The 25 Best Non-Superhero Comic Book Movies – IGN
No tights, no capes, no powers!
By Witney Seibold
Comic book movies are big business. A look over box office receipts from the past decade or so reveals smash hit after smash hit, with superheroes handily taking spots in the top 10 earners of any given year.
But just because a film is a comic book movie, that doesn’t mean it’s a superhero movie. It’s not like all comic books have to offer are tales of superpowered beings in colorful costumes who like to get into fistfights. Indeed, there are innumerable comic books out there without a cape, mask or superpower in sight.
Comic books are not a genre but a medium, and any story can be told with said medium. One probably does not need to bring up Maus, Fun Home, or Scott McCloud’s textbooks to the knowing comic book enthusiast as examples of what the format can do. We may, however, need to remind ourselves — in this age that is deeply-saturated with superhero movies — that comic book movies sans superheroes are still worth a look and, indeed, there are plenty to choose from. As such, let’s take a look at the 25 best comic book movies without superheroes.
Note: This list also includes movies that are based on comic strips from newspapers and magazines. Because they definitely count.
Based on the comic by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, Robert Schwentke’s RED is a distracting and delightful little action comedy that feels like a throwback to the cop/spy thrillers of the late 1980s. In it, Bruce Willis plays a retired super agent who is dragged back into action by an organized attempt on his life. He then must take to the lam with a woman, Mary-Louise Parker, whom he has been flirting with over the phone. Highlight: The fight scene between Willis and his nemesis Karl Urban is pretty spectacular.
Zack Snyder’s story of the Battle of Thermopylae, based on Frank Miller’s ultra-stylized comic, is noisy and cartoony and features maybe the most over-the-top performance from Gerard Butler, an actor who goes over the top on a regular basis. This jingoistic celebration of military might, however, was striking enough in its artificial aesthetic that it set the tone for a slew of imitators, and revealed that panel-to-screen accuracy was achievable. It has many critics, but 300 is still a notable and influential film.
Steven Grant’s comic was adapted into an efficient and funny little caper film by Baltazar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) in 2013 to mildly positive critical response. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg play a pair of bantering buddy criminals who become embroiled in a drug war, but the big twist is that the Washington character is an undercover DEA agent. Although the plot is formulaic, the character work is great (Washington always gives his all), and the tone is evocative of certain hard-boiled detective movies of the 1970s.
300: Rise of an Empire
Noam Murro’s follow-up to Zack Snyder’s zeitgeist-rattling original features a prequel/interquel story of other battles that led up to — and were happening at the same time as — the Battle of Thermopylae. While the aesthetic isn’t as striking as the original, Rise of an Empire does feature a glorious performance from Eva Green, a violent warrior who brandishes both weapons and dialogue with forthright aggressiveness. She’s the most interesting character in either of the 300 films.
My Friend Dahmer
Based on the autobiographical comic by John Backderf, My Friend Dahmer details the relationship the author had with the infamous serial killer back when they were both young men. Ross Lynch, a child actor out of the Disney camp (he was in Austin & Ally), was cast as Dahmer, playing 180 degrees against type, while the talented Alex Wolff (Hereditary) played Backderf. Rather than turn Dahmer into a sensational monster, Backderf attempts to portray him as a real person. It’s an ambitious story.
Alan Moore’s celebrated 1989 comic book series — about the investigation into, and the true identity of, Jack the Ripper — finally made it to the big screen in 2001, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. While the Hughes Brothers’ movie doesn’t quite capture the gallows horror of the original comic, it does possess an appropriately depressive tone, staging Jack as a force of politics and class that simply cannot be stopped by anyone outside of the circles of the ultra-wealthy. A fascinating film.
David Leitch’s noted Cold War action-thriller was widely celebrated when it was released, with critics comparing it to the director’s John Wick in its levels of action intensity, and lauding Charlize Theron as a completely convincing movie badass. The story is a muddle of ideas taken from Antony Johnson’s 2012 comic The Coldest City, and some of the supporting characters are useless, but, wow, those action scenes are truly first rate.
A sci-fi pet project from Tom Cruise and director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy), Oblivion is a fun post-apocalyptic thriller about a man scouring Saturn’s moon of Titan looking for fallen combat drones to repair. Cruise plays the repairman as a lost, blank hero with no memory. Of course, there’s a dark conspiracy afoot, and his true identity will not be what you expect. Oblivion, based on Kosinski’s own unpublished graphic novel, took many of its visual and story cues from sci-fi thrillers of the 1970s, making for a glorious cinematic homage.
Josie and the Pussycats
Why is Harry Elfont’s and Deborah Kaplan’s silly comedy Josie and the Pussycats (based on the Archie comics) so high on this list? Because, despite its daffy slapstick silliness, it’s actually a salient commentary on the dark state of commercial music and the oversaturation of commercial imagery in the life of an average teenager, that’s why. Josie and the Pussycats has, since its release, become a minor cult classic, celebrating female friendship while exploring the way commercialism can warp art — and artists — for the worse, even while making them wealthy. It’s a simple message, but a cleverly subversive one to fold into a film with dumb jokes and silly characters. Also, the soundtrack legit rocks.
Maybe the strangest project to come from celebrated director Robert Altman, 1980’s Popeye is a bouncy, weird little musical comedy about the titular sailor man (Robin Williams) and his funny romance with Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), as well as his rivalry with Bluto (Paul L. Smith). The songs are childlike in their simplicity and the tone is a wacky sugar-infused tapestry of slapstick logic. Popeye first appeared in newspapers in 1929, and by 1980 he was a legend. Altman perhaps gave Popeye the film he deserved.
The Peanuts Movie
Charles Schulz created what is probably one of the most famous comic strips of all time with Peanuts, and, thanks to extensive licensing, the characters have never left the mass consciousness. In 2015, director Steve Martino brought the Peanuts characters into the realm of CG animation with his largely faithful adaptation. While the pace is fast, and Snoopy’s action-based fantasies are certainly more hyperactive than Schulz’ strips, the film pretty accurately nails the depressive tenacity of Charlie Brown. It doesn’t redefine the characters for a new generation, but The Peanuts Movie is sweet and earnest.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Underground comix author Phoebe Gloeckner wrote The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2002, and in 2015 it was adapted to the big screen by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). A confrontational premise, Diary follows the life of a 15-year-old named Minnie who, living in San Francisco in 1976, wants to explore her sexuality with her mother’s older boyfriend. This unleashes her libido, and the film plays like a confessional of enthused choices that are sometimes bad, but all made in earnest. Bel Powley’s performance in the lead role was lauded by critics, but the film unjustly slipped by. Seek it out.
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