With the second Iron Man installment hitting theaters this week, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at some of the best cinematic adaptations of superhero comic books. Whether it’s a teen bitten by a radioactive insect, an alien from a dead planet who can fly, an industrialist playboy in a suit of iron, or a vigilante billionaire who wears body armor and masquerades as a bat, the costumed crime fighter has graced the pages of comic books since June 1938, when Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1. Prior to that point in literature there were costumed avengers such as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, but it was in comics where these types of characters flourished. Here are ten of my favorite films that center on comic book heroes.

Most Faithful Adaptation: Watchmen (2009). Admittedly, this is a controversial choice, as Watchmen isn’t universally accepted as a great film. But it’s a very faithful adaptation of what is generally agreed upon by comic book geeks as the greatest comic series ever published — and that’s got to count for something. Personally, I love the film but acknowledge that people unfamiliar with the source material might find it a bit of a mess.

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Most Fun Period Piece: The Rocketeer (1991). Set in 1938 Los Angeles, this adaptation of the 1982 comic involves a stunt pilot (Billy Campbell) who discovers a jet pack stashed away in his airplane, stolen by the mob from Howard Hughes himself (perfectly portrayed by Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn). The climax features FBI agents and mobsters fighting side by side against Nazis — what’s not to love about that?

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Most Promising Sequel Setup: X2 (2003). The second film in the X-Men series (advertised with the subtitle “X-Men United”) begins impressively with the introduction of Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a teleporting mutant who attempts to assassinate the president of the United States. The story line, based on the 1982 graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, finds the two opposing factions of mutants uniting (sort of) against a common enemy, Colonel Stryker (Brian Cox), who wants to rid the world of their kind. The climactic “Phoenix” setup for the next installment was so promising there was virtually no way to screw it up. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

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Most Impressive Debut: Iron Man (2008). Modernizing a story originally set in the 1960s is generally a red flag, but in this case it works: the Iron Man comic book’s Vietnam-era origins are perfectly updated to present-day Afghanistan. With a terrific script and high-caliber actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, the character moments are just as fun as the action set pieces.

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Most Aptly Named: Kick-Ass (2010). Too soon to include on a rundown of great films? Not when it’s this great! Kick-Ass is the only entry on this list for which the screenplay (by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman) was developed concurrently with the comic series (by Mark Millar). I’ll leave you with the R-rated trailer so you can relive the magic of Hit-Girl (not recommended if you haven’t seen the film, as many great gags are spoiled).

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Best Fatherly Advice Given by an Uncle: Spider-Man (2002). Right from the opening title sequence, you know you’re in for a fun ride. Director Sam Raimi’s stylized vision suits the material perfectly, while Tobey Maguire makes for a fantastic Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Just like in the original comic, Peter is a real teenager with real teen emotions who has a severe crush on the girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Those emotions are center stage in the scene where he ferociously pursues the carjacker who murdered his uncle (Cliff Robertson), ignoring for the moment his uncle’s advice that “with great power comes great responsibility.” To further complicate matters, Spider-Man finds himself pitted against the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), who happens to be the father of Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco).

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Best Sequel With a Snooty Usher: Spider-Man 2 (2004). Raimi’s sequel takes the story line and character arcs from the first movie and runs with them, doing a particularly great job with Peter and Harry’s friendship, with the added complication that Mary Jane has moved on and is now engaged to an astronaut. Harry is obsessed with seeking revenge for his father’s death, unaware (for the moment) that Spidey and Peter are one and the same. There’s also a greater presence of Raimi’s manic directorial style, such as the sequence in which Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) takes out all the doctors in an operating room. Like X2, it’s a great setup for the next sequel, so it’s a shame you won’t be finding Spider-Man 3 (2007) on this list. (The best part of it is a cameo from Raimi regular Bruce Campbell, who upgrades from a snooty usher to a very, very helpful maitre d’.)

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Best Reboot of a Franchise That Had Run Its Course and Then Some: Batman Begins (2005). You won’t find Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman on this list (maybe on a list of Great Cinematic Disappointments, but not here); Christopher Nolan’s 2005 take on the DC Comics hero is the kind of film I was hoping to see in ’89, dark in tone and rooted in realism. Ever since “the Bat-Man” first appeared in comics in May 1939, Bruce Wayne has operated on the cutting edge of technology, and things are no different in Nolan’s bat-verse: he and cowriter David S. Goyer cleverly use modern science to explain all of Batman’s cool toys (or as much as they can get away with, anyway). It’s a bold retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin story, drawing inspiration from Frank Miller’s 1987 comic series Batman: Year One.

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Damn Close to Being the Best Comic Book Movie Ever: The Dark Knight (2008). Christopher Nolan, brother Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer crafted a near perfect screenplay for the Batman Begins sequel, culling ideas from a potpourri of great comic book material, including elements of The Long Halloween (1996) and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988). And oh yeah, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is simply untouchable, the most fun-to-watch yet menacing on-screen psychotic since Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Needless to say, my butt will be in a theater seat on July 20, 2012, when the third installment is set for release.

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Best Superhero Comic Book Adaptation Ever: Superman (1978). The standard by which all comic book adaptations should be measured. “Verisimilitude” was the word director Richard Donner used on the set — he wanted to keep the action grounded in reality as much as possible. John Williams’s music and Marlon Brando’s performance set the tone, and after the Krypton sequence and the majestic scenes set in Kansas, the audience is ready for pretty much anything. To me, Superman has always been the perfect balance of tone, humor, and a bit of camp, with one foot firmly planted in the real world. I mean, I’m fairly certain that making the earth spin backward wouldn’t actually turn back time, but hell, even that sequence works for me.

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About the Author

Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson is the head hamster at Intrada movie soundtracks and is the co-host of the Filmed, Not Stirred podcast. Follow @jeffyjohnson on Twitter.

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