections of cool chick Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and finding himself battling her evil exes to do so. Wright and his cast create a whole world that feels fresh, funny, young and as slanted as the panels of its comic book page origins. It's one of those movies that I've seen a half dozen times and always find something new in, and never tire of seeing. 
2.) SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
This one bettered its predecessor as well, mostly for the same reasons as those in X-MEN 2. Director Sam Raimi couldn’t pull off all of his first film’s effects due to underfunding, but here the studio money equals his ambition. (That’s the reason this one won the special effects Oscar where the first didn’t.) This entry also has a much more sympathetic villain in Doc Ock. Where the original’s Green Goblin was shrill and tiresome, Ock is both tragic and terrifying as played by the exquisite Alfred Molina. SPIDER-MAN 2 also deepens the love story between Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). And its action sequences are breathtaking throughout. The fight scene atop the runaway subway car is easily one of Hollywood’s best ever action sequences. And any film that finds more screen time for the invaluable J.K. Simmons, sublime as the volatile newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, is aces in my book. 

And now, without further ado, my pick for the best comic book movie of all time:

Call me sentimental but this movie from my youth holds the top position for me. And it holds up remarkably after all these years. Here’s why. First of all, it really was the movie that started the whole superhero genre. Director Richard Donner and screenwriters Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton served the seriousness of the material yet also tweaked it with gentle wit. They deftly pulled off the three varied chapters of the saga: the mythological destruction of Krypton, the Americana upbringing of Clark Kent, and the adventure of Superman’s battles with Lex Luthor. SUPERMAN had a great villain in the amusing yet threatening Gene Hackman. Margot Kidder gave her best-ever performance as the sassy Lois Lane. And the supporting roles were filled by perfectly cast veterans such as Jackie Cooper, Susannah York and Glenn Ford. (Maybe Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty were a bit over-the-top as Luthor’s crew, but they’re still a lot of fun.) I don’t think John Williams ever wrote a better score, creating not one but five different themes for this extravaganza. And of course, its state-of-the-art visual effects and action scenes at the time were jaw dropping. The helicopter rescue of Lois still is up there as one of the top action sequences of all time.

And most importantly this classic film had the incomparable Christopher Reeve in the lead. His performance as Superman could have been stiff and dull. He is playing a pretty straight arrow after all. Instead Reeve's take was revelatory. He played it smart, witty, sexy and made his character deeply moving. His anguish at the discovery of Lois’ “death” is astonishing. It's acting worthy of the highest accolades. Reeve’s fully committed work here made a larger-than-life character into a vulnerable human being. And he did it all in a ridiculous and unforgiving costume. You really did believe a man could fly and 30 years later, you still do. Not because of the effects, which unfortunately haven’t aged so well, but because Reeve sells it. It’s a superb achievement. As is the film.

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