By Kim Morgan
Special to MSN Movies
Though immensely popular through decades, the comic book/strip has not been adaptive fodder for cinema's finest films. In the world of movies, there's been a less-than-serious look at the pulpy art form. But as comic geeks age into our new century, there's a heightened respect for the artistry and layered themes in the characters of Marvel, DC, Manga (Japanese comic books which deserve their own list of best films) and more independent graphic novelists.
With that, the comic book has been crawling out of geekdom with the full acceptance of critics and audiences alike. Hence, the big star treatment of Tobey Maguire in the red suit as "Spider-man," the finale of the "Blade" trilogy with "Blade: Trinity," and Halle Berry in this summer's "Catwoman." Meanwhile, director Brett Ratner searches for his Clark Kent. And with the nonstop talk of new projects, there are even more comics in the pipeline.
So, as we wait for more superheroes slugging out bad guys, we re-visit some of the best comic book/strip movies ever made. It's a tough task, but someone's got to do it:
10. "Flash Gordon" (1980)
The ultra-campy "Flash Gordon" remains terrible fun. Sure, it's partially the reason comic-book films weren't taken very seriously, but then what other film has a fantastic score by Queen? Made with an insane amount of color and detail, the film is a bizarre delight (disco planets, freaky trees and a green egg are just some high points). The plot? Flash Gordon must fight the evil of Ming the Merciless (yep, that's Max von Sydow) while getting the girl (a gorgeous Melody Anderson) and saving the universe. Check your brain and enjoy the show.
9. "Dick Tracy" (1990)
Warren Beatty (as producer, director and star) adapted Chester Gould's popular comic strip into this beautiful film with a primary palette shot in only seven colors. The cast is as impressively eye-popping, including Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles and Al Pacino as an inspired Big Boy Caprice. Remarkably, Madonna was also decent as Breathless Mahoney singing the lovely Stephen Sondheim Oscar-winning tune, "Sooner or Later."
8. "Popeye" (1980)
You have to be a special kind of person to love Robert Altman's "Popeye." Maligned by too many as silly, this cartoonish musical looks exactly like E.C. Segar's comic strip, with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall perfectly embodying Popeye and Olive Oyl, respectively (Duvall was born to play the string bean). And kudos to Paul Thomas Anderson who, 22 years later, honored "Popeye" by using the Harry Nilsson-penned ode "He Needs Me" (sung by Duvall) to punctuate the eccentricity of his romantic "Punch-Drunk Love."
7. "Superman: The Movie" (1978)
Though many argue the second version of the DC Comic legend is better, Richard Donner's first "Superman" -- despite some dorky moments -- is a solid piece of Americana. Christopher Reeve remains the perfect Superman, Margot Kidder is Lois Lane, the always glorious Gene Hackman has a blast as Lex Luthor, and, in a short scene that suggests Superman may not be as clean-cut as he appears, Marlon Brando shows up as his father.
6. "X-Men" (2000)
A movie led by a group of mutants (OK, highly evolved mutants) had fans of the comic worried: What's Wolverine going to look like, for example? As it turned out, like a well suited though hairier Hugh Jackman. Less tongue-in-cheek than many comic films, "X-Men" was introspective and serious, even tackling the Holocaust as back-story for Ian McKellen's deeply pessimistic mutant Magneto. A stirring cast and intriguing story showed that with action and amusement, the comic could be taken seriously.
5. "Blade II" (2002)
The lesser-known Marvel comic hero -- who is half man, half vampire -- Blade (Wesley Snipes) became something of a cult movie, with legions of fans arguing over which Blade (I or II) is superior. Mexican director and comic-book freak Guillermo del Toro offers a more inspired, gorier and horrifying vision (check out the disgusting "Reaper" vampires that drink both human and vampire blood insatiably). Splendidly made and somehow more personal, del Toro got things right ... and threw a lot of blood around in the process. More directors should follow his R-rated lead in making some of these films for adults.
4. "Barbarella" (1968)
Unless you're talking to a die-hard feminist, it's hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy "Barbarella." Roger Vadim directed his then-wife Jane Fonda as French comic-strip artist Jean-Claude Forest's sci-fi nymphet who wears skimpy, '60s space-age get-ups and, in the most memorable sequence, insatiably breaks the Orgasmatron. Psychedelic, campy and just plain sexy, this is required viewing for every horny nerd out there ... and it's a lot more fun than "Austin Powers."
3. "Batman Returns" (1992)
Director Tim Burton surpasses his original "Batman;" this one had Michael Keaton reprising his role as the caped crusader, working against Danny De Vito as the demented yet touching Penguin and a torn Michelle Pfeiffer smoldering as Catwoman. Gorgeously shot, with creative sets and an even darker conception, this brooding, atmospheric work captured the true spirit of the Batman graphic novels.
2. "Spider-Man" (2002)
Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe carrying a super-hero movie? For Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," it worked. Sticking to creator Stan Lee's roots, Raimi kept Spidey a nerd by actually casting a believable young man and gave his arch-nemisis the Green Goblin a tortured sympathy. Terrific action sequences, romantic, poignant and fun -- "Spider-Man" was a blockbuster with a soul.
1. "Ghost World" (2001)
Terry Zwigoff (who also directed "Crumb," the genius documentary about controversial comic-book artist Robert Crumb) filmed Daniel Clowes' graphic novel as comic-book panels coming to life. With Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as oddly likable, cantankerous teenagers and Steve Buscemi at his most touching, this is acerbic hilarity along with pain. It is a film that actually gets the humor, sadness, gross pop culture and drudgery that life slings at us ... and at their best, comics too.
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